To celebrate LGBT History Month, we’re telling stories of LGBTQ+ love and desire. We may not be able to visit the palaces in person at the moment, but I’d like to take you inside Kensington Palace in this blog, to the place where an important moment in history happened. I’m Holly, PhD researcher on late-Stuart history, and I’m here to paint the picture of Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill’s final goodbye.
A blossoming romance
Queen Anne reigned from 1702-1714. She was introduced to Sarah Churchill at the age of five, growing up with her close by her side. Five years her senior, Sarah was Anne’s closest confidant and potential lover, a possible relationship exposed by scandalous memoirs published by Sarah after Anne’s death. At Anne’s ascension in 1702, Sarah was given the titles Keeper of the Privy Purse, Groom of the Stole and Lady of the Bedchamber. Anne’s letters to Sarah still exist, detailing the beautiful, highly devotional language of love that the women exchanged. Although it was common in the 17th and 18th centuries to address a close female friend with elaborate language of love and desire, Anne and Sarah’s communications prove to be extremely intimate, adopting the names ‘Mrs Freeman’ and ‘Mrs Morley’ so they were, in Anne’s words, ‘equals.’
Trouble in paradise
Before the final blow that destroyed their relationship for good, Sarah and Anne had been on rocky ground for a few years. Firstly, because of their differing political opinions: Sarah was a devoted Whig who favoured mercantile growth and a parliament separate from the monarch, and Anne, although having introduced the multi-party parliament we have today, leaned towards Tory politics, which favoured an absolute monarch and whose party was made up of the landed gentry. England’s involvement in the Spanish War of Succession was a point of contention for these parties: the Whigs wanted England to invade France, and the Tories fought against this as landowners would be charged tax to pay for the battle.
Green with envy?
Secondly, Anne’s growing closeness to her chambermaid Abigail Masham, Sarah’s distant cousin whom she introduced to the court, caused contention. Spending time and possibly having a romantic relationship with outwardly apolitical Abigail, Anne grew tired of Sarah’s political forcefulness. An argument occurred between Churchill and Anne in 1708 on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, London. Attending a ceremony to commemorate England’s defeat of the French in the Spanish War of Succession (the army led by Sarah’s husband John Churchill), Sarah noticed Anne was not wearing the jewels she had set out for her. She imagined Abigail had something to do with it. The women bickered, ending in Sarah telling her Queen to ‘be quiet’ in front of the roaring crowd.
Burn after reading/Bad Friday
Things only got worse after this argument, and gossip and rumour careered around the streets of London about the Queen’s female relationships. In April of 1710, Sarah begged Anne to settle their differences, threatening Anne with blackmail by saying she would publish the letters she had sent her (Sarah had cleverly told Anne to burn her letters after reading them). At this time, the Queen was retreating at Kensington before her Easter Sunday services. Anne finally entertained Sarah with ‘a private hour’ to discuss their troubles on Good Friday, after Sarah stormed into the Anne’s chambers at Kensington and allegedly cried to the page.
The page let Sarah through, who ran into the Anne’s Closet, a small, private, room. According to Sarah’s memoirs, the Queen remained calm and collected, owning her space and standing her ground. For once, they did not argue about Abigail Masham. To many of Sarah’s devotional and defensive statements, Anne merely replied with ‘you may put it into writing’ and ‘you desired no answer and I shall give you none.’ Sarah, with tears ‘in streams’ was defeated, and after their discussion ran out to the Gallery in order to compose herself. Some versions of her memoir state that she ran back to the queen to defend herself some more, finally telling Anne that she would suffer for her inhumanity, to which Anne replied ‘that would be to herself.’
The Closet was the last place Sarah and Anne spoke in person. Sarah was stripped of her titles and in 1711 was forced to return her key and move out of Hampton Court Palace. The walls of Kensington contain the ghosts of this lost relationship. Although we only know what has been published by Sarah, which of course is not impartial, and by gossip and rumour circulated in print, this story helps us to understand that LGBTQ+ desire and practice occurred in the early modern period. We also know that when it concerns monarchs, love and desire is often politically motivated. We will never know of the extent of their relationship, but we do know they were, at one stage, each other’s closest companions.
After Anne’s death in 1714 Sarah went on to publish the memoirs and the letters Anne had sent her thirty years later. Despite their very public fall-out Sarah dedicated a statue to Anne in Blenheim Palace which the Queen had gifted the Churchills, in an apparent attempt to smooth over her reputation and possibly her guilt. I hope this story has helped in transporting you to Anne’s apartments at Kensington, albeit momentarily. By reimagining the argument between Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill in 1710, I hope to have provided both escapism and historical insight. LGBTQ+ folk have always existed and will continue to adorn the most scandalous of spaces, even the closet of the Queen of England herself.
University of Winchester and Historic Royal Palaces