The term is also sometimes employed by conservative writers who want to avoid terms such as "royal mistress", or "friend", "companion" or "lover" of either sex. Several favourites had or were suspected of having sexual relations with the monarch (or their spouse), but the feelings of the monarch for the favourite covered the full gamut from a simple faith in the favourite's abilities, through various degrees of emotional affection and dependence, to sexual infatuation.
The term has an inbuilt element of disapproval, and is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "One who stands unduly high in the favour of a prince", citing Shakespeare:"Like favourites/ Made proud by Princes".
Favourites inevitably tended to incur the envy and loathing of the rest of the nobility, and monarchs were sometimes obliged by political pressure to dismiss or execute them; in the Middle Ages nobles often rebelled in order to seize and kill a favourite. Too close a relationship between monarch and favourite was seen as a breach of the natural order and hierarchy of society. Since many favourites had flamboyant "over-reaching" personalities, they often led the way to their own downfall with their rash behaviour. As the opinions of the gentry and bourgeoisie grew in importance, they too often strongly disliked favourites. Dislike from all classes could be especially intense in the case of favourites who were elevated from humble, or at least minor, positions by royal favour. Titles and estates were usually given lavishly to favourites, who were compared to mushrooms because they sprang up suddenly overnight, from a bed of excrement. The King's favourite Piers Gaveston is a "night-grown mushrump" (mushroom) to his enemies in Christopher Marlowe's Edward II
Their falls could be even more sudden, although after about 1650, executions tended to give way to quiet retirement. Favourites who came from the higher nobility, such as Leicester, Lerma, Olivares, and Oxenstierna, were often less resented and lasted longer. Successful minister-favourites also usually needed networks of their own favourites and relatives to help them carry out the work of government - Richelieu had his "créatures" and Olivares his "hechuras". Oxenstierna and William Cecil, who both died in office, successfully trained their sons to succeed them.
The favourite can often not be easily distinguished from the successful royal administrator, who at the top of the tree certainly needed the favour of the monarch, but the term is generally used of those who first came into contact with the monarch through the social life of the court, rather than the business of politics or administration. Figures like Thomas More, William Cecil and Jean-Baptiste Colbert, whose accelerated rise through the administrative ranks owed much to their personal relations with the monarch, but who did not attempt to behave like grandees of the nobility, were also often successful. Cardinal Wolsey was one figure who rose through the administrative hierarchy, but then lived extremely ostentatiously, before falling suddenly from power. Elizabeth I had William Cecil as chief minister from the time she ascended the throne until his death 40 years later; her more turbulent relationships with several court favourites were a different matter: although many were in her council and had influence, they did not threaten Cecil's position.
In the Middle Ages in particular, many royal favourites were promoted in the church, English examples including Saints Dunstan and Thomas Becket; Bishops William Waynflete, Robert Burnell and Walter Reynolds; as well as Wolsey.
Some favourites came from very humble backgrounds: Archibald Armstrong, jester to James I of England infuriated everyone else at court but managed to retire a wealthy man, unlike Robert Cochrane, a stonemason (probably a senior one, more like an architect than an artisan) who became Earl of Mar before the Scottish nobles revolted against him, and hanged him and other "low-born" favourites of James III of Scotland. Olivier le Daim, the barber of Louis XI, acquired a title and important military commands before being executed on vague charges brought by nobles shortly after his master died, without the knowledge of the new king. It has been claimed that le Daim's career was the origin of the term, as favori (the French word) first appears around the time of his death in 1484. Privado in Spanish was older, but was later partly replaced by the term valido; in Spanish both terms were less derogatory than in French and English.
Such rises from "menial" positions became progressively harder over the second millennium; one of the last families able to jump the widening chasm between servants and nobility was that of Louis XIV's valet, Alexandre Bontemps, whose descendants, holding the office for a further three generations, married into many great families, even eventually including the extended royal family itself. Queen Victoria's John Brown came much too late; the devotion of the monarch and ability to terrorize her household led to hardly any rise in social or economic position.
In France the movement was in the opposite direction. On the death of Cardinal Mazarin in 1661, the 23-year-old Louis XIV determined that he would rule himself, and not allow the delegation of power to ministers that had marked the previous 40 years. The absolute monarchy pioneered by Cardinal Richelieu, Mazarin's predecessor, was to be led by the monarch himself. Louis had many powerful ministers, notably Colbert heading the Finances, and Louvois the Armies, but overall direction was never delegated, and no subsequent French minister ever equalled the power of the two Cardinals.
The Spanish Habsburgs were not capable of so much energy, but when Olivares was succeeded by his nephew Luis de Haro, the last real valido, the control of government into a single pair of hands was already weakened.
Favourites were the subject of much contemporary debate, some of it involving a certain amount of danger for the participants. There were a large number of English plays on the subject, amongst the best known being Marlowe's Edward II, in which Piers Gaveston is a leading character, and Sejanus His Fall (1603), for which Ben Jonson was called before the Privy Council, accused of "Popery and treason", as the play was claimed by his enemies to contain allusions to the contemporary court of James I of England. Sejanus, whose career under Tiberius was vividly described by Tacitus, was the subject of numerous works all around Europe. Shakespeare was more cautious, and with the exceptions of Falstaff, badly disappointed in his hopes of becoming a favourite, and Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII, he gives no major parts to favourites.
"It is a strange thing to observe, how high a rate great kings and monarchs do set upon this fruit of friendship, whereof we speak: so great, as they purchase it, many times, at the hazard of their own safety and greatness. For princes, in regard of the distance of their fortune from that of their subjects and servants, cannot gather this fruit, except (to make themselves capable thereof) they raise some persons to be, as it were, companions and almost equals to themselves, which many times sorteth to inconvenience. The modern languages give unto such persons the name of favorites, or privadoes [a Spanish term] .... And we see plainly that this hath been done, not by weak and passionate princes only, but by the wisest and most politic that ever reigned; who have oftentimes joined to themselves some of their servants; whom both themselves have called friends, and allowed other likewise to call them in the same manner; using the word which is received between private men.
Writing of George III's old tutor, the Earl of Bute, who became Prime Minister, Macaulay wrote in 1844: "He was a favourite; and favourites have always been odious in this country. No mere favourite had been at the head of the government since the dagger of Felton had reached the heart of the Duke of Buckingham".