These days, people can’t get enough of royals such as Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. Before them, gossip columns were filled with tales about Princess Diana, while Queen Elizabeth’s sister Princess Margaret generated her fair share of scandalous headlines back in the day.
But royal gossip didn’t begin with the last few generations of Windsors. As long as there have been royals, there have been people chattering about them. Historian Lucy Worsley digs deep into the past to explore some of that vintage gossip and get to the bottom of persistent royal rumors about three famous queens in the new three-part PBS series Royal Myths and Secrets, which premieres Sunday, June 21.
Lucy Worsley investigates the truth about three queens
Worsley — who is the chief curator of the Historic Royal Palaces — is a familiar face on PBS. She’s hosted programs such as A Very British Romance, Tales From the Royal Bedchamber, and Secrets of the Six Wives. In her latest series, she looks at the myths and secrets surrounding three queens. Queen Elizabeth I of England, Anne, Queen of Great Britain, and Marie Antoinette of France.
In each one-hour episode, Worsley investigates the mix of facts, exaggeration, manipulation, and mythology that make up royal history, showing how much of what we think we know about these historical figures isn’t true.
This gossip about Queen Anne was spread by a former friend
In the second episode of the series, Worsley tackles some salacious gossip about Queen Anne that originated in her lifetime and has followed her in the centuries since her death.
Anne suffered from health problems that modern medical experts suspect might have been related to lupus. But at the time, her critics and rivals dismissed her as too weak to rule. And her illnesses — which left her with a blotchy red face and swollen legs — were seen as evidence of her moral failings. One politician who met her called her “the most despicable mortal in the world.”
“I suspect that the negative views of her reign that will last for 300 years have been shaped by this and other juicy quotations about the imperfections of her body,” Worsley says. In other words, she was an early victim of body shaming.
And then there were the rumors about Anne’s relationship with her female confidantes. Her former close friend Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, spread gossip that Anne had sexual relationships with one of the women she was close to (as seen in the 2018 movie The Favourite). But there’s no way to know if there was any truth in those rumors. A “kiss and tell memoir” by the Duchess published after Anne’s death further damaged her reputation.
There was also gossip about Marie Antoinette
On the other side of the English Channel, another queen was the subject of rumors that permanently damaged her reputation. Marie Antoinette, the French monarch who was beheaded during the country’s bloody revolution, has been seen as a decadent, out-of-touch monarch. Supposedly, when she was told the peasants had no bread to eat, she replied “Let them eat cake.”
But there’s no evidence Marie Antoinette ever said the infamous cake line. And like Queen Anne, she was the subject of vicious gossip about her sexuality, with critics accusing her of having an affair with her friend the Duchess de Polignac, among others. But those rumors were spread by political rivals who wanted to weaken the power of the monarchy, an expert tells Worsley. And over time, that gossip has colored history’s view of the queen.
Lucy Worsley’s Royal Myths and Secrets premieres Sunday, June 21 at 8/7c on PBS.
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