Arts & Culture

Beyond The Favourite: The Royal Family's Very Queer History

Queen Anne is just the beginning.
IMAGE GETTY IMAGES/MICHAEL STILLWELL
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The Favourite, for all its prestige costume drama bonafides, loves a good anachronism. The breaks with the past start small, with some curiously contemporary dialogue, and quickly reach a zenith with a dance scene that—while I’m no expert—seems to stray from the standard 17th-century moves. But at its heart is a kernel of historic truth that gives the film a powerful connection to modern audiences: Queen Anne was, in all likelihood, interested in women.

The Favourite relishes the shock value of its royal lesbian love triangle, but viewers really shouldn't be surprised. The evidence for Queen Anne’s queerness, and her relationship with Sarah Churchill (played by Rachel Weisz in the film), has been around for as long as she has. The 17th century English streets were full of pamphlets saying as much, in various levels of explicit detail.


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Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill

The ballads and pamphlets may have been written with political motives, but that doesn't mean they were just rumor. “I am not of the view that it was just partisan slander; that it was all smoke with no fire,” says Ophelia Field, author of The Favourite: Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. "It was also strongly suggested within the women's private letters ... The reason the slander was so poisonous was the recognition of something credible, emotionally at least."

The stories we choose to tell say much more about about us and the cycle we’re in than they do about the past. Because the past is as queer as the present.

Despite being well-known in the 1700s, Queen Anne's story had to overcome dual obstacles to become a hit in our time: the erasure of both queerness and female power from history. "These stories have almost always been told about men before," Alan Stewart, chair of Columbia's English and Comparative Literature department, explains. "In academia, for example there were a few people working on Ph.D.s, say 15 years ago, who started looking at Elizabeth I's ladies-in-waiting... People have been talking about Elizabeth and her male counselors for centuries. And it took until the late 20th century for people to realize that there were all these women around."

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The truth is, the cultural sphere has been remembering and forgetting royal queerness for centuries. The stories we choose to tell say much more about about us and the cycle we’re in than they do about the past.

Because the past is as queer as the present.


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Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) in The Favourite.

THE MAN, THE LEGEND: EDWARD II

Perhaps the best-known queer King is Edward II. That's thanks to playwright Christopher Marlowe, who in 1594 published Edward II, widely considered “the gay, homosexual, queer play of the Renaissance,” says Judith Haber, an English professor at Tufts.

The tumultuous reign of England’s Edward II lasted from 1307 to 1327, but his legacy would linger much longer in the British consciousness. At least in part, that’s probably because it’s such a good story. Edward II’s life has everything: a cadre of scheming barons, a vengeful queen, Edward’s own dramatic deposition. Juiciest of all, it was Edward’s blind devotion to his male lovers that brought him down.


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A 1932 artist’s rendering of Edward II.

A quick aside: regarding the sexuality of any king or queen, the first thing a historian will say is that historians disagree. There is never conclusive evidence of just what a given monarch was getting up to in the bedroom, and as the panoply of LGBTQ+ descriptors and categories had yet to be invented, it’s somewhat inaccurate by definition to say a king was gay. They simply didn’t think about it like that.

Sex with whomever was something you did, not something you were—and as such, these relationships are referred to as “queer” throughout this story, because that term contains some fluidity. It's also important to remember that along with their possible queer relationships, nearly all these monarchs furthered their line of succession with a partner of the opposite sex.

Still, with a number of kings (including Edward II), there's enough circumstantial evidence for historians to reach something of a consensus. It was “a general pattern of Edward II’s behavior, from his mid-teens onwards, that he became infatuated with a number of men,” says Kathryn Warner, author of Edward II: The Unconventional King. “I think it’s certain that [Edward II and nobleman Piers Gaveston were] lovers, and I think it’s beyond all doubt that Edward loved Gaveston probably more than he loved anyone in his life, just about.”

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It wasn’t the mere existence of these relationships that brought Edward down. “If he’d conquered Scotland, or won wars in France, if he’d actually been a successful ruler, they might’ve ignored it,” Warner explains. “It was that Edward just gave [his favorites] too much power, too much influence, too much wealth, and they misused it.” A queer icon, Edward II might have been; a good king he was not.


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King James VI of Scotland and his possible lover, Esmé Stuart.

Edward II’s story would serve as a cautionary tale to subsequent monarchs for centuries—and if a king was suspected of having queer relationships, people would use Edward II as a kind of shorthand in their allegations. Edward II’s own great-grandson, Richard II, would be tormented by such comparisons. A couple centuries later, not long after Marlowe’s play was written, parallels were drawn to King James VI of Scotland (also later known as James I of England), who "was always sort of leaning on some young man or other with his arm 'round them," says Stewart.

A RADICAL QUEER PLAY, IN 1594

Edward II’s story was well established in the British consciousness by the time Marlowe wrote his play, but the work, first performed 200 years after the king's death, cemented his queer narrative. It made clear that Gaveston and Edward II were having sex—and suggested that their relationship went deeper. “I think the play sets up Gaveston as an alternative to his wife, Isabella,” Stewart says. “And that seems to me quite radical.”

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In other words, in 1594, there was a political play centered on fully fledged queer relationships that was deemed respectable enough to be played at royal court. Granted, it does end with Edward being sodomized with a red-hot poker—hardly the empowering, pro-queer narrative we might hope for—but there are notes of something new. (And in writing that scene, Marlowe was also hewing to history as he knew it.)

Not unlike how some contemporary artists use queerness as an entry point to question and disrupt larger societal norms, Marlowe sought "to undermine all sorts of closed social orthodoxies: intellectual, textual, sexual, political, religious," Haber says. In Marlowe's Edward II, there is the seedling of a queer sensibility.


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A 14th century drawing of Hugh Despenser, one of Edward II’s favorites, being tortured.

Edward II enjoyed some brief popularity for a few decades, before eventually fading into relative obscurity—only to reemerge with a glorious vengeance in the modern era. Stewart notes that the play begins its comeback in the 1890s, when Oscar Wilde was being tried for homosexuality. In the 1920s, Bertolt Brecht famously adapted it, although his version is much more focused on the characters’ political machinations than making the play’s sexual undertones explicit.

As our conceptions of sexuality have evolved rapidly over the past 150-odd years, it’s hardly surprising that we’ve seen the reemergence of Edward II. "It couples [Edward’s relationships with men] with a story of persecution and torture that is sadly familiar to 20th- and 21st-century LGBTQ people," explains Jeffrey Masten, a professor at Northwestern currently editing a new edition of Edward II.

In 1970, on the heels of the Stonewall riots in New York, Edward II found itself at the center of a major moment for queer visibility in popular culture. The first same-sex kiss on British television took place during the BBC's broadcast of the play, starring none other than Ian McKellen.

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In the Guardian, McKellen’s costar Timothy West remembered him portraying Edward as “unapologetically gay,” an artistic choice which caused “something of a stir.”


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Edward II (Ian McKellen) and Piers Gaveston (James Laurenson) in a dress rehearsal of Marlowe’s Edward II at London’s Piccadilly Theatre.

It was likely the weight of Marlowe, a revered, centuries-old playwright, that allowed a queer kiss to be broadcasted. “I think there’s a way in which the performance of ‘history’ here becomes a route toward progress,” Masten explains.

It was a play by Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare; it was the Prospect Theatre Company. Highly respectable! It might’ve been run by a gaggle of gays, but that wasn’t the point. —Ian McKellen

Or in McKellen’s words, “It was a play by Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare; it was the Prospect Theatre Company. Highly respectable! It might’ve been run by a gaggle of gays, but that wasn’t the point.”

In 1991, against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis, pop culture gave us another, far more radical Edward II. It came from director Derek Jarman, who was on record as disapproving of Ian McKellen’s softer brand of protest. Jarman's film is far more sexually explicit than McKellen’s chaste onscreen kiss, instead opening on Edward and Gaveston lounging on a bed, while two naked men go at it behind them. It also makes the analogy to 1990s homophobia literal, rendering Edward’s army as group of gay rights protesters, complete with posters reading “Get your filthy hands off our bodies.” The film is still heralded as one of the cornerstones of the New Queer Cinema movement.

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Edward II’s cultural profile has also, at times, reflected our culture's deep homophobia. In Braveheart, for instance, Edward is portrayed as a weakling; and Mel Gibson’s William Wallace cuckolds the King, impregnating his wife. History tells us that Edward was strong and almost certainly fathered all of his children—yet in Gibson's testosterone-fueled flick, Prince Edward is reduced to a pitiful stereotype, trumped by his heterosexual foe.

THE HISTORY WE HAVE YET TO REMEMBER

Edward is almost certainly not the only king to have had male lovers—and not the only one to find his way into the modern consciousness. Just over a decade ago, when gay rights activist Peter Tatchell sought to condemn homophobia in Northern Ireland, he suggested King William III as yet another possibly queer monarch.


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Better known as William of Orange (or King Billy in Scotland), Queen Anne's predecessor reigned over England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1689 to 1702. As a protestant who overthrew a Catholic, William III has become a hero to Northern Ireland's 20th century unionists, a political constituency that wished to remain a part of the U.K., rather than join the rest of Catholic Ireland.

William of Orange was also rumored to be queer. In her time, Queen Anne had to deal with politically damaging comparisons to William III, but in our contemporary era, Tatchell used his story to achieve different ends. During his Amnesty International Pride Lecture in Belfast in 2008, he summoned the king's ghost to force conservative lawmakers to grapple with their hero's sexuality. As Tatchell said to the Belfast Telegraph, “It is particularly hypocritical for unionist politicians to play the homophobic card when their hero William of Orange had male lovers.”

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In part, Tatchell’s strategy worked. While he likely didn’t convince any avowedly homophobic lawmakers to see the light, his historically-backed claims made headlines, reigniting a debate about LGBTQ+ acceptance in Northern Ireland.


A portrait of William III, known as William of Orange.

In the right context, the majesty of the monarchy can offer legitimacy to what was previously deemed illegitimate. People are more likely to accept queerness if they know someone who is queer—and everyone knows the British monarchs. They’re basically the Kardashians of the Renaissance.

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And though there are many more queer stories in the pop culture consciousness these days, exploring the sexuality of long-dead monarchs is probably not going to stop anytime soon. How we tell those stories has become a good mirror of our evolving view of queerness.

“I think the mistake we make is to think we have stable ideas about sexuality now,” Stewart says. “And I don’t think that’s the case, and anyone that’s lived long enough knows that that’s not the case. The ways in which we now think about sexuality are different from how they were in 1990, and that was massively different from 1960. It will keep changing. We’re continually evolving, so our relationship to the past has to keep changing.”

Edward and Anne and Richard and William could soon have more historical company. Henry VIII—who, thanks to his seemingly infinite wives, we see as “one of the main arch-heterosexuals of history,” says Stewart—is one narrative ripe for revision. “If you read through all the ambassadorial reports, particularly when [Henry VIII] was a young man, all they say is that he hangs out with these pretty young men all the time and goes hunting with him.”

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Stewart pauses, then allows himself to muse, “Maybe that’s the next thing, we’ll do a Henry VIII movie.”

Admit it: you’d watch the hell out of a queer Henry VIII.


Some Suggested Reading


The Favourite: Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough

Edward II: The Unconventional King

The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830

Ophelia Field
Kathryn Warner
Susan Lanser
SHOP NOW SHOP NOW SHOP NOW

Queer Philologies: Sex, Language, and Affect in Shakespeare's Time

The Cradle King: The Life of James VI and I, the First Monarch of a United Great Britain

Jeffrey Masten
amazon.com
SHOP NOW SHOP NOW

This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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