On Christmas Day my husband and I watched the movie The Gathering Storm, a biography of Winston Churchill, starring Albert Finney. It gave us an idea of what life was like for Churchill prior to him becoming Prime Minister of Great Britain and World War II and it was the first time I caught a glimpse of his wife, Clementine (played by Vanessa Redgrave).
There was a touching scene in the movie between Churchill and his wife which is reflected in the following dialogue:
Winston Churchill: Thank you.
Clemmie Churchill: For what?
Winston Churchill: For being rash enough to marry me, foolish enough to stay with me, and… for loving me in a way… I though I’d never be loved.
Apparently Clementine was greatly loved by Churchill. Who was this woman before they met? She was born in in Mayfair, London to Lady Henrietta Blanche Hozier (1852–1925), daughter of the 10th Earl of Airlie and second wife of Sir Henry Montague Hozier (1838–1907). Clementine was the second of four children (three daughters, one son).
There was much debate about her paternity as her mother was well known for sharing her “favours”. After Sir Henry found Lady Blanche with a lover in 1891, she managed to avert her husband’s suit for divorce due to his own infidelities, and thereafter the couple separated. Lady Blanche maintained that Clementine’s biological father was Capt. William George “Bay” Middleton, a noted horseman; Mary Soames, Clementine’s youngest child, believes this. However, due to Sir Henry Hozier’s reputed sterility, Clementine’s biographer concluded that all Lady Blanche’s “Hozier” children were actually fathered by her sister’s husband, Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford. He was better known as the grandfather of the famous Mitford sisters of the 1920s. Whatever her true paternity, Clementine is recorded as being the daughter of Lady Blanche and Sir Henry.
Before Winston, there were two suitors. The first was Walter Sickert, an artist who came to be a great friend of the family. Clementine met him in Dieppe where her mother relocated the family and she was deeply struck by him and thought he was the most handsome and compelling man she had ever seen. Their happy life in France was interrupted in 1899 when Kitty, Clementine’s sister became ill with typhoid fever. Clementine and her sister Nellie were sent to Scotland so that their mother could devote all of her time to caring for Kitty, who unfortunately died a year later. While in Scotland, Clementine was twice secretly engaged to Sir Sidney Peel, a British soldier, financier and Conservative politician who had fallen in love with her when she was eighteen.
Clementine’s and Churchill’s courtship was a short one. They met four years earlier and then were reacquainted during a dinner party in 1908. There was an instant attraction between them. On their first brief encounter Winston recognized Clementine’s beauty and distinction and after spending an evening in her company, he realised that here was a girl of lively intelligence and great character. After months of correspondence, Winston wrote to Clementine’s mother, Lady Blanche Hozier, requesting consent for their marriage. Here is a copy of that letter:
|My dear Lady Blanche Hozier,Clementine will be my ambassador today. I have asked her to marry me & we both ask you to give your consent & your blessing. You have known my family for so many years that there is no need to say vy much in this letter. I am not rich nor powerfully established, but your daughter loves me & with that love I feel strong enough to assume this great & sacred responsibility; & I think I can make her happy & give her a station & career worthy of her beauty and her virtues.Marlborough is vy much in hopes that you will be able to come down here today & he is telegraphing to you this morning. That would indeed be vy charming & I am sure Clementine will persuade you.With sincere affection
The couple married On 12 September 1908, at St. Margaret’s, Westminster. Winston was ten years older than his bride and already a seasoned Parliamentarian. They had five children. Only one survived–their daughter Mary Soames and author of the books Winston Churchill, Winston and Clementine and A Daughter’s Tale. Mary is still alive today. Her parents were married for fifty-seven years and theirs was a close and affectionate marriage in spite of the stresses of a public life.
After her marriage and during World War I, Clementine organised canteens for munitions workers on behalf of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in the North East Metropolitan Area of London. During World War II she was Chairman of the Red Cross Aid to Russia Fund, the President of the Young Women’s Christian Association War Time Appeal and the Chairman of Fulmer Chase Maternity Hospital for Wives of Junior Officers. The hospital in Harrow, Middlesex is named after her.
In 1946, a year after the second World War ended she was appointed a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire, becoming Dame Clementine Churchill GBE. Later, she was awarded honorary degrees by the University of Glasgow and the University of Oxford and later, in 1976, by the University of Bristol. In May 1965, she was created a life peer as Baroness Spencer-Churchill, of Chartwell in the County of Kent. She sat as a cross-bencher, but her growing deafness precluded her taking a regular part in parliamentary life.
Clementine became a widow on 24 January 1965 when Winston died at the age of 90. She outlived him by almost thirteen years. During her final years she sent five paintings of her husband to be auctioned due to inflation and rising expenses. The sale went well. It was later discovered that she destroyed the famous Graham Sutherland portrait of her husband two years after it was finished in 1954 because the couple hated it.
On 12 December 1977 at the age of 92, Lady Spencer-Churchill died in Princes Gate, Knightsbridge, London of a heart attack and was buried with husband and deceased children with the exception of Marigold.
As the wife of a politician who often took controversial stands, Clementine was used to being snubbed and treated rudely by the wives of other politicians. However, she had to draw the line somewhere and it happened when she was travelling with Lord Moyne and his guests. They were listening to a BBC broadcast in which the speaker who was a pro-appeasement politician criticised Winston by name. One of Lord Moyne’s guests, Lady Broughton said, “hear, hear” at the criticism of Winston. Clementine waited for her to offer a conciliatory word but none was forthcoming. The offended Mrs. Churchill stormed off to her cabin and wrote a note to her host, Lord Moyne before packing her bags. Lady Broughton came and begged Clementine to stay, but she refused to accept any apologies for the insult to her husband. She went ashore and sailed for home the next morning.
Notes to Women celebrate the woman whose character, intelligence, and good looks won the attention of the impetuous Winston Churchill. She was a devoted wife and fiercely protective of her husband. She stood by her man. Theirs was a solid marriage which spanned many of the major events of the twentieth century.
An excerpt from a love letter written by Winston Churchill to his wife is a testimony of just how much of an important role she played in his life and how true it is that “behind every great man there is a great woman”.
My darling Clemmie,
… you wrote some words very dear to me, about my having enriched your life. I cannot tell you what pleasure this gave me, because I always feel so overwhelmingly in your debt, if there can be accounts in love… What it has been to me to live all these years in your heart and companionship no phrases can convey.
Time passes swiftly, but is it not joyous to see how great and growing is the treasure we have gathered together, amid the storms and stresses of so many eventful and, to millions, tragic and terrible years?…
With tender love from your devoted,
Sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clementine_Churchill,_Baroness_Spencer-Churchill; http://www.libraryonline.com/default.asp?pID=60; http://books.google.ca/books/about/Clementine_Churchill.html?id=EYUfAAAAIAAJ&redir_esc=y; http://www.culture24.org.uk/history%20%26%20heritage/time/art16546