In the footsteps of St Albans’ first female superstar

Marlborough almshouses

Marlborough almshouses - Credit: John Morewood

Sarah Churchill, Dowager Duchess of Marlborough, the wealthiest woman in England, died on 18 October 1744 aged 84.

From relatively impoverished beginnings she had, through determination and ability, amassed a fortune which today is almost impossible to quantify.

Contemporary print of Sarah Duchess of Marlborough

Contemporary print of Sarah Duchess of Marlborough - Credit: St Albans Museums

Her 27 landed estates in 12 counties would be worth today at least £100 million. She also had other investments worth £67 million in today’s terms, part of which were loans to the British government.

But she was not just a very astute businesswoman. From 1690 until her death, she was the most talked about, and influential, woman of her day; a determined politician, courted by all political parties who she never flinched from attacking if she felt they were not acting in Britain’s best interests.

Indeed, her belief in straight talking made her fall out with many people.

Besides being Duchess of Marlborough, she was Princess of Mindelheim and Countess of Nellenburg in the Holy Roman Empire and, from 1677 until his death in 1722, the wife of one of Britain’s greatest military commanders.

Although various roads and schools in St Albans have ‘Marlborough’ in their title or, in the case of Killigrew School, commemorate people she knew, there is little to make visitors aware she was a native of St Albans.

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Sarah, born Sarah Jenyns (Jennings), was baptised in St Albans Abbey on 17 June 1660. Her father owned the manor of Sandridge.

Although historians disagree whether this included the property known as Water End, he also owned Holywell House demolished in the 1830s and situated at the bottom of Holywell Hill. Dying in debt, his estates heavily mortgaged, he was buried in the Abbey before Sarah was eight years old.

In 1673, aged 13, she became one of the maids of honour to the wife of James Duke of York, later King James II. In her 18th year, very self-assured and attractive, she married the young soldier and ambitious courtier, John Churchill.

The marriage was opposed by both families due to the couple’s lack of wealth, but it was a true love match, and they remained devoted to each other until John’s death.

While John’s army career progressed, Sarah formed a deep friendship with James’ youngest daughter, Anne, who relied on her totally during the political turmoil of the 1680s and 1690s.

Anne became queen in 1702. The friendship would totally break down in 1711 due to Sarah’s outspokenness and political views.

Until then, she controlled the queen, her husband commanded the army, his brother George, one of the MPs for St Albans, controlled both the navy and the queen’s husband, and their mutual friend Godolphin ran the government. Very rarely has such power been concentrated in the hands of so few people.

When George I became king in 1714, John and Sarah regained some of their influence and it was great enough for Sarah to later play a leading role in opposing Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister.

The Churchills made Holywell House their home in 1684.

They renovated and extended the house and, to take traffic away from their front door, diverted part of the road, creating what is now Grove Road.

The site of Holywell House.

The site of Holywell House. The Marlboroughs created Grove Road on the right to divert traffic. Their house was close to the modern bus stop on the left. - Credit: John Morewood

John had the River Ver redirected and laid out extensive gardens with water features between what is now Belmont Hill and the river. Here they entertained their friends and political allies, including Queen Anne.

Their associates, such as Admiral Killigrew, acquired property in St Albans. Although they would later possess grander houses, for example Blenheim Palace, to them Holywell would always be a refuge from the world’s troubles.

Indeed, during her long widowhood, Sarah confessed it had too many happy associations.

In 1735 she wrote “This place is convenient & suits well enough with my inclination, who never was fond of magnificent things, yet 'tis so dismal . . . to be here alone in a place that makes me reflect upon many scenes of happiness, none of which can ever return, that I cannot bear to stay.”

Nevertheless, the ability to influence local politics, and ensure St Albans elected MPs sympathetic to the Whig interest, was too great an opportunity to miss, and in 1732 she determined to leave a more permanent memorial.

She had often helped destitute veterans of Marlborough’s campaigns, or their families

Now she had an old manor house on what is now Hatfield Road demolished, and employed the architect Francis Smith of Warwick to raise a “noble building for the relief of 40 poor families of the town and Her Grace will leave a sum sufficient to endow it for ever”.

The sum she originally set aside was the equivalent of £6 million today. The ‘Charity of Sarah Duchess of Marlborough’ still exists for “the provision and continuing maintenance of the almshouse in Hatfield Road, St Albans for the benefit of poor persons of good character and over 60 years of age”.

Marlborough almshouses - Sarah's heraldic achievement

Marlborough almshouses - Sarah's heraldic achievement - Credit: John Morewood

On the imposing façade are Sarah’s arms as Duchess of Marlborough and Princess of Mindelheim. Like far too many historic buildings in St Albans, there is nothing to explain its importance.

The only plaque commemorating Sarah was raised by St Albans and Hertfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society in 1935 and is placed on the corner of Holywell Hill and Belmont Hill. Is it not time that we did something more?

Belmont Hill - the damaged SAHAAS plaque - the only one commemorating Sarah in St Albans

Belmont Hill - the damaged SAHAAS plaque - the only one commemorating Sarah in St Albans - Credit: John Morewood

Places in St Albans connected with Sarah Churchill and her world

  • Belmont Hill. Follows the boundary of the gardens of Holywell House. SAHAAS plaque.
  • Cathedral and Abbey Church. Where Sarah was baptised, and her father buried.
  • Grove Road. Created by John and Sarah to take traffic away from Holywell House.
  • Marlborough Almshouses, Hatfield Road. Founded by Sarah.
  • St Peter’s Church. Memorial to Edward Strong who worked on Blenheim Palace and took Sarah to court to be paid – he won! A memorial to Robert Rumney, Vicar of St Peters, mentions his connection to the Marlboroughs.
  • St Stephen’s Church. Memorial stone mentioning an Aide-de-Camp to Marlborough.
  • Wetherspoons, Waterend Barn. The Blenheim Room has prints of John and Sarah.
  • Wheathampstead, St Helen’s. Memorial to Sir Samuel Garrard, who fought under Marlborough.

Interested in the history of St Albans and district? Then why not join St Albans and Hertfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society which has 630 members: