Sarah and her Architects

Ruth Herman

A clash of personalities


Sarah Churchill was involved in two large building projects, both of which were as a result of her close relationship with Queen Anne but she is most famously associated with the splendid Blenheim Palace.  It began with a grant of land and funds to celebrate the Duke of Marlborough’s decisive battle at Blenheim which was the turning point in the war with France that occupied so much of Anne’s reign.

The building of this monument to Marlborough’s achievements on the battle field (and also his pride) began with the planning and design by Sir John Vanbrugh, the playwright/architect. It was only finished in 1724, two years after Marlborough’s death. During its construction, the Duke was absent for much of the time, leaving the Duchess in charge.  The upshot of this was the personality clashes between Vanbrugh and Sarah grew into a major battle, involving litigation and public recrimination on both sides.  The underlying problems were manifold and probably stemmed from the clash of two very forceful personalities.  They ranged from an argument over keeping the original building (a small but ancient manor house) to accusations of over expenditure by the builders, with refusals to pay bills, and even at point a dispute over aristocratic matchmaking. The unfortunate and increasingly ailing Duke, merely asked that he could have at least one section that was quiet.

Vanbrugh became increasingly irate publishing his complaints against Sarah:

These papers, madam, are so full of far-fetched laboured accusations, mistaken facts, wrong inferences, groundless jealousies, and strained constructions, that I should put a very great affront upon your understanding if I supposed it possible you could mean anything in earnest by them, but to put a stop to my troubling you anymore. You have your end, madam, for I will never trouble you more, unless the Duke of Marlborough recovers so far to shelter me from such intolerable treatment.

Sarah’s other less grandiose building project was Marlborough House in London, again resulting in a grant from the Queen.  This time she chose Christopher Wren and his son to do the work. It was finished in 1711 and as we can see below it was generally an amicable exercise apart from the comment that architects and builders change things if you don’t keep a watchful eye on them.


Saturday noon 1709

Whatever becomes of the living in the charter house I think I shall be glad of  anything  that gives me an opportunity of seeing my lord chancellor and you dear madam, and I  shall be so much in town this summer that it may be at your own time, and the oftener you can afford me your company the happier I shall be, for tho I am  not an  architect I find we can’t be long from my building[1] without the danger of having a window or a door or something or other that one does not like, and yet  I think I am in the best hands we have but their rules do not always agree with my fancy and I am forced to be perpetually upon the watch. This day sennight I think to go to St Albans for a few days but before or after this time I shall obey any commands of yours with great pleasure and am very sincerely your ladyship’s obedient humble servant

  1. Marlborough

April 6th 1721

Mrs Clayton[2] having told me that your lordship has done me the favour to read the Duke of Marlborough’s case,[3] I take the liberty to send you the enclosed paper which should have been added to it, and I promise myself you will have so much goodness as to forgive me this once troubling you with further informations and I give you my word it shall be the last time. I have no other apology to make for it but that I know Sir John whose [position?] is chiefly concerned on the contrary side makes use of all his ability and all the opportunities of a large acquaintance with the nobility gives him, to make very deep impressions on his own side of the question. For my part I should think that highly unbecoming use, and it is far from my thoughts to attempt to do anything but to state the facts fairly and truly with all their circumstances and after this to leave it entirely on the judgement of those who shall consider them, and as I mean nothing but this, in sending your lordship these papers and case (which I think was drawn up in a more plain and intelligent manner, than the lawyers who must keep to particular forms will suffer the printed case to be). So I hope it will be a sufficient excuse for my doing this that others may not by their application of diligence in colouring over their cause have any advantage over what I conceive to be full of right. I will not trouble your lordship with repeating anything which either is observed in the former paper or will be in the promised case (which I shall beg leave to send as soon as it is proper) but shall only add that whatever you shall judge to be right, your consideration of all circumstances, I shall be contented because I am sure you will concur in no judgement but what you believe to be fair which is all that ought or that ever Shall be desired by

[Your lordship’s most faithfull and most humble servant]


one thing I much desire leave to mention to your lordship which was not inserted in the case and which I the rather take notice of to you, because your great knowledge of the law makes you the best judge in the point, upon which chiefly the decree was founded was the warrant given by my lord Godolphin to Sir John Vanbrugh in the name of the Duke of Marlborough and particularly in being signed before any Act of Parliament mentioned the house of Blenheim. Your lordship sees in the case all the circumstances of the of the warrant and I can hardly believe that any lord can lay his hand upon his heart and say that in his opinion that L[ord] Godolphin could ever mean by this warrant to oblige the Duke of Marlborough to pay for that building begun by the queen, now a question seems here naturally to arise whether even supposing a warrant obtained and accompanied  with so many  odd circumstances to have force whether I say it can extend any farther than to make the Duke Of Marlborough debtor for what was done before those Acts Of Parliament which spoke of this as the queen’s building as well as before three acts of the queen by which she plainly took it upon herself  and consequently whether Mr Strong’s[4] bills now in dispute which all refer to work done many years after those acts of parliament can be charged to the Duke of Marlborough by the virtue of the warrant signed before those acts, the reason I trouble your lordships with this is because I have been informed by a gentleman of the law that there is weight in it, tho hitherto not mentioned but I entirely submit to your judgement and beg pardon for taking up so much of your time.

I enclose a paper attested in the Court of Exchequer and an acquittance in full from Mr Hill who has the same demand upon the court as Mr Strong.[5] These papers were both proved but they were only exhibits and they would not let them be read in the court. But they will serve to show your lordship that what I have said is true of the officers’ salaries being raised, and that here is one instance that  Mr Strong in particular in thinking the Duke Of Marlborough his debtor and I have a great many others but tis not reasonable to trouble you with them.



Tis w[ith] great pleasure I instruct myself to serve your grace in everything that is just and rather Because your grace is so equitable in your own council to desire no more.   I have perused carefully the papers you honoured me with enclosed with your [… ?] And remit ‘em to your grace.  I am here your Grace’s most humble servant.


6 April 1721


[1] Marlborough House is a listed mansion in the Mall.

[2] Mrs Clayton, later Lady Sundon and her husband were close friends and associates of the Marlboroughs.  With Sarah’s help she was appointed a woman of the bedchamber to Caroline, princess of Wales in 1714.

2 Sir John Vanbrugh, architect and playwright. Vanbrugh was the architect of Blenheim Palace and the subject of a long running dispute with the Marlboroughs.  In 1721 the Marlboroughs unsuccessfully sued Vanbrugh, Hawksmoor (who was also associated with the building), and 419 other defendants for conspiracy

3 Edward Strong was the principal mason


This page was added on 03/06/2016.

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