Forget what you thought you knew! There's more to Britain's elaborate past than Henry VIII's many wives and no, history is definitely not dull. The Favourite, a new film starring Emma Stone, Olivia Colman and Rachel Wiesz, proves it, once and for all.
In short, The Favourite is a wild, intrigue-and-sex-fuelled romp through a portion of Queen Anne’s reign (Colman), which lasted from 1702-1714. The monarch’s 12 years on the throne were marked by three major progressions: The development of the two-party Parliamentary system, England’s involvement in the War of the Spanish Succession, and union with Scotland in 1707 (which is not depicted in the film, sorry). Her tenure also solidified England as a Protestant nation. Another historical drama might look at Anne stoically facing these changes while dealing with her own declining health.
But not The Favourite. Here, Anne is a petulant, confused woman whose emotional maturity seemed to stall around age ten. She’s grieving her 18 lost children. She could probably use a good friend, but instead finds two women who are happy to manipulate her — and each other — for the prized and powerful position of being the Queen’s “favourite.” Together, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), and Queen Anne form an unforgettable, sexually-charged triangle of shifting power and affections.
While The Favourite certainly incorporates history, director Yorgos Lanthimos and screenwriters Tony McNamara and Debora Davis are mostly interested in these women and their loaded exchanges. Here’s what you need to know about the true story behind The Favourite before seeing it in cinemas.
So, who was Queen Anne?
Of Anne's disposition, biographer Anne Somerset told BBC, "She was very poorly educated and chronically shy. She was often in appalling ill-health — probably with an autoimmune disease and a form of arthritis." Because she was a woman, Anne’s education was largely limited to languages and music, and she received no schooling in civil law, military matters, and other practical topics that male monarchs were taught. Later in life, she also suffered from gout, and was carried around the palace in a wheelchair or sedan chair due to her large size.
Anne presided over a fiercely divided Parliament, with Whigs and Tories vying for her support. Anne personally leaned toward supporting the Tories, but her friend Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, tried to cajole her to support Whig policies. For example, Anne supported the War for the Spanish Succession — a Whig war — while she was very close with Sarah; when Abigail Masham, a Tory, replaced Sarah as the Queen’s “favourite,” Anne’s political decisions shifted toward favoring the Tories. When the Tories won power in 1710, they negotiated an end to the War for the Spanish Succession.
Anne’s husband, Prince George of Denmark, doesn’t appear in The Favourite, though they were married for 25 years. Anne was pregnant 18 times. Only one child survived infancy, but he died at age 11. In retrospect, scholars believe Anne’s pregnancy troubles stemmed from an autoimmune disease called antiphospholipid syndrome. Unlike Mary, who ruled alongside her husband from 1689 to 1694, Anne ruled independently. She died in 1714. She was succeeded by King George I (the first Hanover monarch), ensuring the continuation of Protestant rule in Great Britain.
Who was Sarah Jennings Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough?
Sarah and Anne became even closer friends in adulthood. When Sarah got married to John Churchill in 1677, Anne continued to rely on Sarah emotionally. She wrote her four letters a day. Anne’s sister, Queen Mary, was suspicious of Sarah’s influence over Anne and their "immoderate passion.” She demanded that Anne dismiss Sarah. Anne defied her sister and reassured Sarah of her “most sincere and tender passion.”
When Anne was married in 1863, she formalised the friendship by promoting Sarah to Lady of the Bedchamber, the highest social position of any woman outside of the royal family. Sarah had enormous influence over her. Then, when Anne became Queen, Sarah was promoted to more auspicious positions like Keeper of the Privy Purse, Groom of the Stole, and Mistress of the Robes — essentially, Sarah held all the major household offices available to women. Sarah used her position to advocate for her husband’s interests while he was leading Allied troops in the War of the Spanish Succession.
Anne and Sarah’s friendship deteriorated for reasons seen in The Favourite. A depicted fight over jewellery really did happen: Sarah was enraged that the Queen did not wear the jewels she personally had laid out, and verbally attacked her in public.
Due to mounting tension, Sarah resigned from court in 1710. The Queen did not accept Sarah’s letter of apology. In her memoirs, published long after she was exiled from court, Sarah derided the Queen’s character and painted herself a victim. Queen Anne’s lasting image as a slovenly, childish woman derives from Sarah’s memoirs.
Were Sarah and Anne sleeping together?
In The Favourite, Sarah and Anne certainly were having an affair. As for real life, we only have suggestive letters to go on. Before Anne was queen, she wrote a series of provocative epistles to Sarah. Excerpts include lines like, "Oh come to me as soon as you can that I may cleave myself to you; “'I can't go to bed without seeing you…If you knew in what condition you have made me, I am sure you would pity;” “I hope I shall get a moment or two to be with my dear…that I may have one embrace, which I long for more than I can express.”
In that era, however, this kind of deeply affectionate language between same-sex friends wasn’t so unusual. Sarah and Anne’s relationship is typically characterised as a “romantic friendship,” which, back then, were seen as preparation for heterosexual marriage.
Sarah refrained from publishing the most explicit of Anne’s love letters in her memoirs. Instead, she had tried to use those as blackmail near the end of their relationship.
Who was Abigail Hill Masham?
Abigail Hill Masham is the final spoke in this complicated web. She was brought to the palace thanks to none other than Sarah Churchill. Sarah’s grandfather, Sir John Jennings, had 22 children. This meant that Sarah had a multitude of cousins— including Abigail Hill. After her family lost its fortune, Abigail was sent to work as a servant at age 10. In 1704, Sarah Churchill provided her cousin with a place as a woman of the bedchamber for Queen Anne. This isn’t shown in The Favourite, but Abigail was also related to the Tory leader Robert Harley (played by Nicholas Hoult).
Abigail became indispensable to the Queen. With the Queen’s support, Abigail married Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn) in 1707, a groom in the bedchamber to Anne’s husband. Abigail remained Lady of the Bedchamber after her marriage. As the Queen’s relationship with her cousin strengthened, Sarah devolved into jealousy and anger, eventually leaving the palace in 1710. Abigail, meanwhile, worked for the Queen until the Queen’s death in 1714.
Were Abigail and the Queen having an affair?
In her memoirs published in 1742, Sarah insinuated that the Queen and Abigail were intimate. She wrote, “Mrs. Masham came often to the queen when the prince was sleep, and was generally two hours every day in private with her.” She also describes entering the Queen’s bedroom via a secret passageway and seeing Abigail already there, acting flustered.
However, by then, Sarah’s insinuation about Abigail and the Queen’s relationship was nothing new. Rumours about Abigail and the Queen swarmed the court during Anne’s reign. Take this 1708 poem, which circulated after Abigail and Anne became visibly closer: “When as Queen Anne of great Renown / Great Britain’s Scepter swy’d / Besides the Church, she dearly lov’d / A dirty chambermaid / Her secretary she was not / Because she could not write / But had the conduct and the care / of some dark deeds at night.” A 1708 pamphlet imagined Abigail telling the wife of Louis XIV, “I was rather addicted to another sort of passion, having too great a regard for my own sex.”
There’s a chance we’ve just been misreading Queen Anne all along.
Today, Queen Anne is remembered for her large corporal size, her miscarriages, her illnesses, her supposed affairs. She’s considered weak and easily influenced. In his book Queen Anne: Patroness of Arts, James A. Winn tried to rewrite our conception of Queen Anne.
“Queen Anne has certainly not gotten much credit for being effective as a monarch, which she was, as popular, which she certainly was, and as astute, which almost no one recognises she was—or, for that matter, as well-informed about the culture and arts, which she was,” Winn told BU Today. In his book, Winn attributes the “extraordinary flowering of culture” that occurred during her reign to the Queen herself.
Perhaps The Favourite is Sarah Churchill’s final victory. After being ousted from court, she memorialised a certain negative image of Anne in her memoirs, which has been perpetuated in works of pop culture like The Favourite — so, in a way, Sarah did win.
The Favourite is in UK cinemas 1 January 2019