To celebrate LGBT History month I’ve asked writers, historians and scientists to put their fingers to the keyboard and share interesting stories about queer people who now reside in our cemeteries and crematoriums.
Our latest offering comes from Sacha Coward, Community Participation Producer for the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich who today writes about the love that dare not speak its name between a member of the Royal family and aristocracy…
This Summer I have a plan to make a mini-pilgrimage. I want to start my day at Westminster Abbey and visit a small and unassuming stone marker in the chapel and then jump on the train to Oxfordshire to visit Blenheim Palace and see a rather more gaudy marble monument.
I want to to do this trip to connect the lives of two women I have become totally obsessed with over the past year. Most of all, I want to honour their love story – a love story that went wrong (very wrong), but was still powerful enough to quite literally pull down a ceiling!
To understand who the two protagonists in this story you’ll need to take a wander with me down to the Queen’s House in Greenwich. So hop on the DLR and meet me by the anchors of the National Maritime Museum. Head into the Queen’s House, past the shop selling keyrings and fancy tote bags and leave your overpriced flat-white in the undercroft. Now, step up the winding tulip staircase and you will be confronted by a huge cuboid space designed by Inigo Jones. This is the Great Hall.
Whilst your eyes are drawn to the hypnotic tiled floor beneath your feet and an incredible view down to the Thames, I want you to look up. Crane your neck up at the ceiling, and take in this heavy looking vaulted creation with 9 panels. Notice something strange?
The panels are empty, big white voids entirely absent of paintings. This absence neatly echoes a story that is equally absent from any panels or signage around the house. A story of same sex desire that links to this ceiling and deserves to be told. So here in this ‘Palace of Pleasure’ is the story of ‘Mrs Morley’ and ‘Mrs Freeman’, or as they were know to most, Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill.
Sarah was the daughter of an influential member of parliament, and part of a family with a strong desire to rise in favour and to increase its influence. (Some would have described them as keen manipulators or even machiavellian in nature, a trait definitely shared by young Sarah!) Through their uncle’s better connections, Sarah’s sister Frances was made maid of honour to the Duchess of York but after shamefully marrying a Catholic, she was forced to relinquish the title. Luckily, the family was able to save face and instead young Sarah was given the chance of being the Maid of Honour to James II second wife, Mary of Modena. During this time she came into contact with the young Princess Anne – Sarah knowing what was at stake for her family worked quickly to gain the princesses favour.
Around 1675 Sarah Churchill cemented an incredibly powerful friendship with Anne; It was said that whilst Anne was often described as shy, quiet and even drab, Sarah was the polar opposite, outspoken, vivacious and blunt. Despite Anne’s significantly higher status it was Sarah who was definitely the leader and more dominant voice of the duo. The two girls formed a fierce friendship and later a romantic attachment that would last for most of their lives.
They wrote touching letters to each other addressing each other as ‘my dearest’ and ‘my darling’ and made up pet names for each other (Anne was ‘Mrs Morley’ and Sarah went by ‘Mrs Freeman’.) Whilst such ‘romantic friendships’ between women are not entirely uncommon many commented that the relationship between these two women was ‘excessively’ close. At one point their relationship was labelled an ‘immodest passion’ and Queen Mary even asked the princess to end their relationship for fear of the gossip traveling around court.
Throughout Anne held strong, writing to Sarah that she still held the ‘most sincere and tender passion’ for her. It is clear that these were two women who loved each other. Whether or not this was truly sexual is apparently up for debate, but looking at the evidence in the letters they wrote to each other and the clear concerns of others at court I would say the chances are very likely!
Sadly, this powerful relationship soured. Anne slowly began to listen to her advisors who loathed Sarah’s influence on her and slowly Mrs Freeman’s influence waned. At the same time, the newly throned Queen Anne began to tire of Sarah’s aggressive and assertive nature making her an embarrassment at court. To make matters worse Sarah became hugely jealous when she discovered that Queen Anne had begun to spend 2 hours a day in private with a new favourite, Abigail Masham.
The culmination of this resulted in a dramatic fracture in their relationship reaching a peak when Sarah circulated defamatory songs about the Queen suggesting her relationship with women was unseemly with such titles as ‘dark deeds at night’ and ‘sweet service’! One can only imagine what a betrayal of trust this must have felt like to Anne; Sarah was basically using their own secret love against her! In the end after an extended period of tension and fighting Sarah and her husband were dismissed from court.
So why the empty ceiling panels?
The original paintings by Orazio Gentileschi created for the ceiling of the Queen’s House were gifted by Queen Anne to Sarah Churchill and now live in Marlborough House. This was during the peak of their amorous relationship and is a sign of just how strong their love was before it turned bitter. For me this is further evidence for them being much more than just two ‘gal pals’ as previous straight male historians have described them.
In the end Queen Anne (who suffered from sickness throughout her life) died in 1714 after a stroke which left her paralysed and mute. Sarah, outlived her by a further 30 years dying of old age in 1744. It is befitting that the quieter more subdued Queen Anne has a simple stone marker in Westminster Abbey, whereas Sarah’s is a large and elaborate marble construction in Blenheim Palace. There are so many stories like these throughout history, where legitimate same-sex love and passion are diminished by a limiting ‘straight until proven guilty’ perspective.
By visiting the graves of these two women I hope to celebrate queer love in all its beautiful, messy, ugly and bitter forms!