Sarah at (the) Play

The Duchess of Marlborough and the Italian Opera

By Ruth Herman



Sarah at (the) play

I’ve put these letters together because they show that Sarah did like to enjoy herself.  She appears to be a fan of what was known as the ‘Italian opera’ (according to one source she even became a patron).[2]  The Nicolini referred to in the letter is to Nicolino Grimaldi one of the most famous of the castrati who enjoyed pop star status in the early eighteenth century.  Despite castration being illegal poor families in Italy could see it as a way for their sons to make a good living in opera, subjecting the boys to the operation at around seven to nine years of age. The operation was often undertaken by the village barber. The illegal nature of the practice made it necessary for families to explain their castrated sons as having suffered ‘accidents’.  Being struck by a wild boar was a frequently used excuse.

Nicolini, who had come to England in 1708, was said to be a great singer, and apparently a still greater actor. His voice was at first a soprano, but afterwards descended into a fine contralto. The Pope had decreed in the Catholic world that women should not be allowed to sing professionally.  In England, however, female singers were accepted and because of the strong tradition of English theatre there was a certain amount of animosity towards the Italian opera which was seen as competition.  Despite the controversy, Sarah was clearly a keen follower. Indeed, according to her published correspondence Lord Halifax (whom she disliked) thought of inviting Nicolini to perform an opera ‘in his room’ in 1709 as a way of tempting her to visit. While Sarah clearly enjoyed the music, later in life she had recourse to a mechanical organ which she says in her memoirs she greatly preferred to the Italian opera.


# 71 New Year’s day, Wednesday January 1, 1710[1]

New years day

I heard you were out of town madam, and that keeps me quiet so long, but now I must beg leave to put you in mind of your promise, and let you know that mon senor Nikolino will be with me again Monday[3] if my lord chancellor and you are at liberty to do me the honour to dine here if not I hope you will be so good as to appoint any other day, for whatever is most easy to you will bee most agreeable to


Your ladyships most faithful and most humble servant

S. Marlborough

I have received a letter from Mrs Cornwallis[4] who is full of acknowledgements and tho I believe my lord chancellor nor your ladyship does not care for any expressions of that kind I can’t resist this opportunity of returning my humble thanks.

# 82/83 1711

If you care to go to the opera, dear lady Cowper, today, I should be very glad of your company. I have sent to get the box[5] that is over that where I used to sett upon the stage where we may be easy and have nobody but our own company. I send by this messenger to Lady Paulet[6] And I believe some of my children may go [part missing]




[1] To Lady Cowper

[2] The Musical Times, 1 March 1914

[3] 6 January 1710.

[4] It is unclear who this is.

[5] Boxes cost 8 shillings (a bargain at £30.64 in today’s money). Operas seem to have largely been performed at the Queens Theatre, originally owned and built by Vanbrugh, the playwright, and as the architect for Blenheim Palace, Sarah’s nemesis. On 6 January 1710 at the Queens Theatre “at the desire of several ladies of quality” the opera Pyrrhus and Demetrius was performed. (Daily Courant, 6 January 1710). It would be good to imagine that Sarah was one of those ladies. The V&A site explains “Theatres were noisy, chaotic places and the aim was to see and be seen.  … Audiences would chat, walk around and play games. It wasn’t unknown for ladies to have a card table in the box for a game of cards during the performance.” We do not know if Sarah was inclined to behave in this way.

[6] This is likely to be Lady Mary Paulet, daughter of Charles Paulet, Duke of Bolton as she did not marry  until 1716


A Plea for the Players[1]

In addition there are these two further letters which act as an endorsement to the support the Duchess gave to the theatre.  The grateful playwright is writing to Lord Cowper also enlisting the presence of Lady Cowper.  The convention in the eighteenth century was that the author profited from the third night receipts. However, it appears that actors also received third night profits, even if they had no claim to authorship. Authors and actors worked together to achieve mutual benefits.

In addition to the above, playwrights and actors often persuaded people to buy tickets at well above list price. It may well be that the Duchess and her well-heeled friends are dipping deep into their pockets to pay for their seats. In any event in the second letter Estcourt seems well pleased with the result of their patronage


DEPF/54 45 and 46

My Lord

The players and I being come to a composition of our difference I am to procure them a good audience on Tuesday night to the Tender Husband.[2] My cause therefore must be to transfer from your Lordship to my Lady with whom I beseech your Lordship to prevail to honour the play that night and assist my Lady Marlborough who is General of this expedition to complete the number of her forces and make a glorious muster.  I am my Lord with all submission your Lordship’s Admirer and humble servant.

R. Estcourt.[3]

God preserve Root and Branch at Home.[4]



A Thanksgiving Day my Lord is as Decent after success, as a Fast Day before it. Your Lordship has been used to give thanks to merit from your chair in the House of Lords, be pleased to employ them in return to my Lady Cowper now, from a Chair (more agreeable to you) in your own. I know from her ladyship’s inclinations she will be more pleased with them than the Ostentation of a Triumph considering the mouth they come from. Upon the whole matter – odso[5] I think there should be a W[?}.

I am your Lordship’s and my lady’s

Grateful humble servant

[1] The background to this article comes from Robert D. Hume (1984). The Origins of the Actor Benefit in London. Theatre Research International, 9, pp 99-111

[2] The Tender Husband was a play written by Sir Richard Steele in 1705 and performed frequently.  Steele was also a well-known Whig and was at one point MP for Stockbridge.

[3]Richard Estcourt ((1668?–1712), was an actor manager and playwright and good friend of both Steele and the Duke of Marlborough.  The letters are not dated but the Dictionary of National Biography notes that he had a particularly bad year in 1708-9.

[4] As a Whig in the late Stuart period Estcourt might well have been referring generally to the petition of 1640 which called to the return to the original church before the rituals of High Anglican Protestantism.

[5] Expressing surprise or affirmation (Oxford English Dictionary)

This page was added on 23/09/2015.

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