the origin of the relationship between Diana of Wales and Winston Churchill

More than one will be surprised to learn that Diana of Wales and Winston Churchill were related, when their families linked up in the 18th century. A curious story in which the character of that popular French song had a special role, whose lyrics in Spanish begin “Mambrú went to war…”

The Gauls sarcastically dedicated it to the Duke of Marlborough, whom they believed they had killed in the Battle of Malplaquet during the War of the Spanish Succession, and the Bourbons brought it into our country upon assuming the throne.

But the origin of everything is much further back. As you may recall, Diana’s maiden name was Spencer. She belonged to an aristocratic family whose founder, through the male line, was Henry Spencer. He was descended from the old house of Le Despencer, a barony from the days of the Peers of the Realm but dating back to the Middle Ages.

The Despencers got their coat of arms in 1504, but their current descendants, whose surname is so cacophonously similar, are also related by blood to other illustrious lineages such as the Stuarts, the Bourbons, the Medici, the Boleyn…

The family had become wealthy through the sheep trade in the early 16th century, which enabled the continued acquisition of land at Wormleighton and Althorp; in this way, those became their domains sine die and, thus, they also obtained noble titles.

It seems that both Henry and his grandson John were great administrators and they added the agricultural activity to the livestock activity with notable success. On horseback between the 16th and 17th centuries, another Spencer, Robert, added a new and promising hobby: politics. With her he entered Parliament, being made a Knight of the Order of the Garter and receiving the aforementioned honor from Baron Spencer, Peer of England, in 1603.

It is not surprising that in the time of James I the Spencers had the greatest fortune in England and that they aroused the jealousy of an ancient clan, that of the Howards, who had held the County of Arundel since the 13th century and with whom they exchanged contempt: the family of sheepmen, they called them; family of traitors, answered the others. The fact is that, generation after generation, the Spencers continued to be linked to the nobility and politics, although of course they branched out. Here it is necessary to stop and redirect attention to the Churchills.

The first -or the first important one for this story- was John Churchill, a young man who entered the service of James Stuart, Duke of York, at the same time that his sister Arabella did so to the duchess. James Stuart was High Lord Admiral of the Royal Navy and he caught the bug of the military world in his page, who at the early age of sixteen, in 1667, managed to enter the Royal Guard as ensign of the navy. He was assigned to Tangier, then a British possession obtained with the dowry of the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza, wife of King Carlos II.

In Africa he was training against the Moors and then, in 1672, he participated in the first war against the Dutch under the orders of James Stuart again. His intervention was especially notable in the Battle of Solebay, thanks to which he was promoted to captain and even received congratulations from the French, his allies in that conflict at the time. The following year, England withdrew from the contest, leaving only a few regiments in aid of France; one of them was that of Churchill, who would also assume command of him in 1674 when he was promoted to colonel.

On his return he married Sarah Jennings, lady-in-waiting to the Duchess of York, whose youngest daughter, Anne, was a close friend. When she married what would later be James II of England and VII of Scotland, the destinies of both continued closely linked in the palace and with them that of John.

This is how in 1702 they obtained the concession of the Duchy of Marlborough, among many other favors such as the lordship of Woodstock and a residence in Blenheim that today is still the ducal seat. It is true that not everything was free because John Churchill also excelled in the aforementioned War of the Spanish Succession, where his title Marlborough was phonetically deformed into Mambrú and gave rise to the famous song. Even the family motto is in Spanish: “Faithful but unhappy”.

Coat of arms of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough/Image: Public Domain on Wikimedia Commons

The Spencers and the Churchills became related when Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland, married Lady Anne, the second daughter of John Churchill; he would die in 1722 without male children, so it was necessary to modify her legislation so that she could inherit from her and, thus, a line of maternal transmission was passed.

One of the sons of the new marriage, Charles, inherited the title of Marlborough (along with those of his father, Earl of Sunderland and Baron Spencer) on the death of their eldest son, Robert. Subsequently George Spencer, 5th Duke of Marlborough, obtained a license to bear the compound surname as the holder of the Churchill baronetcy and in honor of his famous ancestor, renamed George Spencer-Churchill.

Transmissions by inheritance continued in the 19th century until reaching 1822, the year in which John Spencer-Churchill was born, who would be the seventh Duke of Marlborough; His third son, Lord Randolph Churchill, married an American millionaire named Jennie Jerome, with whom in 1874 he had a son whom they named Winston.

In parallel, the other branch of the family, the Spencer, evolved, passing its titles from one generation to the next until the eighth Earl of Spencer, Edward John, married the Hon. Frances Ruth Roche in 1954; seven years later she gave birth to a girl they named Diana.


The Churchills. A family portrait (Celia Lee and John Lee)/The Churchills. A family at the heart of History (Mary S. Lovell)/Mambrú, the Duke of Marlborough (Silvia R. Hesles)/Wikipedia