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In 1708, Britain is at war with France, and Queen Anne sits on the throne. In frail health due to gout, Anne shows little interest in governing, instead preferring eccentric activities such as racing ducks and playing with her rabbits, which represent the seventeen children she has lost over the years. Her confidante, adviser and secret lover Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, effectively rules the country by the confidences she passes to the Queen. Sarah's efforts to control Anne are undermined by Robert Harley, a member of Parliament and influential landowner responsible for bringing in state taxes for the war.
Meanwhile, Abigail Hill, Sarah's impoverished younger cousin, arrives at Court in search of employment. Abigail's history is tainted by her father, who has gambled away his good name and previously handed over his daughter to settle his debts to a German. Abigail is at first forced to do menial work as a scullery maid in the palace, but after seeing the Queen's condition, she sees an opportunity to ingratiate herself with Sarah and, eventually, Queen Anne herself. She uses herbs to aid the Queen's inflamed legs and though she is initially punished by Sarah for her presumption, the remedy eases the Queen's suffering. In gratitude, Sarah makes Abigail her lady-in-waiting.
Harley soon approaches Abigail, hoping to use her as a spy in order to find out what Sarah's schemes are and figure out a way to circumvent her authority. Abigail initially rebuffs him, but soon she becomes aware of the secret lesbian relationship between Anne and Sarah. As she is interested in the Queen's homosexual inclination, Abigail begins planning her own ascent to win the Queen's favour.
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