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This year’s early modern nominee for the Academy Awards is the 2018 film The Favourite, starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone. Although the film brilliantly and acidly depicts the decadence and absurdity in the court of Queen Anne (who reigned from 1702 until her death in 1714), it fictionalises in key respects the story of Anne and her two, feuding favourites: Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (partly pictured above), and Sarah’s cousin Abigail Masham. This 2002 piece by Mark Kishlansky in the London Review of Books, a review of Ophelia Field’s book The Favourite: Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, notes how Sarah herself may have exaggerated the extent of her political influence on the queen. As Kishlansky writes, ‘Though her memoirs tie her inextricably to Queen Anne, she enjoyed the queen’s favour for probably less than the first two years of Anne’s rule.’ In other words, if that is correct, then Sarah was attempting to Anne-ipulate history.
Nevertheless, her life and career before, during, and after her involvement with the queen are no less fascinating than any fictionalised or exaggerated account–such that historians have ever been fascinated with her rise to become the richest woman in Britain as well as her ig-noble Anne-tics. This ancestor of Winston Churchill started out as a maid of honour to the royal family, and chosen as companion to ‘the emotionally, intellectually and physically challenged Princess Anne’ in 1673 (when Sarah was 13); there was no expectation that Anne would ever ascend the throne. After a few years, she secretly married John Churchill, ‘toy boy of the Duchess of Cleveland, one of Charles II’s discarded mistresses’–someone who was thus just as distant from the centre of power–but Sarah and John shared the ambition to raise their positions at court: they were Churchill-climbers in the aristocratic sense.
Sarah acquired an ever-tightening grip over the princess, known for her crushes on attractive members of her household. As Kishlansky puts it, ‘She took callous advantage of Anne’s emotional fragility, which was constantly exacerbated by miscarriages, stillbirths and infant deaths’. Her siphoning of public monies to support her own, growing family (which came to the attention of Anne’s sister Queen Mary) was enabled by her exploitation of the princess’s Anne-xieties. Once Anne succeeded to the throne, as William and Mary failed to produce an heir, the Duchess of Marlborough used her influence to try to promote Whig politicians and interests (and thereby her husband’s and her own)–but came up against the queen’s disapproval of the political Anne-daemonium of party rage, as well as her preference for the Tories due to her high Anne-glicanism. Furthermore, Sarah’s political enemies promoted rival favourites at court, succeeding eventually with Masham, an Abi-gale of fresh air for the Tories.
Although Sarah fell out of favour with the queen, she managed to secure substantial wages, grants, and a life pension by keeping indiscreet letters the princess had written to Sarah–thus resorting to literal and emotional black-Marlborough to guarantee considerable wealth after leaving court in 1711. The Marlboroughs’ finances also benefitted immensely from her shrewd investments, including stock in the East India Company and the Bank of England, as well as shares in the doomed, oversubscribed South Sea Company: Sarah convinced her husband to join her in selling their shares before the company collapsed, thus substantially profiting from their own South Sea Bubble-bath. What might appear to be Sarah-ndipity was her own business acumen. Kishlansky notes that she was ‘in control of so vast a fortune that Government ministers solicited her investments and feared that she might topple the Bank of England.’
The Duchess of Marlborough’s subsequent affairs until her death in 1744 consisted in managing the family fortunes, and overseeing the marriages and dowries of her children and grandchildren. Her relations with the latter were often fraught and domineering; ‘Sarah had running feuds with her surviving daughters or their widowed husbands and kept a record of every slight, each instance of disobedience or occasion of disappointment’ in a ‘Green Book’. Increasingly estranged from her surviving children, she used the prospect of inheritance to keep her grandchildren ‘in thrall’ and ‘changed her will 26 times.’ Thus, we might say that she exercised a will-full control over her grandchildren; and that the pattern of behaviour indicated by her blackmailing the queen led to the eventual Anne-tipathy and Anne-imosity of her own children.
‘Til next week,
Director, Early Modern Anne-tinomies of Pure Reason Studies Program