Female Dukes

In the latest post for the Georgian Lords, Dr Stuart Handley considers the cases of peerages held by women in the 18th century, and the way in which they were able to exercise political influence even though denied a seat in Parliament.

In a note on page 4 of his biography of Winston Churchill, published in 2001, Roy Jenkins allows himself a somewhat waspish comment about the 7th duke of Marlborough being described as the 6th duke, when clearly he was not. However, such numbering was not unusual and is explicable because the second duke was in fact a duchess.

Henrietta, countess of Godolphin & duchess of Marlborough, print by Francis Kyte, aft. Sir Godfrey Kneller, (c) Trustees of the British Museum

John Churchill was made duke of Marlborough in December 1702. However, his only son, also John, died in February 1703. In 1706 an Act of Parliament was passed to allow Marlborough to pass on his dukedom through the female line. When he died in June 1722 he was succeeded in the title by his eldest daughter Henrietta, the wife of Francis Godolphin, second earl of Godolphin. When Henrietta died in November 1733, without male heirs (her only son, William Godolphin, marquess of Blandford having died in 1731) the title passed to the eldest surviving son of her next sister, Anne (who had died in April 1716), who had married Charles Spencer, third earl of Sunderland. Thus, Charles Spencer, who was already fifth earl of Sunderland, also became third duke of Marlborough.

For eleven years, Henrietta thus held the same title as the formidable dowager duchess of Marlborough, Sarah, the widow of the first duke. Relations were strained not least because correspondence was sometimes delivered to the wrong duchess. Neither did Henrietta control the family wealth, which was held by Sarah under a life interest under the first duke’s will.

Fortunately, Henrietta’s husband, the son of Sarah’s great friend Sidney Godolphin, was a man skilled at conciliating his mother-in-law and capable of soaking up the tremendous screeds of paper she dispatched in his direction complaining at the perfidious nature of her daughter and his wife.

The old duchess outlived her daughter by many years, dying in October 1744, aged 84. Indeed, she outlived three of her four daughters (the third, Elizabeth, countess of Bridgwater having died of smallpox in April 1714). The survivor, her youngest daughter, Mary, duchess of Montagu, upon hearing of the event, affected disbelief with the comment that it was not in her mother’s style to die (Harris, 348).

In politics, the key point about a female holder of a peerage was that they could not sit in the House of Lords and any political influence had to be exercised indirectly. It was a point not lost on the first duchess of Marlborough, who opined ‘I am confident I should have been the greatest hero that ever was known in the Parliament House, if I had been so happy as to have been a man’ (Harris, 3). Nevertheless, she managed to play a major role in political life. Indeed, any woman with control of the family estates could play a significant role in electoral politics. Between 1722 and 1744, when she administered the Marlborough estates, Sarah intervened in elections at Woodstock, St. Albans, Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire and New Windsor, often in favour of her grandsons.

Another example, was Richard Temple, created Baron Cobham in 1714, who, without male heirs, was created a Viscount in 1718. Both barony and viscountcy were to descend to his second and third sisters respectively, Hester Grenville and Christian Lyttelton. Hester, who had married Richard Grenville (died 1727), succeeded to the title in 1749, and later that year was created Countess Temple. Her son, Richard Grenville Temple, succeeded as second Earl Temple in 1752.

The point may also be made of those women, created peers, who then passed them on to their sons. Sometimes this was a way of continuing the family name after it had died out. Thus, Grace Granville, daughter of the first earl of Bath, who married Sir George Carteret, (later Baron Carteret) in 1711 became one of the coheirs of the Granville family. In 1715, she was created Viscountess Carteret and Countess Granville. Her son succeeded his father in 1711 as 2nd Baron Carteret, and his mother in 1744 as second Earl Granville.

Royal mistresses were often given peerages, but often only for life. Thus, Louise de Keroualle was created duchess of Portsmouth in 1673, a title which was extinguished on her death in 1734. Again, she exercised her influence not in the Parliament chamber, but the bedchamber. Likewise, Ermengard Melusina, Baroness von der Shulenberg, was created duchess of Kendal for life in 1719.

Perhaps the moral is never to forget to investigate and assess the role of women in politics. Power could be exercised in the bedchamber, or at elections, through the power of patronage and the purse.


Further Reading

Frances Harris, A Passion for Government: the life of Sarah duchess of Marlborough
Roy Jenkins, Winston Churchill

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