The Favourite: 10 Facts About the Real History Behind the Movie

Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman in The Favourite (2018)
Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman in The Favourite (2018)
Yorgos Lanthimos © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

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
Charles Jervas, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

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.

Baronessa Abigail Masham
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Can You Guess J.K. Rowling's Fantastic Beast From Its Magical Power?

The Many Lives of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"

Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

In the late 1970s, Leonard Cohen sat down to write a song about god, sex, love, and other mysteries of human existence that bring us to our knees for one reason or another. The legendary singer-songwriter, who was in his early forties at the time, knew how to write a hit: He had penned "Suzanne," "Bird on the Wire," "Lover, Lover, Lover," and dozens of other songs for both himself and other popular artists of the time. But from the very beginning, there was something different about what would become "Hallelujah"—a song that took five years and an estimated 80 drafts for Cohen to complete.

In the 35 years since it was originally released, "Hallelujah" has been covered by more than 300 other artists in virtually every genre. Willie Nelson, k.d. lang, Justin Timberlake, Bono, Brandi Carlile, Bon Jovi, Susan Boyle, Pentatonix, and Alexandra Burke—the 2008 winner of the UK version of The X Factor—are just a few of the individuals who have attempted to put their own stamp on the song. After Burke’s soulful version was downloaded 105,000 times in its first day, setting a new European record, “Hallelujah” soon became a staple of TV singing shows.

It's an impressive feat by any standard, but even more so when you consider that "Hallelujah"—one of the most critically acclaimed and frequently covered songs of the modern era—was originally stuck on side two of 1984’s Various Positions, an album that Cohen’s American record label deemed unfit for release.

“Leonard, we know you’re great,” Cohen recalled CBS Records boss Walter Yetnikoff telling him, “but we don’t know if you’re any good.”

 

Yetnikoff wasn’t totally off-base. With its synth-heavy ’80s production, Cohen’s version of “Hallelujah” doesn’t announce itself as the chill-inducing secular hymn it’s now understood to be. (Various Positions was finally released in America on the indie label Passport in 1985.) Part of why it took Cohen five years to write the song was that he couldn’t decide how much of the Old Testament stuff to include.

“It had references to the Bible in it, although these references became more and more remote as the song went from the beginning to the end,” Cohen said. “Finally I understood that it was not necessary to refer to the Bible anymore. And I rewrote this song; this is the ‘secular’ ‘Hallelujah.’”

The first two verses introduce King David—the skilled harp player and great uniter of Israel—and the Nazarite strongman Samson. In the scriptures, both David and Samson are adulterous poets whose ill-advised romances (with Bathsheba and Delilah, respectively) lead to some big problems.

In the third verse of his 1984 studio version, Cohen grapples with the question of spirituality. When he’s accused of taking the Lord’s name in vain, Cohen responds, hilariously, “What’s it to ya?” He insists there’s “a blaze of light in every word”—every perception of the divine, perhaps—and declares there to be no difference between “the holy or the broken Hallelujah.” Both have value.

“I wanted to push the Hallelujah deep into the secular world, into the ordinary world,” Cohen once said. “The Hallelujah, the David’s Hallelujah, was still a religious song. So I wanted to indicate that Hallelujah can come out of things that have nothing to do with religion.”

 

Amazingly, Cohen's original "Hallelujah" pales in comparison to Velvet Underground founder John Cale’s five-verse rendition for the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. Cale had seen Cohen perform the song live, and when he asked the Canadian singer-songwriter to fax over the lyrics, he received 15 pages. “I went through and just picked out the cheeky verses,” Cale said.

Cale’s pared down piano-and-vocals arrangement inspired Jeff Buckley to record what is arguably the definitive “Hallelujah,” a haunting, seductive performance found on the late singer-songwriter’s one and only studio album, 1994’s Grace. Buckley’s death in 1997 only heightened the power of his recording, and within a few years, “Hallelujah” was everywhere. Cale’s version turned up in the 2001 animated film Shrek, and the soundtrack features an equally gorgeous version by Rufus Wainwright.

In 2009, after the song appeared in Zack Snyder's Watchmen, Cohen agreed with a critic who called for a moratorium on covers. “I think it’s a good song,” Cohen told The Guardian. “But too many people sing it.”

Except “Hallelujah” is a song that urges everyone to sing. That’s kind of the point. The title is from a compound Hebrew word comprising hallelu, to praise joyously, and yah, the name of god. As writer Alan Light explains in his 2013 book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah,” the word hallelujah was originally an imperative—a command to praise the Lord. In the Christian tradition, it’s less an imperative than an expression of joy: “Hallelujah!” Cohen seemingly plays on both meanings.

 

Cohen’s 1984 recording ends with a verse that begins, “I did my best / It wasn’t much.” It’s the humble shrug of a mortal man and the sly admission of an ambitious songwriter trying to capture the essence of humanity in a pop song. By the final lines, Cohen concedes “it all went wrong,” but promises to have nothing but gratitude and joy for everything he has experienced.

Putting aside all the biblical allusions and poetic language, “Hallelujah” is a pretty simple song about loving life despite—or because of—its harshness and disappointments. That message is even clearer in Cale’s five-verse rendition, the guidepost for all subsequent covers, which features the line, “Love is not a victory march.” Cale also adds in Cohen’s verse about sex, and how every breath can be a Hallelujah. Buckley, in particular, realized the carnal aspect of the song, calling his version “a Hallelujah to the orgasm.”

“Hallelujah” can be applied to virtually any situation. It’s great for weddings, funerals, TV talent shows, and cartoons about ogres. Although Cohen’s lyrics don’t exactly profess religious devotion, “Hallelujah” has become a popular Christmas song that’s sometimes rewritten with more pious lyrics. Agnostics and atheists can also find plenty to love about “Hallelujah.” It’s been covered more than 300 times because it’s a song for everyone.

When Cohen died on November 7, 2016, at the age of 82, renewed interest in “Hallelujah” vaulted Cohen's version of the song onto the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time. Despite its decades of pop culture ubiquity, it took more than 30 years and Cohen's passing for “Hallelujah”—the very essence of which is about finding beauty amid immense sadness and resolving to move forward—to officially become a hit song.

“There’s no solution to this mess,” Cohen once said, describing the human comedy at the heart of “Hallelujah. “The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say 'Look, I don't understand a f***ing thing at all—Hallelujah! That's the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER