Brow Beat

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in The Favourite

Were there really lesbian affairs in Queen Anne’s court? We break down the irreverent new period drama.

Queen Anne portrait and Olivia Colman as Queen Anne
Photo illustration by Slate. Painting by National Portrait Gallery. Photo by Fox Searchlight.

Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite plays fast and loose with the facts of history to hilarious effect—the destined-for-infamy dance scene, for one, is decidedly not period-appropriate. But other aspects of the story have a stronger grounding in reality than audiences might expect, including the central love triangle between Queen Anne and her favorites, Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham. Below, we break down how the film’s depiction of various affairs (and affairs of state) compares with what we know of the 18th-century queen’s real-life reign.

Queen Anne (Olivia Colman)

We first meet Anne in the midst of an argument with Sarah (Rachel Weisz) about her 17 rabbits. The pets are fictional, but the children they memorialize are real: Anne suffered 12 miscarriages, and the five who weren’t stillborn did not survive childhood.

Her own frailty in the film is likewise true to life. According to Edward Gregg’s biography Queen Anne, she struggled with a likely autoimmune disease (diagnosed as “gout” at the time), which over time became “more and more confining.” As we see in The Favourite, she progressed from relying on two walking sticks to being effectively wheelchair-bound.

Politically, however, she may have been a stronger figure than Lanthimos gives her credit for. Propagandists painted her as fickle and indecisive, but it seems likely that she was simply determined not to be dominated by one party or the other. Most historians now believe that she “acted decisively and relied on her own judgment in making policy.”

Though it may not have impacted her governance as her critics suggested, Anne does appear to have been interested in women. “Romantic friendships” were not uncommon at the time, but her relationships were believed by many to overstep the accepted boundaries of that “impassioned, asexual love.” Considered overly deferential to her female favorites even as she ignored the counsel of male advisers, she was the victim of “bedchamber narratives,” tabloid-style speculation about her personal life that aimed to undermine her authority.

Both Sarah and Abigail featured heavily in these accounts. One 1708 poem said of the latter that “[Anne’s] secretary she was not,/ Because she could not write,/ But had the conduct and the care/ Of some dark deeds at night.” (Sarah, out of the crosshairs herself after her dismissal from court, was known to have enjoyed this one and even performed the ballad for her friends’ amusement.)

Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz)

Portrait of Sarah Churchill, Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill
Photo illustration by Slate. Painting by National Portrait Gallery. Photo by Fox Searchlight.

Early in the film, Anne reveals her plan to build Blenheim Palace for Sarah; not long after that, she recounts their first meeting when they were both girls. It’s true that the friendship began in childhood and that Anne’s affection quickly translated to political power. Sarah rose to the rank of keeper of the privy purse (the treasurer for the monarch’s private finances, traditionally a position occupied by men) following Anne’s coronation, and the queen was notorious for showering her with gifts—including, yes, an entire palace (though the estate was officially presented to her husband “in recognition of his victory in 1704 over French and Bavarian troops”).

Unlike in Lanthimos’ version of events, however, Sarah’s fall from grace and ultimate dismissal from the court didn’t involve being poisoned by her rival. Instead, it was her own persistent meddling and insistence that Abigail be cast out that finally alienated Anne. Her threat to blackmail the queen with their passionate letters to one another was, on the other hand, real. “Though your Majesty takes care to make them less pleasing to me,” she wrote once the relationship had begun to sour, “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.”

As historian Rachel Judith Weil noted, “Despite Sarah’s best efforts to describe her dismissal in political terms, it was treated by others as a purely personal and emotional event.” And while Abigail did replace her as keeper of the privy purse, she didn’t inherit everything of Sarah’s quite so cleanly: The Duchess of Somerset (another of Anne’s favorites) took on several of her titles and responsibilities as well as the attendant perks—including the golden key to the royal bedchamber.

Abigail Masham née Hill (Emma Stone)

Portrait of Abigail Hill, Emma Stone as Abigail Hill
Photo illustration by Slate. Painting by National Portrait Gallery. Photo by Fox Searchlight.

During her first audience with Sarah in The Favourite, Abigail identifies herself as her cousin, explaining that the Hills have fallen on hard times since her father gambled away their fortune. Both claims are true, though some of the more extreme details—namely that he burned down the family home and lost her in a game of whist—appear to be the inventions of screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara.

In the film, Abigail begs for a position and only earns Sarah’s attention and respect gradually. Historically, however, it was Sarah herself who introduced and advocated for her at court (if only to avoid embarrassment by association). In fact, she had first taken Abigail in as a servant in her own home.

After that fateful appointment, Abigail’s precise path to power is somewhat hazy. George Macaulay Trevelyan’s England Under the Stuarts credits Harley (Nicholas Hoult) with her rise, arguing that he used his position as minister “to insinuate a rival favourite to the Duchess of Marlborough … supplant[ing] ‘Mrs Freeman’ in the love of ‘Mrs Morley’ ”(Anne and Sarah’s pet names for each other, which also feature in the film). In return, Abigail “used her influence for the High Church and Harley, against the Whigs and Marlborough.”

The nature of that love is unclear, but rumors were widespread. It was exacerbated by Sarah herself, who claimed in one letter that Anne was “exposed to be the talk of all courts and countries, for so wrong a thing, as having such a fondness for a bedchamber woman, and being so much governed by her.” As Weil puts it in Political Passions: Gender, the Family and Political Argument in England, both Sarah’s private correspondence and public propaganda “all came within the vicinity of accusing [Abigail] of lesbianism without actually getting there.” In either case, her marriage to Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn) and the relative secrecy of the ceremony are also true to life.

Harley (Nicholas Hoult) and the War of the Spanish Succession

Portrait of Harley, photo of Nicholas Hoult as Harley
Photo illustration by Slate. Painting by Jonathan Richardson/Wikipedia. Photo by Fox Searchlight.

In the film, the course of the war becomes a bellwether for Anne’s favor, with Sarah championing it while Harley insists that they end England’s involvement. Continuing the conflict would mean doubling the current land tax, which he warns will anger property owners. As Sarah’s influence wanes and Abigail forges an alliance with Harley, Anne’s commitment to both the war and the tax wavers accordingly.

Hoult’s character is based on Robert Harley, the Earl of Oxford and a Tory politician. In The Favourite and in life, he advocated for peace and was finally able to broker it himself when he became Lord High Treasurer (not, as Anne says in the film, prime minister, though the position was essentially equivalent). The role of Sarah’s husband, the Duke of Marlborough, is also accurate: He was then the head of the English forces, and it was under his leadership that they won the decisive Battle of Oudenarde.

Still, it was the role of the women in Anne’s life that has fascinated ever since. As Margaret Oliphant wrote of Anne and Sarah in 1894, “Few things can be more interesting than the position of these two female figures in the foreground of English life.”