How Scotland almost cost Churchill his Clementine

Churchill with wife Clementine. Picture: Getty

Churchill with wife Clementine. Picture: Getty

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IT WAS one of the greatest British marriages of the 20th century, surviving two world wars, bouts of “black dog” depression and life in the political spotlight at the highest level.

Yet the marriage between Winston Churchill and Clementine Hozier almost never took place – because the bride-to-be threatened to call off the engagement after her fiancé went on holiday with a former girlfriend in Scotland.

A new book reveals for the first time how Churchill, then a government minister, visited Violet Asquith, the daughter of the prime minister, at Slains Castle in Aberdeenshire, where she explained how little she thought of his future wife.

Asquith thought Hozier was beautiful and charming but that her appeal was superficial, and she wondered “whether he will ultimately mind her being as stupid as an owl”. As her best friend wrote to ask: “Have you yet thought it was your duty to tell him exactly what you think of her?”

The book also reveals how Asquith, who was 21 years old, became so upset following the couple’s wedding that she went missing for hours on the rocky Scottish coastline, causing her father to fear that his daughter may have fallen to her death.

The complicated love life of the man voted the Greatest Briton in a BBC poll is revealed in Young Titan: The Making Of Winston Churchill, by Michael Shelden. Before his wedding, the 32-year-old president of the Board of Trade had been rejected by three women to whom he had proposed and so, fearful that Hozier might also turn him down, he cultivated a romance with prime minister Herbert Asquith’s daughter as a marital back-up.

When Clemmie, as she was known, accepted his proposal in August 1908, Churchill then felt duty-bound to visit Violet and explain his decision in person.

On 24 August, just three weeks before his wedding, Churchill took the extraordinary decision to leave his fiancée in London to attend to the nuptial preparations while he sought to soothe the broken heart of his former flame. He boarded the train at King’s Cross for the 14-hour train journey to Cruden Bay in Aberdeenshire, where the prime minister and his family had rented Slains Castle from the Earl of Erroll.

The castle may have inspired Bram Stoker, a regular visitor to Cruden Bay, as a location for Dracula’s keep, but it was Hozier, 23, who was having to deal with a horror story.

As Shelden, a professor at Indiana State University, explained: “Unaware of Winston’s trip to see Violet at Slains, Churchill’s previous biographers have suggested that Clemmie was just suffering from an ordinary case of nerves, or that she was worried about the burdens of becoming a politician’s wife.”

In reality, “Clemmie was furious,” Shelden said. “She threatened to break off the engagement. Her brother Bill had to talk her out of it, telling her that it would be disastrous for all concerned to ‘humiliate’ a public figure of Winston’s stature.”

Her daughter Mary later speculated: “Maybe she even wondered if Winston truly loved her.” At the time, Clemmie said the reason for considering calling off the wedding was that Churchill had failed to pay her “sufficient attention”.

During his visit, Churchill and Asquith spent hours walking through meadows and along the coastline. The couple visited the Cruden Bay links, where the prime minister played golf and, in the evening, Churchill dined with the family. During the holiday, he persuaded her that he had made the right decision but that nothing would stop them being friends.

In her memoir, Asquith said Churchill and she only discussed the marriage “in the abstract”. Shelden doubts this account: “No doubt what they said to each other was, as usual, highly specific and very spirited.”

They also went on rock-climbing expeditions. Asquith wrote of Churchill “revelling in the scramble up crags and cliffs, the precarious transition from ledge to ledge with slippery seaweed underfoot and roaring seas below.” But as Shelden wrote: “Their adventures on the red-granite cliffs and rugged shore didn’t end well. Violet slipped on a wet rock and hit her face, opening a nasty cut.”

The cut made her self-conscious about her looks and she was deeply upset when Churchill left at the end of the week.

A week later, she went missing, leading the prime minister and his wife to fear she had fallen to her death. A search party of villagers and fishermen risked their lives searching for her on a misty night, only for her to be found unharmed. Her mother suspected that her daughter, who may have suffered an emotional breakdown, staged the incident for the sake of attention. Margot Asquith described the event in her diary as: “this unfortunate, foolish and most dangerous escapade”.

There is little doubt of the antagonism that existed between Hozier and Asquith after the marriage. At a lunch, two months after the wedding, Churchill told Asquith that Hozier “had more in her than met the eye”, to which she replied: “But so much meets the eye.” In her old age, Hozier would take great pleasure in revealing: “When Violet heard that Winston was going to marry me, she fainted.”

For his part, Churchill had no doubt that he made the right decision, later writing: “I married, and lived happily every after.”

Asquith, who became a Liberal activist and later a life peer, did not marry until 1915, when she became the wife of politician and cricketer Maurice Bonham Carter. Their granddaughter is the actress Helena Bonham Carter. Hozier and Churchill’s marriage lasted 56 years until his death in 1965. She died in 1977 aged 92.

Twitter: @sgmcginty

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