Yas, Queens (and Kings)! History’s Most Scandalous Queer Royals: Queen Anne

The tale of an ailing English monarch—and the two "favourites" who waged a personal war for her affection.

“Yas, Queens (and Kings)! History’s Most Scandalous Queer Royals” is a weeklong series in celebration of LGBTQ History Month chronicling both queer erasure and monarchal shenanigans of the past.

Olivia Colman scored Oscar gold for her performance as Queen Anne in Yorgos Lanthimos’ lauded 2018 film The Favourite. Co-starring Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as the two women vying for her attention and, by extension, power in her court, it was unique in that it was a female-centric movie that was deliciously queer without wading into exploitation.

Much has been made of the film’s historical accuracy, particularly the relationship between Anne, her childhood best friend Sarah Churchill (portrayed in the movie by Weisz), and Churchill’s cousin Abigail Masham (Stone), but to understand their monarchal ménage à trois, one must first understand the period in which they lived.

Queen Anne sat on the throne from 1702 until her death at the age of 46 in 1714. Her reign is notable for having united England and Scotland under the sovereign crown of Great Britain and ending the War of Spanish Succession, but it’s also infamous because of the queen’s poor health and Churchill and Masham’s machinations.

In addition to suffering from gout and myriad other shitty ailments, Anne also endured 17 pregnancies, most of which ended in miscarriage or stillbirth, as represented in the film by her 17 rabbits. Of her numerous pregnancies, only one resulted in a child surviving infancy. Her son William nevertheless grew ill and died at age 11.

Some historians point to her “prolific sexual activity” with her husband Prince George of Denmark, who died six years into her reign—as well as Anne’s “famed prudery, and her strong sense of Christian morality”—to dismiss Anne’s reported lesbianism.

But if gender was pretty set in stone in the early 18th century, sexuality was not, particularly among the upper class.

“Nobody would ever have thought to identify themselves as what we call heterosexual or homosexual,” Julie Crawford, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, told The Cut last year. “There wasn’t a radical separation between what we recognize as sexual intimacy and the other kinds of bodily intimacy with which people lived at the time, particularly for elite people, who had women who literally undressed them and washed their vaginas.”

Ah, the life.

According to Crawford, marriage didn’t preclude the existence of other relationships, either romantic or sexual in nature: “Often what women did is they would marry off their ’favorite’ attending gentlewomen to a relative—Queen Elizabeth was really big on this—so that they could keep them around forever. And the monarchical bed was not really a private space. It was sort of a public space in a lot of ways; there were lots of people in and out of it.”

The problem with queer figures in history is that we tend to look at their relationships and identities through a modern lens. Take, for instance, the ardent letters between Anne and Sarah, in which the young future monarch yearns to “cleave” herself to Sarah, whom she “can’t go to bed without seeing.”

“If you knew in what condition you have made me,” she wrote in one letter, “I am sure you would pity.”

In another—from 1692, 10 years before she took the throne—Queen Anne wrote, “I had rather live in a cottage with you than reign empress of the world without you.”

Though romantic friendships between women was de rigeur during this time, Anne and Sarah’s even defied social norms, with royal observers noting theirs as an “immoderate passion“—so much so that Anne refused to heed her older sister Queen Mary’s orders to end the friendship, which Mary found weird and unbecoming of a royal. Anne and Sarah had taken to referring to themselves as Mrs. Morley and Mrs. Freeman, so as to give them a semblance of equality.

Regardless of how common intense lady friendships may have been, Sarah tried to use these passionate missives to blackmail the queen once she had fallen out of her favor. As she wrote in a threatening letter to Anne, “Such things are in my power that if known might lose a crown.”

In 1704, Sarah got her cousin Abigail a position as the queen’s bedchamber woman. Whereas Sarah’s relationship to the queen was, as depicted by Lanthimos, contentious—Sarah went so far as to publicly insult the queen at a church service—Abigail offered her a more compassionate shoulder to lean on. Plus, she was fun.

While Sarah was off galavanting around England scheming and accruing power like a boss, Abigail was moving in on her territory. Sarah didn’t realize how close her wily cousin and the queen had become until 1707, at which point Sarah started a rumor about the nature of their relationship.

Like an 18th-century Taylor Swift, Sarah turned to song to convey her pettiness. She got her good friend, politician Arthur Mainwaring, to write a shady AF ballad about Abigail and Anne, which Sarah reportedly shopped around town her damn self. And it went a little something like this:

When as Queen Anne of great renown / Great Britain’s sceptre swayed / Beside the Church she dearly loved / A dirty chambermaid
O Abigail that was her name / She starched and stitched full well / But how she pierced this royal heart / No mortal man can tell
However for sweet service done / And causes of great weight / Her royal mistress made her, Oh! / A minister of state
Her secretary she was not / Because she could not write / But had the conduct and the care / Of some dark deeds at night

Dark deeds at night, indeed. Well, Anne was not about to have that insolence permeating her court, so she dismissed Sarah and her husband. Sarah, ever the sport, reacted like the duchess Anne made her, stripping her apartment of the brass locks on her way out.

Abigail and Anne’s romance eventually cooled, and when the queen died in 1714, Abigail and her husband were unceremoniously kicked the fuck out of the palace. Sarah, however, had the last laugh. She lived to 84 and published a memoir, painting herself in a flattering light and tainting the image of Queen Anne for generations. And Sarah’s descendants did pretty well for themselves too: They include legendary prime minister Winston Churchill as well as the late Princess Diana and her sons, Prince William and Prince Harry.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Image; The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images; Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons
The real-life Sarah Churchill, Queen Anne, and Abigail Masham.

Sources:
The Favourite: The Real-Life Power Struggle Between Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill
Illness, Infertility, and Illicit Friendships: Inside the Scandalous Court of Queen Anne
The Real Sex Lives of Historical Queens

Main image: Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill (left) and Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in The Favourite.

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is an LA-based writer, editor, bon vivant, and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry. Insta: @lefabrat