The real story of Britain’s forgotten Queen

God save the Queen: Whig politician John Clerk said Anne was “the most despicable mortal I had ever seen”.

Olivia Colman has won a BAFTA for her portrayal of Queen Anne, an overlooked monarch who was often dismissed as fat, ugly and dull. Has history been unfair to Anne?

Amid the glamour of this year’s BAFTA awards, one film stood out. The Favourite won seven prizes, more than any other movie.

At the ceremony in London, Olivia Colman took the Best Actress award for her portrayal of the grumpy, infirm Queen Anne. The part is widely expected to win her an Oscar later this month.

The Favourite depicts a power struggle between Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), Anne’s closest adviser and oldest friend, and chambermaid Abigail Hill (Emma Stone), who vie for political sway and Queen Anne’s romantic attention.

The film has put a spotlight on a significant but rarely revisited part of English history.

Queen Anne reigned as the last Stuart monarch from 1702 to 1714. In the film, she is overweight, ridden with gout, and mad with grief for her dead husband and children. While Anne’s life was indeed blighted by tragedy and illness, her reign was a time of great achievement for England.

The War of the Spanish Succession saw some of Britain’s greatest military victories over France, while the peace treaties that ended the war enhanced Britain’s reputation as the leading power in Europe.

In 1707, the Act of Union merged the kingdoms of England and Scotland, making Anne the first Queen of Great Britain.

Perhaps most crucially, Anne’s reign saw the rise of two-party politics, as the Whigs and Tories battled for influence. This cemented Britain as a constitutional monarchy.

But as for the passionate same-sex affairs depicted in The Favourite?

While the truth is lost to history, there was evidently a powerful bond between the Queen and her favourite, Sarah. Anne wrote to Sarah four times a day, and the Queen’s elder sister, Mary, disapproved of her “immoderate passion” for the Duchess.

After she fell out of favour in 1711, Sarah encouraged rumours that Anne was having a romantic affair with Abigail.

It is from Sarah’s memoirs that Anne’s reputation as grotesque, childish and feeble largely derives. But historian James A. Winn says the Queen has been unfairly judged. According to Winn, she was an effective, astute monarch who was very popular with her subjects.

The rest is history

The Favourite doesn’t strive for historical accuracy. It is zany and anachronistic. Should historical films always try to be true? Is there any such thing as “true” in history, when there will always be gaps and conflicting accounts?

Most people know very little about Queen Anne, or only bad things. And yet so many of Britain’s defining features were shaped under her rule: its colonial legacy, party politics, the union with Scotland. How are historical reputations made? Does Anne deserve any less credit than Queen Victoria or Elizabeth I?

You Decide

  1. What makes a good monarch?
  2. Should Olivia Colman win the Oscar for best actress?

Activities

  1. Make a list of who you think are the best three monarchs in British history, with a few sentences justifying your decisions. Now, make a list of the three worst. Do your classmates have the same kings and queens in their lists?
  2. Research the Restoration as a historical period. Make a presentation explaining the major characteristics and developments of the time in politics, culture and science, as well as highlighting some key figures.

Some People Say...

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

William Shakespeare

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
At the BAFTA awards ceremony on Sunday, The Favourite won seven awards including Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress for Rachel Weisz and Best British Film. It was beaten to Best Film by Roma. The Favourite was directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, who is known for his bizarre, dark comedies.
What do we not know?
Whether The Favourite will win any Oscars on Sunday, February 24. The Favourite and Roma have 10 nominations each. The BAFTAs often give a good indication of who will win at the Oscars, so Colman stands a good chance of winning Best Actress, although she faces competition from Glenn Close for The Wife and Lady Gaga for A Star Is Born.

Word Watch

Stuart
A royal house that took the English throne with James I. After Anne died without an heir, Protestants seeking to ensure that the throne did not return to a Catholic invited George I, the German head of the House of Hanover, to become King of Britain.
Tragedy
Anne had 17 pregnancies, including many miscarriages and stillbirths. Several of her babies were born alive but died shortly after birth. One son, Richard, lived to the age of 11 but died of complications from a brain condition.
War of the Spanish Succession
In 1701, when Charles II of Spain died without an heir, war broke out in Europe over who should take over his lands. England joined an alliance to stop France from expanding across Europe.
Constitutional monarchy
When the monarch is head of state but their powers are restricted by a written or (in Britain’s case) unwritten constitution.
Out of favour
Anne and Sarah fell out, and Sarah left court for good in 1711. The women never reconciled.
Astute
Intelligent, able to assess a situation quickly.

Subjects