Being the child of a Great Man is notoriously difficult, and many people have been broken by the experience. Winston Churchill was one of the few who succeeded, although he was in a sense helped by the fact that his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, died when he was only 21. Another who succeeded – triumphantly – was Lady Soames (1922-2014) who was undaunted by her father’s greatness, though never in any doubt of it.
It probably helped that she was by far the youngest of her siblings, eight years younger than her sister Sarah. Another sister, Marigold, had died aged 2½ the year before Mary was born. ‘I don’t think I was necessarily intended,’ Mary later said, ‘but I suppose I was the child of consolation. It’s clear from letters my father wrote to my mother that, when I arrived the following year he was delighted that the nursery had started again.’
The Churchills bought Chartwell Manor in Kent the same month that Mary was born, and it was there that she enjoyed an idyllic childhood. She helped her father build his brick walls, fed the black swans on the lake that he had dug, nurtured a lifelong taste for English gardens, watched him paint his pictures, went riding on the Kentish Weald, and was largely brought up by her governess, an impoverished cousin of her mother Clementine’s, who stayed at Chartwell for twenty years and imbued her with a strong Christian faith. She was also involved with politics from the earliest age; her parents took her to Dundee during the 1922 election campaign, before she was even baptized, as one scandalized newspaper reported.
Winston Churchill treated all his children as intelligent adults however young they were, so they were expected to interact with the astonishingly eclectic galère of his friends who came to lunch and dinner at Chartwell, such as Lawrence of Arabia, Walter Sickert, Professor Frederick Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell), the Prince of Wales and many of the senior political figures of the day. Mary was therefore never overawed when in later life she attended the great wartime conferences, remembering Joseph Stalin at Potsdam in July 1945, for example, as ‘small, dapper and rather twinkly’. Accompanying her father to the Quebec Conference of September 1943 on HMS Renown, in which she celebrated her 21st birthday, she was nearly knocked overboard by a wave as the battleship zig-zigged in heavy seas to avoid the German U-Boats that infested the Atlantic.
Although she had an important role commanding Anti-Aircraft battery No. 481 in London, on the Channel coast and in Northwestern Europe during the Second World War – in which she displayed great personal courage from the Blitz through to the fall of Germany and won a military MBE – Mary Soames was also able to join her father as an honorary aide-de-camp as he made speeches, launched ships, attended manoeuvres and entertained weekend guests at the wartime prime ministerial residences of Chequers and Ditchley Park. Her personal attributes proved invaluable as she shared the highs and lows of her father’s wartime career, providing him with a warmly supportive family life through his and his country’s travails.
One of the worst moments came when Winston Churchill left the Potsdam Conference with Mary to fly back to London for the results of the 1945 General Election, victory in which they were confident enough of that she left half her luggage in Potsdam. The massive Labour landslide in that election left her father, who took it as a personal rejection, utterly devastated, and Mary did much to soften the blow and help her parents rebuild their lives in Chartwell and London after she was demobilized the following year. Of her mother’s devotion to her father’s life and career at this time she was later to say: ‘He always came first, second and third.’
In February 1947 Mary married the handsome and intelligent Coldstream Guards officer Christopher Soames. (Field Marshal Lord Montgomery of Alamein characteristically gave them a signed photograph of himself as a wedding present.) Between 1948 and 1959 she had five children, whilst also actively supporting Soames’ political career as a Conservative MP between 1950 and 1966. In 1964 Mary played an important part in persuading her father finally to relinquish his seat in parliament, after spending nearly two-thirds of a century there. Although Christopher Soames lost his Bedfordshire seat in the Labour victory of 1966, he and Mary were to sparkle in the British Embassy in Paris from 1968 to 1972, where she proved a talented ambassador’s wife. Her status as Churchill’s daughter hugely increased the draw for Frenchmen who were invited to their balls, dinner and receptions there. A committed supporter of European unity, Christopher Soames was then appointed Britain’s first vice-president of the European Commission after the United Kingdom’s entry in 1973, so Mary reprised their Parisian diplomatic success once again in Brussels for a further three years until 1976.
Although one might today question the wisdom of the Thatcher ministry in effectively handing over power in Zimbabwe – then known as Rhodesia – to the government of Robert Mugabe, none can doubt the courage and goodwill of Lord and Lady Soames between December 1979 and April 1980 in going out there after Christopher Soames was appointed as the country’s last governor. Mary was subsequently heartbroken when it became clear that, for all his assurances, Mugabe was bent on becoming a totalitarian dictator of the type that her father had so opposed in the 1930s. She was appointed a Dame Commander of the British Empire for her service in Rhodesia.
By then Mary had already begun to develop an intellectual life quite unconnected to her husband’s political roles in Paris, Brussels and Salisbury (present day Harare). In 1979 her superb biography of her mother, Clementine Churchill: The Biography of a Marriage, was published to great and genuine approbation from the critics. As well as becoming a bestseller, the book won the Wolfson Prize, Britain’s senior literary award for history. In it, Mary emphasized the central role that her mother had played in her father’s life, especially during the Second World War. She did not flinch from recording the difficult times – such as when Clementine had to upbraid Winston over his rudeness to Downing Street staff in May 1940 – as well of course the triumphant ones. It is bravely revealed that her mother was probably the illegitimate daughter of William ‘Bay’ Middleton, a fox-hunting friend of her maternal grandmother Blanche Hozier.
The success of the book led to Mary writing several more well-researched and well-written books, all of which have stood the test of time. A Churchill Family Album (1982) was a magnificent compilation of photographs from Winston’s childhood to Clementine’s death, very well-captioned. The Profligate Duke (1987) was a biography of George Spencer-Churchill, the 5th Duke of Marlborough. In it Mary blithely admitted that ‘This book is about unimportant people, but I have found my dramatis personae every bit as interesting in their characters and emotions … as those of the central figures in the history of the Marlborough dynasty.’
In Winston Churchill: His Life as a Painter (1990), Mary wrote of how her father’s passion for painting emerged in his early forties, after the Dardanelles catastrophe nearly ended his political career. ‘Those who have neither experienced nor witnessed it cannot imagine the void which opens under the feet of a politician removed from power,’ she wrote, ostensibly about her father’s 1915 resignation over the Dardanelles but also of course about the 1945 General Election defeat that she had indeed witnessed. She wrote of the importance of the way light played on Churchill’s landscapes, which explained in part his love of holidaying in Morocco and the French Riviera. Other of her books included an edition of her parents’ letters entitled Speaking for Themselves and her immensely readable if over-modest autobiography, A Daughter’s Tale.
In 1987 Mary’s husband Christopher died at the age of 66, but her energy and generosity never waned. The title of her autobiography underlined how conscious she always was of her patrimony, and although she was patron of numerous charities and organizations – her chairmanship of the trustees of the National Theatre between 1989-1995 being perhaps the most important of these – she was also a wonderful ambassador for all the many Churchill-related causes and charities, such as the International Churchill Centre and the Churchill Archives Centre, that still strive to increase knowledge of his life and career and to keep his name revered. She was naturally very keen to protect her father’s reputation, but was always prepared to countenance serious historical debate, and was quick to challenge anyone who claimed to know what her father would say about contemporary affairs and issues. In 2005 she was made a Lady Companion of the Garter by The Queen.
On a personal note, as well as being a loving daughter, a devoted wife and mother, a successful ambassadress, an acclaimed author, an admired theatre chairman, a talented gardener and a diligent custodian of the reputation of her father, Mary Soames was quite the most charming and good-natured lady imaginable.