the favourite

Everything You Need to Know About the 18th-Century World of The Favourite

These guys are wearing wigs, but they’re not Whigs, they’re Tories. I know, it’s confusing. Photo: FOX Searchlight

The Favourite is not a movie that’s super-concerned with historical accuracy. (As our own David Edelstein writes in his otherwise-glowing review, “Don’t worry if you can’t follow the tumultuous Tory versus Whig conflict — the film doesn’t get it right in any case.”) Director Yorgos Lanthimos is more interested in serving up an 18th-century All About Eve, in which three of our finest actresses jockey for power in the fish bowl of a royal court, than he is about getting across all the historical context about the reign of Queen Anne, who ruled from 1702 to 1714. But luckily, I am not a critically acclaimed Greek auteur, and I am interested in giving you that historical context. Whether you’re one of the fans who gave the movie the year’s highest per-screen average this weekend, or you’re merely Favourite-curious, here’s a primer on the history behind the film’s political, and sexual, battles.

I’m not going to pretend to know much about B-list British queens — if she hasn’t been played by Helen Mirren, I don’t know her. So, talk about Anne.
Okay! Here are the basic facts: Anne was the final monarch from the royal House of Stuart, and she lived from 1665 to 1714, when she died of the gout we see in The Favourite. The movie’s depiction of her is largely in line with the way she’s been remembered, when she’s been remembered at all. Edward Potts Cheyney summed her up as “a good woman, but not very bright, nor was she very strong-willed,” in his Short History of England from 1904. Recent writers have been somewhat more kind. Peter Ackroyd in Revolution describes her as “cautious by temperament, never wholly trusting her own judgement or those of others,” quoting Jonathan Swift’s observation that “there was not, perhaps in all England, a person who understood more artfully to disguise her passions.” Robert Tombs in The English and Their History writes that she was “a popular queen, plump and unthreatening, proudly English and Anglican, the last of the true Stuarts, and arguably the last traditional monarch.” (She was the last one to attempt to veto legislation, and the last to perform the traditional ritual of touching for “the king’s evil,” handing small coins to those suffering from scrofula.)

Anne was the second daughter of James II, who you probably also haven’t heard of, but who had been deposed in 1688 in what is sometimes called “The Glorious Revolution,” which shows you the importance of good branding in political power-grabs. In a nutshell: England was Protestant; James was Catholic, which was fine until he started to get very Catholic, at which point Parliament invited his Protestant son-in-law William of Orange to come over from Holland and invade. Which William did, claiming the throne for himself and his wife, Mary, without a huge fight, thus cementing the primacy of Parliament over the monarch for all eternity. But the cast of Stuarts: The Next Generation was not a big happy family: As Ackroyd notes, William and Mary thought Anne was so boring that they hardly spoke to her, and she was excluded from court in the early years of their reign. It wasn’t until after Mary’s death that William had to warm up to his sister-in-law, since she had a much better claim to the throne than his own.

She is something of a liminal figure in British history; her rule seemed to be obsolete before it had even begun. As the movie notes, she had at least 17 pregnancies, but only one, a son named William, survived past infancy. His death in 1700 at age 11 kicked off a crisis. William and Mary didn’t have children either, so the line of succession went to Anne, and then a whole bunch of question marks. James II had had another family with his second wife, but they were all Catholic and living in France, which obviously wouldn’t do. Parliament went looking for the next available Protestants, and finally found one in Sophia, electress of Hanover, an aged grandchild of James I who had lived in what is now Germany basically her entire life. They passed a law barring Catholics from the throne and naming Sophia and her descendants Anne’s heirs, which is still why, when people today want to make fun of the current royal family, they call them a bunch of Germans. Anyway, all this drama was happening before Anne even ascended to the throne, so when she finally did, her rule may have felt like it was occurring in what American sports fans call “garbage time.” Everyone was waiting for the clock to run out, monarchy-wise.

We haven’t even gotten to the part where she’s the queen yet?
Okay, okay, I’ll speed up. If you’ve seen The Favourite, you’ll know that Anne’s rule was marked by intense political jockeying between Whigs and Tories, the spiritual descendants of the two sides in the English Civil War. The parties had collaborated in the Glorious Revolution — as both a Catholic and believer in the divine right of kings, James II had ticked off the staunchly Anglican Tories and the pro-Parliament Whigs — but William’s reign began what is known as “The Age of Party,” in which the partisan divide was even more intense than it is today. As Tombs puts it, the era’s “religious and political differences created two cultures”: Tory England was “festive, communal, and royalist”; Whig England “puritanical, capitalistic, and parliamentarian.” By nature Anne was a Tory, but we’re getting into the time period when the monarch’s own political beliefs are becoming less and less important. And her close relationship with Sarah Churchill, duchess of Marlborough meant a heavy Whig influence in her court.

Yes, less talk about boring Parliament stuff, more about the complicated relationship between these two women!
Fine. The basics of The Favourite’s depiction of Anne’s relationship with Sarah are largely true to history, though as you might expect there’s no firm evidence the woman were lovers. At the very least, Sarah filled Anne’s need for a close female confidante, a role her sister refused to play. They had met when Anne was a child and Sarah a teenager, and as Anne Somerset writes in Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion, the future monarch found herself “irresistibly drawn to this self-assured and dynamic woman.” Sarah adroitly maneuvered herself into Anne’s favor, and she was always the alpha in the relationship; from Cheyney we get this maxim: “While Anne ruled England, it was … Lady Marlborough who ruled the queen.” He also reports that “Lady Marlborough frequently criticized the queen so harshly so as to reduce her to tears, and dictated to her just what she should do and say under certain circumstances.”

Though they started as Tories, Sarah and her soldier husband, John, Duke of Marlborough, eventually became the Whig power couple of the age. (Winston Churchill and Princess Diana are among their descendants.) England does not really have a track record of great generals, and Marlborough’s victories in the War of the Spanish Succession were so astonishing that Anne gave the couple a gigantic house, Blenheim Palace, as a gift. It still stands today; you may remember it from a recent controversy over the last Transformers movie. Though history tends to remember the European conflicts of the early 17th century as relatively modest compared to what came later, at the time the war inspired a huge amount of public outcry. It was generally seen as a Whig project: Whig politicians borrowing money to pay Whig generals, with the debt making Whig bankers even more powerful. The unpopularity of the war, and the taxes that were paying for it, was one big reason the Whigs lost the election of 1710, as we see in the film, but another leading cause was the government’s persecution of clergyman Henry Sacheverell, who had delivered a sermon attacking prominent Whig politicians and, uh, religious toleration. Boo religious toleration!

That’s enough about the Whigs and religion. I want to hear about the steamy All About Eve stuff. Talk to me about Abigail.
Great. The Favourite is correct that Abigail Hill was a cousin of Sarah Churchill, but what they leave out is that she was also related to the Tory leader Robert Harley, played by Nicholas Hoult in the film. (Another change is that the real Harley was not a sexy young 20-something during Anne’s reign, but was instead a fairly glum-looking man in his early 40s.) The basics of Abigail’s story are as in the film: Her family financially ruined by her father’s gambling, Abigail got a job in the queen’s service thanks to Sarah, who was likely acting more out of embarrassment than any kindness. Harley may have played a role in insinuating Abigail into Anne’s life as well, but no matter who brought her there, she soon supplanted her cousin in the queen’s affections, as her kind disposition made quite a change from Sarah’s domineering nature. Once there, she started urging Anne to follow her natural Tory inclinations, and a rivalry was born. (Though Sarah seems to have been completely in the dark about the relationship until Anne acted as a witness to Abigail’s marriage to Samuel Masham.)

How much of the competition between Sarah and Abigail in the movie comes from real life?
Some elements are fictionalized, of course. (As far as anyone knows, Abigail never poisoned Sarah.) But other aspects come from real life, including Sarah’s threat to leak certain personal letters from the queen. (Somerset quotes her as warning the monarch: “Such things are in my power that if known … might lose a crown.”) And while we don’t know whether Anne and Abigail were lovers, Sarah definitely spread rumors that they were. She was a huge fan of a ribald ballad written about Abigail by the Whig journalist Arthur Maynwaring, which sang of a “dirty chambermaid” who entranced the queen through “dark deeds at night.” This turned out to be her undoing: Playing the concern troll, Sarah told Anne about the ballad and similar works, hoping it would spur the queen to cut ties with her young favorite. Instead, it only made Anne turn further against her. According to Somerset, when asked later why they’d fallen out, “the Queen would describe [Sarah’s] principal transgression as ‘saying shocking things’ to her and about her.”

So, was there really a sexy love triangle between the three women?
It’s hard to say! Somerset, the person I trust most on this issue, doesn’t think so. While romantic friendships between women were common in this era, Anne, whose biographer notes was famous for her “prudery, and her strong sense of Christian morality,” seems an unlikely candidate to make the leap to sexual consummation. It’s interesting, too, that while she was spreading these rumors, Sarah was careful to strike down the implication that her own relationship with Anne had also been physical. To Sarah, “lesbianism was a disgusting vice, with which she had never been tainted,” Somerset writes. “Far from allowing that Anne had ever physically desired her, she represented Anne’s affection for herself as being inspired purely by her intellect and forthright character.” Logistically, too, it’s hard to square with the facts: Besides her own illnesses and pregnancies, Anne spent years nursing her beloved husband, Prince George of Denmark, who was written out of The Favourite, possibly because his presence would complicate the film’s plot, or maybe just because he was very dull.

It’s worth noting too that similar stories were spread about William of Orange, as well as nearly every other previous Stuart king. Calling the monarch gay was a fairly common way to slander your political opponents in the early modern period, the way people today accuse their elected officials of being born in Kenya, or doing 9/11.

Still, even if the rumors weren’t true, they still had an impact of the way British society conceived of sex and sexuality. As historian Laura Gowing has noted, “the eroticization of female friendship shifted the way in which lesbianism was represented … Gossip about Queen Anne, Marie Antoinette or society women made it publicly clear that lesbian acts did not necessarily involve of the performance of ‘female masculinity.’” In a sense, they made the world ready for the coming of the soft butch.

Interesting! One more thing: Were the bunnies real?
Unfortunately, no. As the film’s historical consultant Hannah Greig notes, “pet rabbits would never have been found lolloping around a royal bedchamber: They were an early 18th-century foodstuff and pest.” Silly rabbits, they weren’t a stand-in for kids.

Formerly just the royal house of Scotland, which means this fall Olivia Colman is playing Saoirse Ronan’s great-great-granddaughter. William was also James’s nephew. European royalty! These guys, the Jacobites, ended up trying to invade anyway, and it’s my understanding that Outlander, in between sex scenes and time travel, is at least partially about them. Marlborough was thrown in the Tower for a time during William’s reign, thanks to his secret contacts with the Jacobites. But this was not out of the ordinary for a politician of the era — even Anne was doing it. Like the throne, this was a war Anne inherited from William. The king of Spain, one of those inbred Habsburgs you so often hear about, had died in 1700 without having children. His will named a grandson of the French king as heir, which would have made France incredibly powerful, so the other European powers teamed up to prevent that from happening.
Everything You Need to Know About the World of The Favourite