At the New York Film Festival premiere of The Favourite, director Yorgos Lanthimos told The Hollywood Reporter, “Some of the things in the film are accurate and a lot aren’t.”
Although the film includes some obvious historical anachronisms for the sake of style (like a certain dance-off scene), the core of the story — a monarch heavily influenced by her female favorites (er, favourites), particularly Duchess Sarah Churchill (ancestor of Winston Churchill) and Sarah’s cousin Abigail Masham — is accurate in spirit.
Below, we investigate some of the most pressing historical questions raised by the film, which stars Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz as Sarah, and Emma Stone as Abigail.
Was Queen Anne really a lesbian?
It’s possible, but according to historian Anne Somerset, author of Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion, the short answer is probably not. Queen Anne was devoutly religious, with an “intense devotion to the Anglican church,” and she was also famously devoted to her husband, Prince George of Denmark, whom Lanthimos did not include at all in the film, even though his death, in 1708, fits squarely within the time period portrayed. (For context, Abigail’s secret wedding to Samuel Masham was in 1707.) As Somerset writes, it’s incredibly unlikely that Anne and Abigail would have been able to consummate a sexual relationship “during Prince George’s lifetime, as the Queen shared a room with her husband and ‘in all his illness, which lasted some years, she would never leave his bed.’”
The historian also notes that the Queen, who would have been 43 at the time of her husband’s death, would have a dwindling libido due to her health worsening as she aged. As the film accurately portrayed, the Queen suffered from what was diagnosed at the time as gout (although modern historians believe it might have been lupus). “Anne was worn out by childbearing and in dreadful pain for much of the time, and in view of her manifold informities it requires a strong effort of the imagination to conceive of her being brought by Abigail to a state of sensual arousal,” she writes. “Her famed prudery, and her strong sense of Christian morality, makes it all the more unlikely her relationship with Abigail carried a carnal element.”
Rumors about the Queen’s relationship with Abigail can actually be linked back to Sarah, who spread bawdy poems and spoke ill of the Queen after their falling out. About Abigail, the poem went: “Her secretary she was not / Because she could not write / But had the conduct and the care / Of some dark deeds at night.”
Spreading slander about the sexual impropriety of one’s enemies was par for the course at the time. As Rachel Weil writes in Political Passions: Gender, the Family and Political Argument in England, both Sarah’s private and public gossip about the Queen’s new favorite “all came within the vicinity of accusing [Abigail] of lesbianism without actually getting there.” Alas, there’s no concrete evidence suggesting that the relationship between Queen Anne and Abigail was anything but platonic.
And although Sarah and Anne had been an even more intimate pair when they were friends — sharing nicknames, writing loving letters — it’s even less likely their relationship was sexual.
Somerset writes that, to Sarah, “lesbianism was a disgusting vice, with which she had never been tainted. Far from allowing that Anne had ever physically desired her, she represented Anne’s affection for herself as being inspired purely by an admiration for her intellect and forthright character. Since Abigail lacked such attributes, it followed that Anne had been attracted to her for different reasons, and that Mrs. Masham had established her hold over the Queen by indulging hr baser appetites.”
Did Abigail really poison Sarah?
No. There’s no evidence of this actually happening.
Did Sarah Churchill really attempt to blackmail the Queen?
Yes, the film got this part exactly right. Sarah fell out of favor with the Queen thanks to a number of factors, including her brusque (some might say cruel) personality, her political pushiness, and finally, her attempt to blackmail the Queen, ominously stating, “Such things are in my power that if known… might lose a crown.” She also alluded to the letters that the Queen had written to her: “I cannot yet find it in my heart to part with them… I have drawers full of the same in every place where I have lived.”
This overstep in part caused Sarah to lose her prominent position in court, and although all her power didn’t actually go to her cousin Abigail (the Duchess of Somerset, not depicted in the film, was another favorite companion of the Queen who took on some duties), Abigail did become the keeper of the privy purse.
After their falling out, Sarah wrote a wildly unflattering portrayal of the Queen in her memoirs, which (in part thanks to Sarah’s distinguished descendants) lead to a centuries-long understanding of the Queen as unintelligent and boorish. (One excerpt: “[Although Anne’s] love to the Prince seemed… to be prodigiously great… her stomach was greater, for that very day he died she [ate] three very large and hearty meals.”)
Did Queen Anne really have a whole bunch of rabbits?
Alas, an adorable but incorrect depiction. According to Dr. Hannah Greig, who worked as a historical consultant on the film, “Pet rabbits would never have been found lolloping around a royal bedchamber: they were an early 18th-century foodstuff and pest.” (Anne’s uncle, Charles II, did have a small fleet of toy spaniels, and reportedly never went anywhere without at least three at his ankles.)
But while the rabbits might not be real, what they represented in the film is based in fact: Queen Anne suffered from the loss of 17 babies: 12 miscarriages and five children who did not survive early childhood.