The Duchess and her friends

Letters from the Duchess of Marlborough

By Ruth Herman

#65 – 22 sept. 1710[1]

The end of a friendship and the change of ministry

Politically, these were particularly turbulent times. On the day before this was written parliament had been dissolved. Electors were becoming increasingly intolerant of the Whigs’ more liberal attitude to non-conformist Christians and there was a feeling that the Whig ministry was prolonging the seemingly never ending (and expensive) War of the Spanish Succession for their own profit.  This clearly affected their attitude towards Marlborough, formerly their hero but now tainted with his close association with the Whig ministry. Lord Cowper, the recipient of this letter was in the throes of resigning his office as Lord Chancellor against the entreaties of the predicted new Tory ministry and the Queen.  In fact his resignation was accepted the day after this letter was written.

Sarah’s longstanding relationship with Queen Anne was finally coming to an end.  The monarch had found new friends who were less overbearing and more sympathetic to her naturally Tory leanings.  On 6th April 1710 the Duchess had her last interview with her royal mistress, a one sided affair with the queen insisting that Sarah put her thoughts in writing rather than giving her any chance of a dialogue.

Politically the Tories were now in ascendance.  In the preceding months Sarah’s Whig associates (including her son-in-law, Sunderland) had lost their ministerial positions. The ensuing elections saw the Whigs replaced by a government which aimed at something approaching a moderate right wing but contained a number of High Tory backbenchers who pushed it into extremism.  Sarah’s fears over the machinations of the Duke of Somerset appear justified as his wife took over Sarah’s high court office a few months after this letter was written.  Marlborough meanwhile was abroad campaigning but had already lost the confidence of the Queen.

Lord Cowper records in his diary that Sarah came to dine with him a few weeks later on October 14, at Colegreen, near St Albans.  He comments that in her “Opinion, that Q[ueen]. has no Original Thoughts on any Subject; is neither good nor bad, but as put into [i.e how she is told to think]: that she has much Love & Passion, while pleas’d, for those who please; & can write pretty affectionate L[etters]; but do nothing else well.”  Sarah’s bitterness in her unaccustomed and uncomfortable role as outsider gave rise to these, the words of a disappointed woman. 


Althrope 22 of Sep[tember 1710]

I received the honour of your lordship’s letter at this place[2] for which I am much obliged to you and my Lady Cowper and I am sure you there is nobody you could have given that satisfaction to that wished her better than I do, and I hope she will bee well enough when I come to St Albans to allow me to tell her for myself.[3]  In the meantime the papers you mention are very safe, and since it is so naturally a thing for ill people to vindicate themselves. I hope you will not blame me that l could not overcome the desire of clearing my self to a very few that I wish I might not bee influenced by the base reports which have been presented by all people either to flatter Mrs Morley [Queen Anne ][4]  or to hide their own faults.[5] I had heard all that passed concerning S[ir] Ja[mes] M[ontagu]  before I came out of town, and I could not help reflecting upon all the difficulties  my lord G[odolphin] had to bring him to that post and the expressions at parliament which shews the power of the Duke of Sh[rewsbury][6] and the good effect my Lord Hali[fax’s][7] address had in that place for my Lord Conningsby[8]   had been thanked often by her majesty for his constant service that last put out without much ceremony and you know who was discharged by a groom[9]but that which I  wonder most at is to see how well contented my lord Halifax[10]  and Sir James  Montagu  is now with a judge’s Place who were both so high some time ago and would not hear of any such proposal from my lord Godolphin: when I really thought at that very time that it was better to have a quiet certainty and that the point of honour was to refuse rather than to pursue a thing that one was not fit for, which was the opinion of all people that ever I heard speak of Sir James Montagu.[11]

We expect to hear of great changes by this post and some of our letters said the case that the d. of Somerset would go out. I confess I should have some satisfaction of seeing him and his Princess disappointed after the base part that they have acted but I believe that there never was any country but this, where such a nauseous creature  who is yet more an knave Than a fool, can be well received and honoured backwards and forwards when ever he pleases but I conclude Nobody will ever trust him, and whoever thinks he  can manage him I am persuaded it will cost them more trouble than anything he  can be in worth.[12]  I beg pardon for the length of this letter.  I am with all respect imaginable your lordship’s most faithful and most humble servant.

S Marlborough


[1] Written to Lord William Cowper, rather than to his wife, Lady Cowper.

[2] Althorp was the seat of Sarah’s second eldest daughter, Anne, the wife of the Earl of Sunderland, a committed Whig and republican.

[3] On 20th September Lord Cowper records that his wife was ‘lying in’ ie giving birth

[4] Right at the beginning of their friendship Sarah and Queen Anne had given themselves nicknames so that they could correspond as ‘equals’ rather than royalty and subject. Anne took the name of Mrs Morley and Sarah, because of her independent nature chose to be called Mrs Freeman.

[5] When writing about her last meeting with the Queen in April Sarah records saying “There are a thousand lies told of me”.  By 1710 she was the subject of innumerable satiric attacks  accusing her of everything from adultery and witchcraft to a profligate waste of money on Blenheim Palace, pride and, crucially, of speaking disrespectfully of her royal mistress. Outside of the satirists, there were reports of angry and indiscreet words she had used regarding the Queen, such as describing the monarch as an idiot,

[6] The Duke of Shrewsbury was considered a generally moderate and conciliatory figure.  

[7] Lord Halifax addressed the  Queen in Parliament on 2 March 1709:  “We, … the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, considering the great Expence of Blood and Treasure that Your Majesty and Your Allies have been at, in prosecuting this long War,  … do most humbly beseech Your Majesty, that, for preserving the Repose and Quiet of Europe, and preventing the ambitious Designs of France for the future, Your Majesty would be pleased to take Care, at the Conclusion of the War, to continue and establish a good and firm Friendship among all the Allies”

[8] Sir Thomas Coningsby had worked closely with Sarah’s friend and fellow Whig, Godolphin and the Whig ministry.   With the Tories rapidly increasing in power and his long running feud with the leader of the Tory party he did not stand for parliament in 1710. He had received his dismissal from office just two months before this letter was written. He was raised to the peerage in 1719.  He proposed to Sarah immediately after the Duke of Marlborough died and was firmly rejected.

[9] Godolphin learnt of his dismissal from a letter delivered to him via a note delivered by a livered servant from the queen.

[10]  Lord Halifax (nee Charles Montagu). To Sarah, Montagu ‘was a frightful figure, and yet pretended to be a lover, and followed several beauties, who laughed at him for it’.  He started off in the commons as an MP and was raised to the lords in 1700.  He worked with the Whigs and also had intrigued with the new ‘moderate’ Tory ministry but never really received high office under Anne.  He was a noted antiquarian and a literary patron. 

[11] Sir James Montagu was the younger brother of Lord Halifax. In 1707 he was proposed as solicitor-general, and later promoted to attorney-general on 21 October 1708 despite the Queen’s dislike of him. Considerable pressure had been put on Anne by his brother and fellow Whig ministers and she eventually gave in on the death of her consort.  Montagu’s  agreeing to resign in 1710 was part of the deal to persuade Lord Cowper to remain in post as Lord Chancellor when the ministry changed from Whig to Tory as predicted. Montagu received a pension of £1,000 p.a. until his death or that of the Queen, whichever was the earlier, and the prospect of appointment as a judge. The contrast between his willingness to accept the prospect of a judicial post and his opposition to such a suggestion in 1708 is the meaning of Sarah’s comment.

[12] Sarah’s good friend Lord Godolphin described Somerset as “a mean worthless wretch, and capable of any mischief.” . “As early as December 1708 the duke is reported to have fallen out with the Whigs. By the summer of 1709 the Somersets were cultivating Anne behind the Marlboroughs’ backs and, possibly, beginning to woo the moderate Tory leader. By June at the latest Somerset was intriguing with Harley and with Charles Talbot, duke of Shrewsbury, to bring down the ministry. Somerset’s goal seems to have been to preside himself over a more moderate Whig ministry. These intrigues culminated on 8 August with the dismissal of Lord Treasurer Godolphin. By mid-August, as it became clear that the queen would dissolve the predominantly Whig parliament and that a Tory ministry was in the offing, Somerset began to fall out with Harley” DNB



This page was added on 22/09/2015.

Add your comment about this page

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Start the ball rolling by posting a comment on this page!