Clementine was Winston’s emotional rock and his most trusted confidante; not only was she involved in some of the most crucial decisions of war, but she exerted an influence over her husband and the government that would appear scandalous to modern eyes. Yet her ability to charm Britain’s allies and her humanitarian efforts on the home front earned her deep respect, both behind closed doors in Whitehall and among the population at large.
Now, in her new book, First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill, biographer Sonia Purnell explores the peculiar dynamics of this fascinating union. From the personal and political upheavals of the First World War, through to Clementine’s efforts to preserve her husband’s health during the struggle against Hitler, Purnell presents the often ignored story of one of the most important women in British history.
Here, writing for History Extra, the author reveals six lesser-known facts about Clementine Churchill…
1) Clementine was bold
Most assume that Winston Churchill’s wife would have been a rather mousy, even subservient woman in awe of her illustrious husband. But while she scrupulously avoided contradicting him in public, she was one of very few people who was never afraid of him, and would take him on privately when she thought he was wrong either personally or politically.
In fact, their rows were often epic, and her flashing-eyed temper was legendary within Downing Street and their entourage. It was often Winston who would sue for peace afterwards, because he held a belief that the sun should never set on their “wrath”. So eager was he to avoid her displeasure that he on occasion referred to her as “She-whose-commands-must-be-obeyed”.
That they loved each other deeply, however, was rarely in doubt. On one occasion after Clementine had swept off in a fury, Churchill mischievously declared himself “the most unhappy of men”, only for the staff who had witnessed the incident to burst out laughing. It was clear to everyone present that this was patently untrue.
2) She was far from the paradigm of an upper-class matron with a sense of entitlement
Both Clementine and Winston had suffered emotionally deprived childhoods, and their determination to weather together all that life threw at them was perhaps rooted in common feelings of insecurity.
Clementine’s early life was marked by the death of her beloved elder sister from typhoid; the separation of her warring parents, and a mother whose pursuit of a frenetic love life sometimes saw her forget to put food on her children’s table.
Clementine moved house several times to avoid creditors, and spent a formative year in and around the fishmarket of Dieppe. Although the granddaughter of an earl, the announcement of her engagement to Winston was met with a wall of snobbish disdain from high society over the fact that she made many of her own clothes.
1908: Winston Churchill (1874-1965) with his fiancée Clementine, at the time of their engagement. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
3) Clementine harboured a life-long, latent hostility to the Conservative party – even when her husband was its leader
She took particular exception to those she deemed brash, vulgar Tories, and would ‘erupt’ at them if they spouted views of which she strongly disapproved. She was a natural Liberal, and continued to promote what Violet Asquith described as ‘true liberal’ values and Churchill dubbed ‘pinko’ ideas, not least women’s rights.
Clementine consistently saw it as her duty to act as Churchill’s social conscience, and the nearest he had to a direct line to the people. The time when they were most in tune politically – and she was probably her happiest – was early in their marriage, when Churchill was a Liberal himself and did much alongside Lloyd George to set up the foundations of the welfare state. She was there to stiffen his spine and act as his radical conscience if he showed signs of wavering in the face of hostility from his own class, and especially his own aristocratic family.
4) Clementine was taller than Winston and considerably more athletic
She excelled at hunting, tennis and swimming. Her laugh – a full-throated cackle, said to be very infectious – was also much louder than his quiet chuckle. He cried more than her, and owned more theatrical clothes including a large collection of hats.
As a young girl, Clementine was excessively fearful, once breaking an ankle when running away from a mere moth. But through sheer grit and determination she came to share her husband’s physical courage in the face of great danger – not least during the bombing raids in London during the war.
5) Her marriage was sometimes turbulent
Winston was never easy to be married to, least of all during the 1930s when the Churchills were scorned by appeasers and he was ridiculed not only for his views on the Nazis, but also on India and the abdication.
He never stopped being impulsive, selfish or demanding either. In fact, more than once between the wars Clementine is said to have considered divorce, and briefly fell in love with another man. Yet she stayed with Churchill, and during the Second World War became his mainstay: she shored up his resolve, prevented many of his mistakes, and provided counselling, consoling and even chiding when necessary.
Those closest to the couple during those years saw that she was his most influential adviser, and that the way she managed and supported a giant of a man whom Clement Attlee described as “fifty per cent genius, fifty per cent bloody fool” was a type of genius in itself.
Unsung, and behind the scenes, she also did huge amounts to keep the home front going while Winston focused on what was happening overseas. She became the human face of the Churchill government, but also did much to help repair relations with Stalin, Roosevelt and de Gaulle, when they came under considerable strain.
1958: Clementine and Winston Churchill celebrate their Golden Wedding anniversary in France, 12 September. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
6) She was Churchill’s secret weapon
A truly grateful Churchill declared that marrying this clever, formidable but complex woman had been his most brilliant achievement. “For what,” he asked, “could be more glorious than to be united with a being incapable of an ignoble thought?”
After the war, he conceded that she had made “my life & any work I have done possible”. Yet most historians have ignored Clementine’s contribution to Britain’s victory over the Nazis against seemingly impossible odds, and she is downplayed in many Churchillian biographies.
What is revealing, however, is that Churchill’s own chief of staff, General ‘Pug’ Ismay, concluded that without Clementine the “history of Winston Churchill and of the world would have been a very different story”.
First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill by Sonia Purnell (Aurum Press) is out now. To find out more, click here.