At thirteen years old, Sarah Jennings has already learned the hard lessons of survival, her family’s wealth squandered by war in mid-seventeenth century England. Determined to be the agent of her own fate, Sarah accepts an invitation to join the royal household of James Stuart, Duke of York and heir to the throne of Charles II.
Stepping into the lax morality of Charles’s Restoration court, Sarah ignores the debauchery around her, vowing to hold out for a good marriage. Unfortunately, Sarah is unprepared for her attraction to John Churchill, a handsome soldier of much merit and little fortune. Churchill desires her for his mistress, aware that marriage is impossible; but Sarah holds firm in her resolution, a sign of the character that ensures her success.
As lady-in-waiting to the duke’s younger daughter, Princess Anne, Sarah is well-positioned. York’s daughters are raised in the Anglican religion in spite of their father’s fervent Catholicism, as they are in succession to the throne.
The unattractive Princess Anne clings to Sarah, who has immediate sympathy for the girl’s plight and offers her sincere friendship. As Anne matures, their relationship is cemented by countless acts of kindness by Sarah toward the unfortunate princess.
At court, the beautiful Sarah is approached by the lecherous Duke of York but consistently refuses to submit to him or anyone looking for an easy dalliance. John pursues Sarah ardently, eventually succumbing to her beauty and her will, offering marriage, a lifelong love affair that will determine their destiny in the royal court.
Protestant-Catholic rivalry and the nature of the succession is the cause of much acrimony in the court and throughout the country, different factions backing the royal most likely to win the affection of the people. In secret negotiations, King Louis of France does his best to influence the course of history, undermining Charles and bargaining with the future king, the Catholic James Stuart.
John and Sarah remain loyal to the Duke of York but later, after Charles’ death, transfer their allegiance to Princess Anne, Sarah having laid years of groundwork in their cause. Sarah is literally bound for life to her charge, the princess possessively demanding constant attention through marriage and many disastrous pregnancies.
After Charles dies, James Stuart cuts a bloody swath of revenge through the country; plans are soon afoot to overthrow him and place the Duke of Orange and Princess Mary on the throne. Given the unpredictable political climate, the Churchill’s fortunes wax and wane, at the pinnacle of success one moment, stripped of all honors the next, unwavering in support of Ann until she finally ascends the throne as queen.
Sarah’s great ambition costs her the closeness of her children, but the family is wildly successful thanks to her diligence. Regardless, Sarah triumphs, the beneficiary of an extraordinary love affair with the equally impressive John Churchill.