Lily, Duchess of Marlborough (1854-1909) : a portrait with husbands – Sally E Svenson

Anyone who has read Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers or Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Shuttle or even watched Downton Abbey, is familiar with the concept of the dollar princesses. Rich young American women were much sought-after as brides by impoverished English aristocrats. The most famous of these young women were Jennie Jerome, who married Lord Randolph Churchill & was the mother of Winston Churchill, & Consuelo Vanderbilt, who married the ninth Duke of Marlborough. Another woman who also married into the Churchill family is much less well-known. Lily Price Hamersley married George Charles Spencer-Churchill, eighth Duke of Marlborough. The Duke, known as Blandford, was Lily’s second husband & Lily’s life is the subject of this new biography by Sally E Svenson.

Lily Price grew up in Troy, New York & Washington, the daughter of a distinguished naval officer. Her family was connected with the social elite of both cities & Lily lived the life of a well-brought up young lady of the time. She attended balls & other social functions & accompanied her great-aunt Phebe on a European tour. Her first husband, Louis Carré Hamersley, was part of this same world. Louis was a member of a very wealthy New York family. He was 14 years older than Lily, who was 25 when they married in 1879. Louis was a quiet man, devoted to his father, who was deaf & suffered from vertigo. The newly married couple shared the family home in New York so that Gordon Hamersley could be cared for & he seems to have been fond of his new daughter-in-law.

After only four years of marriage, Louis died of what was suspected to be typhoid fever. His father had predeceased him &, in his will, Louis left everything to Lily & any children they might have (they were childless). Louis’s will incensed other members of the Hamersley family who had expected that the family money would stay with the Hamersleys rather than be inherited by a young woman who could quite possibly marry again. The resulting legal case is fascinating as it shows the lengths that Louis’s family were prepared to go to in the effort to overturn his will. They cast doubt on his mental state, implied that Lily had dominated her husband & forced him to make the will & picked up on small technicalities that they said invalidated it altogether. The judge decided in Lily’s favour but the resulting appeals meant that the case wasn’t finally settled for some years. Lily was forced to request income from the estate from the Court for some years until the case was settled.

Lily was now a young, rich widow. Her life over the next few years was quiet but eventually she decided to emerge from her mourning & the unwanted notoriety of the court case & she began to appear in society again. This was the time when the eighth Duke of Marlborough entered her life. Blandford arrived in the United States with a reputation for scandal. He had divorced his first wife, been caught up in various other marital scandals & upset the Prince of Wales so badly that he was a virtual social outcast in England. He had succeeded to the dukedom but found he didn’t have the money to run his family home, Blenheim Palace. His decision to sell off 300 paintings to help him defray the costs of Blenheim’s upkeep was met with scandalised tut-tuttings in the Press as Blenheim was considered almost a national treasure rather than a private estate. It had been built for John Churchill, the first Duke, by a grateful nation after his military victories in Europe. Blandford, however, felt he had no choice. He also realized that he couldn’t go on selling off his inheritance, he needed to find a permanent solution. This was his situation when he arrived in New York & met Lily.

Lily’s income apparently proved sufficient to mark her out as an appropriate marital partner as far as Marlborough was concerned. The duke’s quarry also had good looks, dignity, a graceful manner, and an easy way in conversation. Her family background was impeccable… Her reputation was without taint and she lived quietly. Marriage to Lily would strengthen Marlborough’s ambivalent social position if he wished to redeem his reputation in the eyes of the British public.

Lily would gain a magnificent social position & this was important to her. She had been disappointed with the lack of success she’d had in re-entering New York society after her period of mourning. She knew that her money would be required to prop up Blenheim but she was prepared for this. Marlborough’s position in London society may have been dubious but she would be the chatelaine of a grand country house &, in fact, this is where she made her mark. The marriage which began as a merger of money & social status was remarkably successful. Blandford was an intelligent man who had wonderful ideas for the improvement of the estate & Lily’s money made them happen. Lily was a gracious hostess, interested in all her husband’s pursuits. She became great friends with her sister-in-law, Jennie, & the rest of the Churchill family & made an effort to smooth the prickly relationship between her husband & his son & heir, known as Sunny.

Sadly, Lily’s time at Blenheim was brief. Her husband died suddenly of heart failure in 1892. They had no children & the new Duke was Sunny, who was only 20. He moved into Blenheim with his mother & sisters & Lily had to find a new home. The impact Lily had made on the estate in the short time she lived there is evident in the words of a resident of the nearby town of Woodstock, “We were all so sorry when Lily Duchess went away, because we loved her.” Lily made her home in Brighton & had little to do with society although she remained on good terms with Sunny & was instrumental in introducing him to the Vanderbilts. Lily favoured Gertrude Vanderbilt as the next Duchess but it was Gertrude’s cousin, Consuelo, who Sunny would eventually marry.

Lily married again just over three years after the Duke’s death. Her new husband, Lord William Beresford, was a bachelor who had spent his career mostly in India as military secretary to successive Viceroys, although he had seen active service & was awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry during the Zulu Wars. He was athletic, charming, sociable & handsome. His return to England after almost 20 years in India led to his meeting Lily & they were married in 1895. The wedding, at St George’s, Hanover Square, was the social triumph Lily had always wanted & the marriage was a very happy one. Lily took a great interest in Bill’s activities & he was a great favourite with Lily’s nephew-by-marriage, Winston Churchill, with whom she had an affectionate relationship. Young Winston looked up to his Uncle Bill,

He was a man of the world acquainted with every aspect of clubland and society… There was nothing in sport or in gambling about sport which he had not tasted…His opinions about public affairs, though tinged with an official hue, were deeply practical, and on matters of conduct and etiquette they were held by many to be decisive.

Lily & Bill devoted themselves to their home at Deepdene & their son, William, who was born in 1897. Again, Lily was bankrolling their lifestyle but she seems to have enjoyed it, especially her husband’s interest in racing. After Bill’s death in 1901, Lily spent the remaining years of her life living in Hove, caring for her son, whose health was delicate, & managing her considerable income. She died in 1909.

Sally E Svenson has done an excellent job of restoring Lily to her place in the history of the Churchill family. For all her wealth & desire for social success, Lily seems to have been quite a shy woman. She made a success of her marriages & sincerely mourned her husbands. I wish there had been more of Lily’s own voice in the book but there seems to be few letters & we mostly see her through the eyes of her family or newspaper reporters. This may be one reason why she has been forgotten when those other dollar princesses have not. Anyone who has read the novels of Edith Wharton would be interested in in this retelling of Lily’s story.

8 thoughts on “Lily, Duchess of Marlborough (1854-1909) : a portrait with husbands – Sally E Svenson

  1. This sounds excellent, and I will be looking for a copy. I've read Consuelo Vanderbilt's autobiography (I'm blanking on her 2nd married name) and enjoyed her account of life as a duchess.


  2. I think Downton Abbey's American Countess has sparked a lot of interest in this era too. It's definitely an interesting sidelight on the aristocracy of the period.


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