The Favourite and the Marlborough Papers
All things are chang'd in Court & Town
Since Sarah's happy days
And she that once had scarce a Gown
Now Queen and Kingdom Sways
Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite has been wowing audiences over the past few weeks with its political intrigue, wonderful costume design, and sharp dialogue. To this we might add the strong employment of documents in understated supporting roles: letters exchanged, financial records examined, and books consulted in secret. Archivists have a habit of picking up on documents and recordkeeping in films - Star Wars Rogue One saw a number of recordkeeping takes on the poor digital preservation planning displayed by the Empire – and when I came out of the cinema I wanted to see how the actions of Anne, Sarah and Abigail were recorded in the Blenheim papers.
The papers – so named because they were formerly housed at Blenheim Palace – consist primarily of the personal papers and correspondence of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, and Sarah Churchill, Lady Marlborough.
Volumes Add MS 61414-61418 contain Sarah's correspondence with Anne, or rather letters received from Anne (originals and copies) and drafts and copies of Sarah's letters to Anne. Many of the letters were annotated by Sarah as she compiled arguments in defence of her behaviour and position.
In this letter, undated apart from 'Wednesday night', but thought to be from 1692, Anne acknowledges Sarah's request of a place for Abigail Hill on her staff:
Throughout the film Sarah and Anne refer to each other as Mrs Freeman and Mrs Morley. The earliest surviving letters using these names date to 1692, although in her memoirs Sarah claimed that they had been in use prior to 1688.
Sarah's correspondence with her husband can also be found in the archive, and is partly written in cipher. Add MS 61575 contains copies of the various ciphers used by the Marlboroughs, and in the image below we can see two different numbers used to refer to Anne.
Groom of the Stole, Lady of the Bedchamber, Mistress of the Robes, and Privy Purse
Sarah's roles in the royal household are well documented in her personal papers. Add MS 61420 is a volume of accounts, correspondence and papers accumulated through her various household positions. They include copies of the warrants of appointments, and bills and instructions which give us an insight into palace life and the Queen's tastes.
Gathering evidence for her defence
Sarah’s papers bear evidence of her arrangement and use of the material in preparing pieces defending her position, partially surviving the subsequent arrangements of later keepers of the archive. These include copies of letters between the principals in the tug-of-war for Anne’s favour, charting Abigail’s marriage to Masham, her taking of the lodgings at Kensington – all with Sarah’s annotations and notes on the events.
Sarah's annotation. "This letter so full of a good conscious was writ to me by my lady Masham after she had done me so much mischeif [sic], in I think the still [style] of her master Harley in her own hand writing"
Sarah also collected copies of satirical poems and pamphlets which circulated throughout court and parliamentary circles. Add MS 61462 includes material written by Sarah’s friend and confidant the literary critic Arthur Maynwaring, some of which may have been co-authored by Sarah herself. These copies also feature Sarah’s annotations and notes.
This post has been a quick dip into the 610 volumes and files which constitute the Marlborough papers, which can be accessed in the manuscripts reading room in the Library.
Ophelia Field, The Favourite (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2002)
Francis Harris, A Passion for Government. The Life of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991)
Blenheim Papers, Add MS 61101-61701, Add Ch 76069-76142
Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts