14 February 2012

Great Loves in History: ‘An Immoderate Passion’: Queen Anne of Great Britain and Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough

By Heather Domin

British history is littered with royal favorites rumored to be something more: Edward II and Piers Gaveston, Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, James VI and George Villiers, and so on. One story that is slightly lesser known – but no less dramatic – is that of Queen Anne of Great Britain and her closest frenemy, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough.

Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough
Anne and Sarah were opposites in almost every way: Sarah was beautiful, charismatic, and assertive; Anne was plain, sickly, and reserved. Since childhood they had been devoted to each other, ignoring etiquette by calling each other pet names and discussing everything like equals. As an adult Princess, Anne’s dependence on Sarah strained her other relationships, and plenty of drama had already gone down by the time Anne ascended the throne in 1702. Promoted to the new Queen’s chief lady, Sarah morphed into a kind of stage manager, influencing almost every aspect of Anne’s life.

As with other royal favorites, rumors began to fly. Observers noticed the closeness between the two, calling it “undue” and “an immoderate passion”. Anne’s letters to Sarah are full of syrupy declarations, but in those days it was common for women to express affection for each other in ways that might be considered romantic or sexual today. But regardless of whether the affection between them was romantic, platonic, both, or neither, it’s a fair argument to say that Sarah Churchill was the great love of Anne’s life.

Queen Anne of Great Britain
At first Anne followed Sarah’s direction slavishly and refused to hear criticism of her; but eventually she grew weary of the domination she had been addicted to for so long. Their arguments were theatrical and went on for months. Sarah berated the Queen in public when her demands were refused, which happened more and more frequently; when Anne’s husband died in 1708, Sarah tried to control how she mourned, which proved to be the final straw.

Another lady, Abigail Masham, rose to top spot in the Queen’s affections. Furious, Sarah insinuated that Anne and Abigail were lovers, implying that Anne regularly enjoyed lesbian trysts with her ladies. She later wrote a memoir painting herself as a victim and the Queen as essentially useless. Queen Anne’s image as a slovenly, stupid, histrionic mess derives mostly from Sarah’s account, which influenced her early biographies – in reality, her stupidity was about as real as Anne Boleyn’s sixth finger.

The relationship between Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill was fiery and melodramatic, spanning most of Anne’s life and inspiring several novels in addition to biographies of both women. But was it ever a love affair? Their story is a rollercoaster of devotion, drama, and duplicity – but is it a love story? Like all the best royal rumors, no one can ever really know for sure.