5 women who challenged the Westminster boys’ club in the 18th century

Hannah Greig – historical adviser on new film The Favourite, starring Olivia Colman as Queen Anne – rounds up five women who dominated the political arena during the 18th century...

Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, supervises the removal of fittings from a room at Kensington Palace, which she had occupied as lady in waiting to Queen Anne of England. The wife of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, and a trusted confidante to Queen Anne, she was politically highly influential until her dismissal in 1711. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
1

The mother of Great Britain: Queen Anne

Queen Anne (1665–1714) is remembered as an ineffective monarch, one beset by illness and shyness and dependent on court favourites. More recent biographies have revised that view, recognising the flourishing of culture during her reign, as well as the important constitutional and political moments she oversaw – not least of which was the 1707 Acts of Union, aligning the kingdoms of England and Scotland in a single sovereign state, Great Britain.

Advertisement

This article was first published in the January 2019 issue of BBC History MagazineTo read the full feature by Hannah Greig, click here, or to read more from the issue, click here

Queen Anne, based on a work by Sir Godfrey Kneller, c1702–10. Anne's reign saw women take centre stage in fierce political debates. (Photo by Bridgeman/National Trust Photographic Library)

2

The ‘she-dictator’ Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough

Born into Hertfordshire gentry, Sarah Churchill (1660–1744) found her way to power through a childhood friendship with the future Queen Anne, and marriage to John Churchill, who would become a military hero. Emerging as Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, they had extraordinary political influence. After she lost her posts at court, Sarah retained a foothold in Whig politics as the matriarch of an expansive family, who were smoothly matched off to aristocrats, MPs and ministers.

3

The shadowy ‘insinuator’ Elizabeth Seymour, Duchess of Somerset

The Duchess of Somerset (1667–1722) was a powerful player in the politics of Queen Anne’s court. The writer Jonathan Swift warned that behind her courtly manners lay “a most insinuating woman”, and she was regarded by many as a behind-the-scenes protagonist who helped bring down the Marlboroughs. She was made lady of the bedchamber in 1702. Despite the rise of Abigail Masham – a favourite in the court of Queen Anne – it was Somerset who replaced Marlborough in the key position of groom of the stole.

Elizabeth Seymour, Duchess of Northumberland (1716–1776), c1760. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Elizabeth Seymour, Duchess of Northumberland (1716–1776), c1760. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
4

The power broker: Elizabeth Hervey, Countess of Bristol

Seventeen children and a husband who preferred horse races at Newmarket to Westminster debates did not stop Hervey (1676–1741) making her mark in politics. She courted the Marlboroughs and Queen Anne to find court posts and empty parliamentary seats for her brood. She and her MP husband were elevated to the peerage, first as baron and lady in 1703 and then earl and countess in 1714, and produced a dynasty of often eccentric Whig MPs and courtiers.

Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in 'The Favourite'. (Photo by Twentieth Century Fox/Entertainment Pictures)

5

The devastating satirist: Delarivier Manley

Often described as the first political journalist, Manley (c1670–1724) was a writer who wielded her pen as a weapon in the early 1700s. Her 1709 novel New Atalantis satirised contemporary debate with devastating attacks on Whig politicians. It led to her arrest for libel, but she argued her work was a fiction – making it impossible for her victims to punish her, since they would have proven themselves the ugly characters she portrayed.

Hannah Greig is a senior lecturer in early modern history at the University of York. She was a historical advisor on The Favourite, which is out in UK cinemas this month.

Advertisement

This article was first published in the January 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine