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With Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite tipped for Oscars, Melanie McDonagh asks what's behind our right royal crush

 

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Olivia Colman in The Favourite

Olivia Colman in The Favourite

Power play: Saoirse Ronan in Mary Queen of Scots

Power play: Saoirse Ronan in Mary Queen of Scots

Olivia Colman in The Favourite

Queens are in vogue right now, and that's without taking the Freddie Mercury biopic into consideration. Rather, historic queens are having their moment, courtesy of Josie Rourke's Mary Queen of Scots, which opens on January 18, and Yorgos Lanthimos's The Favourite, an account of Queen Anne's relationships with Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, and her cousin, Abigail Hill, later Masham, which won a Golden Globe for Olivia Colman last week.

The one thing that The Favourite has done is put perhaps the least-known modern monarch (after William IV) in British history on the radar. Mind you, the depiction of her by Olivia Colman in her dismal decrepitude (the film's billing as a comedy is weird), surrounded by a (fictional) menagerie of bunny rabbits to represent the 17 children she lost either young or at birth, doesn't do her any favours. In fact, if Colman gets her just desserts and an Oscar, the film will do more for Queen Anne's standing than any historian.

By comparison, neither Mary Queen of Scots nor Elizabeth I needed any introduction to modern audiences - the Tudor period is brimful of human interest - but the version of events in Rourke's film, based on the diligent scholarship of historian John Guy, really does bring home the real human attributes of these queens. The crucial encounter between them was made up - although, as Guy points out, Mary was desperate to meet Elizabeth - but the way in which the fate of two nations revolved round these two women needs no embellishment: it's all true.

These monarchs, Mary and Anne, are separated by more than a century, not to mention dress and disposition, but they faced challenges by virtue of their sex and their role which would have rendered their position perfectly intelligible to each other. They were, first and foremost, monarchs in their own right. Like the present Queen Elizabeth, or Queen Victoria (who'll be back centre stage when the ITV series returns shortly), they inherited their thrones rather than married into them.

We use the term 'queen' indiscriminately to describe the wife of a king and a monarch by birth, but these positions are radically different. A queen by birth carries royal authority, and she can confer royalty on the man she marries. She is the source of power in the land, even when nearly every office of state is occupied by a man.

A couple of the most potent scenes in both films involve queens confronting a parliament composed of men in black: Queen Anne heading off a tax rebellion in her parliament; Elizabeth facing down critics of her handling of Mary. In both cases you can see how the dynamic of gender cuts both ways: the men manipulate and castigate the Queen, but she has the ultimate authority, even if, as in Mary's case, it wasn't enough to save her.

Of the three, Anne, as devastatingly portrayed by Olivia Colman, is the least impressive, but she can still say crossly, when she's told that the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) is dealing with affairs of state: "It's my state!"

It's an odd concept for contemporary feminists to grasp. Some assume that female political authority only really happened after women got the vote a century ago, yet here we have women who rule, who exercise power, who raise up men and women and cast them down. Undoubtedly their position as monarchs was far trickier on account of their gender, but they still called the shots. In an age when power was so personal and often exercised by virtue of sheer physical proximity to the monarch, women had intimate access to the queen that male counsellors lacked.

The so-called Four Marys - the women friends who attended on Mary, Queen of Scots in her private chamber - had far greater access to her than her male courtiers. In fact, the suggestion in Rourke's film that her poor Italian secretary, Rizzio, saw her undressing, was one factor that led to his murder.

As for The Favourite, what's notable is the inability of men to get anywhere near Queen Anne when they want to bend her ear. In her chamber it's the women, first Sarah, then Abigail, who have proximity to her and can browbeat her about money and positions. In fact, the male factions have to use Abigail to find out what's going on between the Queen and Sarah Churchill. The Duke of Marlborough, Sarah's husband, who was away fighting the Queen's wars in France, appears in The Favourite merely as a cipher under his wife's thumb. And she was indeed, in life, the person with greater political influence than her husband.

These queens were perfectly conscious that they were default monarchs, in the absence of a male heir - and it's worth remembering the present Queen Elizabeth was always the heiress presumptive before she became queen, not the heir apparent.

In the case of Anne, she only became queen after the death of her sister, as a result of a sectarian rebellion against her father, King James II, following the birth of Bonnie Prince Charlie. She was complicit in the biggest episodes of fake news in history - the suggestion that he was smuggled into his mother's chamber in a warming pan. But she nursed no doubts that had the little prince been a Protestant, she couldn't have displaced him (If Olivia Colman's Queen Anne has a fault, it's that she gives no indication of the ruthlessness and duplicity that her character exercised at that juncture).

As for Queen Elizabeth I, the very fact that she was merely a girl was one of the factors that turned Henry VIII off her mother, Anne Boleyn. Like her half-sister, Mary, she only became Queen because her brother, Edward, died.

All these women were also defined by marriage, though you wouldn't think so from The Favourite, which focuses solely on Anne's supposedly lesbian relationships. Whom they married, whether they married, what children resulted from the marriage, was the most important question about them.

Queen Elizabeth I famously dodged that bullet by refusing to marry at all. But that refusal to marry and have a child rendered her relationship with her nearest heir, Mary Queen of Scots, dangerous, because so much power lay with the monarch in waiting. Marriage could make a queen (as in Mary Queen of Scots' first brief marriage to the king of France) or unmake her, as in her disastrous subsequent marriages. And, once married, the queens would be subordinate to their husbands in crucial respects, hough in the case of Queen Anne's happy marriage to Prince George of Denmark, she never seems to have minded.

These films are necessarily snapshots of complex events. They give a fleeting glimpse of the men who manipulated these queens and of the winds that blew them this way or that, not least religion. What they achieve in different ways is to remind us that women did once wield real, supreme power as crowned heads. And now we once again have a woman monarch as head of state, over a government led by a woman. The real successor to Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite is, of course, The Crown.

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Belfast Telegraph