Queen Anne and the Duchess of Marlborough
The argument that Anne was a lesbian is difficult to disentangle from the political mudslinging which characterised her reign (1702-1714). Compared to the suspicions surrounding William III, rumours about his sister-in-law’s lesbian activities are far harder to confirm or deny.
The first thing to remember is that Anne’s upbringing was little short of brutal. She lost her mother when very young, was sent to Paris for two years at the age of six for treatment for her eyes which remained troublesome throughout her life. She had no friends at court. So, when the young, charismatic, and beautiful Sarah Jennings arrived at court it is not surprising that Anne was drawn into a friendship with her. The question has always hung over the nature of this relationship. It was certainly intense. Anne’s loyalty to Sarah in the face of William’s hostility could be interpreted as a by-product of sexual obsession or of the gratitude of a supportive best friend. They certainly tried to create a world in which they were equals, writing to each other under the pseudonyms of Mrs Morley and Mrs Freeman with what seems to us now excessive emotion. From this distance we would assume if the Queen wrote to her friend in terms of endearment such as
but that her poor unfortunate Morley will be faithfully yours to her last moment
Dear Mrs. Freeman will be so unkind as not to come to her poor unfortunate , faithful Morley , who loves her sincerely , and will do so to the last moment
be assured , when- ever you will be the same to me as you was five years ago , you shall find me the same tender, faithful Morley
You would assume that there was something deeper going on than the late seventeenth century version of a girl’s night in with a bottle of Prosecco and a romcom. The jury may be out on exactly how physical the relationship was but there are some things which have to be taken into account. Anne was particularly needy when she was growing up. Her father, James II, was an anathema to many of his subjects because of his Catholicism and she was popular but isolated. The birth of a son to his new wife moved her one place down as a likely heir to the throne. Even her sister marrying a Dutchman left her with no close family companions. But her self-confidence grew as she settled into the role of Queen despite suffering a shocking number of miscarriages, still born babies and neo-natal tragedies.
And then we have to look at the politics of the day. Sarah was a committed Whig; Anne was a natural Tory. Sarah was an object of loathing, and the Tories really did not mind what they said about her. But they had to be a bit careful as they were also impugning the queen with “unnatural” practices. Interestingly enough, they focussed on Sarah ‘s heterosexuality suggesting that she was insatiable. It was when Sarah was out of favour and another woman, the High Tory Abigail Masham, became the queen’s favourite that the Whig propaganda machine churned out something that really did the damage. It was a scurrilous poem referring to “Dark Deeds at Night”. Sarah Churchill commissioned this piece of poisonous propaganda which set the fault entirely at Masham’s door, implying that she had seduced the Queen.
So who was Sarah Churchill? She was born in St Albans in 1660 to the Jennings, a family of local landowners, she married a humble soldier, Sir John Churchill now better known as the Duke of Marlborough. Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies hold her letters which give a fascinating insight into this intriguing woman
This piece is taken from several sources all written by Dr Ruth Herman
The Business of a Woman: the Political Writings of Delarivier Manley (Associated University Presses 2003)
“Dark Deeds at Night” in Queer People ed. Mounsey and Gonda, (Bucknell University Press 2007)
“Enigmatic Gender in Delarivier Manley’s New Atalantis” Presenting Gender (Bucknell University Press 2001)