‘The Favourite’ Fact Check: Was Abigail Masham Really That Cold?

One thing’s for certain: She really didn’t like the Duchess of Marlborough

Last Updated: December 4, 2018 @ 1:32 PM

In Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite,” Emma Stone plays Abigail Masham, the daughter of a disgraced lord who makes a Walter White-esque rise to the top of Queen Anne’s court…at the cost of her morals.

It’s a chilling tale of how corruption and deception can take over a person obsessed with power, but was the real Abigail Masham really like that?

Did she manipulate and betray Sarah Churchill, the woman that took her into Queen Anne’s inner circle, to protect the status she rose to by gaining Queen Anne’s favor?

Historians have had a hard time tracking Abigail’s rise to power, as there is very little historical record of her from court letters and documents. But there are some major differences between some parts of her life that are known and how those parts are portrayed in the film.

For example, in the movie Abigail uses her knowledge of healing herbs to ease the pain from Queen Anne’s gout in order to get her foot in the door with the queen and Sarah Churchill, but in real life it was Sarah herself who reached out and brought her to court.

In her biography “Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion,” Anne Somerset writes that when Abigail’s family fell on hard times — though the specifics mentioned in the film are fictional — Sarah took it upon herself to help Abigail and her mother and siblings. Later, when Queen Anne required a new woman in her bedchamber, Sarah personally vouched for Abigail to take the position.

As in the movie, Abigail quickly won the queen’s favor, with Sarah not knowing right away that her cousin had risen in influence so quickly. The onscreen political alliance built between Abigail and one of Sarah’s opponents in parliament, Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), also happened in real life.

Abigail advocated for Harley’s policies to the queen in private while Harley helped her return to wealth by getting the queen’s approval for her and Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn) to marry. And again, all of this happened for quite some time before Sarah got word of it.

But once Sarah realized Abigail was undermining her influence over the queen, the two cousins soon went to war with each other. Even though there’s no solid evidence that Abigail slept with Queen Anne, a plot point that kicks off the pair’s feud in the film, Sarah insinuated such relations when trying to convince Anne to send Abigail away. Sarah also argued that as a former maid in poverty, Abigail would go mad with power if she grew too comfortable as one of the royal chamber women.

All these complaints backfired. Anne became enraged when Sarah began spreading rumors of a sexual relationship between the queen and Abigail at court and threatened to make public the letters the two had shared to further erode the queen’s power with lesbian rumors. Sarah was kicked out of court for good, and Abigail Masham remained in Anne’s chamber as Keeper of the Privy Purse until Anne’s death in 1714.

But did Abigail go from a sweet, principled maid to a cold, almost Cersei Lannister-esque manipulator as she did in “The Favourite”? That depends on who you ask. Jonathan Swift, the famed author of “Gulliver’s Travels,” was very fond of Abigail, praising her for having “great truth and sincerity…an honest boldness and courage superior to her sex.”

But Somerset sides with Sarah’s — and Yorgos Lanthimos’ — depiction of Abigail as a woman whose humble demeanor was a facade and who took a “positively unholy glee” in turning on the cousin who gave her the opportunity to serve Queen Anne in the first place.