THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

31 January 2019

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. 

Correspondence

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:

Add ms 61415 f32 CROPAdd MS 61415, f 32 "As to what you say about Mrs Hill you may asure [sic] your self she shall have ye place you desire for her"

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.

Affectionate letter A to SAdd MS 61416, f 7 Anne to Sarah

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.

Cipher cropCipher table, Add MS 61575

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.

Addms61420warrantAdd MS 61420, f 3 Warrant to admit Sarah into the Place and Quality of Mistress of the Robes

Addms61420housekeeperAdd MS 61420, f 28 Details of disbursements made to Faith Browne, annotated by Sarah in her role as Privy Purse.  The Mr Cogg referred to here was Sarah's goldsmith.

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.

Abigail letter cropAdd MS 61454, Abigail's letter to Sarah defending her behaviour.

Sarah note on Abigail cropSarah'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"

S annotation cropOrganisational note by Sarah, "Leters in 1709 when Abigal ruled"

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.

Addms61462abigalAdd MS 61462, f 16 A Ballad on Mrs Abigal [sic] To the Tune of, the Dame of Honour, 1708

 

Addms61462f145cropAdd MS 61462, f 145. Letter of resignation drafted for the use of Marlborough by Maynwaring, address to the Duke of Shrewsbury, Jan 1711.

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.

Further reading

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

Alex Hailey

Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts