The Place to Find All Things Churchill

Winston S Churchill

‘The family and the home’ The lion no longer had his roar

Churchill had been determined to have a happy family – to maintain those ‘dominating virtues of human society’ – but he lived so many other lives – as a politician, as a war leader, and had so many passionate interests (writing, painting, holidays) – that his family was, to a greater or lesser degree, squeezed in among these other busy lives. There were painful consequences, of course, but Clementine had always accepted that her husband must come first (and ‘second and third’) and worked tirelessly to support him. And his children, however, they responded to the pressures of being the great man’s children, appreciated, and were proud of, all he had done for them and for the country.

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Difficult Times Ageing was difficult for both Winston and his wife

But it wasn’t always an easy marriage. Apart from their political disagreements and heated arguments – and spinach throwing episodes – both Winston and Clementine were prone to periods of depression – Churchill with his ‘black dog’ and Clementine with all her worries and concerns about life with the great man and the children – and both were also increasingly frail and unwell. When the War was over and Churchill had been voted out of office, life was miserable. With Churchill exhausted and increasingly depressed by his enforced inactivity, the children continuing to cause concern and distress and Clementine herself suffering from ill-health, there was considerable friction in the Churchill household. They had always holidayed separately, since 1918. Now tensions at home were eased by increasing time spent apart – Churchill began to spend more and more time abroad for his health, and his painting, with Clementine staying at home, relishing the peace and quiet and recuperating from her own ailments – and these separations served to remind them of their dependence upon each other; throughout these lengthy periods of separation, they continued to write each other affectionate letters. They did, however, travel together to France in 1958, to Lord Beaverbrook’s villa, La Capponcina, at Cap D’Ail where they celebrated their Golden Wedding anniversary.

‘I cannot explain how it is but in our misery we seem, instead of clinging to each other to be always having scenes. I’m sure it’s all my fault, but I’m finding life more than I can bear. He is so unhappy & that makes him very difficult… I can’t see any future.’
Clementine to Mary, 26 August 1945, quoted in Mary Soames, Clementine Churchill

The Younger Daughters The Churchills never got over the death of little Marygold

Sarah (born in October 1914 in the first months of the First World War) and Marigold (born just after the end of the War, in November 1918) were Churchill’s younger daughters. Life for them was to prove troubled and, in the case of Marigold, sadly very brief.

‘Many years later my father told me that when Marigold died, Clementine gave a succession of wild shrieks like an animal in mortal pain. My mother never got over Marigold’s death.’
Mary Soames, Prelude to A Daughter’s Tale

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Father and Son Randolph and his father had a loving but often contentious relationship

Randolph perhaps epitomises the difficulty of being the son of a famous father. In his twenties, he veered between adoration of his father and bitter accusations of being treated as a ‘wayward and untrustworthy child’, interspersed with periods of excess drinking and ill-considered political initiatives.

Randolph duly stood for parliament in the 1930s but despite the obvious advantage of his father’s support, he was defeated each time, being seen – in true Churchill style – as a political maverick. He was elected as MP for Preston in 1940 but lost his seat at the 1945 General Election. While he had his father’s weaknesses (notably, obstinacy, arrogance and bad temper), he did also inherit some of his strengths, including a gift for writing and considerable personal bravery, serving with the newly formed Special Air Service (SAS) and conducting dangerous missions in the Libyan Desert and Yugoslavia. Yet, ultimately, he lacked his father’s political skills, charm and charisma.

Churchill no doubt loved his son, but sometimes despaired of him. Their strong personalities would often clash.

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Family Life life was a balance of the good and the bad

At various times Diana, Randolph and Sarah all caused their parent’s considerable worry and distress, their lives variously marked by depression, unhappy marriages and dependency on alcohol. Only Mary, the youngest daughter, escaped unscathed. As with all families, though, the bad times need to be balanced against the good. It is clear from the memoirs that there were plenty of fun times at Chartwell, and it must have been a source of pride to Churchill that all four of his surviving children served in uniform during the Second World War. The family would also rally round whenever he was ill or in need of support. For an interview with Mary Soames, click here. But despite Churchill’s desire for a happy, contented family life, it rarely ran smoothly for the Churchills and was not without its heartache and pain.

‘As children we soon became aware that our parents’ main interest and time were consumed by immensely important tasks, beside which our own demands and concerns were trivial. We never expected either of them to attend our school plays, prize-givings or sports days. We knew they were both more urgently occupied.’
Mary Soames, Clementine Churchill: The Biography of a Marriage

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Churchill the Father Churchill was determined to be a good parent

Churchill’s relationship with his parents was difficult. They were remote and inaccessible, often preoccupied – his beautiful heiress mother, with her social life and her numerous affairs with young men, and his father, with his politics. Churchill doted on his mother and idolised his father and as a child was constantly seeking their attention and praise (not often forthcoming). He was determined to do things differently with his own children. Winston and Clementine had five children; Diana (1909), Randolph (1911), Sarah (1914), Marigold (1918) and Mary (1922). He vowed that, unlike his father, he would spend time with them and was an affectionate and devoted parent, building a tree house at Chartwell for the older three and, utilising his bricklaying skills, a little summer house for the youngest, Mary. With Churchill spoiling his children with affection, Clementine ended up doing most of the disciplining, but she was busy supporting her husband’s political life and work – she always put Winston first – and the children were really brought up by a succession of governesses and nannies. Like their father before them, the three older children, in particular, may have suffered as all three had difficult adult lives.

‘Time passes swiftly, but is it not joyous to see how great and growing is the treasure we have gathered together, amid the storms and stresses of so many eventful and to millions tragic and terrible years?’
Letter from Churchill to Clementine, 23 January 1935, quoted in Official Biography by Gilbert

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A Partnership 'For better and worse'

Like many marriages, theirs was not always smooth sailing. A liberal, with a puritan streak and strong views of her own, Clementine disapproved of Churchill’s more disreputable contemporaries. As their daughter Mary later said, ‘sometimes her judgments about his friends were truer than his’. She was never afraid to express her opinions and they occasionally had heated quarrels. According to Mary, Clementine once threw a dish of spinach at Churchill (but missed)! And once, after a row, Clementine is reported to have burst out: ‘Winston, I have been married to you for forty-five years, for better’ – then, loudly – ‘AND FOR WORSE!’ (Anthony Montague Browne, Long Sunset) But Churchill trusted his wife implicitly and she was a valued advisor throughout their life and, although he didn’t always take her advice, he relied on her sensible and balanced approach to life and its problems. A favourite expression of Churchill’s – ‘Here firm, though all be drifting’ – could, as Richard M. Langworth notes in Churchill: In His Own Words, be easily applied to Clementine. She was Churchill’s stalwart supporter and rock throughout the troubled span of their fifty-seven-year marriage.

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Winston and Clementine The Churchills were married in 1908

When Winston and Clementine were married, Churchill was already a leading figure in the Liberal government and their life – and marriage – was played out in public from the start. They were one of the celebrity couples of the age. Thankfully, Churchill had indeed chosen ‘most wisely and most well’. Clementine Churchill was the ideal wife for Winston. As a child, she too had experienced a difficult family life and straitened circumstances (as she would in her marriage) and had the resilience to see the couple through their difficult – and, at times, harrowing – family crises and ever-present financial anxieties. But despite their ups and downs, Clementine and Winston maintained a close and supportive relationship over the years, sending each other affectionate letters during long periods of absence, sometimes decorated with drawings illustrating their pet names for each other: she was his ‘Kat’ and he was her ‘Pug’.

‘Perhaps history would have been different if my father had married a docile yes-woman … but my mother had the will and capacity to stand up to him, to confront him and to argue with him.’
Mary Soames, in ‘Life With My Parents: Winston and Clementine’, Finest Hour 91

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The Engagement Churchill proposed to Clementine at Blenheim Palace

Churchill proposed marriage to three women in his twenties, all of whom said ‘no’ (although all of them remained his friends). He met Clementine Ogilvy Hozier, ten years his junior, at a party, the Crewe House ball, in 1904 but the meeting wasn’t a success. Unusually for him, Churchill was tongue-tied and they hardly spoke.

When they met again, however, at a dinner party in 1908 (Clementine had been invited at the last minute, to fill a gap at her great-aunt’s table), they clearly got on rather better. Impressed by her beauty, her intelligence and her ability to talk politics (she was an earnest Liberal and supporter of greater rights for women, Churchill began an ardent courtship. They became engaged only a few months later, on Tuesday 11 August, when Churchill proposed to her while they were both staying at Blenheim Palace (Churchill had encouraged the Duke of Marlborough to invite her to a small house party). After failing to appear in the morning, and almost blowing his chance, Winston took Clementine for a walk in the afternoon to the Rose Garden and, sheltering from a shower in the Temple of Diana, he asked her to marry him. She agreed.

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The Later Years Churchill was still taking pleasure in painting into his 80s

Churchill continued to paint until he was in his eighties, still taking pleasure in his hobby. On his travels – to France, Italy (and Lake Como), Jamaica, and, after his resignation from government in 1955, to Sicily – Churchill was never without his paints and easel. He left Britain to find some sunshine and warm weather at Lord Beaverbrook’s villa La Capponcina at Cap D’Ail – this was to become an increasingly favoured haven in his last years for painting – and to La Pausa, a villa near Roquebrune above Cap Martin, the home of Emery and Wendy Reves.

‘Do not turn the superior eye of critical passivity upon these efforts …. We must not be ambitious. We cannot aspire to masterpieces. We may content ourselves with a joy ride in a paint-box.’
Churchill, Painting as a Pastime

So how did Churchill become such a gifted public speaker? Churchill understood the power of words

Churchill wasn’t a born orator. He worked very hard to transform himself into a great public speaker. He didn’t have a particularly attractive speaking voice. Early in his career, he talked in a monotone, without much change in pitch, pace or volume. He also suffered from a speech impediment – he had difficulty pronouncing the letter “s”, not helpful in a public speaker. But he understood the power that words, both written and spoken, could have on an audience and was determined to master public speaking – and do it well. At the age of only twenty-two, when he’d only made one public speech, he wrote an unpublished article on the art of speaking. He clearly realised the effect a really good speech could have on its audience.

‘Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king.’
Churchill, The Scaffolding of Rhetoric, his unpublished essay of 1897

Early Years – Soldiering Young Winston embarks on a military career

Churchill later claimed, in  that embarking on a military career ‘was entirely due to my collection of soldiers’, although the influence of Blenheim and his ancestor’s glories on the battlefield, as well as Churchill’s determination to follow his father into politics (for which he regarded the army as a great training ground), probably also played key roles. His toy soldier collection, based on the toy army he played with at Blenheim, was set up as an infantry division and he and his brother Jack, even in their teens, played out famous battles, with Jack’s soldiers playing the enemy.

Coming Into Office Churchill becomes Prime Minister

Churchill leaving 10 Downing Street

Churchill leaving 10 Downing Street. © Baroness Spencer Churchill Papers

Chamberlain had resigned on 10 May 1940, the day that German forces attacked British and French ground forces and the day the ‘phoney war’ ended. With the only other contender, Lord Halifax, ruling himself out, Churchill’s appointment was inevitable and his time in the wilderness was over.

In the evening of 10 May, Churchill went to see King George VI at Buckingham Palace and became Prime Minister and Minister of Defence. He was under no illusions about the enormity of the task that lay ahead.

Churchill, as both Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, was in a powerful position, with full oversight of both the armed forces (all three of them; the Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force) and the government of the country. He was also the only cabinet minister who had held high office during the previous war, and was widely hailed as the necessary war leader. But he did not yet have the full confidence or leadership of his own conservative party, and there were many in government who were worried that he might prove rash and dangerous in his actions. He needed to prove himself.

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The Munich Crisis

Not satisfied with only Austria, Hitler began demanding parts of Czechoslovakia, too. In September 1938, with war against Germany seeming increasingly likely, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Munich (according to a British Pathe newsreel, his first trip in an aeroplane), to meet the German leader. His aim of this ‘mission of peace’ was to secure a guarantee that there’d be no further German aggression.

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Summer 1940 Churchill's finest hour

The summer of 1940 was, as Churchill called it, Britain’s ‘finest hour’. It was also his. When the German armies conquered France, Britain found itself in the line of attack. With German U-boats patrolling the seas and soon to have bases on the Atlantic, and German bombers marshalling on the coast of France, Britain faced its first serious threat of invasion since 1805.

The months of June, July, August and September were to prove Churchill’s moment of ‘Destiny’. For more background information, see the Imperial War Museum’s material on 1940.

I felt as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.
Churchill, The Second World War

Many found it difficult to see how Britain could avoid being defeated. Victory seemed impossible. But Churchill was passionately opposed to negotiating with Hitler. The War Cabinet did consider a compromise peace – or at least the offer of mediation, by Italy, between Germany and the allies – but Churchill argued strongly against this. He was convinced that Hitler would renege on any promises or agreement, just as he had done back in 1938.

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The International Churchill Society (ICS), founded in 1968 shortly after Churchill's death, is the world’s preeminent member organisation dedicated to preserving the historic legacy of Sir Winston Churchill.

At a time when leadership is challenged at every turn, that legacy looms larger and remains more relevant than ever.