The Favourite: The true story behind Queen Anne’s lesbian affairs in Oscar-tipped movie

Olivia Colman and Rachel Weisz in The Favourite

Period comedy-drama The Favourite has already dominated the BAFTAs and it’s got 10 nominations for the Oscars on Sunday (February 24). But, as the UK marks LGBT History Month, how realistic are the lesbian affairs depicted in the film?

What is the true, real-life story of Queen Anne and has The Favourite prioritised fact over fiction? We explore what historians have said about the period.

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite follows the reign of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) when England is at war with France in the early 18th century. It portrays two cousins, the Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), and Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), who fight it out to be court favourites of Queen Anne, including their salacious lesbian affairs with the monarch.

Historical accuracies of The Favourite debated by historians

The historical accuracy of the film, which has already bagged seven BAFTA awards, including best actress for Colman, has been hotly debated—from middle-aged parents discussing the lesbian romps in Aga-heated kitchens in southern England, to millenials frantically Googling the “historical accuracy of The Favourite” after watching it that afternoon in their local cinema.

So, how much of the 2019 Oscar-nominated movie The Favourite is real? According to historian Ophelia Field, author of the Sarah Churchill biography The Favourite, which recounts the historical story behind the recent film, Queen Anne’s letters to Lady Churchill were, indeed, of a romantic nature.

Field, whose biography of Churchill was first published in 2002, before being updated to coincide with the release of the film, says she started researching Queen Anne’s letters written from the 1680s onwards, and “was struck by the fact that they were love letters.”

Queen Anne’s real life letters to Lady Churchill were romantic

Field explains that she then did some reading around the topic to “try to contextualise how freakish or how typical these were for the period,” only to discover that the Restoration court—covering the period approximately from the return of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660 until the death of Queen Anne in 1714—was characterised by strong female friendships, which may have been sexual.

“What became clear was that in the Restoration court in which Anne and Sarah grew up—which was a sexually decadent place, though that’s usually been thought about more in a heterosexual way—there was a sort of mini-culture of very passionate relationships between the young maids of honour,” explains Field.

Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone all star in The Favourite, which has received rave reviews so far

Emma Stone with her co-stars in the Oscar nominated lesbian film, which upends period drama stereotypes (Gareth Cattermole/Getty)

Field adds that Queen Anne’s letters to the Duchess of Marlborough have to be read “in the context of how she obviously absorbed this romantic same-sex culture of the Restoration court.” The historian goes on to highlight several women who she believes were involved in romanticising one another, including Francis Aspley, with whom, she says, Queen Anne’s older sister Princess Mary—later Queen Mary II of England—was “really in love.”

The academic reads aloud one letter from Princess Mary to Apsley, who she calls her “husband,” in which the royal says she longs to “kiss the ground on when once you go, to be your dog on a string.”

“It’s not implausible to imagine that there’s some physical expression within all of this, and the intensity is certainly much closer to our modern ideas of sexual love than to our modern ideas of friendship.”

—Ophelia Field

Still, Field is quick to admit, we can never know for certain whether the same-sex desire outlined in these letters was acted upon physically, as is suggested in the film.
“Whether any of these relationships were physically consummated is a whole other question—and one that we will never have a concrete answer to,” explains Field.

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