The first Sir Winston
Nick Churchill goes in search of his ancestors to establish a link with Britain’s indefatigable wartime leader
Published in April ’15
Growing up in the 1970s with the surname Churchill the inflected ‘any relation’ formed a frequent question. Sir Winston Spencer-Churchill cast a long shadow and it continues to crop up even though the power of marketing has now seen the metaphorical bulldog replaced by a much different canine as the primary association with the name; oh yes.
Family folklore had it that the war leader was indeed a distant relation, descended from one of two Dorset farmer brothers. Our ancestors had settled in Purbeck, while the other brother’s line produced the noble Churchills including John, the first Duke of Marlborough; Sir Winston and, later, Diana Spencer, the Princess of Wales and mother of the current heir to the throne.
Learning that Marlborough came from a long line of Dorset men – his father the first Sir Winston Churchill (1620-88) had lived at Minterne House, as had his father before him – certainly piqued the interest, but when a family tree posted on a genealogy website appeared to confirm a link between that family and my own, it required more investigation.
The tree maps the established Churchill pedigree traced by Burke’s Peerage to Gitto de Léon (970-1060), possibly a deposed heir to the throne of Aquitaine taken in by the Norman court. For his part in the Norman Invasion his grandson Roger de Courcil (1050-1087) was granted lands in Somerset and by the early 13th century the name had evolved to the familiar Churchill and travelled into Dorset.
The stellar Churchills are descended from Roger Churchill (1522-79), a blacksmith who married the widowed daughter of William Peverell of Bradford Peverell. According to the online family tree he had one brother William, from whom my family descends. However, historian William Coxe writing in 1820 shows Roger had two brothers, John and William, who established themselves in Corton Denham and Dorchester respectively, the latter emerging as the wealthy 17th century textile merchants that built Colliton House and bought Muston Manor.
The waters are further muddied by other family trees online that appear to originate in America where interest in the name stems from the Churchills in the Plymouth Colony from the 1640s and Sir Winston Spencer-Churchill’s mother, the actress Jennie Jerome, being American. His son Randolph married Pamela Digby (later Pamela Harriman, US Ambassador to France), who grew up at Minterne with her brother, the current Lord Digby.
As for my own family, from living memory I know we come from a line of agricultural workers. My great great grandfather Henry Churchill had Greenlands Farm at Studland having inherited it from his first wife and is buried at St Nicholas’ Church where his headstone proclaims him a ‘yeoman farmer’. His son Job sold Greenlands and bought Povington Farm at Tyneham, leaving my great grandfather Mark to continue farming in Studland.
Extensive primary source research of parish records, wills and court papers by Job’s great great granddaughter has traced our family back to the Dorchester suburb of Fordington, where Francis Churchill, a miller, was born around 1590. The search for his parents continues, but for now it seems clear that although they lived in close proximity there is no link to the noble Churchills. Indeed, while those Churchills were making history, Francis’s descendants ‘fell upon the parish’ then moved on to Wareham, Stoborough and Rempstone Heath, before settling in Studland.
So, having dispelled a family myth, what of my aristocratic namesakes whose line now stands heir to the throne? Their motto Fiel Pero Desdichado (Spanish for Faithful But Unfortunate) drips with pathos and in our own time we have known the story of the Princess of Wales, born a Spencer and descended from Churchills. Deeper in history royal mistress Arabella Churchill and General Charles Churchill, a fine soldier, both had to exist in the shadow of their brother, the Duke of Marlborough, an arch pragmatist and perhaps England’s greatest soldier.
Lord Digby, whose family bought Minterne in the 18th century, holds that the emergence of the Churchills from farmers to nobility in the course of just three generations is due largely to a knack for marrying well and, although there’s tragedy and misfortune too, their stories are certainly marked by an unerring ability to seize opportunities. Marlborough’s father, Sir Winston Churchill was the first to promulgate the family’s Norman ancestry, a key attribute for a Cavalier courtier, but his grandfather Jasper had been nothing more regal than a copyhold tenant farmer at Bradford Peverell.
The family’s rise began with Winston’s father John (born 1595) being admitted to study law at Middle Temple in 1614. By the time Winston was born – in London, his baptism is recorded at St Dunstan’s-in-the-West in Fleet Street – John had already lost his first wife and son then married well above his station in 1618 when he wed Sarah Winston, heiress of Sir Henry Winston (whose effigy lies in St James’ Church, Longburton) and the source of their son’s given name.
A contemporary account has John taunted by Henry Hurding, Lord of Litton Cheney, for his ‘poore stocke and mean parentage’, but he nonetheless attained the office of Deputy Registrar of Chancery and in 1621 had a hand in the downfall of Sir Francis Bacon, the Lord Chancellor accused of corruption. Following Sarah’s death he returned to Dorset and bought a modest estate at Wootton Glanville. His former manor house Round Chimneys still stands and the initials JC and number 28 are inscribed on one of the stacks, suggesting he moved there in 1628. Within five years he was also able to rent nearby Minterne Farm and in 1642 leased Minterne House paying rent of £5 4s, four quarters of wheat, two quarters and a bushel of maize and one fat ox.
During the Civil War John was a Royalist commissioner of array and following the King’s defeat in 1646 he paid a compound (fine) of £440 allowing him to keep his estates and live at Minterne with his third wife, Mary Allen of Wootton Glanville, whom he had married in 1643. Winston was not so fortunate and his compound of £446 nearly ruined him.
A clever youth, at sixteen he had been admitted to St John’s College Oxford, but left without taking a degree. During the Civil War ‘he was a youthful, staunch and bigoted adherent of the King,’ according to the later Sir Winston in the biography Marlborough: His Life and Times and saw extensive action as a Captain in the King’s Horse before being shot through the arm in December 1645.
However, as had his father, so Winston also married well, wedding Elizabeth Drake (with her sizeable dowry of £1500) in 1648. Her late father Sir John, a relative of Sir Francis Drake, had been MP for Lyme Regis in 1624 and with Winston having fallen out with his father over money, the formidable Lady Drake, a Parliamentarian, opened her home at Ashe House in Devon to the impecunious newly wed Churchills. Accounts vary, but Winston and Elizabeth had as many as thirteen children, almost all born at Ashe, most notably Arabella (1648), John (1650), George (1654) and Charles (1656), and the family remained there until his father’s death in 1659.
The gravestone in St Andrew’s Church at Minterne is pointedly inscribed: “This stone was erected and laid here at the cost of Mrs Mary Churchill widdowe out of her affection and comemoracon of her beloved husband John Churchill Esq”. Mary requested in her Will of 1675 that, with Winston’s permission, she be buried with her husband. In the event she was laid to rest with her mother in Wootton Glanville.
The Restoration in 1660 marked a change in fortune as Winston resumed the lease on Minterne and completed his timely volume Divi Britannici: Being a Remark Upon the Lives of all the Kings of this Isle, which was eventually published in 1675. In 1661 he was knighted and elected MP for Weymouth and Melcombe Regis, a post he held for eighteen years even though he was the only one of its four MPs not to contribute to the rebuilding of the harbour bridge.
Having enjoyed royal favour under Charles II and James II and seen his eldest son John put down the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685, Sir Winston Churchill died in London on 26 March 1688 and was buried at St Martin-in-the-Fields next to his youngest son Theobald despite instructions in his Will that he was to be buried with his father.
The manor at Wootton Glanville was sold, but he left Minterne to his widow who, following her death in 1697, bequeathed it to Charles in respect of clearing his father’s debts. This incensed John who loved the homely atmosphere of Minterne and according to Lord Digby, on hearing it had passed to his brother, flew into a fury and threw his sword across the room, cracking a beautiful blue and gold mirror that was later to pass to the grandson of his father’s namesake, also called Winston.
In time John would eventually ‘make do’ with Blenheim Palace. That his father’s will also appointed other lands to be offered to John ‘if he would give as much for them as anyone else’ can only have rubbed salt in the wound.
It’s true that all families have their ups and downs, but when they are played out as publicly as those of the lofty Churchills they assume an epic quality that echoes down the centuries.
My connection to them, if it ever existed, is lost to history except that in searching for it perhaps we find that none of us is all that different from the other, whatever we’re called. ◗