Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 29d - Queen Anne - transcript
(Originally aired 2018/12/22 - listen here)
Inspired by the release of the movie The Favourite, I decided to do this month’s essay on its subject: Queen Anne, her circle of female favorites especially Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough and Abigail Masham, and the rumors of lesbianism that circled around them. Originally, I was going to include a review of the movie as part of this episode, but the essay ran long enough that I’m saving the review for later.
The Historic Outline
Queen Anne of England reigned for a bare dozen years at the very beginning of the 18th century, marking the end of the Stuart dynasty and participating in the complex wrangling over the intersection of politics and religion that had disrupted much of the later 17th century and would continue in the unsuccessful claims of the Catholic branch of the Stuarts well into the mid-18th century. All this has only the barest relevance to the topic of today’s essay, but it may help to set the stage a little and lay out the major players and timelines.
Anne was the younger daughter of King James II of England, who had succeeded his dashing brother, King Charles II. Charles had restored the monarchy to England after the English Civil War, and the label Restoration with all its licentious associations covers the period of Anne’s birth and childhood. Though Charles fathered over a dozen children by his various mistresses, he left no legitimate children to inherit the throne.
Charles had treated religious adherence as something of a political strategy, flirting with Catholicism when it might secure French support, but bowing to Parliament’s pressure to support the Anglican church. But his brother James had converted to Catholicism in mid-life, which didn’t sit well with the English establishment, which was virulently anti-Catholic at a time when religious and political loyalties could not be entirely separated. James’s Catholicism and support for the inclusion of Catholics in government led to his ouster only three years after his coronation, in what was called “The Glorious Revolution.” The idea of deposing monarchs was still a touchy subject after the execution of Charles and James’s father, King Charles I earlier in the century. The Glorious Revolution was led by James’s Dutch son-in-law, William of Orange, resulting in the co-rule of William and Mary. The degree to which William came down on the anti-Catholic side still leaves traces today in how both the name and color Orange is associated with anti-Catholic political groups in Northern Ireland.
To appease the anti-Catholic elements in parliament, King Charles II had required that James’s two surviving children from his first marriage, Mary and Anne, be raised in the Church of England, while allowing the children James had from his second marriage to be raised Catholic. Religion would complicate the succession in various ways.
William and Mary had reigned jointly as equal monarchs -- an unusual approach, given that typically the monarch’s spouse would not have any independent claim to the throne. When Queen Mary died childless, William continued reigning but with the stipulation that if he re-married, his children from that marriage would come after Anne’s children in the succession. This left Anne and her descendents as the next in line. But by 1700, Anne had gone through 17 pregnancies that ended in 7 miscarriages, 7 stillbirths or deaths within a day or so of birth, and 2 early deaths from smallpox. The only child who lived beyond his first couple of years had just died at age 11. The 18th century was not a kind time to be a monarch trying to produce heirs. Anne and Mary were the only survivors of their mother’s 8 pregnancies. Mary did not bring any pregnancies to term.
Faced with the prospect of the next prospective heirs being Catholic, an Act of Parliament stipulated that after Anne the succession would pass to her cousin, Sophia of Hannover, and Sophia’s protestant descendents (thus the sequence of King Georges). A year later, at William’s death, Anne came to the throne. She just barely missed having to deal with the continuing claims by her father James, who had died the year before. Her half-brother James Stuart, known later as “The Old Pretender” was supported by several Catholic monarchs on the continent, but saved most of his active opposition until after Anne’s death in 1714.
So. That’s the political and family background of Anne’s life and reign. So why are we talking about her in a lesbian-themed podcast?
Passionate Friendships and Libertine Sex
You’ll often hear about the phenomenon of Romantic Friendship in the context of the Victorian era--the later 19th century. The term describes a social context where women were expected to have passionate same-sex friendships that were expressed in language and behavior similar to that expected of male-female romantic couples. In fact, female pairs could be even more intense in the expression of their emotional bond than was considered proper between heterosexual couples.
But there have been regular cycles throughout history of a public culture of passionate friendships between women. One of those cycles occurred in the second half of the 17th century. It can be seen expressed in the “Society of Friendship” of Katherine Phillips and the poems she addressed to her closest female friends, or the somewhat more erotic poetry of Aphra Behn. It can be seen in the préciosité movement brought from the Paris salons and associated with Queen Henrietta Maria (the wife of Charles I) that elevated women’s platonic friendships over marriage and heterosexual lust. And it can be seen in female authors toying with the idea of women-only societies, such as in Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure or Delariviere Manley’s The New Atalantis, though not so much in a utopian sense in the latter work as a satirical one. We’ll come back to The New Atalantis in a little bit.
Especially among the aristocracy and literati, the idea of passionate attachments between women was normalized. So when a young Princess Mary (Anne’s sister) wrote the following to courtier Frances Apsley, it was not considered outside acceptable forms of expression:
“I love you with a flame more lasting than the Vestals’ fire. Thou art my life, my soul, my all that heaven can give. Death’s life with you; without you, death to live. What can I say to persuade you that I love you with more zeal than any lover can? I love you with a love that ne’er was known by man. I have for you excess of friendship--more of love then any woman can for woman and more love then even the constantest lover had for his mistress. You are loved more than can be expressed by your ever obedient wife, very affectionate friend, humble servant, to kiss the ground where once you go.”
The young Princess Anne had passionate correspondences with several older female friends (including a rivalry with her sister over Frances Apsley’s affection). There’s some indication that those around her felt that some of these attachments were more intense than was desirable. Mary Cornwallis was a Lady of the Bedchamber (a type of lady in waiting) to Princess Anne but was dismissed from service by Anne’s father due to concerns about the relationship. This doesn’t necessarily mean sexual concerns--there are always reasons to be concerned when someone appears to have an undue influence on a potential heir to the throne--but King Charles was later said to have commented that “No man ever loved his Mistress as his niece Anne did Mrs Cornwallis.” which certainly has suggestions of erotic overtones.
But Anne’s deepest and longest lasting such relationship began when she was perhaps six years old with a girl named Sarah Jennings who would have been eleven at the time. Sarah was a great beauty, ferociously intelligent and witty, and politically savvy, though not without her blind spots. The friendship must have seemed something of an odd couple, though the later stereotype of Anne as dull, frumpy, and overweight does her something of a disservice, and comes in part from the biased memoirs Sarah wrote after their break-up. Anne would become a dedicated and knowledgeable participant in government, and in later years she dealt with crippling chronic pain and illness which contributed to her physical problems. But I get ahead of myself.
18th century society interacted with women’s same-sex relationships on several different layers. There was the mode of intense platonic friendship that might use the language of romance but was treated as being sexless. There was something of a middle ground where people might acknowledge erotic possibilities but deflect their potential in various ways. This can be seen in a poem of 1670 about two women in a “marriage of two beauties” written by a male author in a female voice. The poem’s persona expresses jealousy of male rivals and laments that the “too great resemblance” between her and her friend prevent any romantic success. Other poems written from a male point of view address intimate female couples urging them to consider their love impossible to fulfill so that they will accept the poet’s attentions instead. I’ve included these poems in a previous podcast on homoerotic poetry of the 17th century.
But this was also the era of libertine sexual excess and an era when the concept of binary sexuality--the idea that one had either heterosexual or homosexual desires--had not yet taken solid hold. In the court of Charles II it was no secret that women might engage in sexual affairs with other women. A French visitor to the court reported on love affairs between the maids of honor to the queen and the king’s mistresses. When King Charles discovered that his mistress Hortense Mancini was having an affair with Anne, Countess of Sussex, his disapproval was only because the Countess of Sussex was his illegitimate daughter. (I had fun including this affair in my historic novelette “The Mazarinette and the Musketeer.”)
This isn’t to say that there was no stigma attached to same-sex relationships. Anne’s brother in law, King William also attracted rumors of homosexual relationships with close friends after Queen Mary’s death, in part because of his lack of female mistresses--a striking lack in that era--and in part because it was a popular political weapon against relationships that were felt to exert undue influence or reap undue rewards such as titles. When Anne’s favorites came in for criticism, the primary reason was due to their political influence. Accusations of lesbianism were only a tool to bring to bear on that concern. On the other hand, extra-marital relationships with the opposite sex were similarly looked askance when influence and profit were involved. It’s unclear whether there was any basis to the rumors about William’s relationships, but they contribute to our understanding of the socio-political climate of the times. Note that, unlike sexual relations between women, those between men were a crime under English law.
This climate of romantic and even sexual possibilities between women doesn’t mean that we should interpret the subjects of rumor as being “lesbian” in the modern exclusive sense. Both Anne and Sarah were happy in their marriages, though of course they would have had little choice but to marry even if they hadn’t been. There is plenty of evidence that Sarah and John Churchill were passionately in love and during their long separations due to his military career, their correspondence smoulders so furiously it’s a wonder it didn’t spontaneously combust. Anne was, perhaps, less overt in expressions of affection to her husband, but she regularly supported Prince George against the criticism of her family. And Anne’s 17 pregnancies in their first 17 years of marriage attest to a consistently active sex life.
I’ll discuss further evidence for the public image of women’s same-sex relationships a bit later when I talk about Delariviere Manley’s political fantasy The New Atalantis.
Having looked at the social context of sexuality in the later 17th century, let’s introduce several other major players besides Anne.
Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough
Anne’s childhood friend Sarah Jennings married an able and ambitious army officer named John Churchill and devoted much of her energy to furthering his career. Shortly after, Anne married her cousin, a Danish prince named George, (she almost married a different cousin George--the Hanoverian prince who would later succeed her as George I) and as a married woman, she was entitled to set up her own household. Sarah Churchill became Anne’s Lady of the Bedchamber, serving not only as friend and confidante but as an able and loyal advisor--though one who made no distinctions between what she wanted and what she thought the princess should want. The position of Lady of the Bedchamber always had political implications due to the direct access it provided to royal women. Anne’s father James disapproved of Sarah’s appointment, fearing that the strong-willed Sarah would dominate his daughter’s opinions and decisions. He wasn’t wrong. Anne was infatuated with her friend Sarah and several times defied pressure to send her away. But Sarah, in turn, provided a rock of loyalty and support in a turbulent social context when Anne had few people she could rely on that utterly.
Princess Anne wanted the illusion of equality between the two of them in private--the ideal concept of platonic philosophy. A year after Anne’s marriage she wrote to Sarah, “Let me beg of you that you not call me your highness at every word, but be free with me as one friend ought to be with another, and you can never give me greater proof of your friendship than in telling me your mind freely in all things, which I do beg you to do.” They had pet names for each other to emphasize this informality. Anne was “Mrs. Morley” and Sarah was “Mrs. Freeman.” For the rest of Anne’s life, both the strength and weakness of their relationship was that Sarah took her at her word and told her her mind freely in all things, speaking without distinction of rank.
Two years after Anne’s marriage, her uncle King Charles II died and her father James came to the throne. Three years later, King James was deposed by his daughter Mary and son-in-law William. Through the turmoil of the transition, Sarah was at Anne’s side, advising her to distance herself from her father and helping her escape the palace by night, to go join the opposition. Sarah was also behind Anne’s maneuverings to achieve a financial independence from William and Mary’s purse strings, and as a result contributed to a falling out between the sisters that rebounded on her. The Churchills were moving up in the world--he had been named Earl of Marlborough--but between Queen Mary’s hostility and the work of political enemies they had a reversal of fortunes. Marlborough was accused of conspiring with the exiled James and dismissed from his post, though the accusation was later found to be based on forged documents. Anne’s loyalty to them was unshaken and she moved out of the palace rather than obey Queen Mary’s command to dismiss Sarah from her service.
Anne wrote to Sarah, “I have a thousand melancholy thoughts, and cannot help fearing they should hinder you from coming to me; though how they can do that without making you a prisoner I cannot imagine. But let them do what they please, nothing shall ever vex me so I can have the satisfaction of seeing dear Mrs Freeman; and I swear I would live on bread and water between four walls, with her, without repining; for as long as you continue kind, nothing can ever be a real mortification to your faithful Mrs Morley, who wishes she may never enjoy a moment’s happiness in this world or the next, if ever she proves false to you.”
In a presentiment of the later dynamics of their relationship, when Sarah suggested they might go along with Queen Mary’s demand that they separate for a time, Anne replied, “If ever you should do so cruel a thing as to leave me, from that moment I shall never enjoy one quiet hour. And should you do it without asking my consent… I will shut myself up and never see the world more but live where I may be forgotten by human kind.”
The royal sisters never reconciled from the conflict over Sarah Churchill and Mary died of smallpox two years later, leaving no living children. Anne was now officially the next in succession.
Abigail Hill Masham
Now we come to Abigail Hill Masham.
At some point during this period--I haven’t been able to pin down exactly when--Sarah Churchill took into her household a poor relation named Abigail Hill along with two of Abigail’s siblings. The impulse may have been one of charity, but the two must have developed a close and strong relationship because Sarah was happy to promote Abigail’s career. I haven’t found a reference to what position Abigail held in the Churchill household, but some time later Sarah got her appointed as one of Princess Anne’s bedchamber women.
To be clear, there was a distinction between Sarah’s position as Lady of the Bedchamber and the post of Woman of the Bedchamber, which was less ceremonial and involved more of the duties of a personal maid. But both were positions typically filled by upper class women and involved regular intimate access to the person they served.
In addition to whatever family loyalty prompted Sarah to place Abigail in this position, she clearly expected Abigail to serve as her surrogate and representative in Anne’s household, especially when Sarah’s other obligations took her away from court for extended periods. This would be a mistake. Sarah’s other major mistake with regard to Abigail was to assume that they were aligned on the same political side. I’ll talk more about that when we move on to the political context.
Unlike for Sarah Churchill, we don’t have much documentary evidence from Abigail herself regarding her life and position. Contemporary descriptions of her personality and motivations align very strongly to political allegiance: those who considered her an ally said she was, “a person of a plain sound understanding, of great truth and sincerity, without the least mixture of falsehood or disguise, of an honest boldness and courage superior to her sex, firm and disinterested in her friendship and full of love, duty and veneration for the queen her mistress.” Those on the opposite political side described her as, “exceedingly mean and vulgar in her manners, of an unequal temper, childishly exceptious, and passionate.”
Since we don’t have Sarah’s letters sent to Anne--only the memoirs she wrote after they became estranged--we don’t have an even-handed image of what she thought about Abigail before they became rivals. And after that estrangement, Sarah’s opinions were sharply personal, viewing Abigail as a traitor and a viper who failed in proper gratitude to Sarah for furthering her career.
Some time after Anne became queen, Abigail married Samuel Masham, but that belongs to the discussion of how Anne and Sarah began falling out, so we’ll come back to it later.
Another woman who is useful for understanding why lesbian rumors stuck to Queen Anne’s court is a writer named Delariviere Manley, who combined entertainment with political satire and walked a perilous line between being a paid political operative and drawing legal censure for the pointedness of her works. Manley was not a member of Queen Anne’s circle--quite the contrary--but she was a sharp observer of the court.
In 1709--near the middle of Anne’s reign--Delariviere Manley published a roman à clef The New Atalantis, which was a satire of British politics set on the fictional island of Atlantis. Manley so clearly depicted the targets of her critique that she was arrested and questioned about it in preparation for a libel case against her. She steadfastly maintained the work was entirely fictional and the case was eventually dropped, but no one was fooled. The primary targets of her satires were the ruling Whig party, and in particular the Marlboroughs. Among the material incorporated into The New Atalantis was a skit entitled The Secret History of Queen Zarah--that’s “Zarah with a Z”, which gives you a sense of how flimsily disguised the characters were.
The New Atalantis focused heavily on sex and relationships as an alleged driver of the workings of government and of the aristocratic social circles that were intertwined with the official structures. Delariviere knew something of interpersonal drama herself. After a peripatetic childhood accompanying her father’s military postings, at his death she and her sister became wards of a cousin, John Manley. Within a few years, Manley had married her, apparently forgetting that he was already married. A few years after the birth of their son, Delariviere left her husband for the household of Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, the one-time mistress of King Charles II. Villiers threw her out half a year later, allegedly for flirting with her son. Delariviere spent several years after that writing plays, but only became famous after the publication of The New Atalantis. From there she moved on to a career as a political pamphleteer, though she returned later to drama and sensational novels.
Although the criticisms encoded in The New Atalantis were wide-ranging, the section that concerns us here focuses on a group of women identified as “The New Cabal.” The work makes clear the homoerotic sexual exploits of the group while entirely avoiding any description of specific physical acts, invoking the reader’s imagination to fill in the silences. The targets of this satire are Queen Anne and her court, especially her female favorites. Manley perhaps felt more free to write about the topic than most authors of the day because her own moral position was fairly abandoned, but she was also writing from a position of criticism, rather than depicting desires she shared. The crucial aspect of her writing is that it reflects ideas and images that were in currency during Anne’s reign.
Although the descriptions of the women’s activities in the novel mostly go no further than “kisses and embraces”, the rules of the New Cabal not only exclude men, but exclude women who have voluntary romantic relationships with men (marriage is grudgingly tolerated as a necessary evil, but male lovers are right out).
The women join in loving couples who pledge not only devotion (and secrecy) but a sharing of property and wealth between them. Most of the descriptions of the women (including those meant to represent contemporary figures) don’t mention gender role play or cross-dressing (cross-dressing wasn’t yet a trope strongly associated with lesbian relationships) but there are a few exceptions. One woman is described as mannish in behavior (though not in dress), and another is described as preferring to “mask her diversions in the habit [i.e., clothing] of the other sex”. But this is not as part of a butch-femme relationship, for her female partner also cross-dresses and together they are said to wander through the seedy parts of the city picking up prostitutes for their shared enjoyment. But for the most part, the women described in the satire are feminine-presenting and partner with other feminine-presenting women.
The exclusively female nature of the group is only emphasized by a grudging allowance for one bisexual member who is intended to represent Lucy Wharton who, in real life, had a female lover in opera singer Catherine Tofts. Another real-life couple in The New Atalantis represents Catherine Colyear, Duchess of Portmore and Dorchester who is paired with a character representing playwright Catharine Trotter, whose work Agnes de Castro also has themes of passionate friendship between women.
One thing in common between all the women depicted in this satire is that they were associated with the Whig political party. And now it’s time to talk about English politics around 1700.
Politics and Power in the Reign of Queen Anne
I’m going to really, really oversimplify this discussion, but it’s kind of important to have at least a vague idea of the sides. At the time, England was only starting to develop something identifiable as political parties. The underlying power struggle between absolute and constitutional monarchy was in full swing--keep in mind that the 17th century was when Parliament flexed its muscles and executed a king--so general interest groups and affinities were just starting to aggregate and align as fixed political parties that competed for control of Parliament. Ministers of State were still generally appointed directly by the monarch, though influenced by the practical need to gain cooperation for goals and policies. The concept of a Prime Minister hadn’t really gelled yet. But we can identify two named political parties during Anne’s reign and the direct competition between them set the stage for the more personal conflicts within Anne’s household.
The Whig party--which, by the way, had nothing to do with the male fashion for wearing elaborate artificial hairpieces at this time--played a major role in ousting James II in the Glorious Revolution. They were strongly anti-Catholic (although that changed in later centuries), often aligned with commercial interests and Protestant dissenters, and promoted the concept of constitutional monarchy.
Their rivals, the Tory party, supported the primacy of the Anglican church against a more broadminded acceptance of religious diversity, and were more inclined to support royal power, having their origins in royalist elements during the English Civil War.
Although the key players during Anne’s reign sometimes fell indeterminately in the moderate middle between these parties and sometimes shifted allegiance, I’m going to oversimplify and identify them by party affiliation toward the latter part of her reign. Three powerful men were the core of Queen Anne’s first government: Sidney Godolphin as First Lord of the Treasury and the Duke of Marlborough--did I mention that the Churchills were elevated to a duchy when Anne came to the throne? He was named commander of the armies. Both had begun as moderate Tories but became increasingly associated with the Whigs due to that party’s support for the ongoing wars on the continent. Oh, and due to Sarah Churchill’s overwhelming support for the Whig party. So let’s just consider them functionally Whigs for the purpose.
The third important man in Anne’s initial government was Robert Harley, Speaker of the House of Commons, who started out a moderate Whig but then shifted to Tory allegiance, so we’re going to consider him the primary Tory figure in this struggle. Confusing, I know.
Queen Anne leaned toward the Tories--that whole royalist thing, you know--but was under significant pressure, not only from Sarah Churchill, to appoint more Whigs to her administration. This pressure was all the more painful as she personally disliked some of the prominent Whig leaders.
Harley initially came into power through the influence of Godolphin and Marlborough but as their interests diverged, he engaged the power of political writers like Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, and Delariviere Manley to influence public opinion toward the Tory side via satirical pamphlets. He also engaged the services of a cousin...Abigail Hill, now Abigail Masham after marrying one of Prince George’s grooms.
Sarah Churchill was perhaps the most influential person at court at the beginning of Anne’s reign--far more influential than the official ministers. Marlborough and Godolphin treated her as a political equal and she was trusted to represent Marlborough’s interests at court while he was abroad with the military. Sarah not only had the queen’s ear, but she was a powerful gatekeeper. She could decide who the queen had time and interest to meet with and who she was too busy for.
Sarah Churchill’s power was not only unofficial. Anne had named her Keeper of the Privy Purse--the official in charge of finances for the royal household. If Wikipedia is to be believed, in the entire history of the English monarchy, only one monarch has ever named a woman to this post: Queen Anne. And she named two: Sarah Churchill, and then later as her replacement, Abigail Masham. The anxieties around the queen’s favorites were not simply about social influence but about real financial and political power. And to some extent about men freaking out over women holding that power and excluding them from the innermost circles of decision-making.
So when Sarah threw her considerable influence in on the side of the Whigs, people took notice and worried. And when Harley saw a chance to counter that influence with an agent inside the queen’s inner circle of favorites and confidantes, you can bet he took that chance, especially after he was forced out of office in 1708 by Whig pressure. By then, Abigail Masham was displacing Sarah Churchill in the queen’s affections, though Sarah hadn’t realized that yet. Abigail might have family feelings and personal loyalty for Sarah, but her own political inclinations were solidly on the Tory side. She didn’t need persuading to act as Harley’s agent within the court.
And with that, we move on to how the inter-personal dynamics played out as Abigail displaced Sarah in Queen Anne’s life.
The relationship between Anne and Sarah had always been lopsided, but not always in the same way. As noted previously, Sarah was beautiful, brilliant, savvy, and charming. She also had, as one historian puts it, “an almost pathological inability to admit the validity of anyone else’s point of view.” She was certain of the rightness of her opinions and positions and considered it her duty to make Anne see the light and agree with her. She had promised Anne that she would always treat her as an equal and be forthright with her.
But Anne didn’t always want brutal honesty; sometimes she wanted support, companionship, and comfort. Sarah had provided that support and companionship in Anne’s youth and that built up a lot of credit. But when Anne came to the throne, Sarah’s advice and persuasion was no longer directed at helping Anne navigate tricky political waters from a vulnerable position, now it was directed at shaping Anne’s government and policy into the Marlboroughs’ desired form. Sarah ordered Anne to appoint her own Whig allies to cabinet posts, lectured her about affairs of state, and generally treated her like a child.
Anne wanted to please her closest friend but she had her own ideas about government and was developing the will and stubbornness to pursue them. And Sarah was increasingly spending her time away from the court, something that became a sore point between them. Anne’s independence caused immediate friction. In the first year of her reign, a courtier noted, “The dutchess of Marlborough has lately had two terrible Battles with the Queen and she came out from her in great heat, and when the Queen was seen afterwards her eyes were red, and it was plain she had been crying very much.”
Such conflicts were all the more painful because of the bond between them. What we know of the internal dynamics of Anne and Sarah’s relationship comes largely from Sarah’s memoirs written at a time of separation and bitterness. But that bitterness itself gives evidence of the depth of Sarah’s attachment, even if not as single-minded as Anne’s was to her. Anne was besotted with Sarah, writing, “If I writ whole volumes I could never express how well I love you.” Sarah later complained that Anne “desired to possess her wholly.”
Anne was jealous of Sarah’s other female friends, and her expectations regarding Sarah’s attention and presence would become part of their fracture. Anne wrote, “I know I have a great many rivals which makes me sometimes fear losing what I so value.” And regarding one specific friend, Lady Anne Sunderland, “You have often told me that I have no reason to be jealous of her and therefore I will not complain any more till I see more reasons for it, but I assure you I have been a little troubled at it.”
The earliest surviving mention of Abigail Hill in the correspondence Sarah received from Anne appears to portray Abigail as one of those other friends that Anne is jealous of. (Keep in mind here that references to Mrs. Freeman are to Sarah, and Anne’s references to Mrs. Morley are to herself.)
“My fever is not quite gone and I am still lame, I cannot go without limping. I hope Mrs Freeman has no thoughts of going to the opera with Mrs Hill, and will have a care of engaging herself too much in her company, for, if you will give way to that, it is a thing that will insensibly grow upon you… for your own sake, as well as poor Mrs Morley’s, have as little to do with that enchantress as ’tis possible and pray pardon me for saying this.”
But Anne herself was already under the spell of the enchantress Abigail Hill, though her enchantments may have been as simple as being attentive and kind and far more circumspect in how she attempted to use political influence with the queen. By around 1706, the queen’s irritation with the Marlboroughs led her to turn to their rival Harley for political advice. And though they weren’t aware of it at the time, Abigail was a conduit for those communications. This personal and political defection may have given Anne something of a guilty conscience.
In a letter to Sarah she wrote, “I cannot forbear telling you why I disowned my being in a spleen this morning and the cause of my being so. My poor heart is so tender that I durst not tell you what was the matter with me, because I knew if I had begun to speak I should not have been fit to be seen by anybody… The reason of my being in the spleen was that I fancied by your looks and things you have sometimes let fall, that you have hard and wrong thoughts of me. I should be very glad to know what they are that I might clear myself, but let it be in writing for I dare not venture to speak to you for the reason I have told you already… don’t let anybody see this strange scrawl.”
Sarah later annotated this letter with, “she was under the witchcraft of Mrs Hill, however she says she does not deserve the hard thoughts I may have of her and… she adds that she will not be uneasy if I would come to her and calls me unkind, but nobody of common sense can believe that I did not do all that was possible to be well with her, it was my interest to do so. And though I had all the gratitude imaginable for the kindness she had expressed to me for so many years, I could have no passion for her that could blind me so much as to make me do anything that was extravagant. But it wasn’t possible for me to go to her as often as I had done in private, for let her write what she will, she never was free with me after she was fond of Mrs Hill, and whoever reads her letters will find a great difference in the style of them when she really loved me, from those where she only pretended to do so.”
What were the “extravagant” things Sarah declined to do? Was it only a matter of not feeling required to dance constant attendance on the queen? Historians have sometimes seen coded references in texts like this, but it’s hard to be certain. What is certain is that Sarah felt hurt and rejected...even if the reason for that hurt was Anne’s refusal to obey and forgive her at every turn.
A year later in 1707 Abigail’s betrayal became overt. While Sarah was absent from court, Abigail Hill married Samuel Masham, a member of Prince George’s household. It was something of a secret wedding--secret at least from Sarah Churchill, though not from the queen who was present as a witness. But Sarah was blindsided and belatedly came to understand how solidly embedded Abigail was in the queen’s confidence.
Sarah recorded her outrage that ''her cousin was become an absolute favorite, that the queen herself was present at her marriage in Dr. Arbuthnot's lodgings, at which time her majesty had called for a round sum out of the privy purse; that Mrs. Masham came often to the queen when the prince was asleep, and was generally two hours every day in private with her; and I likewise then discovered beyond all dispute Mr. Harley's correspondence and interest at court by means of this woman.'' (I’ve seen some writers interpret the bit about Abigail “coming to the queen and being private with her” as referring to sexual encounters, but it looks more ambiguous to me. The simple personal intimacy of private time together would be enough of a challenge to Sarah’s position.)
The Duke of Marlborough, more wisely, cautioned Sarah to let things be, writing, “What you say of [Abigail] is very odd, and if you think she is a good weather cock, it is high time to leave off struggling; for believe me nothing is worth rowing against wind and tide; at least you will think so when you come to my age.” But Sarah had no intention of ceding the field so easily. She raged, “To see a woman whom I had raised out of the dust put on such a superior air and hear her assure me by way of consolation that the queen would always be kind to me! At length I went on to reproach her for her ingratitude and her secret management with the queen to undermine those who had so long and with so much honour served her majesty. To this she replied that she never spoke to her majesty on business.”
Whether or not Abigail was truthful about not advising the queen on the business of government, Sarah saw her hand at work in Anne’s loss of confidence in the Whig leaders and pressured Marlborough and Godolphin to force Harley to resign from his government positions. But she was no more successful in pressuring Anne to dismiss Abigail than anyone had ever been in pressuring Anne to dismiss Sarah herself.
With relations strained, the beginning of the end came in 1708 in the context of a church service celebrating a significant military victory on the continent. As part of her formal office for the queen, it was Sarah’s duty to select the jewels that Anne would wear for the event. In the coach ride to the church, she discovered that the pieces she’d chosen were not being worn and she concluded that Abigail had contradicted her directions. She and the queen had a terrible quarrel, spilling over in public as they arrived at the Cathedral. And Sarah did an unforgivable thing: impatient with Anne’s continued argument, she told the queen to “Be quiet!”
Even Sarah realized she’d gone too far. She tried unsuccessfully to apologize but Anne refused to respond to her letters or allow her into her presence, saying that she had been told to be quiet and therefore she would give no answer. The only reason that Sarah was not immediately stripped of her court offices was to avoid a public break with her husband who was still a vital part of the war efforts.
If that weren’t bad enough, later that year, Prince George died, and even as Sarah used the logistics of the funeral as a context for coming back into contact with Anne, she made the event all about her continuing conflict with Abigail. And we now get a glimpse of Abigail’s viewpoint, in a letter to an ally indicating that she, too, was more concerned about using Anne’s bereavement as a site for their power struggle, rather than being concerned about comforting the queen.
The break played out in correspondence for some time, with Anne alternately begging for a reconciliation and standing fast against Sarah’s demands that she dismiss Abigail. Some of Abigail Masham’s enemies even suggested putting the matter of her influence over the queen before Parliament, though one prominent Whig objected, “it is impossible for any man of sense, honour, or honesty to come in to an address to remove a dresser from the Queen… only to gratify Lady Marlborough’s passions.” Perhaps even Sarah realized that her campaign against Abigail could only bring ridicule and ruin on herself.
By the end of 1710, Sarah had lost her official positions at court. The prestigious post of Keeper of the Privy Purse was given to her rival Abigail while the posts of Mistress of the Robes and Groom of the Stole were transferred to a new favorite, Elizabeth Seymour, Duchess of Somerset. Like Abigail, Seymour’s closeness to the queen made her a target of political attacks. Even as Sarah lost her struggle, Seymore was moving into Abigail’s place as favorite, due to the latter often being away from court on family business, although there’s no evidence that the two of them had the sort of personal rivalry that had marked the transition from Sarah to Abigail.
With the end of the war in Europe, the Duke of Marlborough became somewhat more dispensable and by the end of 1711 he too had lost his government offices, based on a trumped up charge of embezzlement. With the decline of the Marlboroughs and the Whig party, Harley again climbed in power and influence though his resurgence was short-lived. He fell out of favor shortly before Queen Anne’s death in 1714. But this essay isn’t about the men.
Where Did the Accusations Come From?
Emma Donoghue’s book Passions Between Women opens with the contradictory use of the word “passion” in the correspondence between Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill. For years, their letters had concluded with salutations assuring each other that they were “most passionately and tenderly yours” and speaking of “a sincere and tender passion” felt between them. But when Sarah turned her poison pen against Abigail Masham, she warned that people were linking Anne and Abigail’s names together with descriptions of “stuff not fit to be mentioned of passions between women” with additional insinuations that made it clear that sexual relations were the topic.
Did these two uses of “passion” have separate and distinct meanings to the two women? Or did they represent two points on a continuum of meaning for the word? If Queen Anne became associated in the public mind with lesbian relationships with her favorites, the irony is that Sarah Churchill was one of the sources of that association, even though she herself was an obvious candidate for the same suspicions.
How was that association built? And do we have the evidence to determine whether it was true, either in Abigail Masham’s case or in Sarah Churchill’s? Donoghue’s book tackles the general background to the relationship between romantic friendship and sexual relations across the long 18th century. But we’re concerned with a narrower slice of history here.
The dichotomy between an acceptable image of chaste but emotional friendship between women and an unacceptable image of sordid same-sex erotics has often been used to shield the upper class women who participated in the culture of romantic friendship from accusations of lesbianism. The argument is that the openness and pervasiveness of romantic friendships must mean that they could not have been accompanied by sexual desire or sexual activity. This thinking has a strong streak of “nice girls don’t” in which women capable of expressing the elevated sentiments of friendship in literature or in their own lives are thought incapable of engaging in anything so perverted as lesbian sex. These interpretations are not only complicated by the prejudices that modern historians bring to their studies, but also by the different attitudes and language used by women in history for physical expressions of love. When women speak of “chaste kisses” it can mean something rather different for a woman who classifies only penetrative sex with a man as unchaste.
Suspending judgment regarding any sexual component of the relationship between Anne and Sarah, it’s clear the overall shape of that relationship--including its intense expressions and fierce jealousies--is indistinguishable from a romantic and sexual one. And yet Sarah Churchill was a major source of the rumors that Abigail Masham participated in a lesbian relationship with the queen--or at least that their relationship was being interpreted as such.
Sarah wrote to Anne warning her, “I remember you said… of all things in the world you valued most your reputation, which I confess, surprised me very much, that your majesty should so mention the word after having discovered so great a passion for such a woman, for sure there can be no great reputation in a thing so strange and unaccountable… nor can I think that having no inclination for anyone but one’s own sex is enough to maintain such a character as I wish may still be yours.”
That seems quite unambiguous in terms of what is being implied. The word “unacountable” is something of a code-word for sexually suspect relationships between women. But the word often brings in issues of class as well as gender. When Sarah complains of “so great a passion for such a woman” is it specifically the homoerotic aspect of the relationship that she’s targeting? Or might there be an element of considering Abigail too low-class to be worthy of the queen’s affections? Although Sarah and Abigail were cousins, there was a clear distinction of birth between the two branches of the family.
As I noted earlier in this essay, the sexual possibilities between women were solidly in evidence in the Restoration court that Anne was born into. Given this, can Sarah’s accusations be taken as evidence that her own relationship with Anne was not sexual? Or was Sarah simply so deeply invested in using any tool necessary to dislodge Abigail that she was unconcerned with the implication? After all, Sarah derided Abigail as an ungrateful bitch, a viper, and concerned with her own political interests above the queen’s welfare--which all could reasonably be applied to Sarah as well.
In any event, Anne’s response to the previous was “Sure, I may love whom I please.”
But Sarah wasn’t done. An anonymous ally--quite probably her secretary Mr. Mainwaring-- wrote an long scurrilous ballad ranting about Abigail Masham’s offenses: her ingratitude, her political connivance with Harley, her devoted allegiance to the Anglican church, and with only the thinnest of veils over the suggestiveness, the assertion that she performed “sweet service” and “dark deeds at night” to gain her place. The publication of this ballad was no longer a serious campaign to win back Anne’s attention, it was intended to discredit Abigail and to hurt and humiliate the queen in revenge for the slights Sarah believed herself to have received.
The ballad is given “to the tune of Fair Rosamund” and here are a few of the more suggestive of the 35 verses. I’ve expanded the coded references that were given as initials in the original. The ballad tune itself carries meaning, as the Rosamund of the title (and the original ballad) was a mistress of King Henry II and the song tells of how she was poisoned by the queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Did Sarah see herself as the avenging spouse, poisoning her partner’s mistress?
A new ballad to the tune of Fair Rosamund [the tune is also known as “Flying Fame”]
When as Qu[een] A[nne] of Great Renown
Great Britain’s Scepter sway’d,
Besides the Church she dearly lov’d
A Dirty Chamber Maid.
O! Abi[gail] that was her Name,
She starched and stitch’d full well,
But how she pierc’d this Royal Heart,
No Mortal Man can tell.
However for sweet Service done
And Causes of great Weight,
Her Royal Mistress made her, Oh!
A Minister of State.
Her Secretary she was not,
Because she could not write;
But had the conduct and the Care
Of some dark deeds at Night.
The Important Pass of the Back-Stairs
Was put into her Hand;
And up she brought the greatest R[ogue]
Grew in this fruitful land.
And what am I to do, quoth he,
Oh! for this Favour great!
You are to teach me how, quoth she,
To be a sl[ut] of State.
And so on at great length, concluding with a hopeful, if irrational, prediction that the subject of the song would be rejected and cast out.
Another likely output of Sarah and Mainwaring’s collaboration was a pamphlet entitled The Rival Duchesses with an imagined conversation between Abigail Masham and Madame de Maintenon, the official mistress of King Louis XIV of France. In it, Abigail boasts, “Especially at court I was taken for a more modish lady, was rather addicted to another sort of passion, of having too great a regard for my own sex, in as much that few people thought I would ever have married. But to free myself from that aspersion some of our sex labor under, for being too fond of one another, I was resolved to marry as soon as I could fix to my advantage or inclination.”
At which Madame de Maintenon asks, “And does that female vice, which is the most detestable in nature, reign among you, as it does with us in France?”
To which Abigail responds, “O Madam, we are arrived to as great perfection in sinning that way as you can pretend to!”
Having almost certainly participated in the creation and circulation of these two items, Sarah Churchill then called them to the queen’s attention, writing with studied casualness, “I had almost forgot to tell you of a new book that is come out: ... the subject is ridiculous, and the book not well written, but that looks so much the worse, for it shews that the notion is extensively spread among all sorts of people. It is a dialogue between Madame Maintenon and Madam Masham...and there is stuff, not fit to be mentioned, of passions between women...”
Sarah even brought Anne’s physician into the matter, confiding to him, “I hear there is some [pamphlet] lately come out, which they said were not fit for me to see, by which I guess they are upon that subject that you may remember I complained to you, and really it troubled me very much upon my own account as well as others, because it was very disagreeable and what I know to be a lie, but something of that disagreeable turn there was in an odious ballad to the tune of fair Rosamund, printed a good while ago… but that which I hated was the disrespect to the Queen and the disagreeable expressions of the dark deeds in the night.”
Sarah was not the only one implying lesbian goings on among the court. As noted before, in the midst of the conflict between Sarah and Abigail, Delariviere Manley’s satire The New Atalantis was published, implying romantic and erotic relationships among an all-female cabal who were clearly identifiable with prominent women of the Whig party. (I plan to do an entire episode on The New Atalantis at some point, so I won’t hunt down excerpts for this episode.)
Were lesbian relationships actually common in those circles? Or was it simply a smear tactic? Was the satire inspired by Anne’s close relationships with her female favorites? Or was it simply one more example of anxieties about power and class being translated into anxieties about sex?
When King William III was rumored to have a homosexual relationship with a close male friend, one can trace some of the motivation for the rumors in jealousy over the man’s rapid rise to high rank. The power and influence that both Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham had with the queen certainly provoked jealousy and anxiety, not only in each other, but among the male establishment, who felt shut out of the largely female structure of Anne’s household. Sexual accusations have always been handy weapons to use against women who are felt to have risen above their rightful station.
This isn’t to say that the free-floating motivations for people to make sexual accusations against Anne and her favorites makes those accusations untrue. Only that it provides a context in which the rumors stuck, to the point where the Dowager Duchess of Orleans in France, writing after Anne’s death, reported, “English men and women depict Queen Anne horribly here, saying she would get drunk, after which she’d make love with women, being, however, fickle and changing often. Lady Sandwich did not tell me anything, but she told my son. I had little contact with her, because she disgusted me, admitting that she had allowed herself to be used for such perversions.”
Queen Anne gets something of a bad rap in all this. She seems through it all to have been doing her best to balance personal desires with what she believed to be the good of the State, all while suffering in terrible pain from chronic illnesses. If she shifted her affections regularly from the women who left her to the women who were there to comfort and support her, who can blame her?
When one digs through the coded language, the self-deception, the imagery, and the strength of the emotional reactions, it seems quite plausible to me that Anne’s relationships with women had an erotic component. And that the gymnastics gone through to exclude that possibility in historic analysis most often reflect the biases of the analyst.
Even if one takes an extremely conservative position that the sexual allegations were all politically motivated, it’s undeniable that Anne’s deepest and most lasting emotional relationships were with women like Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham and that those relationships existed in a cultural context where other women with such bonds definitely were engaging in sexual relationships.
So, lesbian or not? The distinction seems scarcely worth making.
Other Useful Sources