Sarah Churchill? James Agate? A. L. Rowse? Theodor Reik? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: A legend asserts that Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough wrote a passionate remark in her diary. Here are three versions:
- Today the Duke returned from the war and pleasured me twice in his top boots.
- My Lord on returning pleasured me thrice without removing his boots.
- His Lordship returned from the wars this morning, and pleasured me thrice in his top-boots!
Are any of these statements genuine? What evidence is available?
Quote Investigator: Several researchers have attempted to explore this topic, and the available evidence is weak. Sarah Churchill died in 1744, and the first citation known to QI appeared almost two hundred years later in the diaristic autobiography of English theatre critic James Agate. The fourth volume of his autobiography titled “Ego 4” was published in 1940, and it included an entry dated July 28, 1938. Agate discussed his dislike of pageants which included amateur theatrical events. He was unable to suspend his disbelief because he knew the prosaic backgrounds of the performers. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
How can those be Hengist and Horsa when we know them to be young Mr Pepper and young Mr Salt, the obliging assistants from the local grocer’s ? How can yonder stout party hope to be Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough—“His Grace returned from the wars this morning and pleasured me twice in his top-boots”—when we know her to be the vicar’s sister and quite unpleasurable?
Agate included the quotation to illustrate the sensuality of Sarah Churchill which the amateur performer was unable to embody and project. Yet, it was unclear how Agate learned of the quotation. Later citations stated that the line was from a family tradition or an oral tradition.
Perhaps there is a closely held diary or letter containing the statement, but QI has not yet seen supporting evidence for this hypothesis, and the phrasing has been highly variable.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1956 “The Early Churchills: An English Family” by historian A. L. Rowse stated that the quotation was a “verbal tradition” signaling that the author was unable to locate substantive written evidence: 2
We know by verbal tradition that on his homecomings the Duke “pleasured” his wife before ever taking off his boots.
In 1960 “Sex in Man and Woman: Its Emotional Variations” by Theodor Reik printed another instance attributed to Sarah Churchill: 3
The Duchess of Marlborough (1660-1741) told a lady friend, “Today the Duke returned from the wars and pleasured me twice in his topboots.”
In 1967 historian Iris Butler published “Rule of Three: Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, and Her Companions in Power”, and she asserted that the quotation was apocryphal: 4
John went home to Sarah from the wars, as he was often to do, and perhaps it was then that he “pleasured his wife with his boots on” as an apocryphal saying about them has it. There is no documentary evidence for this statement, which intrigues every biographer, but it reads true of a soldier’s return from battle.
In August 1967 Butler’s book was reviewed by D. G. Chandler in the periodical “History Today”. Chandler claimed that the quotation was genuine, and the excerpt below suggested that the words might have appeared in a letter from Sarah Churchill to John Churchill, but Chandler did not give a precise citation: 5
Marlborough’s private letters to his wife are tender and moving; almost all of Sarah’s replies were deliberately burnt, but one or two survive to prove that she more than reciprocated his love and devotion. There were interludes of passion as well as periods of storm. We can guess that not all Marlborough’s frustrations on campaign stemmed from fractious allies or obstructive Dutch deputies when we read of one sudden return from the wars that ‘My lord pleasured me with his boots on’ — not an apocryphal story despite Miss Butler’s understandable caution!
In 1968 “Human Aggression” by Anthony Storr included an instance: 6
One cannot fail to be reminded of the Duchess of Marlborough who noted in her diary that ‘My lord returned from the war today and pleasured me twice in his top-boots’.
In 1973 “On the Wind’s Way: The Story of an Atlantic Race” by William Snaith included another version of the quotation: 7
On the way I suffered all the mastering impatience described by the irrepressible Lady Sarah Churchill, First Duchess of Marlborough, who in her diary telling of her duke’s visit home from a long campaign wrote, “My Lord on returning pleasured me thrice without removing his boots.”
In 1983 “The Last Lion, Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932” by William Manchester printed the following: 8
When Marlborough returned from European battlefields at an advanced age, his wife Sarah proudly wrote: “Today the Duke returned from the war and pleasured me twice in his top boots.”
Quotation expert Nigel Rees including the saying in “Brewer’s Famous Quotations” in 2006. He pointed to the 1938 entry from James Agate and the 1967 book by Iris Butler. 9
In conclusion, the phrasing of this quotation is highly variable which suggests that it is apocryphal. In addition, QI has never seen a precise citation to a document in the 1700s or 1800s. The earliest currently known citation was penned in 1938 which is extremely late. On the other hand, it is conceivable that the quotation occurs in a diary entry or letter written by Sarah Churchill that has never been publicly released. Perhaps the truth will be discerned by future researchers.
Image Notes: Portrait of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough by Charles Jervas circa 1700.
(Great thanks to top researcher Fred Shapiro whose inquiry submitted to a mailing list led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to Nigel Rees who identified the 1938 citation as mentioned above. Special thanks to discussants Dan Bye, Kevin O’Kelly, Sue Kamm, John Cowan, Kerry Webb, and Steve Perisho. Additional thanks to Dan Bye for searching “The Sunday Times”.)
- 1940, Ego 4: Yet More of the Autobiography of James Agate by James Agate, Diary Date: July 28, 1938, Quote Page 13, George G. Harrap & Company, London. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1956, The Early Churchills: An English Family by A. L. Rowse, Chapter 8: John and Sarah, Quote Page 131, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1960 Copyright (1967 Fourth Printing), Sex in Man and Woman: Its Emotional Variations by Theodor Reik, Part 3: Male and Female Spectacles: A Few Side Glances, Quote Page 68, The Noonday Press: A Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1967, Rule of Three: Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, and Her Companions in Power by Iris Butler, Chapter 7: Divine Right 1685-1687, Quote Page 67, Hodder and Stoughton, London. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1967 August, History Today, Edited by Peter Quennell and Alan Hodge, Volume 17, Number 8, Section: Book Reviews, Petticoat Influence by D. G. Chandler (Book Review of The Rule of Three by Iris Butler), Start Page 557, Quote Page 557, Column 2, Published from Bracken House, London. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1968, Human Aggression by Anthony Storr, Chapter 3: Aggression in Social Structure, Quote Page 24, Atheneum, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1973 Copyright, On the Wind’s Way: The Story of an Atlantic Race by William Snaith, Chapter 18, Quote Page 216, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1983, The Last Lion, Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932 by William Manchester, Quote Page 86, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2006, Brewer’s Famous Quotations, Edited by Nigel Rees, Section Sarah Duchess of Marlborough, Page 312, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. (Verified on paper) ↩