Power Play: Power, Playing Cards and the Representation of the Duchess of Marlborough’s Political Influence in early-eighteenth-century Britain

Rachel Boddy

I: Introduction 

Politics is often discussed as if it is a game, with powerful players, high stakes, risk and reward. Those very aspects are represented in a ca. 1710 set of playing cards. The cards present tales of the political turmoil of 1710-1711, notably the downfall of Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, from her position of political influence. Although the set held by the British Museum is incomplete, the cards tell the tale of the Tories’ accession to power.1 It presents the incoming Tory ministers as loyal and wise, and the outgoing Whig ministers as cunning and manipulative.2 The implication throughout is that the Whigs have run wild while in control of the running of the country. Churchill is presented as a key player amongst the Whigs. As the Queen’s favourite for many years, Churchill is generally well-understood to have had significant influence over the Queen. These cards portray the downfall of Churchill with glee.

The presence of Churchill in this set of playing cards suggests that even in her time, she was understood to be a key political figure. This article argues that even Tory political propagandists recognised that Churchill was a significant political force in society, however much they may have wished to present the opposite. In linking her expulsion with other signs of political unrest, such as the impeachment trial of Doctor Sacheverell, an incoming ministry, and rioting, the cards acknowledge Churchill’s significant contribution to the English sociopolitical world, however unintentionally.

Sarah Churchill (née Jenyns or Jennings), the Duchess of Marlborough (c.1660-1744), was commonly held to be a magnetic, if occasionally difficult woman. She lived a long life and involved herself in the affairs of the day. She joined the royal court at the age of 13 and married John Churchill at 17. Theirs was a happy marriage, though John was often overseas because of his military roles. Churchill was initially a courtier for the Duke of York (later James VII & II), in the service of Princess Anne. She supported the Princess through her father’s succession crises between 1678 and 1681.3 During the ‘Glorious Revolution’, Churchill encouraged Anne’s support of Mary, Anne’s sister, against James II & VII, their father.4 She and Anne remained close through the reign of William and Mary, and the early years of Anne’s own reign. In 1710, however, as the differences between herself and the Queen became insurmountable, Churchill was dismissed from her court positions.4 Churchill and her husband travelled in Europe for some time, before returning to England in 1714, in time for the Hanoverian accession. She assisted her husband with his correspondence and both family and business decisions until his death in 1722. The couple had seven children, five of whom survived to adulthood, and four of whom gave the Duchess grandchildren. She was very involved in the lives of her grandchildren and was particularly invested in the marriages of her granddaughters. Many of them married powerful and influential men, and thus, Churchill ensured her legacy lived on through her own political dynasty.

Elaine Chalus suggests that little work has been done on women in Augustan politics outside of court-based politics, mentioning Churchill as a prime example of the latter.6 The overall point is true and there is much work still to be done in this area. With the aim of advancing our understanding of women’s role in politics, this article argues that the presence of Churchill amongst scenes of political turmoil insinuates that contemporaries saw her as engaged in the politics of the day, both in court and beyond. Placing Churchill amongst the downfall of the Whigs embeds her firmly in party politics. In this way, this article both hopes to shed light on female political participation in the age of Anne and challenge the notion that Churchill’s influence was only that of a courtier, instead positioning her as a political advisor.

This article will first discuss some historiography before exploring the political unrest that occurred around this period. These events are portrayed alongside Churchill’s story in these cards. Understanding the events of this time will help to contextualise the importance of Churchill in these cards. The article will then investigate the seven cards that explain the tale of Churchill and her downfall to show how the cards represent Churchill as politically powerful. 

II: Historiography

Sarah Churchill has received short shrift over the years from historians. Although a more recent re-evaluation of Churchill’s character and influence has been undertaken by historians such as Ophelia Field and Frances Harris, earlier reports often portrayed her unfavourably. In the preface to his biography of the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, Stuart Reid says that despite the fact he was asked to write a biography of Churchill alone, it could not be done without significant consideration of her husband also.7 Although he mentions Churchill’s contributions to her political era as occurring only in concert with her husband, he acknowledges that those contributions were significant. Conversely, in his work on politics in the Augustan era, Geoffrey Holmes says that Churchill’s influence has been vastly over-rated, referring to it as “the myth of her power”.8 He further states that the power of the Churchills should be largely attributed to the Duke, who found his wife’s “ill-judged” attempts at gaining power “a continual embarrassment.”9

More recent works have discussed her significant involvement and influence in the political milieu. Frances Harris has shown that Churchill’s influence extended beyond the realm of the court to her campaigning in elections on behalf of the Whigs or her family interest.10 In conjunction with Clyve Jones, Harris has also explored the ways in which Churchill remained at the heart of political proceedings in the years following her husband’s death.11 Not only did she comment on the affairs of the day, but she was well connected through family, friends and an epistolary network, all of whom kept her apprised of the latest happenings, both political and social. Marcia Pointon has investigated the way that Churchill used material objects to display her power. The use of jewels that had belonged to royal or noteworthy families displayed the Churchill’s own wealth and connection to power, and the use of the Duke’s opulent Turkish-style military tent as a gathering place reminded onlookers of their connection to political and military power, as well as acting as an almost royal spectacle. These possessions symbolised the significance of her own and her family’s influence.12

In addition to her political involvement, the influence of Churchill has been explored in areas as diverse as architecture and theatre. Amy Lynn Boyington has investigated Churchill as an example of female architectural patronage, arguing that the power she held over the construction of Blenheim Palace in her husband’s absence allowed her to create a monument to his achievements.13 Judith Lewis looks at the attempts of aristocratic women to make a ‘home’ for themselves, amongst them Churchill. Lewis found that Churchill much preferred the comfortable and convenient Holywell to the grander Blenheim Palace, indicating her influence did not solely rely on the traditional trappings of wealth and power.14 Luis Gámez examined the role of Churchill in the opera Rosamond. Joseph Addison dedicated it to her after he had utilised her real life anguish over the death of her son in 1703 to inform his portrayal of Queen Elinor, and the way feminine tensions could affect English political life.15 This all suggests that Sarah Churchill was a powerhouse, influential even in areas in which she had not intended to be.

Admittedly, as scholars have shown, Churchill’s emotions could run high, occasionally making her a somewhat mercurial figure. Frances Harris mentions that Churchill could be volatile, stating that “those who suffered at her hands likened her to some elemental, destructive, and unstoppable force of nature: a hurricane, perhaps, or a volcano.”16 She further says that Churchill was always active, and she had a busy mind which she could not bear to let rest. Ophelia Field echoes this idea of Churchill as an unstoppable force, describing the flow of her writing as “a whirlpool.”17 Field’s prologue tells us that the negative portrayals of Churchill measure her against the model of ideal female behaviour, much of which Churchill only accepted when it suited her. “Even when her energy and vivacity have been admired,” Field contends, “they have also been presented as her fatal flaws.”18

These flaws are on full display in this set of cards which offer a unique perspective on Churchill’s political role and have been little discussed. Only one article references the cards specifically, and that is only to provide descriptions of the recently discovered black suits to match the descriptions of the red suits provided by the British Museum.19 Aside from this, they have been little employed for studies of the Sacheverell trial, instances of the ‘Church in Danger’, or political unrest at this time, and not investigated at all for their representation of women’s political involvement. 

Perhaps this is because these cards remain somewhat of an enigma. Although the focus of this article is on the contemporary portrayal of Churchill’s political influence, the lack of information about the cards as material objects does represent a gap in this study. In the absence of concrete information about the production, the producer or the usage of these cards, we can nevertheless discuss some possibilities. The British Museum holds other, partial copies of this set of cards. In addition to the set of 50 investigated in this article, the British Museum also holds a cut set of the spades and clubs, an uncut set of the diamonds and hearts that is split down the middle, and another uncut set of the diamonds and hearts that is in one sheet.20 The fact that some of these sets had either each card cut out, or the sheet of cards in some way divided intimates that these cards were at least intended for use, rather than intended to remain an intact curiosity. The multiple copies, incomplete though they are, suggest that the set of cards was not a unique production, and that they were, at least to some degree, mass-produced. However, that is not to suggest that their print run was large. Two of the copies made their way to the Museum via the donation of Lady Charlotte Schreiber’s collection of playing cards, implying that she at least, found them unique enough to be worthy of note.

It is possible that this set of cards may have been utilised in Jacobite circles to identify other adherents, as Tory and Jacobite sentiments became increasingly linked throughout the eighteenth century. A Jacobite might produce this set of cards when entertaining a guest after dinner. Cards and gaming were a popular pastime in the eighteenth century for all echelons of society. From the oft-discussed ‘deep-play’ of wealthy aristocrats, to more moderate games held by the middle-classes, cards were a frequent sight for many, Jacobites included. They allowed for groups to bond together and many an evening ended in pleasant challenge and conviviality.21

To an unknowing onlooker, these cards were merely a curious set depicting interesting events—a consumer culture had arisen around gaming and many varieties of card tables and playing cards, including exciting themed packs, could be purchased.22 But to a fellow Jacobite, these cards might serve as a way of acknowledging their shared beliefs.23 Jacobitism was treasonous and so Jacobites needed to call upon symbols and signs to recognise each other. Sacheverell, explored further in the next section, became one of the symbols that Jacobites used to identify each other, and that may be one reason why his story has such prominence in these cards.24 As an item produced in support of the Tories, the cards take a pro-Sacheverell view. They emphasise his many supporters, the reception from the press, and his innocence.25 This may also be a reason why the cards denigrate Churchill so strongly—she had served in the court of James II & VII before switching allegiances and supposedly betraying the Jacobite cause in its infancy. 

All four partial sets of cards held by the British Museum list the cards as being anonymously made. The lack of information about any author, artist, or propagandist means we can only guess at their attitudes. It would be fair to assume that the makers of the cards either leaned towards the Tories politically or perhaps more likely, that they were commissioned by a Tory to make this set of cards. The very political nature of their content certainly speaks to the divisive state of partisan politics. Mullin states that themed packs became available from the late seventeenth century and acted as a precursor to later eighteenth-century satirical print culture.26 As part of this satirical culture, the anonymity of the producers may have acted as a layer of protection for them. Satirical images often touched at sore spots and ensuring that this satire could not be traced directly to one person may have protected them from literal or legal harm. The anonymity of the producers may also be inherently connected to the format. Cards were made to be utilised as a social activity, rather than to be kept and admired as a work of art. Therefore, the identification of the makers of the cards was not as important as the physical item. 

The cards in question portray issues such as the Queen and her advisors, the Church, the Tories and Sacheverell, as well as civil unrest. The diamond suit (fig. 1) shows the untrustworthiness of the Whigs, the popular support that Sacheverell garnered and the supposedly wise choice of the Tories by the electors. The spades suit (fig. 2) explores the overturning of both court and MP positions in the House of Commons. It also explores aspects of Sacheverell’s trial, such as his answer to the charges and the printing of his inflammatory sermon. The suit of clubs (fig. 3) focuses more on the unrest on the streets, such as the scaffolding built for the Sacheverell trial, the struggles of common people as well as the riots and destruction that accompanied the Sacheverell trial. The hearts suit (fig. 4) focuses on the end of Sacheverell’s trial, presenting his minimal punishment as a triumph for him and his values. The hearts also show the Queen assembling her new cabinet of ministers and choosing court attendants, achieving the peak of her reign.      

Fig. 1 Anonymous, Print; Playing Card—The suit of diamonds, c.1710, Prints and Drawings, 1896,0501.922, British Museum, London.
Fig. 2 Anonymous, Print; Playing Card—The suit of spades, c.1710, Prints and Drawings, 1896,0501.922, British Museum, London.
Fig. 3 Anonymous, Print; Playing Card—The suit of clubs, c.1710, Prints and Drawings, 1896,0501.922, British Museum, London.
Fig. 4 Anonymous, Print; Playing Card—The suit of hearts, c.1710, Prints and Drawings, 1896,0501.922, British Museum, London.

III: The Duchess in Context

The power and influence of Churchill is supported in these playing cards by the other tales that are being told. Multiple stories are woven together but they ultimately tell the story of the downfall of the Whigs and the Tory ascendancy. The cards focus on key events such as the impeachment trial of Dr. Sacheverell, the subsequent riots and unrest of the ‘night of fire’, and the dramatic Tory win in the 1710 election. Exploring the political unrest of these times helps position the political importance of Churchill.

The early part of the eighteenth century is often seen as the time when party politics and rivalries rose to prominence. There had been different factions before, but these had not always been as distinct as the dichotomy of Whig vs. Tory. Some of these party tensions arose alongside the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when several prominent noblemen, who would become the head of the Whig party, invited William of Orange to England. William would take the British throne from James II & VII, his uncle and father-in-law, to become William III of England. The Tories had largely supported King James, believing that, although James was a Catholic, it was important to ensure the hereditary inheritance of the monarch. In contrast, the Whigs believed that the monarch should be part of a social contract with their people and saw James’s Catholicism as a signal that he wished to return to a more absolutist monarchy. As such, when William ascended the throne, the Bill of Rights ensured the place of Parliament and placed certain limits on the power of monarchical authority.28

Churchill had served in the retinue of James when he had been the Duke of York but described herself always as a staunch Whig. She saw the Whig party as opposing tyranny and popery, two concepts which were connected in her mind and in Whig rhetoric.29 These revolution principles were often still associated with the Whig party, and the differences fuelled the ‘rage of party’ at this time. Whigs were believed by the Tory party to seek the increased power of Parliament and the reduction of monarchical authority. Conversely, the Whigs thought the Tories looked for a return to absolutist rule, and strict religious doctrine. The connection between religion and politics was strong at this time, and the correlation between high church and Tories, and low church and Whigs still prevailed and would prevail for some time.30

A pillar of the high church at this time was the belief that the church was in danger. High churchmen preached rousing sermons that suggested England was a land of sin, that those in power were not doing enough to support the Anglican church, and that allowances made post-1688 for dissenting religions had put the nation’s faith and salvation at risk.31

Dr. Henry Sacheverell was a high church clergyman and his 1710 trial and associated events appear on half of the playing cards. He was impeached by the Government for high crimes and misdemeanours in response to a seditious sermon preached in St Paul’s Cathedral on the 5th of November. This date commemorated not only the failure of Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot in 1605, but also the arrival of William of Orange during the Glorious Revolution. As such, it was often seen by the Whigs as a day which re-affirmed the superiority of English rights and civil liberties, perhaps akin to a celebration of Whig ideals.33 Sacheverell took the opportunity to preach a sermon on ‘the perils of false brethren’ and the role they played in endangering the church and state. He challenged the legitimacy of the Glorious Revolution and the Toleration Act and alluded to high-ranking members of the ministry being amongst the false brethren who endangered the state. Sacheverell had conferred with lawyers before printing his sermon, ensuring that it was not technically seditious, but the sentiments still confronted the Whig Government.34

Although the trial of Dr. Sacheverell was ostensibly for his seditious views on religion, the motivations for the trial were primarily political.35 Sacheverell’s attacks on those in power suggested that they were undermining the true religion of England via their collusion with religious dissenters. Sacheverell conveyed clearly that he believed the church was in danger, and that the Whigs in power were to blame. Tory members capitalised on this attack on the Whigs by touting Sacheverell as a Tory icon.36 The trial was lengthy, with some speeches taking hours to enumerate a single, and often fairly minor, point.37 In spite of this, it was a massively popular spectator event. Additional scaffolding for seating was erected and Members of Parliament and others from the upper class crowded into Westminster Hall until it was full.38

Churchill was in attendance at the trial as one of Queen Anne’s ladies.39 As a staunch Whig supporter and ally, she likely revelled in what she believed would be an overwhelming re-affirmation of Whig values. In the end, Sacheverell was impeached. However, this was not perhaps the re-affirmation that Churchill had sought. Although found guilty, Sacheverell’s sentence was so light that many understood it as a token remonstrance rather than any severe punishment.40 Sacheverell was prohibited from preaching for three years. Considering that the Whigs had embarked upon this significant trial for crimes they saw as seditious and dangerous, and had intended it to stand as a public display of their political power, this outcome undermined their power more than any of Sacheverell’s sermons had done.

It did not help matters that Sacheverell had gained significant public support. The Whigs had begun the trial whilst Sacheverell was still a relatively unknown clergyman. He had gained some minor popularity for previous sermons and was known around Oxford, where he lived and worked, but had not been a major player in any religious or political circles. Many, in fact, found him difficult to deal with.41 This all changed with the trial. Sacheverell now became a household name and an unlikely hero of the people.42 Sacheverell’s coach was escorted each day to Westminster Hall by crowds of his supporters. The cards two, six and eight of diamonds (fig. 1) provide an example of this support, as Sacheverell looks out the window of his coach, surveying his fans.43 These supporters ranged from Oxford dons to butchers, bakers, and denizens of Covent Garden.

The cards also portray the period of unrest that occurred during the Sacheverell trial, sometimes referred to as the night of fire.44 The public support for Sacheverell during his trial erupted into riots and the destruction of prominent London meeting houses. The crowds turning out in support grew throughout the length of Sacheverell’s trial, and towards the end, they transitioned into violent demonstrations. Meeting houses of notable low church or dissenting preachers were torn apart and then set alight. Mobs roamed through central London, chanting “High Church and Sacheverell.”45 They continued to set bonfires, to rampage through houses, and to force passers-by to declare their allegiance to Sacheverell.46 The unrest continued unchecked for hours, before the Government called in troops. Their delayed response meant that the only troops available to them were the Queen’s own guard. Although the guards quelled the riots throughout the night, and patrolled the next day, the unrest in London did not truly die down until the trial had finished.47 The riots represented the volatility of London at this time. The political upheaval of 1710 was significant, and this was felt not only by the political elite, but by their supporters also.

The 1710 British election followed closely on the heels of Sacheverell’s trial, and the balance of Parliament and the Queen’s ministers changed significantly. The Tories won by a landslide, taking 346 seats in the House of Commons, out of a total 558.48 Although the fortunes of the Tories and Whigs had risen and fallen over time, the 1708 election had been a solid victory for the Whigs, and their star seemed still to be on the rise. The 1710 election ended that ascendancy in favour of a powerful Tory party, and some sources attribute that, in part, to the Sacheverell trial.49 Many of the cards emphasise the joy of voters who changed their votes from Whig to Tory, or portray Tories as “Loyal members that deserve [the voter’s] choice.”50They also emphasise the departure of the Whigs as a rightful result, suggesting that they had not governed with care.51

The cards portray multiple instances of political unrest to display the volatile political situation in 1710. As the next section will demonstrate, these cards present Churchill as a significant figure within this political milieu. This is further supported by the other events shown in the cards. Placing Churchill amongst the turmoil of Tory v. Whig tensions, the Sacheverell trial, the belief that the church was in danger and the night of fire riots emphasises the importance of Churchill as a political figure in these turbulent times.

IV: The Duchess in the Playing Cards

The author of the cards displays Churchill’s power in a number of ways. The overall portrayal of Churchill is intended to be a negative one, suggesting that she was both feared and abhorred by those who opposed her. In spite of this, the implication is that Churchill was a powerhouse in the political milieu of the day. Looked at as a whole, the playing cards portray the downfall of the Whigs, via events such as the Sacheverell trial and Churchill’s dismissal from Court. These cards contend that an equally important factor in the Whig’s ruin was Churchill’s removal. The author of the cards suggests that Churchill’s downfall as the Queen’s favourite was not just that of a preferred lady in waiting, but the fall of a trusted political advisor, speaking not only to her significant political involvement but also to the fear with which Tories viewed her.

The story of Churchill’s split from Queen Anne is told through seven cards. The ace of diamonds (fig. 1) shows the incoming ministers presenting themselves to the Queen, the two of spades (fig. 2) portrays the Queen discovering Churchill’s ‘true’ nature and the subsequent three of spades (fig. 2) conveys the immediate consequences of this, while Churchill’s anger is presented in the queen of spades (fig. 2). Neither the six, ten nor queen of hearts (fig. 4) portray Churchill visually, but they nevertheless round out her story. The court positions of Churchill are given to someone else, and the Queen is portrayed as having more choice than ever before as she comes into the zenith of her power.

The ace of diamonds (fig.1) initiates Churchill’s story. Although she does not appear, the incoming ministers are presented as obedient and mannerly, as they bow before the Queen, and look around in awe. In the cards, these ministers are here solely to serve the Queen. They are not there for their own gain; they are there to do the hard work of governing. This is made clear by the contrast with the departing ministers, standing in a doorway in the background, presumably exiting. They look chastened, as if they have recently been scolded. The caption supports this visual comparison between the two parties, stating that her new cabinet will “act with more Obedience than Her old.”52 This suggests that the outgoing Whigs are disobedient, and that they cannot be ruled over by anyone. Although Churchill is not pictured, she is implicated amongst the ministers by later cards, which position her as a political advisor. There is also a parallel with later cards which emphasise her departure and her disobedience. The emphasis on this disobedience is intended to show that the Whigs undermined the role of the Queen as head of state. They are not just ineffective, they are politically dangerous.

The Duke of Marlborough may number amongst one of the outgoing ministers in the ace of diamonds but none of these figures are distinct enough to assign specific names to them. Holmes says that it was the Duke of Marlborough’s military power (and Godolphin’s financing of it), rather than Churchill’s friendship with the Queen that allowed for the couple to wield significant influence over the Queen.53 As a result, the downfall of the Churchills came when Queen Anne sought peace in Europe and therefore had no further use for the Duke. The period of 1710 to 1711 marked a split between the Queen and both the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. As one side of the duumvir that had guided Anne since her reign had begun, theoretically the Duke’s split should also have figured amongst these scenes of political turmoil. Instead, his own split from the Queen is largely absent. A figure on the ten of spades card (fig. 2), the “Militia-Captain”, may be the Duke of Marlborough. Here he swaggers forth, ignoring the scenes of riot and unrest around him, but no allusion is made to his departure from the Queen’s service.54 This suggests that, at the time, Churchill’s influence was seen to be as important as the Duke’s, if not more. Her split from the Queen certainly takes up more space than does that of her husband.

The two of spades (fig. 2) introduces Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough to us properly for the first time. The image uses religious elements to make its point. Churchill’s face reveals that her actions have malevolent intent, as she reaches out as though to grab or otherwise lay hands on the Queen. An angel reaches down from the clouds literally to pull back the curtain. The cards imply that some sort of divine intervention was needed for the Queen to see the reality of Churchill’s actions towards her. The caption further supports this allusion, by stating that an angel has allowed the Queen to discover the truth which Churchill “would hide.”55 The caption combined with the image presents the audience with a power-hungry Churchill, who has relied upon Queen Anne remaining ignorant of her manipulations to obtain this power. The card represents a thwarted Churchill as the Queen realises that Churchill has been pulling the strings for too long.

Here, the card’s maker tries to present Churchill as being in opposition to ‘true’ religion. As Sacheverell’s trial would affirm, the connection between the Tory party and the belief in high church rituals as ‘saving’ the church was strong at this time and the set of cards attempts to emphasise this connection.56 The angel in the cards has been sent to reveal the duplicitous ways of Churchill to both the Queen, and to the viewers of the cards. The audience is supposed to understand that the angel’s revelation of Churchill’s true nature puts her on the opposite side to the Church. In doing this, the card’s maker allies themselves with the ‘true’ religion of England—high church Anglicanism. By connecting political party and national religion, the cards reaffirm the superiority of the Tories, and point out the moral failings of those who oppose them politically. Churchill is here portrayed as the key figure of this opposition. By placing the Queen and the angel on the same side of the page, we are supposed to see them as connected, whilst Churchill on the other side is intended to be the lowly opposite of the Queen and the angel and their shared heavenly nature. Although metaphorical, the use of the divine in the two of spades to reveal Churchill’s true nature suggests, perhaps unintentionally, that her power and influence was amongst the greatest in the land. Her influence could only be revealed by the intervention of angelic forces.

The three of spades (fig. 2) represents the consequences of Churchill’s over-bearing and manipulative behaviour. Churchill looks belligerent, screwing up her face in disdain as she thrusts a key into the hand of one of the Tory ministers. The key represented her role within Anne’s court and household—it opened doors throughout the palace including the Queen’s bedchamber. ‘Backstairs access’ to the Queen was an important means of gaining private time to discuss political or social issues with the Queen.57 The key symbolised both her own access to the Queen, and her ability to control that access for others.58 This card portrays Churchill’s humiliation as her important roles and access to the Queen are taken from her. It is equally supposed to represent a new freedom of choice and governance for the Queen, who now “breathes an Air that’s free” from overbearing counsellors.59 This indicates, however, that the influence of Churchill was not merely that of a lady-in-waiting, but that of a trusted political advisor.

The queen of spades (fig. 2) presents Churchill as submitting to a whim of temper, as she throws the contents of a bowl all over Abigail Masham. Churchill was known to be temperamental, expressing her frustration freely. The card’s maker suggests that Churchill has enough sense to keep “from insulting a too bountious [sic] Queen,” instead targeting Masham in her place.60 As the Queen’s new favourite, Mrs Masham essentially replaced Churchill. In portraying Churchill and Mrs Masham as engaged in a petty ‘catfight’, this card places the concerns of Churchill on a lower level than ‘proper’ politics. She is surrounded by women, as she harasses another, all to display how women degrade politics through their involvement. The petty fight between Churchill and Abigail Masham is intended to look small to tell the viewers that women are unsuitable for the higher echelons of political power.

Although she is engaged in political matters, the card is also supposed to show the audience the ways in which the Duchess has failed as a woman. The card’s maker begins all the stories in the cards with the ace of diamonds by depicting the Whig ministers departing from the queen’s presence. In using this event as a jumping off point for the many tales that are woven together, the tale of Churchill is connected with that of the departed Whig Members of Parliament. Through this connection with these formerly powerful men, the images on the cards attempt to give the impression that although Churchill is powerful, in wielding this power she makes herself unfeminine. This is reiterated in the queen of spades. The author of the cards attempts to show how her involvement in politics has de-sexed her and made her into a fearsome creature, portrayed here in a violent rage.61 Churchill was opinionated and did not fear telling Queen Anne exactly what she thought, even though she risked her own position. The card’s maker attempts to show this, not as evidence of Churchill’s forthrightness, but as evidence that her access to political power had ruined her femininity.

Expected modes of behaviour for women at this time, although often rooted in fantasy rather than reality, dictated that women should express “quiet subservience” rather than asserting their opinions.62The almost unseemly anger of Churchill does not marry up with these ideals. She screws up her face at members of the Tory party and throws what seems to be a bowl of water over her successor. This anger and the expression of it ran counter to the delicacy of feeling women were expected to have.63 Although it is well documented that women throughout the eighteenth century were involved in politics in a variety of ways, this was also a time of debate around distinct roles for the genders.64 Many political opportunities for women at this time allowed them to emphasise these expected gender roles. Any political influence gained through family connections, marriage, or attendance on the monarch allowed women to exhibit their virtuous deference, while also engaging in political issues and decisions.65 In this card, Churchill does not adhere to any of these modes of feminine political engagement nor modes of feminine behaviour. Her coarse anger at the loss of her influence and her roles is intended to display to the reader both her unsuitability for political life and her lack of traditional femininity.66

Churchill acknowledged that her political power rested on her gender, saying that “tho’ a woman” she had given as much to politics and the people as she was able.67 Despite this, Churchill is contrasted with the ladies behind her in the queen of spades.68 The women have pale faces, round with shock, while Churchill’s anger is vividly drawn. Although the comparison with other women is intended to portray Churchill as betraying her sex by seeking influence that should be beyond her grasp as a woman, it serves another purpose. The ladies who fill out the scenes which tell Churchill’s story also serve as a guide for the appropriate reaction to her behaviour. These women are intended to exhibit the way Churchill has transgressed boundaries and guide the audience to react with shock or disdain.

To show us that these background ladies are model specimens of womanhood, the emphasis is on their delicate and modest reaction.69 The ladies appear as a monolith: they are all drawn the same and there seems to be little difference between them. Churchill is portrayed as a harridan as the very opposite of this ideal of feminine—she is by no means passive. In this the cards reinforce that Churchill was a unique woman. The absence of passivity in representations of Churchill emphasise that her contemporaries understood her as an active political player. The cards portray Churchill as unfeminine in her pursuits, ignoring strictures around acceptable female behaviour, yet in doing so they reinforce our understanding of her as powerful. Other women pale in comparison to the power and influence of the Duchess, even in her anger.

From here, Churchill does not appear again in person. Nevertheless, her presence remains. In the six of hearts (fig. 4), the Queen gifts the prestigious roles once held by Churchill to another. Even in her visual absence, she is referenced textually: “Upon her knees fam’d Somerset receives, An Office which another D—ss leaves.”70 The belligerent and entitled presentation of Churchill in prior playing cards is supposed to contrast here with the Duchess of Somerset. The Duchess of Somerset receives the key from Queen Anne in a low curtsey, almost on her knees, expressing her deep gratitude for the honour granted to her. She is shown to be lower than the Queen, as a contrast to Churchill, who was portrayed in the two of spades to be on the same level as Anne, perhaps presented as believing herself to be the Queen’s equal. The intended meaning is that the Duchess of Somerset behaves correctly. The implication, however, is that her lower positioning and greater deference also equate to less power than that held by Churchill.

As prestigious positions are passed to the Duchess of Somerset, and she prostrates herself in gratitude, the caption still points to another Duchess. The caption gives the impression that Churchill has become the embodiment of these roles. This was not the only time that satirists had identified Churchill by her roles. In satirical works such as Delarivier Manley’s New Atalantis, the character who is supposed to represent Churchill has the positions as Groom of the Stole and First Lady of the Bedchamber— Churchill’s own roles.71 The audience would have understood from this clue that this character satirised Churchill, showing that the prominent positions were associated with her. The cards further emphasise that these positions are connected with Churchill, whether or not she still inhabited them. Although she is absent visually from the six of hearts, she is still the focus of the tale—she is not just a banished attendant to the Queen but a deposed political advisor. Although these scenes propose that things are better now that Churchill has departed, they underline the impact she had.

The last two cards that close out this tale insinuate that Churchill was holding the Queen back. The ten of hearts (fig. 4) represents the Queen benevolently reaching out to those around her. Her “troubles ease” and she “Chuses Such Attendants as She pleases.”72 This suggests that now she is free of the Duchess’s supposedly pernicious influence and has the freedom to choose those who attend her, both female positions and male ministers. In addition to this, she takes back rightful control over governance, implying Churchill previously held at least some of this control for her. As part of this new freedom in the absence of Churchill, the queen of hearts (fig. 4) portrays Anne rising to her full potential as Queen and ruler of the nation.73 She is surrounded by symbols of her position. She holds the orb and sceptre, she wears a crown, and she stands in front of a throne, backed by the standard of Great Britain. She is also surrounded solely by men. This is placed in contrast to the queen of spades (fig. 2), where the squabble between Churchill and Mrs Masham is presented as petty and beneath politics. This negative portrayal seeks to undermine any lingering influence Churchill may have left, while also attempting to deter any other women who may attempt to take her place in politics. Contemporaries saw women’s involvement in the political world as a sign of weakness in government, and sought to discredit it, hence the negative representations of Churchill, and the positive portrayal of Anne’s reign when she is surrounded only by male advisors.74 This reiterates, once again, that politics is a man’s business. The Queen may be the exception to the rule, but no other female influence is acceptable in this vision of the zenith of Anne’s reign.

In portraying the downfall of Churchill and the Queen’s subsequent freedom, the cards further suggest that at her peak, Churchill even over-ruled the Queen herself. The implication that Queen Anne came into her true potential as monarch only after Churchill had departed begs the question as to who was wielding that power prior to this event. Anne had been Queen since 1702, and in the years following, Churchill had been close by her side. They had been friends for years and spoke of each other in the most affectionate of terms. They even had nicknames for each other, with the Queen calling Churchill ‘Mrs Freeman’ and Churchill calling the Queen ‘Mrs Morley’.75 The producer responsible for the cards proffers the idea that the friendship between the two women had all been some sort of plot by the Duchess. Through this friendship she could wield the power that should rightfully belong to Queen Anne, overruling her voice.

If the Queen only came into her full powers with the Tory accession, as the cards show, then placing blame on Churchill for any prior and unfavourable decisions implies that these were not the Queen’s true feelings on the matter. Although Churchill, as one of Anne’s closest friends and unofficial advisors, held significant sway over the Queen, Anne was also known for her stubborn nature and refusal to entertain the presence or ideas of those whom she felt pushed the boundaries of their positions.76 The Queen’s natural inclination leaned towards the Tory party but her advisors in the earlier part of her reign had led her towards a more mixed, coalition style approach.77 This meant that she had had both Whig and Tory ministers, and consequently that ministers from both parties had fallen out of favour or even been dismissed. Perhaps, in order to portray the Queen as allying more strongly with the Tory faction, the card’s maker wished to present any of her previous decisions which did not favour the Tories as being made under the influence of the pro-Whig Churchill.

The tale of Churchill told through these cards does not present her in the best light. She is portrayed as belligerent, grasping, and controlling. She physically and verbally harasses another member of the court. Even in her absence, the focus in the cards is on the ways in which the departure of Churchill allows for a more prosperous reign for Anne and a better Parliament and court for others. Churchill is not only presented as a generally unpleasant character, she is also presented as undermining the monarchy and thus, as is alluded to in the queen of hearts card, the stability of Britain itself. The cards attempt to portray Churchill as being ejected from the political world. Instead of portraying her failure to take a place in politics, the cards instead reinforce just how important she was in that world. Her influence over the Queen was depicted as strong enough to require divine intervention for the Queen to see reason. The Queen’s apparent new ability to choose her own attendants in a later card suggests that this was an aspect controlled by Churchill previously. Even though the influence of Churchill was supposed to be negative, it was also portrayed as powerful.

V: Conclusion

The story of Churchill’s downfall is told throughout this ca. 1711 set of cards. As a piece of Tory propaganda, Churchill is portrayed negatively, as a shrewish woman who exerts undue influence over the political process of the day through her connection with the Queen. The departure of Churchill is presented as allowing the Queen finally to realise her true potential once she had been released from the influence of the Duchess. Churchill is shown to be angry, and obstructive to politics. But in spite of this negative portrayal, the overwhelming message from these cards is that Churchill had political power, and that the Tories viewed her as an integral part of their opposition. The story of her downfall is discussed alongside other instances of political unrest and upheaval. The Sacheverell trial was an embarrassment for the Whig Government, as they felt Sacheverell’s sermons undermined their influence. The riots in support of Sacheverell spoke to the volatility of the political situation and the popular unrest. These both contributed to the rise of the Tories and fall of the Whigs in Parliament and amongst the Queen’s advisors. The story of Churchill’s fall from power is woven into these stories that speak to the political upheaval of the day. Her Tory contemporaries clearly considered her to be integral to the Whig party, and they implicate her amongst the tumultuous events. The place of Sarah Churchill in these cards and within these events cements the powerful role she held in the Augustan political world.


1. The set of cards has 50 out of 52 standard cards, missing the five of spades and ten of clubs. Anonymous, Print; Playing Card, c.1710, Prints and Drawings, 1896,0501.922, British Museum, London. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1896-0501-922.

2. The Tories and Whigs were the two political parties in England at this time.

3. Ophelia Field, The Favourite: Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, revised (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2018), 28–30.

4. Ibid, 54-59.

5. Ibid, 269-291.

6. Elaine Chalus, ‘“Ladies Are Often Very Good Scaffoldings”: Women and Politics in the Age of Anne’, Parliamentary History 28, no. 1 (February 2009): 150–152.

7. Stuart J. Reid, John and Sarah: Duke and Duchess of Marlborough 1660–1744 (London: John Murray, 1915), ix–x.

8. Geoffrey Holmes, British Politics in the Age of Anne, revised (London: The Hambledon Press, 1987), 211.

9. Ibid, 211-212.

10. Frances Harris, ‘The Electioneering of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough’, Parliamentary History 2, no. 1 (1983): 71–92.

11. Clyve Jones and Frances Harris, ‘“A Question … Carried by Bishops, Pensioners, Place-Men, Idiots”: Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough and the Lords’ Division over the Spanish Convention, 1 March 1739’, Parliamentary History 11, no. 2 (1992): 254–77.

12. Marcia Pointon, ‘Material Manoeuvres: Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough and the Power of Artefacts’, Art History 32, no. 3 (2009): 485–515.

13. Amy Boyington, ‘Maids, Wives and Widows: Female Architectural Patronage in Eighteenth-Century Britain’ (PhD Thesis, University of Cambridge, 2018), https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.18372.

14. Judith S. Lewis, ‘When a House Is Not a Home: Elite English Women and the Eighteenth-Century Country House’, The Journal of British Studies 48, no. 2 (April 2009): 336–63.

15. Luis R. Gámez, ‘Mocking the Meat It Feeds On: Representing Sarah Churchill’s Hystericks in Addison’s “Rosamond”’, Comparative Drama 29, no. 2 (Summer 1995): 270–85.

16. Frances Harris, A Passion for Government: The Life of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 5.

17. Field, The Favourite, 2.

18. Ibid, 4.

19. William Frazer, ‘Description of a Series of Playing Cards Relating to the Political History of Rev. Dr. Sacheverell in the Reign of Queen Anne’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Polite Literature and Antiquities 2 (1879): 359–63.

20. Anonymous, print; satirical print; playing-card, c.1710, Prints and Drawings, 1902,1212.6-11, British Museum, London, https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1902-0212-6-11; Anonymous, print; playing-card, 1711, Prints and Drawings, 1896,0501.1351, British Museum, London, https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1896-0501-1351; Anonymous, print; satirical print; playing-card, 1711, Prints and Drawings, 1868,0808.3441, British Museum, London, https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1868-0808-3441.

21. Janet E. Mullin, ‘“We Had Carding”: Hospitable Card Play and Polite Domestic Sociability among the Middling Sort in Eighteenth-Century England’, Journal of Social History 42, no. 4 (2009): 989–1008.

22. Janet E. Mullin, ‘Cards on the Table: The Middling Sort as Suppliers and Consumers of English Leisure Culture in the Eighteenth Century’, Canadian Journal of History 45, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 2012): 62–67.

23. Murray Pittock, ‘Treacherous Objects: Towards a Theory of Jacobite Material Culture’, Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 34, no. 1 (2011): 39–63.

24. Brian Cowan, ‘Doctor Sacheverell and the Politics of Celebrity in Post-Revolutionary Britain’, in Intimacy and Celebrity in Eighteenth-Century Literary Culture: Public Interiors, ed. Emrys D. Jones and Victoria Joule (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2018), 115, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-76902-8_6.

25. For examples relating to supporters see Playing Cards, two, six, eight, and nine of hearts and five of diamonds; for the press see the seven and jack of spades; and for his innocence see the six and eight of spades, the eight of clubs, and the ace, three, four and king of hearts, BM.

26. Mullin, 64, 66.

27. J. P. Kenyon, Revolution Principles: The Politics of Party 1689–1720 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 11–16.

28. David Lieberman, ‘The Mixed Constitution and the Common Law’, in The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Political Thought, ed. Mark Goldie and Robert Wokler, The Cambridge History of Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 320–321.

29. Field, The Favourite, 28–30.

30. Mark Knights, Representation and Misrepresentation in Later Stuart Britain: Partisanship and Political Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 24–25.

31. Alex W. Barber, ‘Censorship, Salvation and the Preaching of Francis Higgins: A Reconsideration of High Church Politics and Theology in the Early 18th Century’, Parliamentary History 33, no. 1 (2014): 126–129, https://doi.org/10.1111/1750-0206.12092.

32. Ibid, 121.

33. Nicola Parsons, Reading Gossip in Early Eighteenth-Century England (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 72.

34. Ibid, 73.

35. Cowan, ‘Doctor Sacheverell and the Politics of Celebrity’, 113.

36. Ibid, 112-113, 115.

37. Geoffrey Holmes, The Trial of Doctor Sacheverell (London: Eyre Metheun, 1973), 134–135.

38. Ibid, 117-122.

39. Parsons, Reading Gossip, 73–74.

40. Julian Hoppit, A Land of Liberty?: England 1689–1727, The New Oxford History of England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 234.

41. Holmes, The Trial of Doctor Sacheverell, 9–14.

42. Eirwen E. C. Nicholson, ‘Sacheverell’s Harlots: Non-Resistance on Paper and in Practice’, Parliamentary History 31, no. 1 (February 2012): 69–79; Anonymous, ‘The Modern Idol or Kiss my A-se is no Swearing’, c.1709, Prints and Drawings, 1868,0808.3416, British Museum, London. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1868-0808-3416.

43. Playing Cards, two, six and eight of diamonds, BM.

44. Playing Cards, two, four, nine, Jack, Queen, King of clubs, BM.

45. Holmes, The Trial of Doctor Sacheverell, 165.

46. Holmes, 166; Parsons, Reading Gossip, 76–77.

47. Holmes, The Trial of Doctor Sacheverell, 175.

48. ‘1710 The 3rd Parliament of Great Britain’, History of Parliament Online, accessed 26 April 2021, http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1690-1715/parliament/1710.

49. ‘1708 The 2nd Parliament of Great Britain’, History of Parliament Online, accessed 26 April 2021, https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1690-1715/parliament/1708; Hoppit, A Land of Liberty?: England 1689–1727, 234.

50. Playing Cards, jack and king of diamonds, BM.

51. Playing Cards, ace of spades, king of spades, BM.

52. Playing Card, ace of diamonds, BM.

53. Holmes, British Politics in the Age of Anne, 210–211.

54. Playing card, ten of spades, BM.

55. Playing card, two of spades, BM.

56. Hoppit, A Land of Liberty?: England 1689–1727, 196.

57. Holmes, British Politics in the Age of Anne, 210–216; Parsons, Reading Gossip, 22, 65.

58. Field, The Favourite, 103.

59. Playing card, three of spades, BM.

60. Playing card, queen of spades, BM.

61. Playing card, queen of spades, BM.

62. Julian Hoppit, A Land of Liberty?: England 1689–1727, The New Oxford History of England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 76.

63. G. J. Barker-Benfield, The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 23–24.

64. Ingrid H. Tague, Women of Quality: Accepting and Contesting Ideals of Femininity in England, 1690-1760, Studies in Early Modern Cultural, Political and Social History (Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK ; Boydell Press, 2002), 2–5; Faramerz Dabhoiwala, The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution (London: Penguin Books, 2013), 181.

65. R. O. Bucholz, The Augustan Court: Queen Anne and the Decline of Court Culture (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), 103–104, 109, 149.

66. Elaine Chalus and Fiona Montgomery, ‘Women and Politics’, in Women’s History: Britain, 1700–1850, ed. Hannah Barker and Elaine Chalus (New York: Routledge, 2005), 217–218.

67. Harris, A Passion for Government, 2.

68. Wendy Frith, ‘Sex, Smallpox and Seraglios: A Monument to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’, in Femininity and Masculinity in Eighteenth-Century Art and Culture, ed. Gill Perry and Michael Rossington (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), 103.

69. Playing card, queen of spades, BM.

70. Playing card, six of hearts, BM.

71. Parsons, Reading Gossip, 62–65.

72. Playing card, ten of hearts, BM.

73. Playing card, queen of hearts, BM.

74. Chalus and Montgomery, ‘Women and Politics’, 219; Hoppit, A Land of Liberty?: England 1689–1727, 20.

75. Field, The Favourite, 144.

76. Holmes, British Politics in the Age of Anne, 195–200.

77. Holmes, British Politics in the Age of Anne, 198-199.

About the Author: Rachel Boddy is a PhD candidate and tutor in History at Victoria University of Wellington. Her current research investigates political celebrity in the long eighteenth century. She has previously worked as a research assistant on the database http://www.liverpoolmaritime.org, and for the Marsden funded project ‘Scots Law and British Colonialism’. Her previous work has looked at the politics of intimacy in Georgian Britain and agency in media, marriage and divorce in late-eighteenth-century Britain. 

N.B.: The Editors thank Paris Spies-Gans for generously sharing her time and expertise to read and review this paper.