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The Wives of the 11th Duke of Marlborough

Updated on November 1, 2014
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BritFlorida loves to track down historical stories, especially scandals and mysteries from the UK.

John Spencer-Churchill. The Eleventh Duke of Marlborough
John Spencer-Churchill. The Eleventh Duke of Marlborough | Source

When the 11th Duke of Marlborough died on 16th October 2014, few people will have noticed it in the news.

Those who did probably dismissed the duke as some crusty, boring old member of the British aristocracy and not a chap of any interest at all.

Actually, he had a fascinating life - or should I say - fascinating loves. True, he had fewer wives than Henry VIII and chopped off no heads but he certainly had an unusual selection of spouses.

His story bristles with names you’ll recognise - Churchill, Vanderbilt, Onassis, Spencer, Peron … and of course, lots of royalty.

The duke’s name was John Spencer-Churchill and yes, he was related to both Winston and the former Princess of Wales, Diana. But he was far posher than both of them. And as you can tell from one of his middle names - Vanderbilt - he was related to a famously wealthy American family too.

As a young man, John moved in Princess Margaret’s somewhat racy crowd and was often spoken of as a candidate to marry Margaret or even her sister - now Queen Elizabeth II.


First wife. Susan Hornby

The duke started his matrimonial tour of the world in England. Susan Hornby was his first wife. She was from a wealthy, aristocratic (though untitled) family. She was his only English wife. Winston Churchill, the Queen (later the Queen Mother) and Princess Margaret were amongst the guests at the wedding, which was hailed as the society wedding of the year.

Together, the couple had three children, two boys and a girl. The first boy sadly died in infancy.

John Spencer-Churchill and Susan were married for ten years until their 1961 divorce. You might imagine that this was due to John’s philandering, in view of his later life, but in fact he divorced Susan because of her affair with a prominent stockbroker.

Because of the death of their eldest son, Charles James (known as Jamie) became heir. His story is fascinating in itself, as you’ll see below.

Susan was quick to remarry. She became the wife of Alan Cyril Heber-Percy, a man half a dozen years her junior. This marriage too ended in divorce.She married for a third time, to John Osborne Gough, MBE, who was a prominent industrialist.


Second wife: Athina Onassis

Next, John cast his eyes toward Greece. Athina was John’s second wife. He married her very soon after his divorce to Susan and yes, she was from that Onassis family. She was the ex-wife of Aristotle Onassis; Athina had divorced him just a year previously because of his affair with singer Maria Callas. Plus, he had reputedly had brief relationship with Eva Peron.

She was the mother of heiress Christina and her brother Alexandros, so John now had two stepchildren.

This marriage too lasted for ten years, thanks to Athina’s affair with … her brother-in-law.

This is where it gets juicy.

Her sister, Eugenie, had married Stavros Niarchos, another Greek shipping magnate who, incidentally had been married twice before. Eugenie died of a drug overdose in Paris.

However, her husband Stavros was indicted for the murder of his wife. The post-mortem showed fresh injuries to her neck and her abdomen. The eventual verdict was suicide. The injuries were explained away as being caused during attempts to revive her. Hmm.

Strangely, Athina herself died in the same way - of a drug overdose in Paris. Her daughter, Christina, demanded an autopsy but once again, Stavros was cleared of the suspicion of murdering his wife.

Hmm. It does make you wonder.


Third wife: Rosita Douglas

The duke with the roving eye then became even more international - this time his wife was Swedish, born in Spain and of Scottish descent. Her mother was Prussian - the duke chose a truly international lady this time.

Countess Rosita was the well-born daughter of a statesman. Curiously, because Athina had given the duke no children, Rosita began a family quickly.

But it seemed that history was repeating itself. Just like Susan, the duke’s first wife, she lost her firstborn son and then went onto have a further son and a daughter.

This marriage lasted for over thirty five years but in the final years, the couple lived apart. There was speculation in the newspapers that he was scheming to divorce Rosita so that he could marry his mistress. This seemed to be the case.

Now in his eighties, the duke wasn't finished yet...


Fourth wife: Lily Mahtani

The duke was eighty-two when he married fifty year-old Lily. As this was only a few months after his divorce from Rosita, it was heavily speculated that an affair between the two had been in place for some considerable time.

Lily was a divorcee too - her previous husband was an Indian businessman and Lily herself had been born in Iran. The duke was continuing his romantic travels around the world.

Lily had been in the news several years previously. Do you remember Sarah Ferguson, once the wife of Prince Andrew, the Duke of York? Lily was incredibly rich and had lent money to Fergie (as she was known) to support her lavish lifestyle.

Fergie claimed that this was a gift and refused to pay it back. Lily was adamant that it had been a loan and demanded payment. It was all very messy.

However, the family claimed that Lily had made the elderly duke very happy in his final years. Indeed, it’s said that she was responsible for healing the rift between him and his heir.

The 12th Duke of Marlborough
The 12th Duke of Marlborough | Source

What about the new duke?

Susan’s surviving son, Jamie, was his father’s heir. However in his early years he was a hopeless drug addict who had been in rehab countless times, plus he’d spent several terms in jail.

The duke’s huge passion was his family home, Blenheim Palace, and he couldn’t countenance the thought of Jamie inheriting the property. Therefore he disinherited his son and set up a board of trustees instead to manage the house and the estate.

In recent years though Jamie managed to stabilize his life and is drug-free. Lily effected a reconciliation between father and son. On the death of the duke, Jamie - the former wild child - became the 12th Duke of Marlborough.


Further reading

The title is an extremely old one - there have been many generations of Dukes of Marlborough. Their home, Blenheim Palace, is one of the finest stately homes in Britain.

The Spender-Churchill family has a fascinating history.

We've seen above how members of this family include Winston Churchill, Lady Diana Spencer and Consuelo Vanderbilt but there are many more.

Learn more about the family and the incredible Blenheim Palace from the book you see here.

A complicated family indeed

When John-Spencer Churchill's father married his second wife, an additional American connection plus a Onassis connection entered the family. His wife was Laura Charteris, the British widow of Michael Canfield, who was reputedly the Duke of Kent's illegitimate son who had been brought up in the States. His previous wife had been Lee, the sister of Jackie Kennedy Onassis.

Strangely, Jackie Kennedy herself might also have become a member of the British aristocracy.When the 11th Duke of Marlborough's grandfather divorced Consuelo Vanderbilt, he married another America, the eccentric Gladys Deacon. The book you see here is an excellent read about this highly unusual woman.

The family has a very complex history indeed.

© 2014 Jackie Jackson


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    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Hazelton 

      6 years ago from Sunny Florida

      You are right, he had an interesting love life. He seemed to like all types of women.

    • BritFlorida profile imageAUTHOR

      Jackie Jackson 

      6 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @favored - thank you! I think that the official stories that tour guides tell you miss some of the best bits :)

    • favored profile image

      Fay Favored 

      6 years ago from USA

      You do know how to tell a story. It was much better than the version we heard visiting Blenheim Palace.

    • BritFlorida profile imageAUTHOR

      Jackie Jackson 

      6 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @newbizmau - I'm so glad that you enjoyed it. History can be fascinating, can't it?

    • newbizmau profile image

      Maurice Glaude 

      6 years ago from Mobile, AL

      So interesting! It was like watching the history channel. So much info.

    • BritFlorida profile imageAUTHOR

      Jackie Jackson 

      6 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @alancaster149 - indeed he was ahead of his time. And it seems that he appreciated female company. The ink was hardly dry on a divorce decree and he was signed on the dotted line on a marriage certificate. I imagine that most of his wives added to the coffers at Blenheim.

      I agree so much about something else being raked up. I think I have material to write about for years ahead, thanks to the doings of the British aristocracy.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 

      6 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      And the saga goes on, eh? The new boy was given a twenty-one gun salute here by the press. All sins forgiven? They'll rake something else up from the fallen leaves by the kerb, mark my words.

      It's unfair though, to say John Churchill was 'posher' than Winston. The latter was the son of a younger son, Randolph who had problems of his own. Winston was born at Blenheim Palace whilst his mother attended a ball, and came into the world in the billiards room (posh men's pool) I think.

      The Nazis tried to smear Churchill as being Jewish, confusing his mother with someone else. Anyway that's immaterial, even if she was Jewish it probably points to Randolph as being above the prejudices common to the upper classes of the time. That John Churchill married an Indian woman points to him being a man of the time as well.

    • BritFlorida profile imageAUTHOR

      Jackie Jackson 

      6 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @bravewarrior - the more I find out about the British aristocracy, the more I am amazed. It seems that everyone was connected to everyone else in some way. I have a huge piece of paper on my desk with names and arrows going from one to another and notes saying 'married him', 'sister of', 'neighbour of' and so on. Talk about a tangled web!

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 

      6 years ago from Central Florida

      Jackie, it seems all British royalty has a very complex and somewhat shaded history. However, they don't keep it under wraps as our American countrymen try to do.

    • BritFlorida profile imageAUTHOR

      Jackie Jackson 

      6 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @Elsie Hagley - thank you somuch. I love to discover things about these people. I certainly find the fact that Stavros' two wives both dying whilst married to him highly suspicious though. Wouldn't it be amazing if the truth eventually came out?

    • Elsie Hagley profile image

      Elsie Hagley 

      6 years ago from New Zealand

      Very interesting reading. You amaze me where you get all the information from, about such prominent people. Thanks very well written.

    • BritFlorida profile imageAUTHOR

      Jackie Jackson 

      6 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @LorettaL - thank you so much!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      You write such interesting lenses.


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