The Favourite

Have you seen The Favourite, the story of Queen Anne, her long-time favourite Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough and the contender for that position, Abigail Hill? The story is layered with pathos and humour and even the laugh out loud moments are incredibly sad.

The film stars Rachel Weisz as Sarah, Emma Stone as Abigail and Olivia Colman as Queen Anne. The winner of a Golden Globe and nominated for a BAFTA, what next for Colman, an Oscar?

The film ends … well, I won’t tell you how it ends, but would you like to know what happened next, and of course, what is that all important St John link?

After a volatile confrontation (with sexual overtones) in the woods, Abigail marries the dashing young Samuel Masham, but who was he?

Samuel Masham, first Baron Masham of Otes, was the son of Sir Francis Masham, 3rd Baronet, and his wife Damaris Cudworth. As the film reveals, Samuel was at the centre of life at Queen Anne’s duplicitous court. He served as first a page, then equerry and groom of the bedchamber to Anne’s husband, Prince George of Denmark. He entered parliament as a Tory MP for Ilchester in 1710 and Windsor in 1711 and was one of twelve Tory peers created in 1712.

Masham married Abigail in 1707 and the couple had at least five children, three sons and two daughters, the elder of whom was named Anne, after Abigail’s best friend forever, the Queen.

Ann Hoare nee Masham by Michael Dahl

Born in 1708, Anne was only 18 when she married banker Henry Hoare II on April 11, 1726. Henry Hoare II became known as Henry ‘the Magnificent’ in recognition of the work he accomplished on the family estate at Stourhead, furnishing the palatial Palladian mansion with works of art and landscaping the grounds. Sadly, Anne never lived to enjoy the fruits of his labours as she died on March 4, 1727 shortly after the birth of her daughter. The young couple had been married less than a year and Anne was just 19 years old.

The baby born on February 28 1727, a daughter, was named Anne after her mother. Little Anne died on January 30, 1735 just before her eighth birthday. Mother and daughter are buried in Stourton churchyard, the parish church just a short walk from the home where they both lived and died.

Henry Hoare II ‘ Henry the Magnificent.

Now brace yourself for the St John connections as there are several. The Hon Anne Masham, the young first wife of Henry Hoare II, daughter of Samuel and royal favourite Abigail, traces her ancestry back four generations to her great-great-grandmother Lady Elizabeth Barrington. In 1611 Lady Elizabeth married William Masham, 1st Baronet, but this was not her first marriage. She had previously been married to Sir James Altham, by whom she had a daughter Johanna.

In 1630 Johanna married Sir Oliver St John, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, at St Mary’s Church Harrow. The couple had four children, two sons and two daughters. One daughter, Johanna, married Sir Walter St John of Lydiard Tregoze, the other Catherine married his brother Henry.

This makes young Anne Hoare nee Masham and the brilliant but attainted politician Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke, Secretary at War in Queen Anne’s government in 1704, third cousins.

But the St John connection doesn’t end there.

Hoare’s bank was founded in the 1670s by Richard Hoare. In 1697. Henry St John (Johanna and Walter’s reprobate son and the father of Viscount Bolingbroke) opened an account with Hoare’s bank in Fleet Street, the first of three generations of St Johns to do so. In 1704 Walter, Henry’s father, opened an account.

In 1735 John (Jack) St John, Viscount Bolingbroke’s half-brother, also entrusted his finances to Hoare’s bank. In fact, by 1735 Jack was about to inherit his wife’s not inconsiderable fortune and was thinking about remodelling the Tudor mansion house at Lydiard Park. Jack nipped down to Warminster to see what Henry was doing at Stourhead. Jack might have had a grand design but the grounds at Lydiard Park didn’t extend to 2,600 acres, which was fortunate as his bank account wasn’t up to the challenge either.

All things considered Jack made a very nice job of Lydiard House and Park, which is still enjoyed by thousands of visitors every year.

See below views of Stourhead and Lydiard Park.


Abigail Masham

And just when you thought you had heard the last of the St John family at the court of Queen Anne – along comes Abigail Masham.

Queen Anne

Abigail, the daughter of Francis Hill, a merchant trading in the Levant, was cousin to two of the most influential people at the court of Queen Anne – and by her marriage related to a third.  Abigail’s mother was the former Elizabeth Jennings, aunt to Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough.  Robert Harley, Tory Minister and First Lord of the Treasury, was her second cousin on her father’s side.  And following her marriage to Samuel Masham she could count herself related to Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke, the grandson of her husband’s first cousin once removed Johanna, Lady St John.  Let’s just say she was very well connected!  And it was thanks to these connections that Abigail achieved her powerful position, as it could have turned out very differently.

Sarah Jennings, Duchess of Marlborough

Following her father’s death shortly after declaring himself bankrupt, the Hill family was definitely on its uppers.  Ten year old Abigail entered the Chafford household of Sir George, 4th Baronet Rivers as a servant until her cousin Sarah came to the rescue, taking her into her own household and using her influence with the then Princess Anne.  Sarah asked her royal friend to reserve a place for her cousin Abigail as one of her bedchamber women when a vacancy next came up – a move she would come to bitterly regret.

By 1700 Abigail was ‘Mother of the Maids’ in the Royal household.  Upon Anne’s succession to the throne she became a woman of the bedchamber on a salary of £500 a year and this is when it all started to go wrong for Sarah.

Abigail soon made herself indispensable to the Queen and by 1705 was regarded as possibly the most influential of Anne’s servants.  A shift in the relationship of the three women saw Whig supporting Sarah on the wrong political side while Abigail and her cousin Harley whispered sweet Tory nothings into the Queen’s ear.

Abigail Masham

Rumours abounded concerning Abigail’s unmarried status and her sexual preferences, but it seems her lack of fortune and plain features contributed more to the absence of suitors.

Then along came Samuel, the eighth son of Sir Francis Masham, Groom of the Bedchamber to Anne’s husband, Prince George.  Samuel was several years younger than Abigail, but was not a reluctant bridegroom.  The betrothal was brokered by Abigail’s cousin Harley who no doubt emphasized the advantages of marrying a Royal favourite.  The marriage took place in 1707 and Abigail received 2000 guineas from the privy purse.

Abigail’s marriage and the Bishoprics Crisis of the same year  acted  as a catalyst in the bedchamber triumvirate.  Although increasingly weary of Sarah’s constant interference it would be another four years before  Anne eventually dismissed her.

Abigail turned her back on the cousin who had rescued her from penury.  But Sarah never missed an opportunity to call attention to Abigail’s less than comely appearance, describing her as being ‘hideously ugly,’ but then she did have an axe to grind.

Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford

In fact, Abigail was fair game for everyone to take a pot shot at.  Sir Arthur Maynwaring, journalist and politician, called her an ‘ugly hag’ with a ‘frightful face’ and ‘stinking breath.’   Harley supporter Sir William Legge, 1st Earl of Dartmouth described Abigail as ‘exceeding mean and vulgar in her manners, of a very unequal temper, childishly exceptious and passionate.’

Even her good friend Jonathan Swift had to admit she was ‘not very handsome.’  But he did add that she was ‘of a plain understanding, of great truth and sincerity …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.’

But with the ascendancy of Harley to the peerage, Abigail turned her allegiance to another kinsman, Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke.  Probably not her wisest decision as he was also heading for a fall.  Bolingbroke, Lady Johanna St John’s brilliant grandson, was found guilty of treason following his flirtation with the Jacobite Pretender and had an Act of Attainder passed against him.

Abigail Masham

However, any doubt about Abigail’s true affections for the Queen were dispelled when Anne died in 1714, leaving her favourite heartbroken.  Even the toxic Sarah came to her cousin’s defence when Abigail was accused of making off with some of Anne’s jewels saying ‘I believed [Lady Masham] never rob’d any body but me.’

Her influence at court ended, Abigail retired to her home at Langley, near Windsor, although she remained on the royal guest list.  Following the death of Sir Francis Masham, Abigail and Samuel moved to the Masham family home at Otes in Essex.  Abigail died on December 6, 1734 after a long illness and was buried at All Saints Church, High Laver.

Another Barbara Villiers

Two first cousins named Barbara Villiers – born thirteen years apart and named after their grandmother Barbara St John. Their fathers, brothers William and Edward Villiers both fought for the Royalist cause and were injured at the Battle of Newbury in 1643, William fatally so. And both Barbara’s were to become Royal favourites – one the mistress of Charles II the other close confidante of Queen Anne.

Barbara and Sarah

Barbara Villiers and Sarah Churchill were the Queen’s two oldest associates –  Barbara and her sisters had grown up with the Princesses Mary and Anne at Richmond where their mother Frances was employed as the Royal daughters governess while the young Sarah Jennings had come to court in 1673 as one of the Duchess of York’s – Anne’s stepmother – maids of honour. A friendship forged in girlhood would become a roller coaster ride for all three women.

Eventually the three friends would spectacularly fall out and bad mouth each other, but not before Sarah had wielded considerable political influence and Barbara had acted as a household spy for the new King and Queen.

Barbara Villiers married John Berkeley whose Royal career had begun as a Page of Honour to Charles II in 1668.  He served alongside Barbara’s father in Sir Edward’s regiment and in 1688 deserted James in favour of William of Orange alongside Anne’s husband Prince George and Sarah’s husband John Churchill.  Master of Horse in Anne’s household, he later became Teller of Exchequer and Treasurer of Chamber, positions he held until his death in 1712.

While Sarah and Anne had pet names for each other and exchanged gossipy letters, Sarah and Barbara were also best buddies.  These were the days of the romantic same sex friendship and despite their married status, there has been continued speculation as to the sexual nature of their friendship.

Following Anne’s marriage to Prince George of Denmark in 1683 the three married couples all lived at the Cockpit, a suite of rooms at Whitehall. Anne installed Barbara in the nursery following the birth of her first child Mary in 1685 and then proceeded to criticise every decision she made – to Sarah.  But Barbara retained her position in the royal nursery throughout Anne’s 17+ pregnancies of which just five resulted in a live birth.  Four of the royal babies died before the age of two.

Anne and her son William, Duke of Gloucester

On July 24, 1689 Anne gave birth to a son, William.  Described as a sickly boy, Anne Somerset suggests in her biography Queen Anne – The Politics of Passion, that William had suffered from either meningitis or a middle ear infection as an infant, leading to hydrocephalus.

Barbara was appointed the boy’s governess until Marlborough took over in 1697.  In 1703, three years after the death of the young Prince, Barbara was awarded a yearly pension of £600.

Barbara wasn’t the only member of the extended St John family at the Court of Queen Anne.  Henry St John, her second cousin once removed, was Secretary at War and instrumental in securing the Treaty of Utrecht for which he was made Viscount Bolingbroke – a huge disappointment as he was expecting the earldom.

Tricky Barbara Villiers was once described “as witty and pleasant a lady as any in England” but is probably better remembered as being deviously deceptive and like all the Villiers women  ambitious.  Her last years have proved difficult to navigate.  She died on September 19, 1708 but where she is buried is proving elusive.  John outlived her by four years and died of the palsy in Windsor on December 19, 1712.  He was buried in Westminster Abbey on December 26.  The couple had two surviving daughters, Barbara and Mary.