Clementine Churchill: The Woman Behind a Great Leader’s Success | History Hit

Clementine Churchill: The Woman Behind a Great Leader’s Success

Celeste Neill

14 Jun 2023
Lady Churchill drives with Sir Winston to a small family lunch party in honour of her 78th birthday, 1963.
Image Credit: Alamy / Chronicle

Clementine Churchill, was a remarkable woman whose impact on history is often overshadowed by her husband’s fame. As the wife of Winston Churchill, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and one of the most influential leaders in history, she played a pivotal role in shaping his success.

Throughout their enduring 57-year marriage, Clementine Churchill often maintained a modest public presence, but behind the scenes she served as the driving force behind the indomitable British prime minister. Winston himself acknowledged her as the primary catalyst behind his remarkably triumphant life, and that his success would have been “impossible without” Clementine.

But her own historical significance often takes a backseat to her husband’s prominence. She actively championed social and humanitarian causes, including women’s rights, and held her own position as a crossbench life peeress.

Here are 10 facts about Clementine Churchill, a woman who played a pivotal role in her husband’s triumphs during 2 world wars, and made significant contributions in social politics.

1. She came from a noble lineage

Clementine Churchill was born Clementine Ogilvy Hozier, on 1 April 1885, in Mayfair, London. She came from an aristocratic family. Her father, Sir Henry Montague Hozier, was a well-known British army officer, while her mother, Lady Blanche Hozier, came from a prominent Scottish lineage.

Clementine’s parents had a tumultuous relationship marred by infidelity. The couple had 4 children – Kitty, Clementine and twins, Bill and Nellie. However their notorious extramarital affairs led to speculation that none of their children were fathered by Henry.

When Clementine was only 6 years old, her father divorced Lady Blanche and refused to provide financial assistance to the family. They were plunged into a state of severe financial hardship, further compounded by Lady Blanche’s gambling habits.

2. She had an unhappy childhood

Clementine began her education at home, as was customary for girls of her social class, under the guidance of a governess. Later, she briefly attended school in Edinburgh, followed by Berkhamsted School for Girls in Hertfordshire, England.

However much of her childhood was spent on the move, as the family attempted to avoid creditors. In 1899, when Clementine was 14 years old, the family relocated to Dieppe, a town on the northern coast of France.

Their time in Dieppe, however, was tragically cut short when Clementine’s older sister, Kitty, fell seriously ill with typhoid fever. In 1900, Blanche sent Clementine and her sister Nellie to Scotland, so that she could care full time for Kitty in France. However, Kitty passed away shortly after, on 5 March.

3. She had a secret engagement

After her education at Berkhamsted School for Girls, Clementine enrolled at the Sorbonne in Paris, in 1902 when she was approximately 17 years old.

When she turned 18, Clementine had 2 secret engagements to Sir Sidney Peel, a British army officer who had become infatuated with her when she was just 18 years old. Peel, who was 15 years older than Clementine, was the grandson of Sir Robert Peel, a renowned prime minister during Queen Victoria’s reign.

However, both engagements ultimately failed to materialise into a lasting relationship.

4. She married Winston Churchill

In 1904, at the age of 19, Clementine attended a dinner party where she was introduced to Winston Churchill, then a rising star in British politics. However, it wasn’t until 4 years later, when they found themselves seated next to each other at a dinner party, did their relationship take off. They became immersed in deep discussions about history and philosophy, and Churchill refused to talk to anyone else for the rest of the evening.

After a series of frequent meetings and correspondence over the following months, they officially became engaged in August 1908.

On 12 September 1908 Clementine and Winston Churchill married at St. Margaret’s Church, next to Westminster Abbey, and settled in London, where they began their life together as a married couple.

A young Winston Churchill with Clementine Hozier

5. She endured family tragedy

Clementine and Winston had 5 children together: Diana, Randolph, Sarah, Marigold, and Mary. Tragically, the family endured the loss of their daughter Marigold at a the age of 2.

Affectionately nicknamed ‘Duckadilly’ by her parents, she fell ill with what was initially diagnosed as a cold. However, her condition quickly deteriorated, eventually revealing a severe blood infection that attacked her immune system. She passed away some weeks later.

The tragic loss of their daughter Marigold at a young age profoundly traumatised the family. The couple’s oldest daughter, Diana, would later die of a drug overdose in 1963.

6. She was dedicated to volunteering

During World War One, Clementine actively participated in volunteer work, including organising canteens for munitions workers in the North East Metropolitan Area of London on behalf of YMCA. Her dedication earned her the appointment as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1918.

In Autumn 1941, she launched ‘Mrs. Churchill’s Red Cross Aid to Russia Fund’ to raise funds for vital supplies for Russian civilians as Nazi Germany advanced. Through the Penny-a-Week Fund, generous donations poured in. Clementine’s leadership and collective efforts played a crucial role in supporting Russia, an important ally, during the war.

In recognition of her dedication, she received the prestigious Order of the Red Banner of Labour from the Russian government, highlighting her significant impact in assisting the people of Russia during their time of need.

7. She was Winston Churchill’s closest confidante

Clementine Churchill, although ambitious herself, channeled her aspirations into supporting her husband in his political career. She provided counsel on political matters, cultivated relationships with his allies, and boosted his confidence during his struggles with depression.

She urged her husband to serve in the trenches following the failure of the Gallipoli campaign in 1915-1916. As First Lord of the Admiralty, he bore some responsibility for the campaign’s failure, and serving as a frontline soldier was crucial in his political rehabilitation.

Clementine also played a vital role in strengthening the alliance between Britain and the United States during World War Two. Her adept management of the media during press conferences, in which she skilfully combined seriousness and humour, helped gain public support for Britain, bypassing the increasingly distant President Roosevelt. This earned her the reputation of being Winston Churchill’s greatest asset, as declared by the American media at the time.

Winston Churchill, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, with his wife Clementine and children Sarah and Randolph, April 1929

Image Credit: The Picture Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

8. She saved his life when he was attacked

In late 1909, Winston and Clementine were in Bristol for a routine political engagement. Little did they know that this event would take a dangerous turn. As they greeted local party members, a militant suffragist suddenly appeared and launched an attack on Winston.

Clementine watched in horror as the attacker pushed Winston towards the tracks, into the direction of a moving train at Bristol station. Clementine courageously leaped through a pile of luggage, seized hold of Winston’s coattails and pulled him back, saving him from near-certain death.

Her swift action prevented a tragedy that could have had far-reaching consequences in British politics and world history.

9. She was an advocate for women’s rights

Clementine was a strong advocate for women’s rights and equality. She actively supported the suffrage movement, and campaigned for women’s right to vote. At the beginning of their marriage, Winston Churchill and Clementine held differing views on women’s suffrage, which caused disagreements between them.

Winston was a staunch opponent of the suffragettes and their methods of protest. However, Clementine, while not condoning the violent tactics employed by some suffragettes, sympathised with their ultimate goal of achieving equality for women.

During World War One, she supported the cause of women entering the workforce, particularly in roles traditionally held by men. She was an accomplished public speaker and used her position, as the wife of Prime Minister, to address issues of importance to women, including education, healthcare, and social welfare. She wielded significant influence and used it to champion the cause of women’s rights at the highest levels of government.

Mike O'Keeffe discusses the Suffragette campaign of the early 20th Century and its leading figures.
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10. She was honoured with a Dame Grand Cross and a life peerage

Clementine Churchill received recognition later in life with a Dame Grand Cross and a life peerage. After Winston Churchill’s death in 1965, she became a widow after 56 years of marriage and was granted a life peerage as Baroness Spencer-Churchill.

She died at the age of 92 from a heart attack on 12 December 1977, and was laid to rest alongside her husband and children at St. Martin’s Church in Bladon, Oxfordshire.

Celeste Neill