This article was first published in the January 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine
For a few years during the reign of Queen Anne, women dominated the political arena – from biting satirists to MPs’ powerful wives. Hannah Greig, historical advisor on a new film about Anne’s turbulent inner circle, celebrates a golden age of female influence
“May I remind you, you are not the queen!” When Robert Harley utters these words to Sarah Churchill in one of the most memorable scenes in Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film The Favourite, he is undoubtedly right: Churchill is not the queen. But, as Harley has just discovered to his cost, she might as well be.
Harley (played by Nicholas Hoult), a leading Tory minister, has come to court seeking an audience with the real monarch, Anne. Instead, he is confronted by Churchill – a supporter of the Tories’ enemies, the Whigs – who has used all her power to stop that meeting going ahead. With his attempts to gain the queen’s ear blocked, Harley is forced to retreat in an impotent rage.
Set in the English court at the dawn of the 18th century, The Favourite explores the shifting balance of power between Queen Anne (played by Olivia Colman) and her two most influential courtiers: Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) and the indomitable Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). As the duchess’s clash with Harley suggests, the court, seen through Lanthimos’s eye at least, is a world controlled by female power. Women are at the heart of the drama, exploiting messy, sexualised and often darkly manipulative personal relationships that intersect with the mechanics of state power. The excessively bewigged men are ignored, overruled or, at best, required to coax the women to drop them some patronage.
But is this interpretation of events anchored in reality? Did women truly hold the whip hand? Given that The Favourite features lobster racing, fire breathing and the pelting of a plump, naked courtier with pomegranates, it’s tempting to dismiss it as two hours of overblown make-believe. Yet that is to do the film a disservice. In its scrutiny of early 18th-century matriarchal politics – an era in which women at court exercised unparalleled influence and political power – The Favourite is closer to the truth than you might think.
“The nation is particularly jealous of favourites,” declared the author Daniel Defoe, as he watched the politics of Queen Anne’s court unfold before him. And it would be two favourites – both of them women – who would define the trajectory of the queen’s reign, and embroil it in one of its greatest controversies.
When Anne succeeded to the throne in 1702, Sarah Churchill, a charismatic companion and close confidante since girlhood, was in the ascendant. To bridge the status gap between gentlewoman and royal, as young women Anne and Sarah had adopted the informal aliases of Mrs Morley (Anne) and Mrs Freeman (Sarah), retaining the nicknames for decades, until their friendship soured.
Thanks to Anne’s close patronage, Sarah Churchill and her army officer husband, John (hero of the battle of Blenheim), were rapidly promoted through the peerage, emerging as the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, a power-broking couple aspiring to command of court, military and state. As queen, Anne awarded the duchess the highest positions available to a woman at court: mistress of the robes, groom of the stole, keeper of the privy purse and ranger of Windsor Great Park. Together these put the duchess in charge of the monarch’s property, person and finances, but her ambitions extended further still.
Characterised by Defoe as a “she-dictator”, the duchess was driven by a passion for government and a powerful political conviction. Partisan feeling ran high during Anne’s reign, with two broad political factions – the Whigs and the Tories – vying for influence over a monarch who had the power to hire and fire governments and veto policies. The Duchess of Marlborough was a dyed-in-the-wool Whig, and endeavoured to use her influence with the queen to secure appointments for Whig men and their families at court, to facilitate or thwart ministerial access to the monarch, and to inveigle the queen to support the Whig desire for England to remain an active participant in the War of the Spanish Succession.
But the duchess had a problem. The queen was no puppet, and the role of court favourite was not a lifelong sinecure. Soon, disputes over politics and matters of states began to drive a wedge between Mrs Morley and Mrs Freeman – and these were exacerbated by the emergence of a new contender as court favourite, Abigail Masham (née Hill).
Masham had come to court under the Duchess of Marlborough’s patronage, but ultimately usurped her as the one who, in the words of the Duke of Shrewsbury, “could make the queen stand upon her head if she chose”. Masham proved a political as well as a personal rival to the duchess. She was a key confidante of Tory minister Robert Harley, who used her close relationship with the queen to further his own goals. Despite the length of her friendship with Queen Anne, the Duchess of Marlborough was frozen out. In 1711, the queen stripped Sarah of all her official roles, and in turn the duchess stripped her court apartments clean of all fixtures and fittings on her way out.
The controversial soap opera that was Anne, Churchill and Masham’s relationship fascinated contemporaries, and has intrigued historians ever since. Yet they were not the only female political players of the age, and nor was the court the only arena in which women made a significant impact. This was a period of remarkable political journalism, and the animosity between Marlborough and Masham was scrutinised, fanned and spun across all forms of print media. Many of those penning political commentary – and being paid for it – were women. Mary Astell, the ‘first English feminist’, wrote advice books advocating women’s right to education and disavowing the tyranny of marriage – all laced with polemics in support of the Tory party.
Astell was certainly not the only female critic of the Whigs. The sharpened quill of the ‘first female political journalist’, Delarivier Manley, impaled the Duchess of Marlborough, her husband and leading Whig ministers with a prolific output of satirical novels, political essays and pamphlets. At times taking pay from Lord Harley and working to commission, Manley was an effective political propagandist, her influence confirmed by the rage she elicited among the Whigs.
The work of playwright Susanna Centlivre was of a different political hue, coloured with support for the Whigs, as expressed in plays such as 1709’s The Man’s Bewitch’d, in which the heroine liberates herself from the tyranny of a Tory guardian and finds happiness with a handsome Whig hero.
But women didn’t just seek to shape political opinion via the written word. Others chose a more personal approach, using their influence as wives, sisters and daughters of ministers or go-getting MPs to befriend, win over and persuade. One of the best exponents of this tactic was Anne, Countess of Strafford, who spent months in London trailing from townhouse to townhouse, firming up acquaintances and trading inside political news. Chief among her targets were Lady North and Grey (whose husband was an opponent of the Duke of Marlborough in the House of Lords), the Duchess of Somerset (who replaced the Duchess of Marlborough as groom of the stole), and Abigail Masham.
The Countess of Stafford was particularly pleased to receive an invitation to assemblies hosted by the Duchess of Shrewsbury, often used by Lord Harley’s Tory supporters as a gathering point outside court. Shrewsbury’s success as a political hostess is implied by her enemies’ haughty disdain – the Duchess of Marlborough simply couldn’t resist a dig, mocking Shrewsbury for “thrusting out her disagreeable breasts in such strange motions”.
The Countess of Stafford’s centre of operations was her St James’s Square home. A few doors away, another peeress – Lady Hervey, later Countess of Bristol – was similarly engaged in winning over a network of elite women to a political cause. However, her targets were Whigs, not Tories.
Hervey cosied up to the Duchess of Marlborough and her daughters (most shrewdly married off to Whig aristocrats), sitting beside them at the theatre and attending their balls, as well as those hosted by other high-ranking Whig wives, such as Lady Wharton and Lady Portland.
Such politicking didn’t go unnoticed in the press – and not all male correspondents were impressed by what they saw. Commenting on the growing number of women wielding political influence, The Spectator warned that “Party-rage” was a “male vice”, and women caught up in “party-zeal” jeopardised their delicate beauty. “There is nothing so bad for the face as party-zeal. It gives an ill-natured cast to the eye, and disagreeable sourness to the look; besides that it makes the lines too strong, and flushes them worse than brandy […] I have never known a party-woman keep her beauty for a twelvemonth.”
Movers and shakers
Even if women bought the lie that politics ruined their looks, they clearly deemed it a price worth paying. With a queen as head of state, the early 1700s were especially conducive to female political debate and activity, but it was far from an anomaly. The kind of political engagement found in the century’s opening decades has also been located at its close, where the Whigs found another indomitable female mover and shaker in Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. And around such high-profile women were many more, discussing, writing, campaigning, petitioning and participating in the rich discourses of the day.
At press junkets, Yorgos Lanthimos has been fielding questions about the extent to which The Favourite can be regarded as part of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, as if the female politics on the screen must be modern gender politics in fancy dress. Yet the film, as Lanthimos has made clear, was in development long before these recent campaigns, and of course the story itself is far older. We seem to struggle to recognise the longevity of female political participation – its opportunities as well as its limits. Hopefully, through Lanthimos’s wide-angle lens, trailblazers such as Mary Astell, Delarivier Manley and Lady Hervey will begin to get the recognition they deserve.
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.