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The true story behind hit movie The Favourite is so much stranger than we first thought.

Ever since The Favourite burst onto cinema screens in late 2018, critics and moviegoers alike have been avidly dissecting the wickedly funny period dramedy.

Set in 1708 Britain, The Favourite centres on the reign of Queen Anne (played by Olivia Colman), a monarch who has very little to do with the running of her actual country, preferring instead to race ducks, play with her 17 rabbits and emotionally torture members of her staff.

Instead, the real power player behind-the-scenes is her childhood best friend turned royal adviser (and secret lover) Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (played by Rachel Weisz) who effectively rules the country and pushes her own agenda through using her cunning influence over the Queen.

The already bizarre life taking place within the castle is then thrown into further disarray with the arrival of  Abigail Hill (played by Emma Stone). Abigail is Sarah’s impoverished younger cousin. who has fallen from high society after her father lost their family fortune and then gambled her away in a card game.

What follows is a wonderfully twisted and entertaining game of wits between Sarah and Abigail as they vie for control of the Queen, it’s a slightly disturbing love triangle and a farcical comedy all rolled into one.

The Favourite, which has tied with Netflix’s Roma as the most nominated film for the 2019 Oscars, has entertained audiences as well as leaving some people scratching their heads in confusion, thanks to the very off-beat direction and method of storytelling employed by director Yorgos Lanthimos. But the biggest question on everyone’s lips as they have left the cinemas is, just how much of this “historical” tale actually took place in real life?

Well, as it turns out, quite a bit of the movie’s plotline was ripped directly from the history books.

As depicted in the film, Sarah and Anne did grow up together and were always the closest of friends, which would explain how Sarah was allowed to exert such strong influence over the Queen during her reign, despite the fact she was not well educated in matters of state.

In the film, Abigail meets her cousin Sarah for the first time when she arrives at Kensington Palace and is given a job as a scullery maid, but in reality, the relationship between the two cousins spanned a much greater period of time. Lady Churchill actually pulled her cousin out of obscurity and into her own household at St. Albans, before then making her a servant in the Queen’s household upon Anne’s ascension.

While a lot of little bizarre moments in the film are actually true (as depicted in the movie, Queen Anne did keep 17 rabbits lovingly in her home, one for each of the children she miscarried) what most people want to know is did the sexually-charged, emotionally manipulative power play really take place between Anne, Sarah and Abigail?

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Olivia Colman as Queen Anne and Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough in The Favourite. Source: 20th Century Fox.

The sexual relationship between Sarah Churchill (who was the controversial founder of the Spencer-Churchill dynasty that produced both Winston Churchill and Lady Diana Spencer) and Queen Anne in The Favourite is based on a rumour that they were lovers. It's a story that was never 100 percent confirmed but has continued to cling to their memories.

Along with their close and intimate behaviour toward one another that was witnessed both in court and within the palace walls, a series of letters exchanged between the women also point toward the idea that their relationship could have been sexual behind closed doors.

Before Anne became Queen, she wrote a series of provocative and personal letters to Sarah which were made public, as documented by historians. 

Excerpts from the letters include passage such as "Oh come to me as soon as you can that I may cleave myself to you; “'I can't go to bed without seeing you…If you knew in what condition you have made me, I am sure you would pity" and "I hope I shall get a moment or two to be with my dear…that I may have one embrace, which I long for more than I can express.”

However, the rumours about Abigail and Queen Anne being sexually intimate with one another came from none other than Sarah herself.

In her memoirs, which were published in 1742, Sarah strongly insinuated that the Queen and her cousin Abigail were intimate.

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She wrote, “Mrs. Masham (Abigail's married title) came often to the queen when the Prince was asleep, and was generally two hours every day in private with her.”

She also described entering the Queen’s bedroom via a secret passageway and seeing Abigail already in there, acting very flustered.

In 1711, Sarah and Anne did have a falling out which ended their relationship for good, as depicted in the film.  Sarah was stripped of her roles as Mistress of the Robes and Groom of the Stole, while Abigail replaced her as Keeper of the Privy Purse.

This was an especially nasty final blow to Sarah, as Anne had previously promised these roles would go to Sarah's children.

In retaliation, Sarah also threatened to blackmail Anne with the personal letters she penned to her, many of which included romantic sentiments expressed toward Sarah. However, it is believed that the most scandalous of these letters never actually saw the light of day.

It has been theorised that perhaps The Favourite can be seen as Sarah Churchill's final blow against her former closest friend, Queen Anne.

In the film, Anne is seen as more of a petulant child and an easily manipulated fool than a reigning monarch and in reality much of her tarnished historical reputation can be traced back to Sarah, who intently memorialised a negative image of Anne through her memoirs and through the stories she continued to share publicly following her dismissal.

However, in his book Queen Anne: Patroness of Arts, James A. Winn tried to rewrite the perception of Queen Anne by saying “Queen Anne has certainly not gotten much credit for being effective as a monarch, which she was, as popular, which she certainly was, and as astute, which almost no one recognises she was—or, for that matter, as well-informed about the culture and arts, which she was."

Despite his desire to tell a different side of the story, that is still very much not the perception of her now.

So even though the true story behind this successful movie is just as intriguing as the one we saw on screen, many people will now only remember Queen Anne as the bellowing and dysfunctional monarch they saw in The Favourite. 

Well played, Sarah Churchill.

The Favourite is currently showing in Australian cinemas, it is rated MA15+. 

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