Last Updated on February 24, 2019

There’s a lot of buzz around “The Favourite,” but you may not have heard as much about the life of its protagonist Queen Anne. We asked Nancy Bilyeau, author of the 1700s-set thriller “The Blue” to fill us in on the historical backdrop of the period drama, and on the real Queen Anne. 

Olivia Colman in The Favourite (L) courtesy Fox Searchlight, Queen Anne (R)

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The Favourite (2018): In early 18th-century England, the relationship between Queen Anne and her close friend, Lady Sarah, is threatened by a new servant who schemes to return to her aristocratic roots.

Starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone.

Rated R

Read our REVIEW

Watch the TRAILER

Stream “The Favourite” NOW 

In the new film “The Favourite,” when Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, tells Abigail, her young, impoverished, but quite ambitious cousin, that Queen Anne is an “extraordinary person,” it is difficult to know how this line of dialogue is supposed to play. Most likely, Sarah’s line is meant to be a joke.

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite is winning high praise for its wit and boldness, the artistry of the cinematography bringing vividly to life early 18th century England, and, most of all, its superb acting by Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill, her domineering principal lady, and Emma Stone as the conniving Abigail. “Like the elaborate tapestries hanging on the walls around them, the actors are the exquisite fiber of film, and its three dynamic leads make it a standout,” says the review in Willow & Thatch.

I enjoyed the acting in the film and loved the costumes and “The Favourite’s” use of natural light. And yet, I do feel it’s a bit unfair. Another film set in an England of long ago, “Mary Queen of Scots,” is drawing protests over inaccuracy from those familiar with 16th century royal history, namely, that a face-to-face meeting between the rival cousin queens never happened. There are few such arguments raging over inaccuracy in “The Favourite.” The reason may have to do less with the film’s fidelity than the fact that there are not as many people bursting with knowledge about Queen Anne’s court as the Tudors’ a century and a half before. But that does not mean there isn’t cause to question it.

This article comes not to quibble about line-dancing moves or the likelihood of drunken Tory politicians pelting a naked man with fruit within the palace walls. No, it is in depiction of Anne herself, queen of England, that concern arises.

After seeing “The Favourite,” anyone would assume her reign a chaotic low point in English history. However, the opposite is true. Hers was a successful reign, most historians would agree. And while some would insist that any positive developments happened not because of Queen Anne but practically by happenstance or coincidence, there are a few prepared to give the Queen her due.

Let’s put out there one a few facts that make it very hard to turn Queen Anne into the dim-minded, childish, lovesick, and irrational woman seen onscreen in “The Favourite”:

  • She attended more cabinet meetings than any other English monarch, before or after.
  • She and her husband, Prince George, had a strong, devoted marriage.
  • She oversaw a period of intense flourishing of the arts, from architecture to fiction and poetry to music.
  • “She brought England unprecedented glory in world affairs and did her best to support the Church,” says a respected biographer.

Few would have predicted at her birth that Anne Stuart would be the first queen of England to rule in her own stead since Elizabeth I. She was a younger child of James, Duke of York, himself the younger brother of Charles II. James’ marriage to her mother, Anne Hyde, was a scandal of its time. Their furtive wedding came following a clandestine affair between James and Anne, the daughter of Edward Hyde, a self-made lawyer and royal adviser. So many opposed the marriage that James actually renounced her while she was pregnant with their first child. It was King Charles who said the marriage was legal and must be upheld.

Anne was born on February 6, 1665 in St. James Palace. Her uncle, Charles II, had three years previously married Catherine of Braganza to begin a family as well as to acquire her huge dowry. James of York had at that time older children living. Yet a combination of infertility and early deaths would bring Anne steadily forward in the succession.

Her childhood was not a very happy one. Her mother died when she was six and she had an eye condition deemed so serious she was sent to France for treatment, living with her French relations. Although Henry VIII does not seem to have been an affectionate father to Elizabeth I, he did carefully provide her with an outstanding education. The opposite was true with Anne. Her father, James of York, was by all reports a loving father but he did not consider it important that she receive a serious education. Significantly, she was brought up as a Protestant, despite her father’s Catholic beliefs. In this James had no say, for it was the will of the government, already deeply suspicious of his “Papist” tendencies and his plans for the kingdom should he become king.

Anne in her youth showed a love of the arts. “She was a competent performer on the guitar and the harpsichord, an excellent dancer and actress in her youth, a fluent speaker of French, a promoter of opera, a shrewd connoisseur of painting and architecture, an experienced judge of political and religious oratory, and a reader able to quote contemporary poets from memory,” wrote James Anderson Winn in “Queen Anne: Patroness of the Arts.”

By the time she reached marriageable age, Anne was seen as an important royal. Charles II had no legitimate heirs, it turned out. Her older sister Mary’s marriage to William of Orange produced no children. Her father, James, had remarried, but as yet they hadn’t a son.

A husband was chosen for Anne, Prince George of Denmark. But this appears to have been one of the most compatible royal marriages in English history. They were devoted to each other by all accounts. It was seen as up to them to have a family and secure a Protestant Stuart dynasty. The greatest tragedy of Anne’s life was that despite at least 17 pregnancies, she had only one child, Henry, who lived past infancy. Henry, Duke of Gloucester, considered the heir to the Stuart throne someday, died of illness at the age of 11, a loss that plunged Anne into serious depression. One contemporary wrote of the bereaved parents sitting in silence, holding hands. What of Anne’s lesbianism, which is central to the film “The Favourite”?

This is a matter of some debate. Anne was emotionally dependent on Sarah Churchill, later Duchess of Marlborough, as she was on other women before Sarah’s dominating friendship and after its stormy conclusion. Anne’s ardent, flowery letters to women make this clear. Such emotive same-sex letter writing was typical of this period. In a sexually predatory court, both Anne and her sister Mary turned to women for friendship and support rather than men out of self-protection, more than one of Anne’s biographers say. Whether Anne was physically intimate with women is simply unknown. After being exiled from court, Sarah Churchill said that Anne had unnatural feelings for her rival, Abigail. This accusation deeply upset the Queen, either because it was untrue or because in an age unaccepting of homosexuality she didn’t want her preference known.

Yet another tragedy of Anne’s life was her rupture with her father. After he took the throne as James II, his appointment of Catholics and other actions threw the country into a fury. He had also managed by this time to have a son by his second wife, which made him more dangerous to Parliament. James was essentially overthrown by his older daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, in the Glorious Revolution. Because of her religious beliefs, Anne sided with her sister. But her father felt betrayed. This certainly could not have been an easy situation.

After the death of Mary and then William, it was Anne’s turn. She was 37 years old, and in bad health after so many pregnancies and the arrival of gout, which worsened until she spent her days in pain, swathed in bandages.

Peter Ackroyd, in his book Revolution, writes than Anne “was not helped by her evident reticence and shyness in company…She was cautious by temperament, never wholly trusting her own judgment or that of others.” However, she was “a fervent supporter of the High Anglican Church” and despite her physical disabilities, she “immersed herself in public business,” he wrote.

Another biographer said, “She dressed carefully and symbolically for her official occasions” and she expected everyone to strictly follow court protocol and rituals. In her first address to the House of Lords, Queen Anne through force of will overcame the pain of gout and her own shyness to walk into the chamber, wearing her crown, and declare, “I can very sincerely assure you, that there is not anything you can expect or desire from me which I shall not be ready to do for the happiness and prosperity of England.” Afterward, an eyewitness said, “Never any woman spoke more audibly or with better grace.”

How to reconcile this Queen with the woman depicted in “The Favourite”?

One explanation is that history has not been kind to Anne. To put it bluntly, as queen she was middle-aged, obese, sickly, childless, and rumored to be obsessed with various lades-in-waiting. This overshadowed her finer qualities of devotion to duty, determination to serve, and appreciation of the arts. There is contempt—and sexism—in so many depictions of Queen Anne.

Although a biographer said, “She was a more successful ruler than her father, uncle or grandfather,” Queen Anne was certainly not seen that way after her death in 1714 or the many years afterward. A Victorian man, writing about Alexander Pope, said about Anne in a much-quoted passage that she was “ugly, corpulent, gouty, sluggish.” This is definitely the Anne we see in “The Favourite.” It’s to be hoped that the success of this film, and its inevitable prominence during the awards season, won’t rule out a more balanced understanding of the real Queen Anne. 

Watch the TRAILER

Stream “The Favourite” NOW 

Read our REVIEW

Nancy Bilyeau is a former staff editor at Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and InStyle. She has written a trilogy of Tudor-era thrillers for Touchstone Books, sold in nine countries. Her new novel is ‘The Blue,’ about the porcelain and art world in Europe during the Seven Years War.

The Blue: In eighteenth century London, porcelain is the most seductive of commodities; fortunes are made and lost upon it. Kings do battle with knights and knaves for possession of the finest pieces and the secrets of their manufacture.

For Genevieve Planché, an English-born descendant of Huguenot refugees, porcelain holds far less allure; she wants to be an artist, a painter of international repute, but nobody takes the idea of a female artist seriously in London. If only she could reach Venice.

When Genevieve meets the charming Sir Gabriel Courtenay, he offers her an opportunity she can’t refuse; if she learns the secrets of porcelein, he will send her to Venice. But in particular, she must learn the secrets of the colour blue…

The ensuing events take Genevieve deep into England’s emerging industrial heartlands, where not only does she learn about porcelain, but also about the art of industrial espionage.

With the heart and spirit of her Huguenot ancestors, Genevieve faces her challenges head on, but how much is she willing to suffer in pursuit and protection of the colour blue?

For more information, visit Nancy Bilyeau’s website.

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If you enjoyed this post, you’ll want to wander over to The Period Films List. You’ll especially like the Best Period Dramas: Tudor and Stuart Eras List. Also see An Unexpected Favourite for our review of “The Favourite.”