True story behind The Favourite – violent rivalry for the favour of Queen Anne

True story behind The Favourite – violent rivalry for the favour of Queen Anne

The new film from director Yorgos Lanthimos has been making waves amongst critics and festival-goers, and even grabbed the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival 2018.

The Favourite is the story of the rivalry that develops between Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) for the favour of Queen Anne of Great Britain (Olivia Colman), in a competition that turns both farcial and violent.

We had nothing but praise for the historical and hysterical comedy in our review.

Olivia Colman won Best Actress at Venice Film Festival and is already a favourite for Awards season, but just how close is the popular comedy to history?

Who was Queen Anne of Great Britain?


Anne Stuart was Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland, before the Acts of Union in 1707 united England and Scotland as Great Britain, changing her title to Queen of Great Britain and Ireland.

Anne’s father was James II of England (James VI of Scotland) and her mother was Anne Hyde.

Anne had only one legitimate sibling who survived to adulthood, her elder sister Mary, but had many illegitimate siblings due to James’ philandering.

After the then Prince James was converted by Anne’s mother to Catholicism and on her death he married the much younger catholic princess Mary of Modena, but the marriage bore no children that grew to adulthood. Anne got on with her step-mother and father.

Upon Charles’ death with no legitimate heirs, James became King James II, but his Catholic face caused major anger, and Anne did not follow his example and defied him.

Eventually, William of Orange deposed King James on religious grounds in the Glorious Revolution, and Anne sided with William. James felt abandoned by his daughters and fled to France with his wife and son.

William and Mary were then declared joint monarchs, with Anne and children of hers as their heir, but after any children of theirs or William’S.

Anne fell out of favour with William and Mary for her friendship with Sarah Churchill, before Mary died of smallpox in 1694. As William’s their they reconciled and compromised regarding their differences.

Upon William’s death in 1702, Anne succeeded and became Queen, taking a lively interest in state affairs and foreign policy.

Anne’s gout, however, left her disabled with much pain and she gained weight as a result of her sedentary lifestyle.

Anne’s marriage and children

During her uncle Charles’ reign and after Princess Mary married William of Orange, Charles married Anne off to Prince George of Denmark.

The pair were faithful and devoted partners despite their arranged marriage.

George joined William and Mary against James II, but the pair refused to let him serve in the military when they came to power, and tensions increased between the royal couples.

Upon William and Mary’s deaths and Anne becoming Queen, Prince George was made Lord High Admiral.

Throughout the entirety of their marriage, Anne had been pregnant 17 times, 12 of which she either miscarried or were stillborn births. 4 of her living children died before the age of 2, while her sole surviving child Prince William, Duke of Gloucester died at the age of 11 in 1700.

Anne and George were overwhelmed with grief, and the Act of Settlement in 1701 meant that after William III and herself, the crown would pass to their Hanoverian relatives, due to their Protestant faith, instead of closer but catholic relatives, including Anne’s father and half-brother in France.

Prince George of Denmark died 6 years into Anne’s reign in 1708, leaving Anne bereft.

Who was Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough?


Sarah Jennings was the daughter of Richard Jennings MP, who was friends with James II when he was Duke of York.

Sarah became maid-of-honour to Mary of Modena in 1673, after which she became friends with Princess in Anne in 1675, which remained as the pair got older.

Despite familial disapproval, Sarah married John Churchill for love in a secret ceremony that was kept from all except Mary of Modena and close friends. The pair went public with the birth of a daughter who died in infancy, and accompanied James away from court when he fell from favour briefly, prompting John to be made Lord Churchill.

Upon returning from Scotland, Sarah was made Lady of the Bedchamber to Anne when she married George in 1683.

Upon George and John defecting to William of Orange during James II’s reign, Anne’s father had his daughter and Lady Churchill put under house arrest but they easily escaped to Nottingham until James fled the country.

Lord Churchill was made Earl of Marlborough upon William and Mary’s ascension, but the Churchill’s influenced waned at court under the new reign, and Queen Mary wanted Sarah removed from Anne’s sphere to prevent Lady Churchill encouraging Anne’s ambitions and interests at court- resulting in sisterly discord.

Sarah also publicly campaigned for Anne to have a parliamentary allowance, which was successful and incurred further wrath from Queen Mary who evicted Sarah from Whitehall Palace and estranging the Stuart sisters further. William and Mary also had John imprisoned due to evidence of his support for the exiled King James.

The Marlboroughs returned to court after Mary’s death, but William tried to keep them at arm’s length until his own death and Anne’s ascension.

The relationship between Anne and Sarah

The strong friendship between the pair deepened after Anne became queen. The Marlboroughs were awarded a Dukedom and parliamentary pensions.

The Duke of Marlborough was given an Order of the Garter and was made Captain-General of the army, while Sarah was made Mistress of the Robes (the highest rank for a woman at court), Groom of the Stole, Keeper of the Privy Purse, and Ranger of Windsor Great Park.

After Anne, Sarah was the most powerful woman in the country and had much influence over the Queen too, and her advice was consulted in all matters, whilst also controlling her finances and social circles.

Sarah was known to be brutally honest with the Queen and did not tell her what she wanted to hear.

Since their early friendship during the reign of King Charles, the pair referred to each other with pet names: Mrs Freeman (Sarah) and Mrs Morley (Anne).

The Tories and the Whigs

During Anne’s reign there were two major political parties,

The Tories were supporters of the Anglican Church and cared for the interests of the landed gentry.

Their Tories’ rivals were the Whigs, who cared for commercial interests and were anti-Protestant. A prominent Tory, Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford was an adversary to the Marlboroughs.

Anne’s chief advisors were the Duke of Marlborough and Lord Godolphin, who were moderate Tories, but became increasingly swayed by the Whigs due to their support of British involvement in the War of the Spanish Succession, which Marlborough was a huge advocate of and was involved in the successful Battle of Blenheim in 1804, unlike extreme Tory advisor Harley.

Anne was a devout Tory, but Sarah had become a strong supporter of the Whigs and wanted to exert her influence for them, prompting a schism to begin to form between the old friends.

Oddly, Sarah did not often attend court, which only furthered resentment from Anne.

Who was Abigail Hill?

Abigail was the daughter of London merchant Francis Hill and Elizabeth Jennings, Sarah’s paternal aunt, born around 1670.

Francis Hill had caused Abigail’s family to fall into destitution, and Abigail became a servant to Sir John Rivers of Kent, it was then that Lady Churchill pulled her cousin out of obscurity and into her own household at St. Albans, and then as a servant in the Queen’s household upon Anne’s ascension.

As Anne and Sarah fell further apart due to their political differences, Abigail began to replace her cousin in Queen Anne’s favour.

It is unknown if this was Abigail’s intention, but her manner with Anne was the exact opposite to Sarah – flattering and gentle – to the point that Sarah believed it a manipulation and scheme borne out of Miss Hill’s ambition to be the court favourite.

Lady Abigail Masham

The Duchess of Marlborough realised that she had been supplanted by Abigail as the Queen’s favourite when she learnt that Abigail had married Samuel Masham of the Queen’s Household and was now Lady Masham.

Sarah also realised that Abigail and the Queen had grown incredibly close, right under Sarah’s nose, and that Anne had attended Abigail’s wedding, paid the couple a dowry of £2000 from the Privy Purse, and kept it from Sarah, the Keeper of the Privy Purse

Abigail had also helped her paternal cousin, Robert Harley, regain the confidence of Queen Anne, while securing greater position for Abigail’s family.

Sarah was furious of the closeness of Anne and Abigail, but Anne and Sarah hid their rift from the public to keep up support for the Duke of Marlborough on his campaigns, and tension lingered for three years in a hostile limbo.

In addition to their political differences and Abigail’s rise to favour, another nail in the friendship between Anne and Sarah was the death of Prince George in 1708. Anne was inconsolable, but Sarah was cold with her, insisting that Anne move Palaces to get away from the place of her husband’s death and also removed a portrait of George from Anne’s bedroom to remove reminders of her grief, infuriating Anne, who wanted comfort from Abigail Masham instead.

The fall of Lady Churchill

The Whigs and Sarah tried to force Anne to dismiss Abigail and her Tory influence from court, but Anne refused both political parties on the matter – with tears in her eyes – and the Marlboroughs were defeated.

Sarah used the Queen’s emotional defence of Abigail’s position in the Queen’s Bed Chamber to imply a lesbian affair between them, prompting anger from Anne, only furthered by Sarah’s refusal to wear mourning clothes to indicate she felt Anne’s grief to be false.

As support for the War of the Spanish Succession evaporated with the British public, Anne took the chance to dismiss the Duke of Marlborough on trumped-up charges of embezzlement. The Whigs fell from influence, and the Tories took more control.

Samuel Masham was made a baron, and Abigail became Baroness Masham. Anne wasn’t so keen on rising her servant too high in case she should leave her.

The pair shared a final encounter in 1710 when Sarah tried to repair their friendship, but Anne coldly rejected her according to Sarah’s accounts. Sarah responded with the one thing that would really hurt Anne – religion. Lady Churchill told Anne that God would judge the Queen for how she treated her, upsetting the Queen.

In 1711, Sarah was stripped of her roles as Mistress of the Robes and Groom of the Stole, while Abigail replaced her as Keeper of the Privy Purse. Anne had previously promised the roles to Sarah’s children.

As public funding for the building of Anne’s gift to the Marlboroughs, Blenheim Palace, was stripped from them, the Marlboroughs left England for the courts of Europe, where the Duke was a success, but Sarah was unhappy.

How did they die?

Anne’s health was dire in 1713 and began periods of serious illness. Harley fell from favour in the months before her death after falling out with Baroness Masham who had become aligned with the Jacobites who favoured the succession of Anne’s half-brother James, despite his rise after the fall of the Marlboroughs. The Queen had a serious stoke amidst illness and near the anniversary of her son William’s death.

There was much debate on whether the Hanoverians or Anne’s half-brother James Francis Edward Stuart would succeed her, but upon the weary Anne’s death on 1 August 1714 at the age of 49, she was succeeded by George of Hanover.

The Tories fell from power upon Anne’s death and the Whigs, along with the Duke of Marlborough, returned to power.

The Marlboroughs returned to England on the afternoon of the day Anne died, and rumours suggested that Anne had asked for their return before her death.

After Anne’s death, Baroness Masham retired from court and lived a life of privacy until her own death in 1734 whilst in her early sixties.

The Marlboroughs found great favour with King George, who they were great friends with.

Sarah oversaw the influential marriages of her grandchildren, but grew estranged from many of her daughters.

Lord Churchill died after failing health in 1722, but Sarah’s influence continued into the reign of King George II and Sarah became a favourite of Queen Caroline, until they too fell out when she alienated the King and Queen.

Sarah always retained her good looks and huge wealth, but her fiery disposition meant that she often created feuds for herself.

Sarah died at the age of 84 in 1744.

The Duchess of Marlborough is an ancestor of Lady Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, through her daughter Anne Churchill (later Spencer).

So how close is The Favourite to real life?

The new film begins with the arrival of Abigail Hill at court and her throwing herself on the mercy of Lady Churchill, and covers her rivalry with her cousin.

However, the film omits the presence of Prince George of Denmark, and aligns itself with the rumours of sexual relationships between not just Anne and Abigail, but Anne and Sarah also, adding another dimension to the rivalry.

The Favourite also shows the rivalry reach stakes of life and death, but this isn’t thought to have been the case historically.

The film features Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, Emma Stone as Abigail Hill, Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah Churchill, Nicholas Hoult as Robert Harley, Joe Alwyn as Samuel Masham, and Mark Gatiss as John Churchill.

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BFI London Film Festival 2018 reviews

  • The Favourite
  • Suspiria
  • Beautiful Boy
  • Roma
  • Wildlife
  • Green Book
  • The Front Runner
  • Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old

The Favourite is released on January 1, 2019.

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