The real historical events behind the favorite

(Photo by © Fox Searchlight Pictures)

If you thought your office politics were petty, just be glad you weren’t part of the English royal court at the turn of the 17th century. Personality struggles were a major part and – good news for the filmmakers – an extremely dramatic part of the court’s plot, as seen in the critically acclaimed new dramatic comedy, The favourite. The film, by Lobster‘s Yorgos Lanthimos, depicts a three-way power struggle between Queen Anne of England (Olivia Colman) and her two power-hungry enemies, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail Masham, née Hill (Emma Stone). As with most things involving the British Crown, the backstory of this story is complicated, slightly absurd, and incredibly juicy. Here are the five historical events that led to the events of The favourite.


Queen Anne becomes an unlikely (and not particularly good) queen.

The favourite

(Photo by © Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Queen Anne, played by Colman in a round that has already earned her a Golden Globe nomination and generated Oscar heat, began his reign in 1702 thanks to a somewhat odd line of succession. A former monarch, her uncle King Charles II, died without an heir, meaning that Anne’s father, James II, took the throne in 1685. However, he fled England during the Glorious Revolution for three years later, and the crown fell to Anne’s elder sister, Mary, who reigned alongside her husband William of Orange. Mary reigned until her death in 1694, and William’s reign continued until her death in 1702. After all that, it was time for Anne to take the crown.

The point is, Anne wasn’t particularly good at being a queen. Especially, and tragically, when it came to providing an heir. Although she had 17 children with her husband George, only one survived infancy and this boy died at the age of 11. t particularly astute when it came to reigning in the meantime. As control of the country began to drift away from politics and the monarchy, with the Whig and Tory parties vying for control, Anne was just sort of… there.


Sarah Churchill becomes Anne’s friend, confidante and bully.

The favourite

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In 1671, when the future Queen Anne was only six years old, she met a girl named Sarah Jennings and fell in love with her. Dynamic, confident and older than AnneSarah was wise enough to know that she should take advantage of this potentially beneficial friendship. Sarah, who would change her surname Churchill upon marrying John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, wielded immense power at court, as it became widely known that she was the person to contact if you wanted the Queen to do so. Something.

Although Sarah and Anne were very close (a romance between the two has never been confirmed), it was not always a friendly relationship. Historians say Sarah berated Anne, causing her to cry and controlling the monarch on several occasions. But, as Anne’s former “friend”, official responsible for the private royal treasury and accounting, and court favorite, Sarah had that kind of power. Or at least she made.


Abigail Hill joins the court and rises through the ranks.

The favourite

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Most of The favourite follows the power struggle between Churchill and a new contender to the throne (or at least, the confidence of the throne). Abigail Hill, played by Stone in the film, was Sarah’s cousin, but her family branch had had a hard time. Sarah brought Abigail, who worked as a maid, to her personal job before finding her a maid position for Anne, a decision Sarah would soon regret.

Although generally considered not to have been as mercenary as Sarah, Abigail was astute, and when Anne began to rely on Abigail for emotional support that Sarah never really gave her, the newcomer was happy to help. Queen Anne knew all about Abigail’s marriage to a courtier named Samuel Masham, while Sarah was aloof and increasingly irritated by Abigail’s rising position within the court. We’re not going to say who ultimately won the Queen’s favor, or how – you’ll have to see the movie for this particularly delightful chapter of the story.

(Note, while we are on the subject, that there is no concrete evidence that Anne and Sarah or Abigail were lovers in real life).


The Whigs and Tories are doing it too.

The favourite

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The relationship between Anne, Sarah, and Abigail is the exciting part of the story, but the Queen’s reign was also marked by political conflict (which is actually quite touching in the movie). The favourite plays faster and more freely with the political side of the story than it does with the relationships of the three women, as he would have, but the bottom line is that both sides became more powerful as a result of the Glorious Revolution which overthrew Anne’s father. The queen largely identified with the Tories, as they were more royalists; Sarah, on the other hand, wanted to push Anne to support the Whigs, who were more capitalist Puritans. This was the time when the English two-party system really took hold, as Sarah, Anne and Abigail subtly struggled for influence.


Winston Churchill is involved (sort of!)

The favourite

(Photo by © Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Winston Churchill is not in The favourite, since the leader of World War II would not be born until more than a century and a half after the end of Anne’s reign. However, he was a descendant of Sarah Churchill. Sarah would die at the age of 84, surviving both the Queen and her young rival Abigail. She wrote a book, An account of the conduct of the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough, from her first coming to court in the year 1710, which did not present Anne in a favorable light. His characterization of Anne as a weak and weak leader endured, and it wasn’t until much later that historians reassessed Anne and her reign. But history, as the old saying goes, is written by the winners. Or at least the longest livers. Even now, centuries later, The favourite is still indebted to Sarah’s account of events, although the Duchess of Marlborough would likely have objected to portraying her in the film.


The favourite is in theaters now


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