The Children of George Spencer, 4th Duke of Marlborough

Today’s post is very much about the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough’s children, through art. I came across this copy of a portrait of George Spencer, 4th Duke of Marlborough, his wife, Lady Caroline née Russell and six of their children by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which is now on view in the Red Drawing Room,  at the Marlborough family home, Blenheim Palace.

George and Caroline were married 23 August 1762, by Special Licence, Caroline being a minor at the time. Although the marriage was registered at the parish church of St Leonard, Streatham, Lambeth, they were married at Caroline’s family home, Bedford House.

It would be a little over a year later, on 20 October 1763, that their first child was born. Possibly somewhat annoying, the child was a girl and as such, there was no fanfare or great celebration following the birth.

Caroline Duchess of Marlborough, With Lady Caroline Spencer her Daughter NPG
Caroline Duchess of Marlborough, With Lady Caroline Spencer her Daughter NPG

The couple would ideally have hoped for a son and heir, but on this occasion, this was not to be, instead this child was Caroline, named in honour of her mother and the Oxford Journal, 29 October 1763 simply noted that

About nine o’clock, her Grace the Duchess of Marlborough was safely delivered of a daughter, at Marlborough House in Pall Mall.

Their next child was again a girl, Elizabeth, and once again, the Oxford Journal 22 December 1764, repeated the same information as they had done previously, word for word.

It would be in 1766 that fortune smiled upon the couple and their first son, George, was born. The Sussex Advertiser, 17 March 1766 carried the following account of the birth:

Woodstock, March 8. It is impossible to express the joy diffused over every countenance on the news of the happy addition of a son and Marquis to the illustrious family of the Duke of Marlborough. The illuminations, bonfires, ringing of bells, firing of cannons etc continued for two days upon this occasion.

This gives you a very clear indication of how important it was for a noble family to produce a son and heir; it demonstrates a totally different reaction by the family and the media of the day to that of Caroline giving birth to two girls.

The next task for Caroline was to continue producing offspring until she produced a ‘spare’ to the heir.

The Leeds Intelligencer confirms that around 24 October 1769

Birth. The Grace the Dutchess of Marlborough, of a daughter, at Marlborough House in Pall Mall.

Oh dear, another girl, Georgina Charlotte (as she was baptised, although known as Charlotte), that spare was somewhat illusive.

Baptism of Georgina Charlotte 1769 at St Martin in The Fields
Baptism of Georgina Charlotte 1769 at St Martin in The Fields

It would be December 1770 when the spare arrived, Henry John, once again, to a fanfare and celebrations.

The Reading Mercury 31 December 1770 reporting that

Last week her Grace the Duchess of Marlborough was safely delivered of a son, at Marlborough House, in Pall Mall. Upon the arrival of this news at Blenheim House, there were great rejoicings and festivity.

It’s feasible to see how close Georgina Charlotte and Henry John were from this painting entitled, ‘The Young Fortune Tellers’, at the Huntington Library and Art Museum, painted c1775, again by Reynolds and I have to say it’s one of the sweetest portraits I have seen in a long time.

So, we now have an heir and a spare, plus 3 daughters, but the couple didn’t stop there. 8 November 1773, according to the Hampshire Chronicle the couple produced another daughter, Ann and again, being a girl, it was a simple, formal statement of fact.

The Mask. Original by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Ann and Charlotte. YCBA
The Mask. Original by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Ann and Charlotte. YCBA

It must have appeared that their family was now complete until out of the blue, some 6 years later, another son, Francis Almeric, arrived. The Northampton Mercury, 3 January 1780 reported that:

Her Grace Duchess of Marlborough was safely delivered of a son at Marlborough House, London.

No fanfare for this child, after all, the heir and spare was still very much alive and the line of succession complete.

British Museum
British Museum

According to many articles I’ve read, there was another daughter, Amelia Sophia, said to have been born 1774/5, so let’s set the record straight, she was not born then.

Whilst searching for her baptism, it seemed strange that there was no newspaper report announcing her arrival, and no sign of a baptism. However the family tree at Blenheim, have it recorded as 1785, so I wanted to check which date was correct. There was a possible clue in the burial register of St Leonard’s, Streatham on 7 February 1829.

Amelia Sophia (married by this time), died at the age of 44. If her true age was given when she was buried, then she wasn’t born in 1775, but some 10 years later in 1785.  Checking the newspapers and sure enough, the Oxford Journal 17 September 1785 reported that:

On Thursday the 8th Instant, her Grace the Duchess of Marlborough was safely delivered of a daughter, at Blenheim.

Whilst searching for portraits of the children, I did come across this very famous painting by Reynolds, ‘Age of Innocence’ at Tate. There have been a variety of possible sitters suggested for the portrait, including Lady Ann Spencer.

However, that suggestion was correctly dismissed as she was born 1773 and would therefore have been in her teens by the time Reynolds painted this portrait, which was thought to have been either 1785 or 1788.

Knowing now that Amelia Sophia was the youngest daughter rather than Ann, and that she was born in 1785, it seems feasible that the portrait may well have been of her aged just 3, but more research is needed to try to prove that theory.

The Age of Innocence ?1788 Sir Joshua Reynolds 1723-1792 Presented by Robert Vernon 1847

I also came across this mezzotint on the National Galleries Scotland website  and I have been able to indicate each of the children on there, and of course we’re missing the last two – Francis and Amelia Sophia, who weren’t born when Reynolds painted it which ties in with the family portrait being painted about 1778.

In his Catalogue Raisonné or a list of the pictures in Blenheim Palace, Sir George Scharf also notes that the family portrait was painted prior to the births of Francis and Amelia which very helpfully confirms my research.

As is so often the case, this article leaves me with more questions than answers, but you never know, it might be feasible over time to ascertain one way or another whether ‘Age of Innocence‘ is Amelia Sophia. I really do hope so.

13 thoughts on “The Children of George Spencer, 4th Duke of Marlborough

  1. Jennifer Newbold

    I hope so, too! Perhaps it’s a little silly of me to want to give these portraits of long-forgotten people their names again, but that’s me… On my desk I have a reproduction of a portrait thought to be by Allan Ramsey of ‘An Unidentified Young Man’. It disturbed me that no-one knows who he is any longer, so I gave him a name. I call him ‘John’.



    1. Sarah Murden

      I do hope so, but we’ll have to see. I always want to know who unidentified portraits are and what their lives were like. Most of Ramsay’s portraits are identified, so perhaps with some research you never know you might just be able to figure out ‘John’ was. If I can help just drop me a line, I’m a big fan of Ramsay’s work.


      1. Jennifer Newbold

        Sarah, I tried a couple of times to attach a photo of ‘John’s’ painting, but WP doesn’t allow that function, and I’m afraid I let it slide. If you’re still interested int doing some detection into ‘An Unidentified Young Man’, let me know. I can send the photo to you directly.


        1. Sarah Murden

          You’re quite right, WordPress doesn’t allow attachments to comments, which is rather irritating, so yes, please, do sent it directly to me and let’s see if we can give him a name 🙂


  2. Were christenings a public event or more private (I guess it depended on the health of the baby) and were they published in newspapers? In Catholic christenings the mother was not present, but the midwife. Also, the midwife could christen the infants if they were very poorly after birth. Did English midwives have the same authority? It would be fanstastic if you could find something about this!! 🙂


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