Favourite? Letters between Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill

Favourite? Letters between Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill

Many readers of the WWW blog will have heard about or seen the Hollywood film ‘The Favourite’. In my household, a debate has occurred about the facticity or otherwise of the power-sexual-political relationships between Queen Anne, Sarah Churchill (Duchess of Marlborough) and Abigail Masham nee Hill that it features. Forget about the dodgy costumes, the even more dodgy makeup, and the strange absence of major players in the actual relationships – did Anne actually have a sexual relationship with one or both of these women? No evidence beyond being a component in criticising the Queen by the sacked Churchill, I say. It’s a film, is the response, and of course the relationships have been exaggerated or made up so get over it! On the other hand, for me there is still some responsibility not to bend the truth so far that it becomes a lie and willfully and for profit misleads.

Does it matter that the only so-called evidence for Queen Anne having a sexual relationship with anyone other than her husband George seems to boil down to being part of vicious remarks about her made by the ambitious, ruthless and also attractive Sarah? I think it does. Nose out of joint and fiercely protective of the interests of her husband John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill’s ‘Anne was a fat, dowdy, boring person who behaved inappropriately with Abigail Hill and wouldn’t do what I told her to’ comments are about as reliable as President Trump’s claims about the crowds at his inauguration. But what about before Anne came to the throne, for she and Sarah Churchill had been friends since girlhood? And what about after it and the claim in the film that there are letters by Anne which are less than discreet about sexual goings-on?

Quite a few hours over the last week have been spent in my reading the two volumes of published letters of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. How interesting they are, richly detailed and immensely colloquial; and all the people who crowd the pages writing to her as well as being written to seem very alive and both familiar and strange at one and the same time. But what light do these letters throw on the ‘did Anne have sex with them’ question? They don’t, or rather the light the published letters throw is very oblique.

There are many comments about Anne across the hundreds of letters that the two published volumes contain, but only half a dozen or so by her. I return to these in a bit. As well as the in passing gossip about her in letters, the volumes also feature a short memoir by Sarah which comments on Anne and contains comments I referred to above as vicious. The only good thing she has to say about Anne Is that gossip says she was a drunkard but she wasn’t. Otherwise her comments are critical to the point of being quite disturbing in coming from someone who claimed she had been a close friend. Other comments by Sarah have a similar tone, including her sneering remarks about Mrs Masham, the former Abigail Hill. The result is that even the (unnamed) editor of these two volumes refers to Sarah’s approach as petulant and petty, also as partial and violent. The letters and short memoir are indeed characterised by a backbiting and domineering quality: Sarah Churchill does not come across well. Perhaps it took the power of her personality and the frequently mentioned attractiveness of her looks to make such things palatable (shades of Villanelle in Killing Eve!).

But what about Queen Anne’s letters in these volumes? They are calm and reasonable responses to letters which seem to have been critical, scolding and domineering, while they also do not budge from a position of expressing the unacceptability of the tone as much as the content of the letters she had received. Anne had clearly decided such conduct was beyond how even a close friend should behave towards a woman who had become Queen.

However, these are published letters, in two volumes which appeared in 1838, the mealy-mouthed middle nineteenth century. So a reasonable response here is that perhaps the editor screened out letters that had more scandalous content, for clearly Anne will have written many more than appear in the published volumes. A detailed blog by somebody who has read the archived letters has described there being many more of them, and that while they contain affectionate remarks, they contain many about the attempts of Sarah and Anne to get pregnant with their husbands, and the affectionate expressions are not beyond what was usual between close friends at the time.

Unlike what is implied in the film, if there had been a sexual relationship between Anne and Abigail Hill/Masham or between Anne and Sarah Churchill, it is not likely that this would feature in any very apparent way in semi-public situations or on paper. If there are references in the extant letters, these would be deeply coded. So I would like to read the manuscript letters myself, as my curiosity has been piqued by all of this. There is also my sense of discomfort that films can just make things up about historical characters and happenings which many in their audiences then come to believe are the facts. What is actually pure fiction is great in its place – but not when presented as true. This is alarmingly like the world of alternative facts promoted by the Trump regime.

As a result, I shall be reading the two volume Memoirs of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, to see what this far longer post hoc account edited by Mrs AT [Katherine] Thompson and originally published in 1839 might add to the picture. The University of Edinburgh library beckons here. And, more excitingly, once the teaching semester comes to an end I have promised myself up to a week reading the original manuscripts of the Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill letters in their archival location. Something to look forward to beyond the inevitability of marking essays and other assessment work!

  1. Private correspondence of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, illustrative of the court and times of Queen Anne. Two volumes. London: Henry Colburn, Publishers.

Last updated:  15 February 2019