Duchess: A Novel of Sarah Churchill


St. James’s Palace, London
November, 1688

It is no easy trick to overthrow the King of England.

One must be blessed with courage and conviction, a dash of recklessness, and passion beyond measure. And in my prime, on the night I helped my friend the Princess Anne escape, I do believe I had all that, and more.

I needed every bit of it, too. I was staying at St. James’s Palace in the lodgings of my brother-in-law, the Earl of Tyrconnel, and because he and my sister were gone to Ireland, I was alone in the apartments save for the servants. I had just finished dressing for the day, my pearls still cool against my throat, when one of the maids burst into my bedchamber, tears in her eyes and her apron knotted in her hands.

“Oh, My Lady, My Lady, there’s soldiers at the door!” she cried, her voice shrill with panic. “They called General Lord Churchill a traitor, and they say they must see you at once!”

I hooked the last pearl through my ear before I answered, determined to be calm. I’d known the King’s soldiers would come. There’d never been any doubt. My four children were safe with friends in the country in preparation, our estates as secured as they could be. Yet though my heart raced within my breast, I would not turn flighty and fearful, but instead do as John and I had planned.

“The soldiers may say what they please about His Lordship,” I said as I rose from my dressing table and shook out my skirts. “We know the truth. I shall see the officers in the parlor.”

I waited upstairs until the men had been shown into the parlor, and then I waited a little longer, to give them time to consider their actions against my husband and me. By most lights, neither John nor I would seem to be the sort to be arrested as traitors to the crown. John had served in His Majesty’s household and in his army since he’d been a boy, rising from a mere page to a Brigadier-General, his accomplishments acknowledged with the title of Baron Churchill of Sandridge. Although I was still a young woman, not yet thirty, I had lived in the eye of the Court for nearly fifteen years. I’d begun as a Maid of Honor to the Duchess of York, before she’d become Queen, and now I served as Mistress of the Bedchamber to Anne, the Princess of Denmark and His Majesty’s younger daughter. John and I had been well rewarded for our loyalty, and we were wise enough to appreciate our good fortune.

But to the sorrow of the country, James Stuart had again and again proved himself unworthy of the throne he had inherited from his brother Charles II. He had silenced the voice of the people by dismissing Parliament. He had chosen to serve his own Roman faith and be guided by the Pope, to the fear and detriment of his own Anglican country, and he had vowed to make Catholicism again the state religion. He had imprisoned the Archbishop of Canturbury and other leaders of the Anglican church in the Tower, and charged them with seditious libel. Worst of all, he had replaced Protestant leaders in the government, the army, and the navy with Papist Frenchmen, letting poor England be pushed towards the greedy, grasping hands of our great enemy King Louis of France.

James’s actions left no recourse for any Englishman who cared both for his country and his faith, and so my husband and I and many others had turned to the Protestant Mary Stuart, James’ older daughter and the Princess of Orange, and her husband William for deliverance, and meant to put them on the English throne in James’s place.

Yet as I walked slowly down the stairs, I could not help but think how irrevocable each step might be. My husband and I had together agreed that this was the right course to take for our consciences, but the risk was fearsome indeed. If the rebellion failed, retribution would be swift for those who had supported it.

We would forfeit all our property and estates, and have our titles and privileges stripped from us. We would be imprisoned in the Tower until tried, and when ­­ not if ­­ we were convicted, we would be beheaded for all the world to watch. The only legacy we would leave for our little son and three daughters would be poverty and disgrace, and as for the poor innocent babe I now carried within my womb ­­ why, I could not even guarantee birth and life, or the eternal salvation of a Christian baptism.

The lieutenant waiting for me in the parlor was very young and respectful, so young he flushed like a girl when I greeted him. He wore the yellow coat of the old Duke of York’s regiment, the first with which my John had served, too.

“So what has brought you here with your men, lieutenant?” I asked, smiling. I wished to put him at his ease, the better to coax from him whatever news he might know. “I don’t believe you’ve come simply to ask after my health.”

“No, My Lady.” He took a deep breath and looked down at the floor, shying away from my gaze, the way most people do when bearing ill tidings. “My orders are to confine you here to Lord Tyrconnel’s lodgings, My Lady, and to admit no one other than your servants.”

“Am I to know the reason, lieutenant?” I asked lightly, for John had warned me to pretend as little knowledge as possible. “An officer and six of his men seem quite excessive for the care of one lone baroness.”

“No, My Lady.” At last he did raise his gaze to meet mine. “I regret that I must inform you that My Lord General Churchill has betrayed His Majesty in the most grievous manner possible. Yesterday His Lordship and His Majesty the Prince of Denmark fled to the camp of the Prince of Orange at Axminister.”

Speechless with surprise, I felt my knees weaken beneath me, and I dropped into the nearest chair. Of course I’d known that John had planned to go to William once the Prince had landed on English soil, but not so soon as this. He was supposed to have sent me word, a sign, so that the Princess Anne and I could have left London first, and placed ourselves safely with our husbands and beyond the King’s reach. But no word had come, and now I was left with soldiers to watch me close as a hungry cat at a mouse’s hole in the wainscoting.

The lieutenant hurried to my side, bending on one knee beside my chair.

“I am most sorry, My Lady, very sorry,” he said, his voice full of the hand-wringing helplessness that young men seem to feel when confronted with unhappy women. “Shall I send for your maid, My Lady?”

I shook my head, gathering my wits as well as my courage. At least I knew now that John was safe. I could take comfort in that, and I would be strong. I must be strong, for John’s sake as well as our children. “You say Lord Churchill has been denounced as a traitor. Does that mean you have come to arrest me for the sin of being his wife?”

The lieutenant hesitated. “No, My Lady. Those are not my orders.”

But the words not yet hung between us, unspoken yet understood. I would have to act as swiftly as I could.

“Might you tell me this, lieutenant?” I asked. “How many other officers and lords have gone with Lord Churchill to Axminister?”

The young man hesitated, his fingers worKing nervously over the pommel of his sword, and all the answer I needed to my question. The rebellion was succeeding, and fast. John had guessed that support would be strong in the army and in the navy, and that the great lords, too, would reject James and choose William in his place. Thank God he’d guessed right.

“They say the King means to hold fast here in London, My Lady,” the lieutenant said instead, freely giving me what I would have begged next. “They say he is on the road now, with two thousand of his most loyal troops. But as long as you remain here, My Lady, following His Majesty’s orders, you will be safe.”

Oh, yes, I was safe, I thought with grim certainty, as safe as any prisoner locked away in a cell. But what this young man said was of little consequence. My duty next was to rescue the Princess.

I drew my handkerchief from my cuff, dabbing it weakly at my temples.

“You are most kind to watch over me, lieutenant,” I whispered, making my voice faint. “These are troubled times, and I will feel much safer with you and your men here.”

He puffed out his chest beneath his green sash, the little cockerel. “No harm will come to you while we watch over you, My Lady.”

“Thank you,” I said tremulously. “I will be sure to give orders to the cook that you and your men are to have whatever they wish to fortify themselves for their duty.”

“That’s not necessary, My Lady,” he said, though I guessed he’d be the first at the kitchen table when the joint was pulled from the spit.

“Oh, but it is,” I said, my gratitude as cloying sweet as May honey. “It is . Yet I fear I must ask a small favor of you in turn. You say I am not to leave here.”

He frowned. “Those are my orders, My Lady.”

“But you see, Lieutenant, I have an appointment that must take me from this part of the palace.” I hesitated, as if from modesty. “I am with child, and I was to call upon my midwife to consult about ­­”

“You may go, My Lady,” he said hastily, his expression every bit as squeamish and discomforted as I’d expected. “You have my leave for that small freedom, but you must give your word that you’ll return.”

A half-hour later, I was hurrying across St. James’s Park towards Princess Anne’s quarters in the Cockpit at Whitehall, the oldest part of the royal palace. I took care not to draw attention to myself, wearing a plain dark cloak with the hood drawn up and my head bowed, and a scarf wrapped over my face as if against the chill November air.

I entered Whitehall not by the front hall, where there were sure to be more of the King’s soldiers, but through the apartments I kept in the Cockpit below the Princess’s, for the times when I attended her. In the summer, when the first hints of a rebellion had risen, John had urged the Princess to have a tiny back staircase constructed between our bedchambers, secret to all but us, and now I made good use of it.

“Oh, you’ve come, you’ve come!” cried the Princess as soon as she saw me at the staircase’s door. I tried to curtsey, as was fit, but she was too distraught for ceremony, and instead grabbed my hands and pulled me upright.

“My dear, have you heard?” she cried, throwing herself into my arms and blurring the difference in our ranks, as she often did with me. “The Prince and Lord Churchill have gone to William, and left us behind! Oh, God help us, whatever are we to do?”

“That’s why I’ve come, Your Highness,” I said, disentangling myself so I might look at her squarely. She was trembling, her doughy face even more pale with fear, and I spoke slowly to calm her, the way one would with a terrified child. “We will solve this together. Where are your other ladies?”

“They are in the parlor with the Queen,” she said, belatedly lowering her voice so she wouldn’t be heard. “I came here to use my closet. But what can we do? How can we get away now, with my father returning to London? I would rather throw myself from the window than have him find me here!”

Her voice broke into a sob, and I slipped my arm around her shoulder. She knew what was at stake as well as I. While her father had fallen into Romish ways, she’d been raised as good an Anglican as any woman in the country, a decision that was a long-standing torment to the King. But it wasn’t only her father’s wrath that she feared; if William succeeded in seizing the English crown, then Anne would become second in the succession after her sister Mary. She would be a great prize for each side to possess; the sooner she could be taken to safety in William’s camp, the better.

That had always been planned for me by John and the others, my special assignment, to spirit Anne away from the palace. Ah, how fast it would break the King’s heart and spirit, to see both his daughters turned against him!

“What shall we do?” Anne asked again in a helpless wail. “What will be come of us?”

“Pray listen to me, Your Majesty,” I said, my voice soft and urgent. We had known each other for so many years, since we’d been girls, that I understood the times when she needed me more as a friend than as an attendant. “You must retire to your bed early tonight, and lock your bedchamber door so no others can enter. I have already sent word to Bishop Compton, and he has promised to ­­"

“The Bishop will help us?” Her eyes lit with hope. Lord Henry Compton was not only the Bishop of London, but also Anne’s preceptor and advisor, and the cleric who had presided at her wedding to Prince George. The bishop had been forced into hiding for his criticism of the King, but I had known where to find him, and known, too, that he would risk his own life for the Princess and our cause.

“He and I and Lord Dorset, too, will return later this night for you, Your Highness,” I said, reciting our careful plan. “We’ll have a hired coach waiting on the other side of the park, near Charing Cross. I’ll come for you again myself, up the back stairs, and lead you away. Then we’ll journey to Lord Dorset’s house in Epping Forest for the night.”

“What if we meet my father’s soldiers on the road? What if we are stopped? What if ­­ “

“His Majesty is coming from the west,” I said. “If we leave with haste tonight, we should outpace them.”

She gasped with wonder. “Oh, my dear, you have it to every detail!”

“Because we cannot afford any detail to go astray, Your Majesty,” I said firmly. “You must say nothing to anyone else, not to any of your ladies or servants, and you must bring nothing with you. Our escape must look sudden, unplanned, as if you’d been carried off against your own will.”

She nodded slowly, her expression still taut with trepidation. “My father sent orders for you to be arrested for treason and taken to the Tower. I begged the Queen to stay them until tomorrow.”

Even though I’d already suspected such a order would come for me, I felt the chill of it run through me like a river of ice. When the King’s nephew the Duke of Monmouth had tried to lead an earlier rebellion and failed, James had ordered all of us at Court to watch the execution. It had taken six clumsy strikes of the axe to sever poor Monmouth’s handsome head from his body.

“You could well have saved my life, Your Highness,” I said slowly. “However can I thank you for so great a favor?”

“It was no favor to you, Lady Churchill, but to me.” Her eyes filled with tears. “How could I ever risk losing you, my dearest friend?”

I took her familiar hand in mine, her fingers heavy with her rings and her palm moist with fear.

“I risk everything for you, Your Highness,” I said softly. “We both know the dangers if we fail.”

Her mouth twisted, and I quickly offered her my own handkerchief.

“So much danger!” she cried forlornly as she pressed the handkerchief to her eyes, then buried her face against my shoulder. “Oh, so much peril for me to bear!”

I patted her plump shoulder, praying for both our sakes that tonight she’d find the strength to make good our escape. A royal Princess can be the most selfish creature alive, cosseted and protected from the cradle to her grave: what would Anne know of perils or danger? If we were captured by her father, the very worst James would do to her would be to confine her to her rooms here at the palace or hold back her allowance. For me, there’d be no mercy, and that certainty made my voice sterner than perhaps it should have been.

“Have courage, Your Highness,” I said. “We can’t be weak now. We must be brave if we are to succeed.”

She lifted her face, her cheeks flushed and wet with tears of misery and fear. “I will try,” she said contritely. “I must trust you as I always have when I’ve needed you. Now I must trust you again, for I have no other course.”

I smiled, and smoothed the lace scarf around her throat.

“You must trust me because you are my dearest friend, too, Your Highness,” I said, offering the gentle assurance she needed most to hear. “We will be brave together, you and I, and because we have right on our side, we will succeed.”