The Missing Duchess

In the latest blog for the Georgian Lords, Dr Stuart Handley, senior research fellow on the Lords 1715-90 section, considers the significance of one of the central characters of the court of Queen Anne who failed to make it into the film, The Favourite

The Oscar and BAFTA winning film, The Favourite, brought Queen Anne’s reign to the attention of the nation. The more observant commentators may have been aware of the play, Queen Anne, which touched on similar themes, and which appeared on the London stage in 2017. Readers of biography may also have noted the recent work by Ophelia Field on The Favourite: Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, published in 2002, although the definitive work on the relationship between Anne and Sarah remains Frances Harris’s book, A Passion for Government (1991).

There have also been earlier artistic representations such as the dramatization by the BBC of The First Churchills, with Sarah being played by Susan Hampshire, Queen Anne by Margaret Tyzack, and Abigail Masham née Hill by Jill Balcon (mother of Daniel Day-Lewis).

unknown artist; Allegorical Triumph with Queen Anne
Allegorical Triumph with Queen Anne by unknown artist, (c) Inverness Town House

The interplay between Queen Anne, Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham portrayed in The Favourite omitted one important figure – the missing Duchess – Elizabeth Percy, daughter of the 5th earl of Northumberland, and wife of the duke of Somerset. In The First Churchills a series covering 12 episodes, more characters graced the screen, including the duchess of Somerset, who was played by Rosina Stewart. As the Percy heiress, Elizabeth was much sought after as a bride and, by the time of her marriage to Somerset in 1682, had been widowed twice. Her first marriage, at the age of 12 in 1679, was to Henry Cavendish, styled earl of Ogle, the heir of the 2nd duke of Newcastle. Following his death in 1680, she married secretly, in 1681, Thomas Thynne of Longleat (known as Tom of Ten Thousand on account of his fabulous wealth). Thynne was murdered in Pall Mall in February 1682. Just three months later, in May of the same year, now aged 15, she married Charles Seymour, 6th duke of Somerset. In August she caught smallpox, but survived to provide Somerset with four sons and four daughters, although only one son survived the extremely long-lived duke (who died in 1748).

The inclusion of the duchess of Somerset, in her role as the confidante of Queen Anne, would have made The Favourite much more complicated, but would also have more accurately reflected the dynamics at court. The film shows Sarah’s symbol of office, her gold key as groom of the stole, being transferred to Abigail. In fact, Sarah was replaced in this office by the duchess of Somerset, who remained in post until the end of the reign. The duchess was seen as a source of information and indeed access to the queen. Many Tories hoped that if her husband resigned over the controversial peace policy with France, then he might insist upon the withdrawal of his wife from Court. Conversely, the Whigs were keen to avoid Somerset taking such precipitous action. When Somerset was removed over his support for an amendment to the Address over the peace policy in December 1711, he did not insist upon his wife’s resignation.

Her importance was under-lined, when, Robert Harley, earl of Oxford, the lord treasurer, was under intense pressure in the early summer of 1714. He wrote a memorandum to himself on 8 June 1714, which read: ‘send for the Duchess of Somerset. Nobody else can save us’. This one sentence reminds us of the important theme of the film; the vital role played in politics by the queen’s female courtiers and office-holders.

Nor was the role of the duchess of Somerset devoid of drama. Indeed, in the last few days of the reign, it was the duchess who alerted her husband to the queen’s collapse on 30 July 1714, and ensured that he and the duke of Argyll were able to attend the Privy Council (uninvited, but welcomed) later that day, which helped ensure that a smooth transition from Stuart to Hanover was set in motion.

It was the duchess of Somerset, who informed the queen, after she had recovered consciousness on 30 July, that the lords of the Council wished to see her, a meeting which led to the appointment of the duke of Shrewsbury as lord treasurer of (the last holder of the office – to date).

After the queen’s death, it was the duchess of Somerset, who alerted the lords justices (the great officers of state and the new king’s nominees) who were to oversee the government of the kingdom until the new king’s arrival, that there was in existence a sealed packet which the queen kept in her closet. The queen’s instructions were that this packet should be destroyed, and the lords justices in consultation with the Hanoverian resident minister, Baron Bothmer, agreed to carry out her instructions. Upon being consigned to the flames, the packet burst open to reveal a hand which appeared to be that of the queen’s half-brother, James, the Pretender.

The duchess died in November 1722, Lady Lechmere observing that:

Good spirits are a great advantage in life, but when people come to die it lengthens their misery… The Duke of Somerset, they say, is in great passion & concern for her.  Perhaps you’ll believe the first, if not the last, that being said to be natural to him.

As for the duke, his concern did not prevent him from seeking a new wife. Initially he courted the duchess of Marlborough (herself widowed in 1722), and when that came to nought, he settled on the much younger, Charlotte Finch, a daughter of Daniel Finch, 2nd earl of Nottingham, whom he married in February 1726.

One of the numerous anecdotes of the “proud Duke” mentions that when his young wife tapped him on the shoulder with her fan, he responded by saying that even his first wife, who was a Percy, would not have done that.



Further Reading:

Ophelia Field, The Favourite: Sarah Duchess of Marlborough

Frances Harris: A Passion for Government: The life of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough


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