Of the numerous mistresses of Edward Vll, both during his prolonged tenure as Prince of Wales and his short reign as King, few were more maligned, either during their lifetime or posthumously, than the American born Lady Randolph Churchill, née Jeanette Jerome. Born the eldest daughter of a Wall Street financier, she married the third son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough in 1874 while rumored to be pregnant with their first child, and shortly thereafter gave birth to two sons, the eldest of whom, Winston, would go on to become Britain’s most famous Prime Minister. Noted for her intelligence, beauty and ambition, she was also noted among her contemporaries for her rumored promiscuity. It’s been estimated she entertained at least two hundred male lovers, many of whom she screwed during her first marriage, and two of her nephews would claim after her death that they witnessed one of her assignations with the 7th Earl Falmouth, a liaison that many believed resulted in the birth of her second son, John. Then, of course, there’s the tale of her most famous affair, that is with the then Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. According to the 1996 BBC documentary, The Churchills, Lady Randolph, whose nickname was Jennie, became so infuriated when she learned in 1889 that her husband had contracted syphilis, the presumed disease he died from in 1895, that she began an indiscretion with the Prince of Wales that lasted at least until her second marriage in 1900 to the much younger George Cornwallis-West. While Winston Churchill’s mother wasn’t an angel, subsequent biographies published since her death have greatly disproven much of the untoward gossip that swirled around Lady Randolph while she was alive. Although her affair with Edward Vll was all too real, the circumstances surrounding it were no where near as scandalous as they were purported to have been.
For one thing, their liaison wasn’t adulterous on Jennie’s part, for she didn’t begin sleeping with the Prince of Wales, whom she gastronomically nicknamed “Tum-Tum” in their recently unearthed billet-doux, until after her first husband’s tragically early death. According to authors John and Celia Lee, who were not only friends of Peregrine Churchill, a grandson of Lord and Lady Randolph, but were given unprecedented access to the Churchill family archive by Peregrine for their book, The Churchills, A Family Portrait, it was the Prince of Wales who was the first among Jennie’s friends to send her a condolence letter after her first husband’s death. Despite having been friends since the mid-1870’s, and even having once privately met each other for tea at the Churchill’s London residence in 1889, an apparently sexless tete-a-tete that was unceremoniously ended when Lord Randolph arrived unexpectedly and kicked Edward the Caresser out the door, there’s no documentary proof that Jennie Churchill entertained Prince Albert Edward horizontally, or in any other sexual position, while her sons’ father was still among the living. The platonic nature of their relationship was undoubtedly Jennie’s doing, for not only do the Lees make it clear that Edward Vll didn’t consider the fact that a lady he fancied was married to be an impediment to her becoming his mistress, but by the time he met Lady Churchill he’d become privately notorious for hosting wife swapping orgies at his London residence, Marlborough House. One can only presume that his increasingly deaf and sexually frigid wife, Alexandra, wasn’t in attendance at such soirées.
Their correspondence, however, makes it clear that once their affair commenced, it was intensely sexual in nature. At one point Edward even asked Jennie to invite him over for a “Japanese tea”, which implies that she’d be wearing an easy to remove kimono while serving him. Such garments were also referred to privately as “geisha dresses” and the implication was that the women wearing them would entertain their gentlemen callers in the same manner as a geisha. Tea dresses were also sometimes worn privately by certain ladies while hosting a private tea with a male friend for the same purpose. Theo Aronson describes the ritual of private teas, such as those indulged in by the then Prince of Wales and Lady Churchill, between married ladies and gentlemen, who weren’t married to each other, in his book, King in Love, Edward Vll and His Mistresses.
During the Victorian age, afternoon teas were considered the perfect setting for an assignation between an adulterous couple. Under a time constraint of little more than an hour, and often taking place in a drawing room where a sofa or divan was the closest thing a couple had to a bed, it was imperative that the lady involved wear a garment that could be removed and put back on as quickly as possible and with a minimum of fuss. It was in this privately hedonistic environment that tea dresses and kimonos rose to popularity among the British upper classes during the height of the Victorian age. For Albert Edward to insist that Jennie Churchill wear one of these garments while privately entertaining him is a direct indictment of the lascivious nature of their relationship.
While at the height of their affair they were photographed in public together by the Daily Mirror, and there’s even an indication that during the brief lull between Edward’s affairs with Daisy Warwick and Alice Keppel Lady Churchill served as his official mistress, by 1899 their liaison was affectively over. Certainly by 1900, when Jennie married the first of her two husbands young enough to be her sons, her relationship with the Prince of Wales had gone back to being just a friendship.
The Lees also set the record straight concerning various other rumors about Lady Churchill. While she might’ve cheated on Lord Randolph with Karl, 8th Prince Kinsky and one time Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Britain, she certainly didn’t have an affair with the 7th Earl of Falmouth, who was rumored to be the father of her second son. As for the two nephews who claimed to have witnessed them in bed together in 1880, the Lees prove there’s no way they could’ve witnessed such a thing because they had yet to be born when the supposed assignation took place. The number of lovers entertained by Jennie Churchill during her lifetime was more akin to 12 rather than 200; she wasn’t pregnant at the time of her first marriage, but instead gave birth to Winston prematurely resulting from a riding accident suffered during her pregnancy; and Lord Randolph Churchill died of a brain tumor rather than syphilis. The syphilitic rumor didn’t come into existence until 1920, long after his demise, and was the invention of Winston Churchill’s political enemies incensed over him rejoining the Conservative Party.
While Edward Vll’s last official mistress, Mrs. George Keppel, would in time become the ancestress of the current de facto Princess of Wales, it was Lady Randolph Churchill who holds the distinction among Edward Vll’s extramarital amours as having produced the most illustrious progeny. Perhaps this is the ultimate reason why she’s become such a maligned figure. For there truly is no British prime minister considered greater than Winston Churchill, and many a British aristocrat must’ve smarted over the fact that his mother was no more than the upstart American daughter of a self made millionaire. From Jeanette Jerome to Wallis Simpson, American women have only ever been accepted by the British upper class as long as they stay in their token place. The moment they demonstrate real ambition, or their children do so, their names become besmirched in one form or another. Should there be a socially enterprising American girl out there harboring ambitions of marrying Prince Harry, she’d do well to take heed of this lesson.