In this latest blog for the Georgian Lords, Dr Charles Littleton offers some insights into the political background of the world presented in the award-winning movie The Favourite.
The critical reception that has greeted Yorgos Lanthimos’s film provides an excellent opportunity to re-examine the role of politics and the court in the reign of Queen Anne, a critical time in the development of the British state and Parliament. Indeed, it saw the formation of the British state itself, as it was under Anne’s rule that the political union of England and Scotland was effected. The film has provoked much discussion and the often sterile arguments about the accuracy required of a historical drama have risen again, particularly as Anne’s reign is widely acknowledged to be one of the lesser known periods of British history.
The film is accurate in that the figures depicted existed and the general narrative trajectory did occur in the first decade of the eighteenth century. In the period 1707-1710 Queen Anne turned against the Whigs and that party’s advocates at court, the lord treasurer earl of Godolphin, the captain-general the duke of Marlborough and Marlborough’s duchess, Sarah Churchill, who occupied the politically significant court office of groom of the stole. The queen turned instead towards Robert Harley (later earl of Oxford), one of the secretaries of state until February 1708, who conveyed his advice against the Whigs, Godolphin, and the Marlboroughs through the mediation of his second cousin Abigail Masham, who was replacing the duchess as the queen’s favourite.
In 1710-11 there took place a ‘ministerial revolution’ as, one by one, the Whigs in office lost their positions and were mostly replaced by Tories, with Harley ultimately replacing Godolphin as the queen’s lord treasurer, and principal minister.
So far, so depicted in the movie, and these events and vivid personalities clearly provide good material for both a comedy… and a political drama. For, the reign of Anne stands at a crucial period when the party system, which is familiar today, and which determines the composition of governments was in its earliest stages. As shown in the film, there were indeed two parties, Whigs and Tories, and Queen Anne had to pay attention to them and to their leaders. The parties were not unified blocs, though; and Godolphin and Harley were not their leaders. It was to her lord treasurer (not ‘prime minister’, as in the film) Godolphin that the queen looked in 1705 ‘to keep me out of the power of the merciless men of both parties’. [Gregg, Queen Anne, p. 134] The extremists in both parties, the ‘merciless men’ of the Whig Junto or the High Church Tories, harassed Anne in her attempts to rule. She valued Godolphin and Harley as both espoused the ideal of moderation and acted as leaders of what was effectively a third group, the queen’s own ministers, the ‘court’ party.
Anne was still operating under the system of personal monarchy. She was, after all, the last British monarch to exercise the royal veto over legislation and she was the head of government, which she conducted through the advice of her most trusted personal ministers, Godolphin, Marlborough, and Harley. She valued them because she assumed their loyalty was to her above all, not to a party. During her reign, though, this ideal of her ministers steering a middle way between the parties often ran up against the realities of their increasing organization, numbers in Parliament, and ideological fervour. Godolphin and Marlborough were initially moderate Tories who from 1705 had to make an alliance with the Junto Whigs in order to get the funds from Parliament to prosecute the war with France. They constantly cajoled Anne to placate this dominant party by providing its members with places in her ministry. In December 1706 the queen, having been worn down over several months by their hectoring, appointed the Junto lord Charles Spencer, 3rd earl of Sunderland, as Harley’s fellow secretary of state. In general, though, the queen successfully resisted such moves and she held on tenaciously to her prerogative right to choose her own officials.
Godolphin and Harley were indeed enemies, as seen in the film, but as rival servants of the queen, not as leaders of competing parties in Parliament. As Godolphin moved closer to the Whigs, Anne hearkened to Harley’s advice of moderation, even after he had been forced out of office in February 1708. Yet neither could Harley fight against the growing power of the parties. He had started out as a Country Whig, was later seen by the Junto as a Tory, but always professed a desire for a mixed ministry. In 1710, though, he found he had to join with the more bloody-minded members of the Tory October Club in order to dispose of his enemies among the Junto and obtain peace with France. His ministry of 1710-14 came to be seen as a high-water mark of Tory zealotry, albeit led by a self-professed moderate working in alliance with a moderate Whig, the duke of Shrewsbury. Within a few years Harley found himself besieged by the more ideological members of the Tory party.
What of the battleground of the parties, Parliament itself? It appears rarely in the film, and is so obviously a stylized portrayal that it would be pointless to be concerned about accuracy. One general point should be raised, though. The queen is presented as standing before the Commons ‘announcing’ her decisions regarding the Land Tax used to fund the war. Godolphin (who would have sat in the Lords) and Harley stand to speak as leaders of their respective parties, whose members are sitting on opposite banks of benches clearly meant to represent Government and Opposition. Apart from the anachronism of there being an officially sanctioned opposition in Parliament, this would suggest that the queen was in the Commons chamber herself dictating policy – and not just any policy, but supply legislation, the special preserve of the House of Commons since at least the fifteenth century. Suffice it to say that any self-respecting member of the Commons raised on the 1689 Bill of Rights would find such royal intervention in the affairs of the lower house unprecedented and dangerous. Besides, no monarch had stepped foot in the Commons since Charles I’s ill-fated intervention before the Civil War. Although Queen Anne attended Parliament frequently to hear debates, she would always have sat in the Lords, and not the Commons.
The film’s centre, however, is not Parliament or Robert Harley, portrayed as a fop, or Godolphin, with his penchant for duck races, all of whom are purposely made peripheral characters next to the three vibrant women at the heart of this comedy. The strong figures of the queen, Sarah, duchess of Marlborough, and Abigail Masham also fruitfully show the tight connections between the court, and particularly the queen’s bedchamber, and politics. Godolphin was not the most vociferous advocate for Anne’s taking Junto Whigs such as Sunderland into her ministry; Sarah was, obsessively and tactlessly, to the serious detriment of her relationship with the queen. Abigail, as seen in the film, was more discreet in serving as her cousin Harley’s intermediary with Anne and in pushing her own Tory views with her mistress, with ultimate success. All these characters, the queen, politicians and the courtiers were important in the formation of British parliamentary government. The period covered in this irreverent comedy was thus a key point in the more sober (and thus perhaps less congenial to cinematic treatment) matter of the transition of the British state to the political system we are familiar with today.
Edward Gregg, Queen Anne (2nd edn, 2001)
Frances Harris, The General in Winter: The Marlborough-Godolphin Friendship and the Reign of Queen Anne (2017)
Frances Harris, A Passion for Government: The Life of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (1991)
Geoffrey Holmes, British Politics in the Age of Anne (2nd edn, 1987)
Henry Snyder, The Marlborough-Godolphin Correspondence (3 vols., 1975)