Queen Anne’s Ladies

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THE ONE THING that the average, educated Brit tends to know about Sarah Churchill, the first Duchess of Marlborough and ancestor of both Sir Winston Churchill and Princess Diana, is that she had an intimate relationship with Queen Anne, the last of the Stuarts, who reigned from 1702 to 1714. Therefore, the first question they tend to ask me, as Sarah Churchill’s most recent biographer, is: “Did they or didn’t they?”

Academic historians, who like nothing so much as telling us that a question we’ve raised is the wrong question, would answer that lesbianism as we know it today did not really exist in the late 17th or early 18th century. They’d say that women just expressed themselves more sentimentally in those days, especially in their letters, and that these expressions should not be equated with any genuine strength of feeling. In fact, the evidence of Sarah Churchill’s life suggests to me that the Queen did love her closest friend in a way that we would classify as romantic, though perhaps not erotic—an embarrassing fact that Sarah ultimately used for her own self-preservation.

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