Queens on film and in print

Jacket of Kate Williams Rival Queens

‘Rival Queens: The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots’ by Kate Williams

When you were little did you play at being a princess? I did and I am sure many still do. The appeal of tiaras and pretty pink frocks is timeless. It was always princesses though, never queens. Did we know even as five year olds that the top job was maybe not all it was cracked up to be? To quote Spiderman (or possibly Voltaire): ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. Queens may get the jewellery and the sycophants but there is also a heavy burden of duty and in some cases danger.

Two films in cinemas at the moment look at the lives of Mary, Queen of Scots and Queen Anne – queens living at very different times but both facing personal tragedies.

‘The Favourite’ is a potential Oscar winner. Yorgos Lanthimos’ film is stunning – an amazingly beautiful-to-watch and emotive look at the life of Queen Anne, one of our lesser-known monarchs, which speculates about the intense relationship between the queen and two of her favoured attendants: Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough and Abigail Masham.

This is a period of history we do not see on screen so often so if the movie raises questions, and all good films do, then you may wish to do some further research. Lanthimos himself has stated that some of his story is true and some invented – the case with much historical fiction in print or on film. Often the value is in the piece of art itself and in its role as a springboard for further investigation.

If you would like to read more then let us recommend a few possible titles for your bookshelf.

Recommended reading

Jacket image for Ophelia Field's Th Favourite

‘The Favourite: Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough’ by Ophelia Field

The Favourite by Ophelia Field examines the life of the glamorous and influential Sarah Churchill. Sarah was a controversial figure (history is often less than kind to powerful women). Winston Churchill saw her as a pushy woman whose activities were an embarrassment to her husband (and he was family, albeit many years later); others have seen her as an adept player on the political stage, whose work at home consolidated her husband’s career and prestige whilst he was commanding troops abroad.

For those who are more interested in the figure of Anne then Anne Somerset’s Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion provides more detail on the life and reign of a dutiful monarch beset by personal tragedy. There is much here not covered in the film about Anne’s marriage to George of Denmark. Despite the tragic loss of their children the couple had a long and devoted partnership.

If you prefer your history told through the lens of fiction then you might also like to look at Joanne Limburg’s novel A Want of Kindness. Limburg is a scrupulous researcher and includes excerpts from Anne’s own letters in a novel which leads up to Anne’s coronation. The novel reveals much about the difficult upbringing which made Anne the person she was.

The other queen gracing our screens is Mary, Queen of Scots. Josie Rourke’s film looks at the relationship between two cousin queens: Mary and Elizabeth. Rourke apparently based her film on John Guy’s biography of Mary, although she has employed a degree of artistic licence in the name of dramatic effect. (The film has been criticized for its historical inaccuracies). John Guy’s original biography My Heart is My Own is a through and detailed work and very well worth a read.

Do not overlook Guy’s work on Elizabeth, Elizabeth The Forgotten Years, which examines the latter part of Elizabeth’s reign, including the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, and subjects it to detailed investigation showing us both the magnificent monarch and the private woman.

Another classic biography of the tragic Mary is Lady Antonia Fraser’s ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’. First published nearly fifty years ago, translated into nine languages and still in print, it remains a tremendously readable history.

A recent title that focuses on the murder of Darnley and its effect on Mary is Mary Queen of Scots’ Downfall by Robert Stedall. The investigation of Darnley’s murder and the extent of Mary’s involvement is one of history’s greatest unsolved mysteries.

Rival Queens: Kate Williams at The National Archives

As queens in a world of kings, Mary and Elizabeth take very different approaches. Their parallel lives – and how their reigns impacted on each other – is a fascinating story. It is one explored in some depth by Kate Williams in her book Rival Queens.

Kate will be speaking on her book here at The National Archives on Thursday 13th February. If you haven’t booked a ticket do so now.

So take some time to think about the lives of these two monarchs. Whether you chose print or film, or come to Kate’s talk, there is much to explore.

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