Beyond The Favourite: The Royal Family's Very Queer History
The Favourite, for all its prestige costume drama
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
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
The truth is, the cultural sphere has been remembering and forgetting royal queerness for centuries. The stories we choose to tell say much more
Because the past is as queer as the present.
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.
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.
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
It wasn’t the mere existence of these relationships that brought Edward down. “If he’d conquered Scotland, or won wars in
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
In other words, in 1594, there was a political play centered on
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.
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
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.
In the Guardian, McKellen’s costar Timothy West remembered him portraying Edward as “unapologetically gay,” an artistic choice which caused “something of a stir.”
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,
Edward II’s cultural profile has also, at times,
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.”
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
|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
|SHOP NOW||SHOP NOW|
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.