The True Story That Inspired 'The Favourite'

Exactly how true to history is the film starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone?

Following much critical praise and triumph on the festival circuit, movie goers came out in droves to see “The Favourite,” an eccentric dramedy set in the 18th-century court of Queen Anne, Great Britain’s oft-forgotten Queen Regnant. 

Director Yorgos Lanthimos’ Oscar-nominated period piece portrays the competition between Rachel Weisz’s Sarah Churchill and Emma Stone’s Abigail Masham, who vied for the affections of, and ensuing influence over, Olivia Colman’s unbalanced and sickly Queen Anne. 

All three women have been nominated for Academy Awards for their performances, as Colman is up for Actress in a Leading Role, while Stone and Weisz both earned Actress in a Supporting Role nominations.

“This period drama or comedy, depending on your mood, is sort of based on fact, gorgeous to look at, and features a trio of marvelous performances,” Time film critic Stephanie Zacharek wrote

But how true to history is the film, exactly?

Queen Anne was born Anne Stuart at St. James’s Palace on Feb. 6, 1665, to the Duke of York and his first wife, Anne Hyde. Though Anne was born during the reign of her uncle, King Charles II, her father took over when Charles II died, as the king had no legitimate heir to the throne. Anne’s father then became known as King James II.

But when the Glorious Revolution broke out in an attempt by the Protestants to overthrow the Catholic king, James II fled the country. Anne's sister Mary and brother-in-law William of Orange were then declared the monarchs of the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1689, and they became King William III and Queen Mary. 

After Mary's death of smallpox in 1694 and William III’s death in 1702, Anne became queen. 

Queen Anne ruled England and Scotland—which would later become the Kingdom of Great Britain—as well as Ireland from 1702 until her death in 1714. 

Though Anne took on a keen interest in government and foreign policy, she often suffered from gout, and the painful condition left her disabled and reliant on others. She and her husband, Prince George of Denmark, were no strangers to personal tragedy either, as Anne suffered 12 miscarriages and stillborn births and saw four of their children die before the age of 2. Their only child to survive past the age of 2, Prince William, Duke of Gloucester, died when he was 11 in 1700. 

Anne suffered another devastating blow with the passing of her husband, who died six years into the monarch’s reign in 1708. 

As shown in the film, Anne and childhood friend Sarah Churchill were incredibly close for much of their lives. 

Historians believe Anne met Sarah in the 1670s. Sarah would become Anne’s closest confidant and cheerleader. The women had pet names for each other, as Anne was called Mrs. Morley and Sarah was called Mrs. Freeman. 

After she was made Queen, Anne relied heavily on the counsel of Sarah and her husband, the Duke of Marlborough. When she ascended to the throne, Anne named Sarah the Mistress of the Robes, who is responsible for the queen's clothes and jewelry, and Keeper of the Privy Purse, who is a treasurer. With these titles, among others, Sarah became the second-most powerful woman in the kingdom. Then known as the Lady of Marlborough, Sarah exerted political influence over the less government-minded Queen, historians said. 

But just as Weisz’s character did in the film, the real Lady of Marlborough eventually lost favor with the Queen.

During Anne’s reign, the Tories and the Whigs were the two major political parties vying for power. While Anne was a Tory, Sarah threw her support behind the Whigs, leading to a rift between the pair that was made no better by the long stretches of time Sarah spent away from court. As Anne’s relationship with Sarah deteriorated, she turned to Sarah’s cousin, Abigail.

As ‘The Favourite’ showed, Abigail Hill’s family fell on hard times and Sarah Churchill, her cousin on her mother’s side, took Abigail under her wing. In reality, Abigail worked as a servant in various noble homes and went on to work for Sarah long before she arrived at Kensington Palace. 

Sarah took note of Anne’s affection for Abigail in 1707, when she learned Abigail had privately married Samuel Masham in the company of the Queen. The marriage to Masham, who was a gentleman of the Queen’s Household, made Abigail a Lady. The Queen also paid the couple a dowry of £2000 from the Privy Purse without informing Sarah, the purse’s keeper. As Anne and Abigail’s bond grew, Abigail helped her paternal cousin, Robert Harley, the Earl of Oxford who was once a Whig but then moved to the Tories, regain the confidence of the Queen. 

Sarah was apparently furious by what she perceived to be Abigail’s deliberate ingratitude, and in 1708, she arrived at court with a poem written by a Whig propagandist insinuating Anne and Abigail were in a lesbian relationship.

Rumors swirled, but historians do not believe the pair to have been an item, saying the deep religious culture of the time and the queen’s poor health would have made such a relationship unlikely. 

As support for the Whig-backed War of the Spanish Succession waned, Anne dismissed Sarah’s husband, the Duke of Marlborough, on spurious embezzlement charges. As the Tories assumed more power and the Whigs’ influence declined, Abigail’s husband was made a baron, and Abigail a baroness. 

Sarah and Anne’s final meeting came in 1710. Sarah claimed she pleaded with the queen to know why their friendship had taken such a turn and that the queen coolly replied, “I shall make no answer to anything you say” and “you may put it in writing.” Knowing how religious Anne was, Sarah told her God would judge her for how she behaved. The remark hurt the queen deeply, and they never spoke again.

In 1711, Sarah was dismissed from court and Abigail took her place as Keeper of the Privy Purse. Anne previously promised the role to Sarah’s children. 

Anne spent much of 1713 and 1714 severely ill, and on July 30, 1714, she suffered a stroke. She died on Aug. 1, 1714, at 49. 

She was succeeded by her second cousin George of Hanover, who became King George I. 

After Anne’s death, Abigail retired from court and lived a private life until she died at the age of 64 in 1734. 

Sarah and her husband were good friends with King George, who fought alongside the Duke of Marlborough in the War of the Spanish Succession. After George became king, Marlborough was restored to his old office of Captain General of the Army and he and Sarah moved back to England. 

She cared for her husband after he suffered two strokes in 1716 until his death in 1722 and busied herself finding suitable matches for her grandchildren. She eventually became estranged from three of her daughters as well as from King George’s son, King George II, and his wife, Queen Caroline.

She died at the age of 84 in 1744. Famous descendants of Sarah’s include Lady Diana Spencer and her children, Prince William and Prince Harry, as well as Winston Churchill.