It is traditional in biography to begin with some notes on genealogy: a bit of background on members upward on the family tree.
Little Winston Spencer Churchill was born into partial British nobility on the father’s side, and American wealth on the mother’s. His paternal grandfather was the 7th Duke of Marlborough, descended from John Churchill, the military leader in the successful 18th century continental campaigns that led to Queen Anne giving him the title. By the right of eldest son, the peerage went to Winny’s uncle, though there was later an interval during which, had his cousin the 9th Duke passed away, there would have been no heir by direct descent, and Winny could have come into the title. But it wasn’t to be.
The maternal grandfather, Leonard Jerome, had come into wealth by horse racing – “there was a touch of Joseph P. Kennedy about him” (Jenkins 6). His daughter Jennie, Winny’s mother, was a social butterfly that spent much of her life abroad (whether measured by the first anchor of the USA or the second one of England).
Lord Randolph, the younger son of the 7th Duke, achieved (short-lived) fame in Conservative Party politics. When he met Jennie at a party, a whirlwind courtship of three days ensued, culminating in the announcement of their engagement. Then there was eight months before the actual marriage. Winston was born Nov 30, 1874, just 7½ months after the nuptials, and dutifully reported by the hagiographies as “premature.” If Lord Randolph, prior to the nuptials, became the father, that would indicate a defect of character, but not a crime reaching the level of fornication let alone adultery. Indeed, I would not dwell on it at all. However, there are several circumstantial reasons that lead me to consider it highly probable that Lord Randolph was not the actual father.
1. In point of fact, Jennie proved herself to be highly promiscuous as the marriage developed. One Irishman estimated the number of her liaisons at 200, including the King of Serbia. Though the magnitude of 200 is discounted even by the wry Jenkins as being “suspiciously round” (8), the qualitative character assessment can scarcely be doubted.
2. In reporting the birth of Jennie’s second child Jack, Jenkins with awkward tact says “there has long been a strong suggestion that this boy had a different father” (7). It is a bit odd to put it this way, rather than saying “Lord Randolph was probably not the father of Jack,” if this were the main certainty.
3. Ordinarily, a young girl would spend the last couple months before her marriage in her parents’ house. Visits from the fiancé would be formal. In Victorian times, a tryst with the fiancé during that time would probably be more difficult than with some paramour anonymous to the parents.
4. The hagiographic account depends on conception pretty near the wedding night even granting only a month and a half prematurity.
5. Through the years of Winny’s childhood, Lord Randolph was peculiarly inattentive. On at least two occasions, for example, Randolph gave speeches in the very towns where Winny was resident as a boarding student, yet did not bother to pay a visit. Indeed, decades later, after a long dinner with his own son, Winston declared that he and his son had in that evening spent more time together than his own father had with him in his entire life.
These are all circumstantial: an alternate theory, supporting the traditional view, is possible. That Jennie was promiscuous does not prove that she was in this instance; she could have had an early tryst with her fiancé, or that baby could indeed have been almost two months premature; Lord Randolph’s coldness could be explained as the practice of Victorian semi-nobility; even if Lord Randolph were not cuckolded, he was not necessarily certain of this, and undoubtedly there would have been a suspicion in his mind come Nov 30; even so, he was not completely without paternal concern for Winny, as we will see anon.
In an age when these matters can be decided with near certainty using DNA, I should hope for the day when scruples will be overcome and this question decided once and for all, however painful it might be for the Churchill cult.
Why is this important anyhow? you ask.
Well, there is a reason that “bastard” has come into our vernacular as denoting a character type, though its etymology began as factually descriptive of a state of affairs. The case of the bastard is interesting, for it presents a middle case in the “nature vs. nurture” debate. It suggests that character can be partially stamped by factors already determined at birth (nature) yet also contingent in terms of choices that were made (nurture).
There were bastard-like traits that revealed themselves in Winston’s character. These can be accounted for (of course) by factors other than bastardy. But it makes one wonder.
The Christian view toward bastardy is simultaneously hard and sympathetic. The fault lies with at least one of the parents, not the bastard himself. Here, a great deal of fault can be laid at the feet of, especially, the mother. Winny suffered his whole life from an undue desire to be loved: this desire stamped many of his exploits. We should keep an eye on this question but with an examination, as sympathetic as possible, of Churchill’s schoolboy days on its own terms.
There is more to patrimony than biology. Unfortunately, the main legacy Lord Randolph left to Winny, according to Jenkins, was “a desire to cut a figure, accompanied by a conviction that he too was likely to die young, and that he had therefore better be quick about it” (18).
Roy Jenkins. Churchill: A Biography (NY: Farrar Straus and Giroux 2001)
Martin Gilbert. Churchill: A Life (NY: Henry Holt 1991)
Winston Churchill. My Early Life: a Roving Commission (NY: Scribner’s Sons 1958 )