PM's daughter 'jumped off a cliff' after being ditched by Churchill: Tempestuous love triangle stayed a family secret for 100 years
23:08 GMT, 23 November 2012
At the end of a long, relatively uneventful Edwardian summer, the papers were suddenly full of dire news about the 21-year-old daughter of the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith.
The headlines were shocking: ‘Premier’s daughter missing’, said one; ‘Miss Asquith’s peril’, warned another. She had been reported missing at Cruden Bay on the Scottish coast, where the family had been spending their holiday in September 1908 at a rented fortress with the ominous name of Slains Castle.
After a dangerous search lasting half the night, Violet Asquith was finally discovered lying in wet grass on a rocky ledge above the sea — uninjured but apparently barely conscious.
A love triangle: Violet Asquith, the daughter of former Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, pictured left, was left heartbroken when Winston Churchill, then just an MP, married Clementine in 1930, pictured right in 1930
A doctor was summoned and she quickly revived. But rumours continued to swirl: had she fallen by accident or had there been foul play Some even whispered that she might have been intentionally trying to harm herself.
The Prime Minister moved swiftly to quiet any speculation by offering an innocent tale about his daughter stumbling in the dark. But no one could explain why Violet had remained missing for so many hours. It took several days of determined stonewalling before the Press stopped asking questions.
What happened that night has long
remained a mystery — but buried in the Asquith family papers, now at the
Bodleian Library in Oxford, I have discovered an astonishing
revelation: the story of Violet Asquith’s brush with death is
inextricably linked with her doomed love for a rising young star in her
father’s Liberal cabinet — Winston Churchill.
The Rt Hon Sir Herbert Asquith, Prime Minister between April 1908 to December 1916, kept his daughter's ordeal a secret
Only 20 when she came under Churchill’s spell, Violet Asquith had met him one April weekend in 1907 at Taplow Court, a red-brick mansion on the Thames, near Windsor Castle, owned by society hostess Lady Desborough.
Getting to know young Winston Churchill, who was 12 years her senior and still unmarried, filled her with a sense of ‘new excitement’, as she later put it. Over the next few months, they continued to meet at balls and dinner parties. At the dances, as soon as he arrived, she would throw ‘all engagements to the winds’ and steer him to a corner where they would talk for hours while others danced.
‘Was he, as people said, inebriated by his own words’ she asked herself. ‘I did not care; I only knew that I was.’
In many ways, she and young Churchill were rather alike — both were highly opinionated, strong-willed, idealistic and romantic. At times, it seemed to Violet that she had found in Winston’s mind a mirror image of her own. Her stepmother, Margot Asquith once said that Violet, ‘though intensely feminine, could have made a remarkable man’.
Her stepdaughter certainly believed that she and Churchill breathed the same rarified air of intellectual intensity. She didn’t even laugh when he told her one day, without the slightest trace of modesty: ‘We are all worms. But I do believe that I am a glowworm.’
For Churchill, there was an obvious career advantage to having this remarkable young woman’s unqualified support. At the time they started growing close, her father was still several months away from becoming Prime Minister, but few doubted that he would get the job — and bring new men into the Cabinet with him. Churchill was determined to be one of those men and he knew that Violet would eagerly plead his case.
She didn’t disappoint him. In early April 1908, when Asquith became Prime Minister, she bluntly told her father: ‘Make the most of Winston.’
‘You need have no fear on W’s account,’ he hastened to assure her. ‘He will be well looked after and provided for.’
Irresistible: Winston and Clementine Churchill, pictured holiday in Kent summer 1914, married in 1908 shortly after meeting
On April 8, Churchill was asked to serve as President of the Board of Trade — the youngest man to join the British Cabinet in almost half a century.
/11/23/article-2237607-000334D300000258-510_306x559.jpg” width=”306″ height=”559″ alt=”Alluring: Clementine, pictured with her husband Winston Churchill in 1914, was described by an admirer as a 'sweet almond-eyed gazelle'” class=”blkBorder” />
Alluring: Clementine, pictured with her husband Winston Churchill in 1914, was described by an admirer as a 'sweet almond-eyed gazelle'
But what she hadn’t realised was that another woman had recently captured his heart. Indeed, Clementine Hozier, the 22-year-old granddaughter of Scottish peer the Earl of Airlie, had an allure that Churchill found irresistible. Whereas Violet’s mind was transparent and analytical, Clementine had an air of mystery and sensual complexity about her. One admirer called her a ‘sweet almond-eyed gazelle’.
Churchill began weighing the merits of the two women, who were almost exact opposites. Although his strongest emotions were aroused by Clementine, he wasn’t sure whether she would marry him — whereas he knew that he could count on Violet to say yes. At some point that summer, he decided to make her his fall-back choice in case Clementine turned him down. Which is how he came to lead one woman on while secretly hoping to win another.
‘I behaved badly to Violet,’ he later admitted to his friend and future Secretary of State for Scotland Lord Dalmeny, ‘because I was practically engaged to her.’
A week before his promised visit to Slains Castle, he suggested to Clementine that she come to Blenheim Palace — the home of his cousin, the Duke of Marlborough — on August 10. After she arrived, he wasted little time before proposing, and she said yes.
They agreed that the engagement, which was announced on August 15, should be short. Winston needed to be in London that October for his work at the Board of Trade, so there was just enough time to get married in mid-September and have a fortnight’s honeymoon abroad.
But Violet was still expecting his visit on August 17. Realising it was best for her to know about the engagement before the news appeared in print, Winston sent her a note — in which he added that he’d have to postpone his trip to Scotland.
She was utterly devastated. Indeed, with a hint of self-satisfaction, Clementine would note privately in old age: ‘When Violet heard that Winston was going to marry me, she fainted.’
Violet put up a brave front, telling friends and family that she was pleased for him, but she was deeply jealous of her rival. Privately, she thought Clementine’s appeal was superficial and wondered bitterly ‘whether he will ultimately mind her being as stupid as an owl’.
Happy couple: Sir Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine, pictured outside their home near Hyde Park in London, had a happy marriage
In fact, during that eventful summer of 1908, each woman had reason to be jealous of the other. On Monday, August 24 — with the wedding less than three weeks away — Winston left Clementine in London and boarded a train at King’s Cross for the 14-hour journey to Cruden Bay. He felt he owed it to Violet to make this last-minute dash and explain his decision face-to-face. Furious, Clementine threatened to call off the wedding.
Violet knew this was her last chance to make Winston realise she was a better choice than Clementine, and after he arrived at Slains, she and Churchill talked for hours. Winston tried to persuade her that he had made the right decision, and that they must remain close friends.
One day, they went on a rock-climbing expedition on the dangerous stretch of coast below the castle. He soon took the lead, ‘revelling in the scramble up crags and cliffs, the precarious transition from ledge to ledge, with slippery seaweed underfoot and roaring seas below’, as Violet wrote later.
But the week didn’t end well. While trying to keep up with Churchill, Violet slipped on a wet rock. ‘I scratched my face rather badly rock-climbing with Winston,’ she wrote to her best friend Venetia Stanley.
She was overwrought with emotion when the time came for Winston to leave. In the days that followed, Margot Asquith watched with alarm as her stepdaughter became ‘completely demoralised … till she became almost hysterical’. Wrongly, Margot thought it was all because of the facial injury.
Violet refused to attend Winston’s wedding. Staying behind at the castle with her father and stepmother, she was able to read about the ceremony in nearly every major paper — some of which treated it almost like a state event. Afterwards, the newlyweds rushed off to Italy for their short honeymoon, and for a week everything was quiet at Slains.
Rivals: Clementine, pictured at the theatre in London, never became friends with Violet
But, late on Saturday afternoon, September 19, the Prime Minister’s daughter left the castle with a book in her hand and wandered along the path above the cliffs where she and Churchill had been rock-climbing.
Asquith and his wife were hosting a dinner and didn’t notice her absence. When darkness fell, and there was still no sign of Violet, everyone rushed out to look for her, with servants carrying lanterns and dinner guests following.
After an hour of searching the rugged slopes and ledges, the Prime Minister grew desperate. At this point, dozens of villagers offered to help, including fishermen who knew the coast well.
As midnight approached, Asquith collapsed in his wife’s arms, fearing that his daughter had fallen over a cliff and been swept away by the waves.
Secretive: Despite being avid letter writers, very little correspondence survived between Churchill, pictured with his wife, and Violet
All around them, Margot Asquith could hear the voices of the searchers and see men and women risking their own safety as they crawled over the rocks in the mist. Finally losing hope herself, she went down on her knees and began to pray in the darkness.
Minutes later, she heard the fishermen cheering — and promptly fainted. Her stepdaughter had been found. Afterwards, Violet claimed she had slipped and landed on a ledge, where she hit her head.
But, contrary to what journalists were told, she’d been found lying near the coastal path and her head showed no signs of injury.
The next day, the castle was inundated with requests for interviews and photographs. Violet had never received more attention in her life — and Margot soon concluded that the ‘accident’ had been staged as an attention-seeking exercise.
Indeed, the more Violet’s stepmother considered the evidence, the angrier she became over ‘this unfortunate foolish & most dangerous escapade’, as she called it in her diary, which had endangered the lives of the searchers. However, the Asquiths tried desperately to downplay the incident, anxious that the Press should not discover that Violet’s supposed ‘peril’ was simply an unhappy — perhaps even suicidal — young woman’s cry for attention.
So what did really happen that day It’s certainly possible that she had tried to kill herself by throwing herself onto the ledge. The lack of any physical injury, however, suggests it’s more likely that Margot was right: while Winston and Clementine were enjoying their honeymoon, the deeply wounded Violet was simply making a desperate cry for attention and help.
It was of paramount importance, Margot felt, that her stepdaughter should keep quiet about the events of that day. As she noted in her diary, ‘I wanted her just to thank the fishermen & poor people who found her & to say nothing more about it: poor Violet! Nothing was further from her ideas & she felt hurt I could see by my attitude.’
A close watch was kept on Violet after what she called her ‘rock-affair’. But she continued to show signs of manic behaviour, especially in any matter connected to Winston. In October, the Prime Minister himself had to intervene when she decided to race off to meet Winston after his return from Italy. Hearing that he was in Dundee for a meeting, Violet had suddenly taken it into her head to appear on the same platform with him and speak on his behalf.
Intimate: Sir Winston and Lady Churchill pictured on his 80th Birthday
A wire from her father instructed her to desist — for ‘political’ reasons, he said. The truth is that both he and Margot dreaded that she would attract more publicity — and generate more gossip — if she said anything about Churchill in public, let alone appeared beside him.
Violet reluctantly obeyed. ‘I was sorry,’ she wrote to Venetia afterwards, ‘as I had thought of one or two things I quite wanted to say!’
Churchill, meanwhile, was keen for Violet and Clementine to like each other, so he tried his best to smooth away any hurt feelings. Two months after his wedding, he arranged for the three of them to have lunch in London.
Supporter: Violet remained supportive of Winston Churchill's career and helped him rise through the ranks of the Cabinet
Violet managed to behave herself, but she still wasn’t impressed with her rival. When Churchill was alone with her, he told her that his wife ‘had more in her than met the eye’. Violet simply smiled and gave him a double-edged response: ‘But so much meets the eye.’
Although she was still in emotional turmoil over her lost love, it was clearly in everyone’s interests to act as though nothing had occurred.
But, for her part, Violet never lost her obsession with Winston, becoming his strongest advocate in Downing Street, and playing an influential part in his rapid rise through the Cabinet over the next few years. At the high point of the Liberal reign, he would rank among its top three leaders, serving as Home Secretary and First Lord of the Admiralty.
In later years, both Violet and
Winston were careful to obscure the depth of their earlier involvement.
Very little correspondence between them has survived, which is odd since
both were avid letter-writers.
was not until after Winston Churchill’s death in 1965 that Violet
commented at length on her relationship with him. But her memoir,
Winston Churchill As I Knew Him, is silent about the ‘rock-affair’, and
so discreet that most readers have taken at face value her insistence
that she was merely a friend of the great man, and nothing more.
close reading of the book will reveal, however, that in many passages
her story is one of unrequited love. She writes about being ‘transfixed’
and ‘spellbound’ in Winston’s company, and of ‘seeing stars’ as she sat
next to him, and of feeling ‘a great void’ whenever he was absent.
As for her later life, it is significant that she didn’t marry until 1915 — and even then Winston seems to have been very much on her mind. The man she wed — the dutiful bureaucrat Maurice Bonham Carter — was a pale substitute for the ‘glowworm’ who had won her heart.
No doubt as a poignant reminder of her great love, she chose Churchill’s birthday — November 30 — as the date for her wedding, which took place in the same church where he had married Clementine seven years earlier.
Michael Shelden’s new book Young Titan: The Making Of Winston Churchill (Simon & Schuster, 20) will be published in the UK in March 2013 and is available for pre-order at Amazon and other online retailers.