The new film The Favourite is the first major film to tell the story of Queen Anne of Great Britain. As anyone curiously googling her name after the end credits will learn, she was Queen from March 1702 until August 1714. While the longer-reigning English queens like Victoria and Elizabeth I and II have had lasting effects on popular culture, this particular Queen was mostly forgotten until this film came along.
So who was she? What is her legacy? And what was the deal with her contentious relationship with Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham?
Prepare yourselves, this is a long one, but it’s so full of little bonkers details and sub-stories that you will want to read it slowly and carefully, maybe small pieces at a time, so as to properly appreciate the INTENSE BONKERS RIDE that is the life story of Anne, Queen of Great Britain.
Trigger warning: lots of miscarriages and stillbirths. Like, so many. More than seventeen. Just… a lot. Reader discretion advised.
Anne was born on February 6th, 1665, the fourth child born to the King’s younger brother Prince James and his wife, Anne Hyde. At the time, the King was Charles II who was very well-known for having lots of mistresses and lots of children with his mistresses, but no legitimate children. This meant that Princess Anne’s father was heir to the throne, making Anne’s older brother James Jr second in line to the throne, followed by her older sister Mary, and then her. Now, Prince James was widely rumoured to be a secret Catholic, and the country’s religion was Protestant. So Charles II instructed that Anne and her siblings should be raised as Protestants, in case they wound up taking over the country in the future so that there would continue to be Protestant monarchs.
The first six years of Anne’s life were marked by a LOT of deaths in the family. James Jr died when Anne was two years old, at around the same time that a new baby brother, Charles, also died in infancy. Another baby sister, Henrietta, was born and died in infancy one year later. Anne herself was already dealing with an odd medical condition (she had a lot of medical issues throughout her life), where her eyes watered excessively, which sounds very unpleasant. She was shipped off, aged four, to stay in France with her grandmother in hopes that she would recuperate over there. Shortly after she arrived, her grandmother died, and so Anne was transferred to stay with an aunt who was also in France, until she also died. And so the six-year-old Anne was shipped back to England. Very soon after she returned, two more younger siblings died in infancy, and at the same time, her mother also died. So if you’re keeping track, we now have just two royal siblings left: Mary, the older sister, and Anne, the younger sister. Unless their father remarried and had another son, these two girls were second and third in line to the throne.
Remember how her father was rumoured to be a secret Catholic? He came out of the closet when Anne was eight years old, publicly converting to being a fully Roman Catholic person, which was like the biggest scandal ever, and then he chose a new wife who was a Catholic princess named Mary of Modena. Mary of Modena was fourteen years old, making her just six years older than her new step-daughter, Anne. And everyone started to freak out about the sons that James and Mary of Modena would likely soon start having, who would be Catholics, and because of primogeniture would be ahead of Anne and her sister in the line of succession.
What would happen???
In 1677, Anne’s sister Mary was married to their Protestant cousin William III of Orange and sailed away to live with him in the Netherlands to be Queen over there. Anne was infected with smallpox at the time of her sister’s wedding, so she couldn’t attend, and wasn’t able to say goodbye, which is just overall pretty sad. Speaking of sad! Her governess also caught smallpox and DIED, so Anne’s bad luck of being constantly surrounded by death continued on into her tween years.
When she was 12 years old, her uncle King Charles II chose a husband for her. So she married her cousin Prince George of Denmark on July 28th, 1683, which meant Anne got to move out of the family palace and start her own royal court. She also got her own ladies in waiting, and one of them was a childhood friend of hers named Sarah Churchill. REMEMBER THAT NAME. Despite her young age, Anne’s marriage to George was consummated pretty much right away as evidenced by her becoming very quickly pregnant. Her first pregnancy ended in a stillbirth, but she became pregnant twice more in the next two years resulting in daughters named Mary (because this story doesn’t have enough people named Mary in it yet, apparently) and Anne Sophia. And very soon after that, her uncle King Charles II died, making her (Catholic) father the new king, James II.
Which meant a whole bunch of new problems for effectively everybody.
The Short Reign of James II
From basically day one, nobody was a fan of the new Catholic King James II, especially the way that he fired all the Protestant officials and hired new Catholic people in their place. Anne, who remember had been raised Protestant, continued to practice her own faith (as did her sister, off in the Netherlands with her husband William). James II was like, “So Anne, it would be really cool if you had your daughters baptised as Catholics,” which made Anne apparently burst into tears because she hated hated HATED the Catholic religion. From this point on, she became estranged from her father and her six-years-older stepmother, who — we’ll get to her in a minute.
So Anne didn’t have a lot of time to focus on this family estrangement because her life continued to be unrelentingly tinged with death and tragedy. Over a period of one week in 1687, she had another miscarriage, both of her daughters died of smallpox, and her husband George also fell ill. So she and George were left grieving their losses as he struggled to survive in bed, which is just like… so sad. But George made a full recovery! And Anne became pregnant again later that year. Which ended with another stillbirth. This woman’s life, honestly. But know who else’s life was doing similarly not-great vis-a-vis pregnancies? Mary of Modena!
So, Anne’s stepmother had become pregnant ten times since she married Anne’s father. Each of these ten pregnancies had ended in either miscarriage, stillbirth, or the infant death of the child. This is horrifying for Mary of Modena as a woman, and also was freaking James out due to the lack of a new Catholic heir. As long as he and Mary of Modena didn’t have a surviving child, then his Protestant daughters Mary and Anne were poised to succeed him as King. But then!! Mary of Modena became pregnant again, and everybody waited with bated breath to see how this would turn out. If it was a son and he survived, he would be the New Catholic Heir to the throne, which would change everything.
How lucky and convenient! Almost, Anne thought, a little too convenient…
XOXO Anne Stuart: Gossip Princess
Anne had a theory that Mary of Modena wasn’t really pregnant and was faking it and on her delivery day, she’d pull a switcheroo with some random baby and claim that was the new Catholic heir. Why would they do this? Frankly, because Mary of Modena and James were REALLY DESPERATE to have a surviving heir to continue on their Catholic ways, and they REALLY didn’t want Anne or her sister Mary to become the new Queen and switch everyone back to Protestantism. Oh and Anne’s theory wasn’t a secret theory: she made sure that everyone heard this rumour because, as we will see in other later examples, she LIVED for the drama of it all.
So, a bit before Mary of Modena’s delivery date, Anne had another miscarriage (or she said she did) and headed off to recuperate in the spa town of Bath. Now, normally when the Queen gives birth to a new heir, the other heirs come into the room to witness the birth in case someone dies and the other heirs have to take over. But Anne was like, “So sorry, I can’t be there to watch this probably fake birth, I’m busy taking the waters here in Bath, xoxo,” which was also very convenient and where rumours came from that Anne had maybe faked the miscarriage. Who knows?? But while Anne was in Bath, Mary of Modena allegedly gave birth to a son or pulled a switcheroo but one way or another, there was a new heir to the throne who was a baby named James. There are so many Jameses in this story already we’ll just call this one Baby Jamie.
Anne wrote a letter to her sister Mary in the Netherlands like, “So allegedly Baby Jamie is our half-brother, but I don’t know if he really is, please feel free to spread this rumour around the Netherlands,” and Mary wrote back like, “Solid theory also PS William and I are probably going to invade and take over from our Catholic father, don’t tell anyone xoxo,” and Anne was like, “Amazing, I’ll keep our father distracted with all this fake-baby stuff so he’ll be too busy to notice you and William invading,” and that is what happened.
James was like, “Mary of Modena 100% gave birth to Baby Jamie! I can prove it! Here, there were 40 people in the room when she gave birth, and I’ll get them all to testify in front of the Privy Council that they saw the baby slide out from her vagina, Anne can you please come?” And she was like, “Sorry, can’t make it, I’m pregnant” (she was not really pregnant, this was a TOTAL LIE). But James had a written record of all the forty witnesses’ testimony and he was like, “Anne, I can send you the minutes of their testimony if you like,” and she was like, “No thanks, I prefer to continue tormenting you by not believing or listening to you” and James was like AHAHHHHHH and Anne was like “Ha ha ha ha ha” and then… REVOLUTION!
As Mary had hinted, she and her husband William invaded England on November 5th, 1688, in order to take over as Protestant co-monarchs! And they were successful, and this whole thing became known as the Glorious Revolution.
So back in England, Anne had been pretending like she didn’t know this was going to happen and the only person she told was her BFF, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (remember her??). So, Sarah was connected to the very powerful Churchill family, all of whom supported William and Mary’s coup. But then James found out that the Churchills were against him, and he ordered that BFF Sarah should be arrested. And Anne flipped the fuck OUT! She was like, “NEVER!!!!” and secretly snuck out the back stairs of the palace with Sarah, to freedom. When James found out that Anne had deserted him, he was like, “Well, that’s it then. Not even my estranged daughter supports me. I guess I’ll just flee to France with Mary of Modena and Baby Jamie” which is what he did.
After all this happened, the courtiers were like, “Girl, Anne, are you OK? This was a pretty intense scenario,” and she shrugged and was like, “Whatever, it’s Tuesday, that’s the day I play cards! Let’s play cards!” And everyone was like, wow she’s so chill at all this drama. But like, look at her life to this point. She was like an Emergency Room doctor, her tolerance for highly stressful situations was far higher than that of the average person. And so she played cards, and William & Mary were Protestant co-monarchs of England, and everything was GLORIOUS!
… or was it?
William & Mary (& Anne & Sarah)
Since William & Mary didn’t have any of their own kids, a whole decision had to be made about who their heir would be. As co-monarchs, whichever one of them died first would be succeeded by the other one. And then their next heir would be Anne, or her children, if she ever had any children who survived infancy. And then amazing news!!! The year after the Glorious Revolution, Anne had a son named William who not only SURVIVED childbirth and infancy but who THRIVED!! And thus was Baby Willie now the heir to William & Mary. And William & Mary were so grateful to Sarah and the Churchill family that they gave her husband the title of Earl of Marlborough. So this is when Sarah herself became the Duchess of Marlborough.
EVERYTHING! WAS! GREAT! … for like five minutes, until it all went chaotic again, because it’s just that sort of a story.
Anne was like, “My sister is the Queen, she’s a Protestant, this is amazing. William & Mary, I would like a palace to live in, and also lots of allowance money,” and William & Mary were like, “Yes to the first bit, no to the second.” And Anne was like, “OK, that’s kind of cold. Can you please give my husband George an important military role?” And William & Mary were like, “… No.” And then Anne was like, “ESTRANGED! WE ARE NOW ESTRANGED! GOODBYE FOREVER! THE ONLY FRIEND I NEED IN MY LIFE IS SARAH CHURCHILL!!”
So Anne and Sarah were extremely close in a way that Princesses and Duchesses weren’t usually, and in a way I think they weren’t supposed to be. Anne saw the two of them as equals, and so they called each other by the nicknames “Mrs. Morley” and “Mrs. Freeman” which indicated how they were on the same level, class-wise. And then DRAMA!!! William & Mary began to suspect that Sarah’s husband was secretly meeting with supporters of the deposed King James, which was treasonous, and so they fired the Earl of Marlborough from his various important jobs and demanded that Anne remove Sarah as one of her ladies in waiting. And Anne was like, “NEVER SHALL I BE SEPARATED FROM MY BELOVED BFF SARAH!!!” and it all got super intense to the point that Mary personally fired Sarah herself. And Anne LOST HER SHIT!!!
Like, Anne stormed out of the castle and ran off to live in a different castle because she couldn’t stand to even LOOK at her sister anymore after this betrayal. And Mary was like, “That’s how you want to do this? OK! I’ll fire your guard of honour and officially forbid ANYONE FROM TALKING TO YOU” which is true, that’s what she did, so Anne was in this other palace surrounded by people who weren’t allowed to even acknowledge she was there. As ever, Anne was pregnant through all of this, and in the midst of all the drama gave birth to a son who only lived for a few minutes.
After this latest child death, Mary headed off to the other castle. Was she going to make amends with her sister? Was she going to console her sister in her time of grief? Have you been paying attention to any of this: no, of course she wasn’t! Mary stomped into Anne’s room like, “STOP BEING FRIENDS WITH SARAH! UGGHHH I HATE YOU” and Anne moved to another different castle, even further away, and she never saw her sister again because Mary died two years later of smallpox and they both could HOLD A GRUDGE.
An Heir Without A Spare
With Mary dead, William became solo King on his own. And since Anne and her son Baby Willie were his only heirs at this point, William decided to smooth over that in-law relationship. So, he gave her back all the possessions and titles Anne had previously had removed, allowed people to talk to her again, and invited her to come back and live in the main palace. He even gave Anne all of Mary’s jewels, and also restored both Sarah and her husband to their former positions. Everything was great on that front, but health-wise, Anne was not doing so well!
Her seventeenth (!!!!!) pregnancy ended in a miscarriage and at around the same time, all of her other various health problems became even worse. Now, doctors back then had different methodologies and diagnoses that we do now, but Anne likely had a pretty bad combination of arthritis, gout, and other things including the after-effects of being pregnant seventeen times. Increasingly frequently, she had trouble walking so she sometimes used a chair with wheels on it (because wheelchairs hadn’t yet been invented) and sometimes had people carry her around in non-wheel chairs. Basically, she was living with chronic pain and, presumably, psychological issues as well. And then Baby Willie died, aged eleven (I’m not sure of what; presumably smallpox since that seemed to be what everyone was dying of all the time back then). His date of death was July 30th, and Anne decreed that every year on July 30th, everybody in the household were to mark that as a day of mourning. And in a more practical sense, this meant that Anne was literally the only remaining heir to King William.
Parliament was pretty frantic at this point about the whole issue of who would be the heir after any of these childless people, because what if the next distant cousin in line was CATHOLIC or something??? So they unfurled the family tree and crossed off everyone who was Catholic and looked to see who was left. Literally, like fifty names were removed from the line of succession, bumping up a Protestant woman named Sophia, Elector of Hanover from 51st in line to 1st in line. Who was Sophia, Elector of Hanover? I’m glad you asked. She was the granddaughter of James I, via his daughter Elizabeth of Bohemia (and also the great-granddaughter of Mary Queen of Scots, and the great-great-granddaughter of Henry VIII’s older sister, Margaret Tudor). But what mattered was that she was Protestant, and so the act said that she was the next heir, and then her Protestant descendants would be the next in line.
But first things first! William died in 1702, making his sister-in-law Queen Anne I. She was thirty-seven at this time and was doing poorly health-wise, so she had to be carried down the aisle of Westminster Abbey in a chair as she couldn’t walk. But to make it all dramatic, someone (I’m guessing Sarah Churchill) arranged for a low back to be put on the chair so that Anne’s long train could unfurl dramatically behind her down the aisle. Among her first acts as Queen were to give a bunch of important titles to her husband, George, as well as to Sarah and Sarah’s husband. And this is basically where the movie The Favourite begins.
Anne was BEYOND devoted to her BFF Sarah Churchill to the point that everyone around them was like “Who TF does Sarah Churchill think she is, being so important to the Queen that the Queen basically does whatever she says??” and Anne did things like give Sarah her own palace and basically do everything nice for her, and Sarah was like, “Because I’m worth it” and it was, seemingly, a sort of toxic scenario where Sarah was sort of mean and Anne was sort of indulgent, and we should go see The Favourite to learn more about their dynamic.
But then, into this codependent scenario arrived a new courtier named Abigail Hill. Anne liked her a lot, and they became secret friends and Sarah didn’t even know anything was going on until Abigail got married to a man named Baron Masham (making her now Abigail Masham, Baroness Masham), and Anne was a guest at the wedding. When Sarah found out that Anne and Abigail were close enough that Anne got a wedding invitation, she FREAKED THE FUCK OUT in rage and jealousy.
So, there were special rooms at Kensington Palace reserved for Sarah when she came to stay there. But since Sarah spent most of her time off in her own personal castle, Anne was like, “Abigail, you can move into Sarah’s rooms,” and Sarah was like, “YOU WHAT?????” and flipped out AGAIN and then things got super bonkers. Sarah showed up at court with a very lewd poem all about how the Queen was in a sexual relationship with Abigail, and Sarah didn’t write the poem (probably) but she may have commissioned it (possibly). She went to the Queen like, “Look! Someone wrote a poem about you and Abigail! Spending time with her is ruining your reputation so you should DUMP HER and make ME YOUR ONE AND ONLY FRIEND” And Anne was like, “Literally, what are you talking about, can’t I have two friends?” but secretly, Anne was a messy bitch who loved drama and seemed to enjoy having Sarah and Abigail fighting over her.
A lot of this drama was in a very sort of etiquette battle sort of thing, like one of Sarah’s jobs was picking out which jewels the Queen would wear each day. And one day, the Queen chose to wear different jewels from the ones Sarah had chosen, and Sarah FREAKED THE FUCK OUT, because not wearing the jewels she’d chosen was like the etiquette version of punching her in the face. Sarah, who clearly had quite a temper that she was not afraid of demonstrating, literally YELLED AT THE QUEEN IN PUBLIC TO SHUT UP, which: nobody is allowed to do that??? Sarah, WYD??? But then again, nobody stopped her and Anne didn’t punish her so I guess… carry on?
To add more shit to this overflowing waterfall of feces, Anne’s husband George suddenly died (smallpox, presumably). Anne was super upset about this, OBVIOUSLY, because he’d been a good husband to her and they had been through a lot together as a couple (see above re: seventeen pregnancies). She’d always had a portrait of George hanging in her room, and one day it was gone. Sarah was like, “Yeah, that was me, I took down the portrait because I thought it would make you sad so you shouldn’t look at it” and Anne was like, “PUT IT BACK RIGHT NOW!!!!” and Sarah was like “MAKE ME!!!!” And Anne was like, “I AM THE QUEEN!” And Sarah was like, “WHY DON’T YOU GO CRY ABOUT THIS TO ABIGAIL???” And Anne was like “AAAGHGHGGHGHGH” and this is why there is a movie about this scenario, this is a bonkers story, everyone should go see The Favourite.
Eventually, Anne wrote a letter to Sarah’s husband like, “Can you please tell your wife to stop being mean to me and yelling at me and stealing paintings of my dead husband” and he was like, “Sarah, what is going on here?” And so Sarah went to have a face-to-face with Anne, which happened on April 6th, 1710, and Anne fully broke up with her. The former besties were now #ESTRANGED. Say what you will about Queen Anne I, but she was very committed to ENDING TOXIC RELATIONSHIPS WITH PEOPLE.
The Return of Baby Jamie
MEANWHILE BACK IN FRANCE, Anne’s father the ex-King was hanging out with his wife Mary of Modena, Baby Jamie, and another child they had named Louisa Maria Teresa. Apparently, Baby Jamie (who was now an adult) had been brought up being told that he was the rightful king of England, and he believed it. Frankly, he kind of was the rightful King of England because it had been a dick move for William & Mary to just like… take over like they did. And so Baby Jamie and his supporters, who were called the Jacobites, decided to sail over to Scotland and begin the work of taking over all of Britain. They had some secret allies over there who he thought would help out but SURPRISE!! Anne had spies of her own, who intercepted Baby Jamie and chased him away.
But!! Sarah, a woman who could also seriously carry a grudge, was spreading the story that Anne secretly wanted Baby Jamie to be her heir instead of Sophia, Elector of Hanover. And sort of like how impossible it was for James to prove that his child wasn’t a secret switcheroo, Anne found it impossible to convince anyone that this gossip wasn’t true. Because when people don’t like you, they really can’t be convinced that mean rumours about you aren’t true.
Throughout all of this, Anne kept herself busy with matters of state and government. She sat in more cabinet meetings than any previous English monarch had, and also more than most of the later monarchs did. She was INTERESTED in what was going on in the Parliament, and did lots of important political stuff that other people have written about, I’m just here to tell you the juicy gossip bits. But for a fuller picture of Anne’s whole deal vis-a-vis governance, check out the book Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion by Anne Somerset.
Even though Anne’s health concerns were becoming more and more exacerbated, e.g. she was basically a bedridden invalid, she wheeled herself or had people carry her into Parliament where she attended all-nighter meetings going over important government business. On July 30th, 1714 — the fourteenth anniversary of the death of Baby Willie, the date that she always had everyone commemorate every year — Anne had a stroke that left her unable to speak. She passed away on August 1st, 1714, aged forty-nine.
Queen Anne I was buried in Westminster Abbey, the same place where twelve years before she’d been carried down the aisle in a chair with a train. She was laid to rest next to her husband, George, as well as the remains of many of her stillborn and infant children as well as Baby Willie. As it turns out — because death was always one step ahead of Anne — Sophia, Elector of Hanover had predeceased her by just a few months. This meant that Anne’s heir was Sophia’s son, who became King George I.
BUT THE STORY DOESN’T END HERE because Sarah Churchill? Wasn’t willing to let go of her grudge. Sarah lived for thirty more years after Anne’s death, and later published a memoir that basically trashed Anne as a simpleton/idiot and spilled lots of “secrets” that may or may not have been true. But, because everyone knew how close Sarah had been to the Queen, her word was taken as truth and this affected Queen Anne’s reputation for centuries to come. Conveniently, Sarah’s description of Anne as a useless and overly emotional woman fell neatly into that patriarchal stereotype of women being unsuited for leadership roles, which may also be why her story was accepted so readily. But if we’re talking about unstable, emotional women, who was the one running around reciting vindictively commissioned lesbian poems, SARAH???
Note: the third point of The Favourite‘s friendship/love triangle, Abigail Masham, left royal court after Anne’s death and lived out the rest of her life in private.
Although Anne’s reign was a relatively short twelve years, she was the sitting monarch during a number of hugely important political events such as England and Scotland uniting into Europe’s then-largest free trade area; she oversaw numerous successful battles, especially at sea; and was a noted patron of the arts and literature, and was the namesake for the well-known Queen Anne styles of both architecture and furniture. The timing of her reign coincided with a time of great English colonization in Eastern North America and so numerous places were named after her, including the American city of Annapolis, the Nova Scotian locations Annapolis Royal, Annapolis Valley, and Fort Anne, as well as Princess Anne Street in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and Queen Square in Bloomsbury, London.
As reflects Anne’s under-the-radar, lesser-known status as a British monarch, there aren’t many books out there about her. But! There are a few, including Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion and Anne: Last Queen of England. Sarah Churchill is the subject of the biography The Favourite: The Life of Sarah Churchill, which was just re-released to coincide with the new film. Happy reading!
Ann Foster is a writer and historian with a research interest in the intersection of women, history, and pop culture, especially the lives and stories of figures both well-known and half-forgotten. patreon.com/annfosterwriter