Arabella Churchill is a little-known figure in English history; despite her decade-long relationship with James, Duke of York who later became King James II of England. Perhaps attentions were focused on the King at the time, King Charles II, who was James’ brother and a notorious womaniser. With King Charles flaunting his mistresses and showering them with gifts and titles, his brother James’ mistresses were not as well-known at the time and are less written about today.
Arabella Churchill was born in February 1648 to Sir Winston Churchill (from the same family line as the later Prime minister with the same name) and his wife, Elizabeth Drake. Arabella’s family, the Churchills, were devoted royalists who were rewarded for their services once King Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660. Arabella’s father, Winston, was an MP and a court historian, which brought her and her siblings into the inner circle of the royal family. Arabella, the oldest of her four surviving siblings, became a maid of honour to the Duchess of York during the restoration period when she was around seventeen years old.
Living within the household of Anne Hyde, Duchess of York, it was not long before Arabella met Anne’s husband James. James was rather upset at the time as his mistress Margaret Brooke had died suddenly. James had flaunted Margaret as his mistress and taken her to many public events – to the dismay of his wife and Margaret’s husband. John Denham, Margaret’s husband, is said to have been driven insane with anger at his wife’s affair with the Duke, and when Margaret died, rumours circulated that he had murdered her with poisoned hot chocolate! John was never charged for this due to lack of evidence, but the scandal meant that James approached relationships with future mistresses rather differently and was much more discreet.
It is said that the Duke of York fell in love with Arabella Churchill in 1665 when one day she was out hunting and fell from her horse. Arabella fell to the ground and became concussed, leaving her underwear and legs exposed, her thighs were apparently her best feature and James was immediately smitten. Unlike Margaret Brooke who was known to be one of the great beauties of the age, Arabella was described as “a tall creature, pale-faced and nothing but skin and bone” but she was said to be smart and quick-witted which James preferred to a mistress with nothing but looks. The relationship did seem to bewilder Arabella’s family, however, and they said it was a “joyful surprise that so plain a girl had attained such high preferment”.
Arabella’s hold on the Duke of York must have been based on something more than her legs and her wit as unlike James’ affairs of the past, this relationship lasted for over a decade! The pair were together for seven years of James’ marriage to Anne Hyde and were also still together when James married again after Anne’s death. Both Anne and James’ second wife Mary of Modena hated him having affairs, but somehow his relationship with Arabella persisted, maybe due to her staying out of the limelight. James did provide a home for Arabella, and her brothers did benefit from elevated stations at court, but Arabella lived mostly a quiet, domestic life and did not cause scandal.
Throughout their relationship, Arabella and James had four children together who all survived to adulthood. Their first child was Henrietta FitzJames who went on to marry Henry Waldegrave 1st Baron Waldegrave. Their second child James FitzJames, 1st Duke of Berwick went on to have a very successful military career under the leadership of his father and later King Louis XIV of France. Following James were two more children: Henry FitzJames, 1st Duke of Albemarle and another daughter named Arabella who became a nun. These four children thrived and were well-educated between England and France; this must have been very painful for both of James’ wives; Anne and Mary, who both lost many children and suffered numerous miscarriages.
After Anne Hyde had died in 1671, James married again to the Catholic Mary of Modena. This stunning young wife hated James keeping a mistress so much that she would refuse to eat and tell the priest not to hear James’ confession unless he gave up his mistresses. It was not the power of Mary of Modena; however, which destroyed the relationship between James and Arabella, it was another mistress called Catherine Sedley who had de-throned Arabella by 1678.
After the end of her relationship with James, Arabella was able to provide for herself and her children by selling the home that James had given her for a substantial sum. Arabella then married a man called Charles Godfrey in 1680; he was an army officer and politician. The pair were married for over 40 years and had three children together.
Arabella would have watched her former partner James ascend the throne as King James II and then lose his throne during the Glorious Revolution. She died aged 82 under the reign of King George II after living through the restoration of the monarchy, the Glorious Revolution, and the rise of the Hanoverians to the throne! Through her children James and Henrietta, Arabella Churchill is the ancestor of many notable family lines including the Earls Spencer, making her the eight times great-grandmother of Diana, Princess of Wales. The Dukes of Berwick and the Dukes of Alba are also descended from the children of James II and Arabella Churchill.1