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Of Love and Madness
It is well known that Winston Churchill suffered from depression, which he called his "black dog." What is less known is that his wife, Clementine Ogilvy Hozier Churchill, suffered from anxiety, had a hard time bonding with her children, wrestled at one time with depression, and experienced postpartum psychosis after giving birth to their first child.
Nevertheless, the pair stayed married for 57 years, remained faithful to one another, and—with Clementine advising Winston from behind the scenes—kept England and the allies together during the war. They encouraged their country when heroism was needed and defeated Hitler, forever changing the world map at that time. This article is a personal journey into the lives of Clementine, her husband, and their five children.
Clementine's parents, Henry Montague Hozier, 10th Earl of Airlie, and Lady Blanche Hozier, Countess of Airlie, were aristocrats of high social standing. However, their marriage was full of scandal and rumor. So abhorrent was their marriage that there were speculations that none of Lady Blanche's children were fathered by Hozier. Lady Blanche was notoriously unfaithful. She was also a flagrant gambler, and her habit took its toll on the family wealth.
When Clementine was six years old, her parents separated. According to Sonia Purnell, author of the book First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill, Clementine's childhood and the better part of her life were lived in loneliness and neglect exacerbated by the separation of her parents and the life of relative poverty that followed.
When her sister Kitty was only 16 years old, she sadly succumbed to typhoid fever. Clementine's things were hastily packed, and she was sent to live with an aunt, having no idea at all that her sister was dying.
And then there was the embarrassment of realizing she lacked the social standing to have a debut. She feared no one would come if she had one, but with the help of a wealthy aunt, her debut was held and was well attended. All of these happenings, according to Clementine's daughter, Mary Soames, caused her lifelong anxiety and the loss of her self-confidence.
Winston Spencer-Churchill, like Clementine, lived a somewhat reclusive childhood. His father, British Lord Randolph Churchill, was the son of John, the 7th Duke of Marlborough. His mother, Jennie Jerome, was American-born and the daughter of financier Leonard Jerome.
Winston's parents were cool and remote, and he spent much of his life at school. The book Jennie Churchill by Anne Seba features many letters that Winston wrote to his mother. He described his prep school as “sadistic” and pleaded to go home, or at least for his parents to visit him. Ironically, on the back of this emotional letter from her son, Jennie wrote down a list of names of people she intended to invite to a dinner party.
Winston's parents' style of parenting was cool and aloof. During his childhood, he was closest with his nanny. Later, he would always be in debt, as he tended to spend lavishly. In adulthood, he was both famous and controversial. His widely known war exploits eventually landed him in Parliament.
Winston and Clementine's Meeting and Courtship
Clementine was 19 years old when she met Winston at a dance in 1904. Churchill was 10 years older at 29. Their meeting was not a coup de foudre; by then, Winston was well known for his hair-raising escape from prison in the Second Boer War, and he was at that point a representative of parliament. Of that time, Clementine said “Winston just stared. He never uttered one word and was very gauche.”
Four years later in 1908, Clementine and Winston met again at a party. This may well have been a coup de foudre. After a few months of courtship, they married that same year. One year later in 1909, Clementine literally saved her husband's life from the whip of a militant suffragette. The attack was totally unexpected. The Churchills had just arrived in Bristol for a routine political stop when a militant suffragist abruptly whipped Winston and shoved him in the direction of a moving train. Pushing luggage aside, Clementine grabbed Winston's coattails and saved his life.
Clementine could well have been a politician in her own right if she wasn't a woman. Instead, she focused her energy on her husband's career. Winston himself admitted that his success was largely due to her influence. They remained married for 57 years.
Clementine: Let them see your true qualities, your lack of vanity.
Winston: My poor judgment and my lying will.
Clementine: Your sense of humor.
— The Darkest Hour (Film About Churchill)
Clementine's Support of Her Husband in Work and Life
Clementine fully supported Winston's candidacy as Prime Minister even though it meant risking almost everything they had. During World War I, Winston volunteered as a soldier. He did this to make amends for his horrible mistake in championing the tragedy in Gallipoli. Clementine supported him despite knowing that he might die, and she urged him to stay for as long as was necessary and not to rush back home.
Oftentimes Clementine advised Winston on political affairs, and she made it a point to be warm and friendly with his allies. She also determinedly raised his confidence during his seemingly endless rounds of depression.
Clementine's Personal Accomplishments
Considering that Clementine was dealing with her own anxiety and experienced postpartum disorder, it is pretty amazing that she managed her husband so well and was such an important factor in his road to greatness. However, Clementine was also a force to reckon with on her own. For example:
- During the First World War, she was engaged with the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), where she organized canteens for the soldiers.
- During the Second World War, she was President of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA).
- Also during the Second World War, she was Chairperson of the Red Cross.
- In 1946, the Queen made her a Dame of the British Empire.
The Churchills as Parents
Both Winston and his wife Clementine clearly changed the world in a major way. At the same time, they remained married and committed to each other despite their respective mental struggles. That didn't mean that they had a peaceful home, however. Mary, their youngest daughter, recalls, “My mother had the will and the capacity to stand up to my father, to confront him and to argue with him, and the fact that she had that capacity is more important than whether she was always right.” She adds, “I’ve always thought my father married an equal in temperament and in spirit.”
So, how were the Churchills as parents? Winston and Clementine had five children. However, Clementine's devotion to Winston's career meant that both parents spent very little time with them. It was also not uncommon at this time for parents to leave their children in the care of nannies. When their parents were home, the children often stayed in the playroom.
Purnell wrote in her book that “Clementine appears to have been constitutionally unable to deal with her children, sending them away for long periods and needing time away from the household when they were young.”
Diana was the Churchills' eldest child, born in 1909. After her birth, Clementine suffered from what may have been postpartum depression. She fled her home immediately after giving birth and had a nervous breakdown, leaving Diana in the care of a nanny.
During the Second World War, Diana joined the Women's Royal Naval Service. She was also involved in her father's election campaigns as well as the political campaigns of her brother Randolph. Diana had a number of nervous breakdowns in the early 1950s. She was treated for these episodes in many ways, including electroshock therapy.
She married twice. Her second marriage was to Duncan Sandys, a conservative politician. They married in 1935 and had three children named Julian, Duncan John, and Lucy. The marriage lasted for 25 years, but they divorced in 1960. Two years later, Duncan married Marie-Claire Schmitt. That same year, Diana legally changed her name back to Diana Churchill. In October 1963, she committed suicide via a drug overdose.
Winston hoped Randolph would be his political successor, and he indulged his son with special privileges when he was young. However, his sister Diane felt that Randolph was spoiled. Clementine was cool to her son, feeling that he was arrogant and overindulged. In Clementine's biography, it was said that “Randolph was for decades a recurrent embarrassment to both his parents.”
At Sandroyd School in Wiltshire, the headmaster reported that Randolph was “very combative.” By age 15, his headmasters said Randolph was “idle” and “boring.” Afterward, Randolph attended Eton College. He was said to be “Lazy and unsuccessful both at work and at games . . . and (was) an unpopular boy.” Because he did poorly in school, he spent much time at parties with well-connected schoolmates.
The relationship of father and son was often disagreeable, and Winston waxed and waned from spoiling his son one moment to feeling exasperated by him the next. At school, he was often the object of complaints from schoolmasters. At age 18 Randolph drank heavily, preferring double brandies.
Randolph later went to Oxford, but rather than finishing his studies, he went on a speaking tour engagement in the United States for which he was paid $12,000. His parents gave him a monthly allowance of some $500. Despite this, he ran up a debt of $2,000 from his father's friend, financier Bernard Baruch. It was only repaid after 30 years. Randolph liked living extravagantly, gambling, drinking heavily, and womanizing. He also endured bouts of suicidal ideation.
Between 1940 and 1945, Randolph served in the British Parliament as a conservative. He was also a journalist and writer. He spent the 1950s writing several books and articles. He married twice and had two children, one from each marriage. In 1964, he came down with bronchopneumonia. He also had a tumor, which was surgically removed from his lung. Although his health was deteriorating, his death in 1968 at age 57 from a heart attack came as a surprise.
Born in 1914, the second daughter of Winston and Clementine Churchill married three times but had no children. The first two marriages didn't meet her parents' approval, but the third wedding to Thomas Percy Henry Touchet-Jesson, 23rd Baron of Audley, did. Sadly, Touchet-Jesson died within one year of the marriage in 1963.
Sarah became an actress, but her flamboyant lifestyle overshadowed her acting. In her 1981 autobiography, Keep On Dancing, she writes about her work on Broadway and in London as the ''wild period'' of her life, filled with bouts of liquor and unbridled parties. She also mentions drunken public scenes and briefly staying in Holloway Prison.
All this was in between Broadway and London stages, three marriages, and nine films (including one where she played the romantic interest of Fred Astaire). She also had her own television show. In 1961, she played Rosalind in the Shakespeare play, As You Like It. Winston Churchill attended the program. At one point he was clearly seen in the front row sleeping.
Sarah's friends felt that she had a self-destructive streak. Her drinking led to a decline in her acting career. In 1982, she died due to illness at the age of 67.
Marigold was born in 1918 four days after World War I ended. She died at the age of two years and nine months from a disease that affected her immune system. Her death traumatized her parents and made them decide to change their style of parenting.
Mary Churchill describes her childhood as “idyllic.” In their home, Chartwell, Mary domesticated fox cubs, raised lambs, and played in a house of bricks that her father built. Charlie Chaplin impersonated Napoleon to her great amusement, and T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) wore princely robes from Arabia that amazed her. At one family party, Noel Coward sang "Mad Dogs and Englishmen."
Mary wed Christopher Soames (later Ambassador Soames), and together they had four children. She was determined to be a mother first rather than a political wife. After a long illness, the Ambassador died in 1987.
Mary was the recipient of many honorary doctorates and fellowships. In 2005, she became Lady Companion of the Order of the Garter. Mary is the only Churchill child who did not live through tragedy and scandal. As Lady Soames, she died in 2014 at the age of 91, outliving her older siblings by decades.
Clementine and Winston's marriage was full of love and madness. But what if it never happened? Perhaps Britain would have in 1940 reached a convenient agreement with Hitler, which would have rearranged the map of the world. Instead, under Churchill's leadership, Britain stood up to Hitler and many Allies came to join them, particularly the United States and Russia.
Clementine had a way of handling Churchill's self-destructive qualities, and many of his decisions and actions were based on her advice. Churchill, who was faithful in his marriage, told Roosevelt, who was not, “I tell Clemmie everything.” After the war, Winston and Clementine were very much icons of their time.
In 1965, Winston had a stroke and survived but was felled by a second stroke soon after. He died later that same year. Clementine died in 1977 from a heart attack. I'd like to end this article with a few quotes from Winston Churchill about Clementine.
Churchill's Thoughts on Clementine, Love, and Marriage
- “My most brilliant achievement was my ability to be able to persuade my wife to marry me.” —Winston Churchill
- “My wife and I tried to breakfast together, but we had to stop or our marriage would have been wrecked.” —Winston Churchill
- “Immature love says, I love you because I need you, mature love says, I need you because I love you.” —Winston Churchill
Resources and Further Reading
- An Interview with Mary Soames
- Churchill, Clementine (1885–1977)
- Clementine Churchill: Behind Every Great Man Is a Great Woman
- First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill
- Marigold Churchill
- Meet the Woman Behind Winston Churchill
- Winston Churchill’s Love-Hungry Childhood
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on February 05, 2020:
Thank you very much, Mr. JC Scull. You may be a man of few words, but each word has left me feeling very happy indeed, at a time when I needed it. My heart is dancing!
JC Scull from Gainesville, Florida on February 03, 2020:
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on December 28, 2019:
Thank you for your kind words, MG Singh:). Thank you very much for lending your precious time to read this article.
MG Singh emge from Singapore on December 28, 2019:
What a lovely article. I was simply engrossed with its wide range and coverage of one of the greatest leaders of the last century.
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on December 27, 2019:
Thank you very much for your kind comment, Umesh. I'm grateful for the precious time you took to read this article. Regards:)
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on December 17, 2019:
Very detailed and well researched article. Enjoyed thoroughly. Thanks.
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on September 12, 2019:
I never knew there was a movie about Churchill. I will definitely look it up. Thank you so much, Devika;0
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on September 12, 2019:
Thank you Jo. yes,their was less than ideal. but they defeated Hitler despite their mental disorders. As a mother I tend to wonder if it was worth it. But one must consider the greater good.What a hard choice that must have been to make.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on September 12, 2019:
I watched the movie Churchill and the couple certainly had health issues. Informative and helpful with the history of the couple's marriage and you enlightened me on more of what I had no idea of.
Jo Miller from Tennessee on September 12, 2019:
Very interesting, Mona. Many of these items about their life I'd heard, but you presented a lot of facts I had not heard. Their family life did seem to be less than ideal.
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on September 09, 2019:
Thank you Rochelle for the visit and your kind words.I'm thankful that you enjoyed reading this. Have a wonderful day1
Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on September 09, 2019:
The facts of Winston's public life are pretty well known. I knew almost nothing about his family. You made a good presentation of his personal life. I enjoyed reading it.
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on September 09, 2019:
Dear Ms. Dora how lovely to hear from you again! It really is a puzzlement how the Churchills weathered the tragic lives of all their children. It took them four tragedies to learn their lesson as parents.
Dear Mr. Bill, as always thank you for your kind words. True, their personal lives are so different. But I agree with you, Churchill was a hero in a time when Europe needed one.
Dear Eric, thank you for your kind words about my writing style. Didn't realize it, but yah, the "what ifs" does give you pause to think.
Flourish Anyway I agree with you. Their parenting style was not good, and they learned their lessons very late in the day.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on September 06, 2019:
Thanks for this revealing view of the private life of the Churchill family. How on earth did they survive all those disappointments in their children's lives? Mary seemed to get all the blessing. Still Winston Churchill stands tall on the list of British politicians.
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on September 05, 2019:
Hi Besarian, thank you for noting the error in the date of Clementine's death. It turns out, my math was wrong in saying that she died two years after her husband died. Very grateful that you pointed that out. I also agree that wives of historical figures don't get as much credit as they deserve. Maybe it's because women then were still fighting for their rights. They didn't even have the vote at that time. As for the way they raised their children, I agree that it was pretty much the way children were raised at that time for people of their social station. Thank you for visiting and reading this article:)
Besarien from South Florida on September 05, 2019:
Nice hub! I agree that Clementine, like many wives of important historical figures, doesn't get nearly enough credit. As far as how they were raised and how they raised their children, I think they were fairly ordinary for people of their time, place, and social station. There is a small typo regarding Clementine's death date.
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 05, 2019:
He was a remarkable human being, one of the great historical figures, but it was interesting to learn more about him as a husband and father. Well done, Mona, a great read!
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on September 05, 2019:
Very interesting. Your writing style is quite easy to read and this is a cool subject. I love the "what if's"
FlourishAnyway from USA on September 05, 2019:
It’s so tragic what became of their elder children— suicide, drinking, divorces, much unhappiness. Their unhealthy parenting certainly didn’t help set the stage for healthy lives in their children.