A very uncourtly CAT FIGHT: The Favourite is tipped to win Olivia Colman an Oscar – but will Queen Anne’s reputation ever recover from being ‘outed’ as sexually obsessed with two warring ladies-in-waiting?
- The movie has presented an unashamedly quirky take on Queen Anne’s reign
- Much of it is based on historical fact, including the ruthless battle for her favour
- It was fought by the Duchess of Marlborough and fellow commoner Abigail Hill
- Both are played by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone respectively in the new film
To the crowds cheering the royal coach as it clattered towards St Paul’s cathedral one bright spring day in 1708, there seemed nothing untoward in the demeanour of Queen Anne and Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, her long-time friend and favourite lady-in-waiting.
Waving to well-wishers they appeared on the best of terms, yet the mutual recriminations muttered beneath their fixed smiles told a different story.
That morning, the Queen had refused to wear the jewels which the Duchess had laid out for her as Groom of the Stole, responsible for such intimate duties as helping the monarch dress and emptying the royal chamber-pot.
Olivia Colman (pictured as Queen Anne in The Favourite) won a Golden Globe for her performance earlier this week. And the movie is also tipped for success at the Oscars next month
Much of the film is based on historical fact, not least the ruthless battle for her affections fought by the Duchess of Marlborough and fellow commoner Abigail Hill, played by Rachel Weisz (right) and Emma Stone (left) respectively
The fact that this had infuriated the Duchess became clear as they took their seats in St Paul’s. At one point, Anne started to say something and, to the astonishment of those in the adjacent pews, Sarah snapped at her to ‘Be quiet’. One of many such arguments, this extraordinarily public exchange had all the pettiness and petulance of a tiff between lovers. And according to The Favourite — the film which this week won Olivia Colman a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Queen Anne — that’s exactly what the two women were.
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Tipped for success at the Oscars next month, the movie has an unashamedly quirky take on Anne’s reign, including scenes where she delights in racing ducks and lobsters. Though she did neither, much of it is based on historical fact, not least the ruthless battle for her affections fought by the Duchess of Marlborough and fellow commoner Abigail Hill, played by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone respectively. As we will see, this would ultimately result in the Duchess exacting upon the frumpy monarch a revenge which would have seemed unimaginable when they first became friends as young girls.
Born in 1665, Anne was the second child of James, Duke of York, whose older brother King Charles II presided over a licentious court, of which diarist Samuel Pepys wrote: ‘There is nothing almost but bawdry at Court from top to bottom.’
Tipped for success at the Oscars next month, the movie has an unashamedly quirky take on Anne’s (Olivia Coleman is pictured in character) reign, including scenes where she delights in racing ducks and lobsters
Portrait of Queen Anne from the school of John Closterman, painted circa 1702
One visiting French diplomat later described how one female courtier named Miss Hobart had persuaded another, an innocent Miss Stuart, to take a bath with her, tempting her with sweets and alcohol and trying to persuade her to renounce men.
Although there is no evidence of Anne attempting a similar strategy, she undoubtedly developed strong feelings for a radiantly pretty young girl, Sarah Jennings, who arrived at court in 1673.
That year her father employed four ‘Maids of Honour’, as young ladies-in-waiting were known. Among them was 13-year-old Sarah, the future Duchess of Marlborough.
With pale skin, bright blue eyes and red-gold hair which she was said to wash with water and honey, Sarah was born of the minor gentry. But she had all the charismatic confidence lacking in Anne, a terribly shy child who found socialising so difficult that throughout her life it was said she sometimes moved her lips without speaking in a desperate pretence at conversation.
Her other afflictions included permanently watering eyes and chronic short sight, which caused what Sarah once described as a ‘sullen and constant frown’. Added to all this were the permanent facial scars from the smallpox she caught at 12.
By the time the film gets under way Queen Anne is widowed, frail and increasingly reliant on her long-standing friend and confidante, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz, above)
In Sarah, she found a thrilling companion who was many of the things she was not, and the young royal developed a fascination with her.
In 1683 she persuaded her father that Sarah, who four years previously had married ambitious army officer John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, should become her new lady-in-waiting.
This was in place of Mary Cornwallis, another married woman who was dismissed because, according to Sarah, Anne’s letters to her had revealed feelings too ardent even for the relaxed sensibilities of Charles II’s court.
‘King Charles used to say that no man ever loved his mistress as his niece Anne did Mrs Cornwallis.’
Any hopes that Mary Cornwallis’s departure might steer Anne’s passions in a more conventional direction were quickly thwarted by her attachment to her new companion, despite the active sex life which Sarah clearly enjoyed with her husband.
‘His Grace returned from the wars today and did pleasure me twice in his top boots,’ she wrote of one of their trysts.
Even after her own arranged marriage in 1683 to Prince George of Denmark, a man reputedly so dull that King Charles II once said: ‘I have tried him drunk and I have tried him sober and there is nothing in him,’ Anne’s feelings for Sarah appeared undiminished.
Displaying what Sarah called ‘the jealousy of a lover’, she decided that they should regard themselves as equals, and insisted that they refer to each other by pet names, she being ‘Mrs Morley’ and Sarah ‘Mrs Freeman’.
In one letter she begged ‘Mrs Freeman’ to ‘come to me tomorrow as soon as you can that I may cleave myself to you’, and in another she talked of how ‘If I writ whole volumes I could never express how well I love you.’ For her part, Sarah once described her long hours alone with Anne as ‘a confinement indeed’, remarking that she would rather spend her time in a dungeon. But for all, she was canny enough to know the value of a royal friendship and cultivated it, a tactic which brought her unexpected rewards.
For many years, it seemed unlikely that Anne would ever become Queen. But she finally came to the throne in 1702 after the untimely demise of both her older sister Queen Mary II and Mary’s husband King William III.
As monarch, Anne faced many trials, most famously losing all 17 of her children to miscarriages, stillbirths or illness. And as the years passed, the Duchess made herself indispensable. She was appointed Keeper of the Privy Purse, effectively giving her control of the royal finances and making her the most important woman in the royal household.
Anne also made Sarah’s husband John Churchill captain-general of the army, and bestowed upon the couple the land and much of the money needed to build Blenheim Palace.
The new film will do little to change this perception of the Queen, but it may at least engender some sympathy for Anne, revealing as it does her misfortune in falling in love with the Duchess of Marlborough (played by Emma Stone who is pictured left)
Bullying Anne over government appointments and hectoring her on affairs of state, Sarah occupied a position which seemed unassailable. However, she had made a fatal error when, early in the new Queen’s reign, she learned that one of her uncles had fallen upon hard times and, to avoid social embarrassment, secured his daughter Abigail Hill a lowly position in the royal household. And so the seeds of disaster were sown.
Plagued by gout and other illnesses throughout her life, Queen Anne became an increasingly obese invalid who had to be pushed around the palace in a wheelchair. Yet Sarah never regarded herself as a nursemaid.
And so it was that in young Abigail, the Queen appears to have found a companion more naturally inclined to change her bandages and provide a generally sympathetic ear. Slowly it became apparent that this upstart was replacing Sarah in the Queen’s affections.
On one occasion, the Duchess entered the royal chambers at Windsor unexpectedly and discovered Abigail conversing with the Queen in a ‘loud, familiar manner’. ‘She was tripping across the room with a gay air, but upon seeing me she immediately stopped short and, acting a part like a player, dropped a grave curtsy,’ she wrote.
Sarah was particularly incensed when in 1707 she discovered that the Queen had attended Abigail’s marriage to Samuel Masham, a gentleman of the Queen’s household, a ceremony to which she herself had not been invited.
Look out too for Nicholas Hoult in the film, almost unrecognisable as the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition (above)
On learning that Anne had also given Abigail a dowry from the privy purse without her knowledge, she demanded that her rival be removed from court, threatening to expose the Queen as a lesbian if she refused to obey. But for once Anne resisted. ‘I may love whom I please,’ she told Sarah, and she stood firm even after the Duchess persuaded a poet friend to write and circulate an anonymous ballad about Anne’s dalliance with her ‘slut of state’, who pleasured the Queen with ‘sweet service’ and ‘dark deeds in the night’.
In 1710, the Duchess was finally replaced by Abigail as Keeper of the Privy Purse, but before she left royal service she managed to extort from Queen Anne a substantial pay-off. This made her the richest woman in England, with a fortune worth £82 million today.
She was also the mistress of the splendid Blenheim Palace. Yet none of this satisfied her appetite for vengeance.
In her memoirs, published in 1742, 28 years after Anne’s death, she portrayed her as a gluttonous bore who grew ‘exceedingly gross and corpulent’ and took advantage of her husband’s afternoon naps to indulge in illicit liaisons with Abigail.
The new film will do little to change this perception of the Queen, but it may at least engender some sympathy for Anne, revealing as it does her misfortune in falling in love with the Duchess of Marlborough, surely one of the most beautiful yet scheming women ever to beguile a British royal.
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