Satire on Queen Anne and Her 'She-Favourite', 1708

Yorgos Lanthimos's film The Favourite received great acclaim when it was released in January 2019. Starring Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, and Rachel Weisz, it features the stormy lesbian relationship between Queen Anne, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, and Queen Anne's favourte Abigail Masham. Although it is not a documentary film, much of its history about lesbianism in the court of Queen Anne is fairly accurate – or at least accurately reflects contemporary views about Queen Anne.

Such views are examplified in the 1708 satirical lampoon A New Ballad. To the Tune of Fair Rosamond, which I reproduce below. The song is an attack on Queen Anne’s ‘she-favourite’, Abigail Masham (née Hill). Abigail’s mother, Mary Jennings, was an aunt of Sarah Jennings, who married John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough. Through the influence of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, Abigail was appointed a woman of the bedchamber to Queen Anne around 1704. In 1707 she privately married Samuel Masham, a groom of the bedchamber to Prince George of Denmark, Anne’s consort. By that time she had supplanted Sarah in the Queen’s favour. Sarah charged ‘that Mrs. MASHAM came often to the QUEEN when the PRINCE was asleep, and was generally two hours every day in private with her’ (see her Account of the Conduct of the Dowager Duchess of Marlborough (1742), p. 184).

Abigail may also have been a distant cousin of the political intriguer Robert Harley, whom she helped to gain much influence at court. Even after his dismissal in February 1708, Harley remained in contact with the Queen through Abigail, and eventually helped the Queen to overthrow Marlborough’s Whig ministry in 1710, two years after publication of A New Ballad. Sarah knew of these intrigues from 1707 and bitterly resented that Abigail commanded the ‘back way to the Queen’s closet’ (letter to David Mallet, 24 Sept. 1744, quoted in G. M. Trevelyan, England under Queen Anne (1932), ii. 329). In 1711 Harley became 1st Earl of Oxford, Sarah was dismissed from office, and Abigail took control of the privy purse. In 1712 she was made a peer by the Queen (by making her husband the 1st Baron Masham), on condition that she continue as her bedchamber woman. In 1714 Abigail, now Lady Masham, quarrelled with Harley and procured his dismissal. However, the Queen died shortly afterwards, and Abigail went into retirement; she died in 1734. Jonathan Swift praised Abigail’s plain understanding, her truthfulness and sincerity, and her unmitigated love for the Queen, whom she cared for in her long final illness. To some extent Abigail was a convenient tool for Harley and the Queen, but she was undoubtedly an assiduous intriguer herself, and clearly exercised the powers of a classic ‘favourite’.

The lampoon A New Ballad was probably written by Arthur Maynwaring (1668–1712), the Duchess of Marlborough’s private secretary and propagandist. His authorship seems confirmed by letters from him to Sarah expressing sentiments expressed in the ballad, sometimes in the same words. Sarah went so far as to show the lampoon to the Queen and to follow it up with a belligerent letter (16 July 1708) to her, urging her to drop Abigail because of such publicity: ‘I remember you said att the same time of all things in this world, you valued most your reputation, which I confess surpris’d me very much, that your Majesty should so soon mention that word after having discover’d so great a passion for such a woman, for sure there can be noe great reputation in a thing so strange & unaccountable, to say noe more of it, nor can I think the having noe inclination for any but one’s own sex is enough to maintain such a character as I wish may still bee yours’. A New Ballad was followed into print by The Rival Dutchess; or, Court Incendiary (1708), also probably by Maynwaring. Sarah described this pamphlet to the Queen in November 1709, saying that it contained ‘stuff, not fit to be mentioned, of passions between women’ (cited by Edward Gregg, Queen Anne (London, 1980), p. 295). In this imaginary dialogue, Abigail tells Madame de Maintenon that ‘especially at Court I was taken for a more modish Lady, that was rather addicted to another Sort of Passion, of having too great a Regard for my own Sex, insomuch that few People thought I would ever have Married; but to free my self from that Aspersion some of our Sex labour under, for being too fond of one another, I was resolved to Marry as soon as I could fix to my Advantage or Inclination’ (p. 6). Madame de Maintenon asks if the ‘Female Vice, which is the most detestable in Nature’ is as common in England as in the French convent schools, and Abigail assures her that ‘we are arriv’d to as great Perfection in sinning that way as you can pretend to’ (p. 6).

Harley’s (failed) impeachment in 1715 is the subject of John Dunton’s pamphlet King-Abigail: or, The Secret Reign of the She-Favourite (1715). He calls Abigail a ‘Succubus . . . who from the poor Degree of a Chamber-Maid, was at length made the Queen’s Principal She-Favourite. . . . Abigail the Favourite Reign’s like a King’ (p. 15). Both A New Ballad and King-Abigail suggest that Abigail and Harley want to betray England to the Pretender, James Edward Stuart, and to Roman Catholicism.


Title: ‘the Tune of Fair Rosamond’: ‘Fair Rosamond’ was a popular old English ballad about the extramarital love of King Henry II (1133–89) for Rosamond, by whom he had two sons and for whom he built a bower to protect her from the fury of Queen Eleanor. Maynwaring’s direct source was Thomas Deloney’s frequently reprinted Mournefull Dittie on the Death of Faire Rosamond (1607).
I.1. ‘Qu---- A----’: ‘Queen Anne’ (reigned 1702–14).
II.1. ‘Ab----i’: ‘Abigail’, i.e. Abigail Hill Masham (d. 1734), Queen Anne’s favourite (see introductory note).
V.3. ‘R----’: ‘Rogue’, i.e. Robert Harley, later Earl of Oxford (1661–1724), Secretary of State (1704–8) who worked through Abigail Masham to undermine the influence of Godolphin and Marlborough.
VI.4. ‘Sl----’: ‘Slut’.
VII.3. ‘B----’: ‘Bitch’.
VII.4. ‘for the Church entire’: Abigail Masham was of the High Church party.
VIII.1. ‘Machiavel’: allusion to Robert Harley, nicknamed Robin the Trickster, who was called ‘the Matchiavel of Great-Britain’ in Dunton’s The Rival Dutchess (1708, p. 3). Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), who advocated political hypocrisy in The Prince (1532), became a byword for cynical cunning and intrigue.
X.3. ‘A Dutchess bountiful’: Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (1660–1744), mistress of the robes and keeper of the privy purse under Queen Anne.
XVII.2. ‘one that bears the Wand’: Sidney, 1st Earl of Godolphin (1645–1712), Lord Treasurer, and his staff of office.
XXII.3. ‘high Divines’: Anne appointed two High Churchman to the bishoprics of Exeter and Chester in 1707.
XXIV.2–4. ‘A General Abroad . . . The French, could well afford’: John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough (1650–1722), Commander-in-Chief. The War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14) was called ‘Marlborough’s War’, and he had some notable successes against the French at Blenheim (1704), Ramilles (1706) and Oudenarde (1708).
XXVI.3. ‘there should be a thorough Change’: The Masham/Harley faction was accused of plotting to betray England to James Francis Edward Stuart, the Pretender, a Roman Catholic, who made a botched attempt to invade England in March 1708. The charge is made more explicit in Dunton’s King-Abigail: or, The Secret Reign of the She-Favourite (1714).
XXVII.1. ‘J----y M----h’: ‘Johnny Marlborough’, i.e. John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough.
XXVII.3. ‘should he unto Paris go’: After Marlborough defeated the French at the battle of Oudenarde in July 1708, he proposed to invade France, but the government rejected this as being too ambitious.
XXVIII. ‘S----d’: Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland (1674–1722), the only Whig in the government at the time.
XXIX.1. ‘the Admiral’: unclear, perhaps the Lord High Admiral, i.e. Anne’s consort George, Prince of Denmark.
XXX.1. ‘the Man that kept the Cash’: Godolphin, Lord Treasurer.
XXX.3. ‘an old Acquaintance’: Charles Talbot, 1st Duke of Shrewsbury (1660– 1718), colleague of Godolphin.
XXXI.1. ‘but one Eye’: Shrewsbury was ‘the duke with one eye’ according to contemporary satires.
XXXI.4. ‘Club-Law’: rule by force rather than reason.
XXXIII.1–3. ‘Dr. B----ss…slipt his Cloak’: Daniel Burgess (1645–1713), celebrated minister who defected from the Established Church because he refused to submit to the Act of Uniformity (1662).
XXXV.3–4. ‘She Ab----l turn’d out of Doors, / And hang’d up Machiavel’: This is wishful thinking by the author: Abigail Masham continued in power, and Harley was not impeached until 1715, when he was imprisoned (but not hanged) in the Tower of London.

SOURCE: A New Ballad, 1709. My article originally appeared in Eighteenth-Century British Erotica II, Vol. 5: Sodomites, Mollies, Sapphists and Tommies, ed. Rictor Norton (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2004), pp. 107–110.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "Satire on Queen Anne and Her 'She-Favourite', 1708," Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook. 9 January 2019 <>.

Return to Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England