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As the mother and wife of two of Britain’s most prominent politicians, Jennie Churchill found herself centred in the political sphere, yet her role has been widely under-appreciated. On what marks the 100th anniversary since Jennie Churchill’s death in 1921, reflecting on her political abilities and how she worked to uphold and protect her husband’s and son’s careers is appropriate to note on this poignant anniversary. With her marriage to Lord Randolph Churchill in 1874, Jennie was engulfed in the political world of mid-Victorian Britain. Despite this, on their engagement, Lord Randolph commented on how he would “enjoy a peaceful life with no particular occupation.” [R.F. Foster, Lord Randolph Churchill: A Political Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.18]. Jennie, who possessed a drive of ambition, responded “I should like you to be as ambitious as you are clever… and I am sure you would accomplish great things.” [CA, Private Correspondence, CHAR 28/92, September 26th, 1873, Accessed-30/5/2021]. It was clear from the start that the drive for Randolph’s political success originated from Jennie’s ambitions. Despite many difficulties in their marriage, their political alliance remained strong.
As much as Jennie was eager to build her husband’s career, she was keen to make a name for herself. While campaigning with Lord Randolph, Jennie participated in speeches and interviews as she expressed the policies of her husband. She became a chief organiser of Lord Randolph’s Primrose League and could be found campaigning door-to-door, as she emphasised the role of the Primrose Dames. [Foster, Lord Randolph Churchill (1998), p.132]. Despite this close working relationship, when Lord Randolph resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jennie was not notified of his resignation and only found out the next day in the newspaper. A sign that their political alliance was beginning to fragment. On Lord Randolph’s death in 1895, Jennie turned her attention to her eldest son, Winston Churchill.
As a child, it has been recognised that Churchill was widely neglected by both his parents. Lord Randolph was fixated on his career and Jennie’s active social life meant she had little time for her two sons. The vast majority of the Churchill children’s care was entrusted to their nanny, Elizabeth Everest. Despite this, even at a young age, Churchill admired his mother. In his memoirs, My Early Years, he wrote; ‘She shone for me like the evening Star. I loved her dearly but at a distance.’ [Winston Churchill, My Early Years (London: Eland Publishing, 2000), p.4.] Despite not being the maternal goddess which Churchill had longed for in his childhood, when he entered the political sphere, his mother was vital to his success as she mobilised her maternal instinct to enable her son’s venture, following in his father’s footsteps.
Jennie devoted herself to her son recognising the maturity he had gained as a result of his father’s early death. Churchill always dreamed of entering the House of Commons by his father’s side, but now it was his mother who would advise, facilitate and support his campaign. Through gaining financial support and engineering interviews with the press, Jennie actively participated in her son’s career and helped build his reputation as a young politician. She was Churchill’s confidant and advisor, the one he would turn to for consolidation. She inscribed in him a sense of destiny which he would finally achieve in 1940 when becoming Prime Minister. Churchill referred to his mother as his most “ardent ally”, recognising how he and his mother “worked together on equal terms, more like brother and sister, than mother and son.” [Churchill, My Early Years (2000), p.56.] On Churchill’s marriage to Clementine Hozier in 1908, Clementine took on a similar role to Jennie in aiding and facilitating Churchill’s career. During the Great War, and with Churchill on the frontline, both Jennie and Clementine worked at home to maintain Churchill’s standings in Britain. It can be argued that in his early political career, it was his mother who aided his introduction to the political stage, however, on his marriage in 1908, Clementine became the figure by Churchill’s side as she developed her own political abilities, proving vital to Churchill’s success during the Second World War. After the death of his mother in 1921, Churchill acknowledged that she “left no wire unpulled, no stone unturned, no cutlet uncooked.” [Andrew Roberts, Churchill: Walking with Destiny (Milton Keynes: Allen Lane, 2018), p.53.] Her devotion to her son’s political career was integral to his rise in the House of Commons and it was her support which allowed Churchill to build on his father’s legacy.
In supporting both her husband’s and son’s careers, Jennie had built a unique set of skills which proved vital in advancing her family’s position in society. She worked tirelessly to advise, support and maintain their careers; however, she was also critical of their work. In 1903, Jennie became increasingly concerned that her son would make the same mistake as his father as he continuously hammered away at military and naval extravagance. [Charles, Higham, Dark Lady: Winston Churchill’s Mother and Her World (London: Virgin Books, 2006), p.191-92.] She warned him that he would divide himself from his party and find himself in the wilderness if he continued with this policy. In many cases, Jennie, like Clementine, could recognise the dangers before Churchill as she analysed policies from the outside, understanding the mood of the electorate and the party. Despite this, Jennie never lost faith in her son’s destiny, writing to him while in the trenches, “I am a great believer of your star.” [Anne Sebba, Jennie Churchill: Winston’s American Mother (London: John Murray, 2007) p.303.]
Since her death in 1921, the memory of Jennie Churchill has been analysed by historians, with a number of biographies produced on her life. Anne Sebba, in ‘Jennie Churchill: Winston’s American Mother’, provides a fascinating account of Jennie’s early years, an aspect of the historiography neglected by others, and further examines the role Jennie played in the political sphere. Much debate still remains over Jennie’s role in Churchill’s early years and the neglect he experienced. However, what is clear is her political prowess and the abilities she possessed as an advisor to two of Britain’s most recognisable politicians.
Today the papers of Jennie Churchill are held in the Churchill Archive Centre, alongside her son's, providing a range of private correspondence and material which offers a unique insight into the life of one of Britain’s most influential advisors.
— Elliot James Clark
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