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Christian Friedrich Zincke
Portrait of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (1660-1744), c. 1722

Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough and 'The Favourite'

Wed Jan 9, 2019

A recent addition to the gallery of a fine portrait miniature by Christian Friedrich Zincke (1684? -1767) coincides with the release of the Bafta Nominated film ‘The Favourite’ which centres around a love-battle for the Queen Anne's favour among the monarch's closest confidants at court, Sarah Churchill and Abigail Hill. The portrait depicts Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (1660-1744), wearing black dress over white underdress, a black veil covering her blonde hair, and was painted in c. 1722.

Born into an impoverished gentry family, Sarah made her name at court when in 1673 she entered into the service of Mary of Modena (1658-1718), wife of James, Duke of York, later James II (1633-1701). Independent, strong-willed and assertive, she went as far as to have her mother banished from court when she objected to her marriage to the similarly impoverished John Churchill (1650-1722) (formerly the lover of the Duchess of Cleveland (c.1640-1709), a mistress of Charles II (1630-1685)), whose impecuniousness meant that she feared the match would do little to improve the family’s fortunes.

Following her appointments, first, as a lady of the bedchamber and, then, as Anne’s Groom of the Stool, Sarah obtained an emotional (and physical) proximity to Anne that few could rival. Anne came to be dependent on Sarah, turning to her for advice and counsel. Indeed, so strong was their bond that Anne fell profoundly in love with Sarah.

Maria Verelst (1680-1744)
Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (1660-1744)

But the relationship was an unequal one. Their characters were incompatible: Sarah, a voracious reader, was fiercely intelligent, whilst Anne had no particular intellectual ambitions. Further, although their affection was certainly mutual, Sarah never loved Anne in the way that she did her. And the result was tempestuous. Following William’s death and Anne’s subsequent coronation as queen on St George’s Day in 1702, Sarah became by far the most powerful of Anne’s advisors; in the words of her biographer, ‘those who wanted to access Anne had to go through Sarah first’. With this influence, she became increasingly self-confident and, convinced of her intellectual superiority, assertive, even domineering.

But, she also became complacent and failed to realise that she had come to be replaced in the Queen’s affections by Abigail Hill (c.1670-1734), a cousin of Sarah’s that she herself had introduced to the court. Following a series of bitter rows about Abigail Hill’s position, Sarah met Anne for the last time in 1710. They would from this point communicate only in writing.The portrayals of Sarah and Abigail in Yorgos Lanthimos’s film ‘The Favourite’ are played by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone respectively, Queen Anne is played by Olivia Coleman.