The Favourite has been racking up plenty of award nominations lately, and for good reason: The movie traces the real-life power struggle between Duchess of Marlborough Sarah Churchill (played by Rachel Weisz) and Lady Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) as they attempt to win the favor of Anne, Queen of Great Britain (The Crown's Olivia Colman). While the film fudges some historical details—and adds some fictional drama to heighten the entertainment value—it's generally founded on solid history. Here's some background. (Spoilers ahead.)
1. Queen Anne was the queen of being awkward.
Queen Anne—who ruled as Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland beginning in 1702, then became known as Queen of Great Britain and Ireland when two of her realms formed a sovereign state in 1707, and maintained that position until her death in 1714—is sometimes painted as an indecisive simpleton. “A good woman, but not very bright, nor was she very strong-willed,” historian Edward Potts Cheyney wrote of her in 1904. Some historians, however, don't buy into that characterization.
Many suggest that Anne was just tremendously shy. (According to British historian Anne Somerset’s book, Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion, one tactic the Queen used to negotiate awkward social situations was to “move only her lips and make as if she said something when in truth no words were uttered.”) In one scene in The Favourite, when backed into a political corner before an address to Parliament, Anne faints rather than give her speech.
2. Queen Anne was also plagued by health problems and tragedy.
Queen Anne was prone to uncontrollable eye-watering—called "defluxion”—and gout, as depicted in The Favourite. Gout eventually rendered her immobile and led to a long struggle with obesity. (After Queen Anne died in 1714, it took 14 people to carry her coffin.)
She was also pregnant at least 17 times, most of which ended in a miscarriage or stillbirth. Four of her children would die before the age of 2, and her longest-living progeny only made it to age 11—leaving her with no heir. In the movie, Queen Anne names 17 pet rabbits after her deceased children. This is fictional.
3. Sarah Churchill and Queen Anne were girlhood friends ...
In the early 1670s, an approximately 13-year-old Sarah Churchill (then Jenyns or Jennings) met an 8-year-old Anne in the court of King Charles II. The two became inseparable. Over time, Anne would award Sarah with a slew of powerful titles: Lady of the Bedchamber, Ranger of Windsor Great Park, Mistress of the Robes, Groom of the Stole, and Keeper of the Privy Purse. With those jobs came incredible access and influence—making Sarah arguably the second most important person in Great Britain. “Sarah, who was essentially acting as the queen’s gatekeeper, decided who could have access to the monarch and wielded her political power accordingly,” Julie Miller wrote for Vanity Fair.
4. ... and Sarah controlled the Queen.
Sarah Churchill (an ancestor of Winston Churchill) was remarkably blunt and refused to flatter Queen Anne, supposedly lobbing comments so hurtful they would reduce the royal to tears. Despite her tendency to bully, Sarah remained Anne’s closest confidante and often gave political advice. According to Cheyney, “While Anne ruled England, it was … Lady Marlborough who ruled the queen.”
Even today, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography notes that “Sarah was an excellent business manager, controlling much of the affairs of the court and dealing with correspondence. Those who wanted access to Anne had to deal with Sarah first.”
5. Abigail Masham did get between them.
In the early 1700s, Sarah helped Abigail—a cousin who was down on her luck—land a job as a bedchamber woman in Queen Anne’s court. According to Miller, the job description included “handing the queen clothing in the morning as she dressed; pouring water over her hands; changing her bandages; and bringing her bowls of hot chocolate.” Over the next three years, Abigail grew incredibly close with Queen Anne. Meanwhile, Sarah was unaware of their blossoming relationship. The scene in the movie where Abigail poisons Sarah, however, is fictional.
6. Abigail wielded her influence very discreetly—by using a secret code.
Sarah and Abigail stood on opposite sides of Britain’s political aisle. Abigail was a Tory (essentially, a royalist). Sarah was a Whig (essentially, a parliamentarian). Early on, when Abigail met with her cousin, Robert Harley, the Earl of Oxford, to talk about how to best wield her political influence, she chose to speak in secret code, “pretending they were gossiping about relatives and referring to Anne by [a] code name,” Miller wrote. (Harley and Marsham's familial relation isn't mentioned in the film.) Abigail would prove to be incredibly influential. According to Sarah, Abigail was so convincing that she “could make the queen stand on her head, if she chose to require it.”
7. Sarah’s downfall began because of a secret dowry.
When Abigail married Samuel Masham in 1707, Queen Anne—who was present for the wedding, as shown in The Favourite—secretly gave her a dowry of £2000 from the privy purse. Sarah, Keeper of the Privy Purse, was shocked and offended that the Queen had made such a payment without her knowledge. This sparked a permanent feud that would eventually lead to Sarah's ouster in 1710.
8. Sarah and Queen Anne did not have a sexual relationship—but the letters are real.
In the movie, Sarah and Anne are involved in a closeted sexual relationship—and Sarah has the love letters to prove it. This is half true: Most historians argue that the two women were not romantically involved. (If you recall those 17 pregnancies, Anne was quite busy with—and devoted to—her husband George.) But Sarah did possess letters from the Queen, written in the passionate, flowery style of a love letter. These sorts of notes were common among female friends at the time and weren’t necessarily romantic in nature.
9. The rumors of Queen Anne’s homosexuality were started … by Sarah.
Sensing the decline of her political influence, Sarah tried blackmailing the Queen, threatening to release these embarrassing private letters. “Such things are in my power that if known … might lose a crown,” she said. Sarah even spread rumors that Anne and Abigail were in a sexual relationship—a rumor perpetuated by this saucy poem:
“Her secretary she was not Because she could not write But had the conduct and the care Of some dark deeds at night.”
10. In the end, Abigail took Sarah's job—but only briefly
In the movie, Sarah is exiled and Abigail takes her job as Keeper of the Privy Purse. This is true, though Sarah's exile was largely self-imposed. After being kicked out of the court, Sarah's family lost all funding for the construction of a palace, so they decided to leave England in disgrace and travel among the courts of Europe instead. She would not come back to England until Queen Anne died in 1714, when she returned to continue a life of hobnobbing with (and agitating) royalty. Abigail, on the other hand, would recede from public life and retire to a country house.