The story behind the Duchess of Marlborough, the Queen and the ‘Dirty Parlour Maid’ in The Favourite

PUBLISHED: 15:58 31 December 2018 | UPDATED: 18:03 04 January 2019

Rachel Weisz in The Favourite, which was filmed at Hatfield House. Here Rachel's character Lady Sarah Churchill is sitting in the Library at Hatfield House. Picture: courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

Rachel Weisz in The Favourite, which was filmed at Hatfield House. Here Rachel's character Lady Sarah Churchill is sitting in the Library at Hatfield House. Picture: courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

Picture: courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

As movie The Favourite, which was filmed in Hatfield, opens nationwide on New Year’s Day, here’s the true story of the Duchess of Marlborough from St Albans, Queen Anne and the ‘Dirty Parlour Maid’.

An image of Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, with her signature below. Picture: St Albans Museums.An image of Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, with her signature below. Picture: St Albans Museums.

While The Favourite takes artistic licence in pursuit of cinematic entertainment, director Yorgos Lanthimos’ hotly tipped Oscar contender is loosely based on real-life events.

At the centre of the bawdy period comedy drama is Queen Anne, whose relationship with her confidante and closest adviser Sarah Churchill is turned upside down by the arrival of the Duchess of Marlborough’s younger cousin, Abigail.

Soon the balance of power shifts between the women as the two cousins jockey for influence with the Queen and her court – with the Duchess of Marlborough the one to lose out.

In the movie, which goes on general release in the UK on January 1, the three main roles are played by the award-winning trio of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone.

Much of the filming of The Favourite took place at Hatfield House in the spring of 2017, with Hampton Court Palace another location used.

Historian Dr Ruth Herman gave a short talk on Queen Anne’s favourite, the Duchess of Marlborough, at the film’s regional premiere at Campus West in Welwyn Garden City last month.

• MORE: Behind the scenes of filming The Favourite movie at Hatfield House

Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, in the film The Favourite, which was filmed on location at Hatfield House. Picture: by Atsushi Nishijima / 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, in the film The Favourite, which was filmed on location at Hatfield House. Picture: by Atsushi Nishijima / 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Sarah Churchill was born in St Albans in June 1660.

In Lanthimos’ acerbic tale of royal intrigue, passion, envy and betrayal, she is played by the Golden Globe-nominated Rachel Weisz.

Speaking on the red carpet at the movie’s UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, the Oscar-winning actress said: “It’s a really unusually good piece of writing and Yorgos is an unusually good director.”

'You look like a badger!' Olivia Colman as Queen Anne and Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah in the film The Favourite. Picture: Atsushi Nishijima / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.'You look like a badger!' Olivia Colman as Queen Anne and Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah in the film The Favourite. Picture: Atsushi Nishijima / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Talking about the film, she told the BFI: “It’s joyful, it’s funny, it’s absurd, it’s ridiculous, it’s tragic, it’s a historical drama, it’s a love story, it’s a big cocktail of lots and lots of things.”

The letters of the real Sarah Churchill are housed in the Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies in Hertford.

They were researched and transcribed by Ruth Herman.

The Duchess’ letters also connect her with the great Hertfordshire family, the Cowpers of Panshanger, whose estate papers are held at HALS.

Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman in The Favourite, which was filmed at Hatfield House. Picture: Fox Searchlight Pictures.Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman in The Favourite, which was filmed at Hatfield House. Picture: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Here are Dr Ruth Herman’s notes on ‘The Duchess, the Queen and the ‘Dirty Parlour Maid’’.

In the collections at Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies, you will find a red book containing a number of letters from a very angry lady.

Her husband was the handsome unbeaten soldier, John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough.

She was his strikingly beautiful wife, Sarah, the best friend and confidante of Queen Anne.

Sarah and her husband had been at the very pinnacle of society – the power couple of the early 18th century.

Sarah, always willing to give Anne advice on what she should wear, and think and do, eventually went too far.

Frankly, she was a bully and finally the Queen had had enough and dismissed her.

Sarah was replaced with a new friend, who happened to be a poor relation of hers.

The Favourite stars Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone. Picture: Fox SearchlightThe Favourite stars Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone. Picture: Fox Searchlight

So in their final meeting, while Sarah ranted, the Queen remained almost silent, except to say “Put it in writing”.

Dismissed from her lucrative office as Groom of the Stole, holder of the Golden Key and chief distributor of good jobs, Sarah’s letters clearly reflect the bitterness she felt at this ejection from the Queen’s court.

Through more than a decade of correspondence, the Duchess reveals herself as a businesswoman (very successful), political commentator (very biased) and friend (very loyal).

The letters are scrawled, badly spelled, with virtually no grammar or punctuation; but they give an insight into the workings of the mind of a clever woman, who believed she was invulnerable.

The Favourite stars Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, and Emma Stone as Abigail. Much of the filming took place on location at Hatfield House. Picture: 20th Century FoxThe Favourite stars Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, and Emma Stone as Abigail. Much of the filming took place on location at Hatfield House. Picture: 20th Century Fox

And while she lived for another 30 years following her quarrel with the Queen, becoming the richest woman in England, she never got over the humiliation of losing her place at court – especially as the film, The Favourite, highlights, was to a “dirty chamber maid”.

WHO WAS THE DUCHESS OF MARLBOROUGH?

You can discover more about Sarah Churchill and John Churchill at the new St Albans Museum + Gallery.

• Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough

Sarah Churchill was born Sarah Jennings in St Albans in 1660.

She went to court aged 13, where she met John Churchill.

She became a close friend and confidante of Princess Anne, who later became Queen Anne in 1702.

Her husband’s success in battles led to the titles of Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, and the building of Blenheim Palace.

Sarah was a great businesswoman and became extremely wealthy.

She wielded great political influence at court, and in St Albans where she maintained her favourite home, Holywell House.

She also had built the Marlborough Almshouses in Hatfield Road.

• John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough

John Churchill was a page at the Court of Charles II.

Aged 17 he joined the Foot Guards in the Household Division of the British Army.

Within 10 years he had risen to the rank of colonel.

He married Sarah Jennings, whose dowry included Holywell House in St Albans.

During the reign of Queen Anne he won many decisive victories and was made Duke of Marlborough.

After his victory at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, the Marlboroughs were granted the manor of Woodstock and money to build Blenheim Palace, although Holywell in St Albans remained a favourite residence.

He was later charged with embezzlement and went abroad. His fortunes were restored under George I.

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