Queen Anne is one of the underrated monarchs of British history. She was the last of the Stuarts & her reign has been seen as a mediocre period only memorable for the furniture & architecture that bears her name. Anne Somerset aims to correct this impression in this exhaustive biography of Anne.
Anne was the daughter of James II, the Catholic monarch tipped off his throne by a cabal of Protestant lords who invited his elder daughter, Mary & her husband, William of Orange, to take the throne. James was a stubborn man who didn’t know the meaning of the word compromise. When he converted to Catholicism, he was unable to dissemble. His brother, Charles II, may have also secretly become a Catholic but Charles was canny enough to respect the Protestant sympathies of his people & not flaunt his own religion. James couldn’t or wouldn’t do this.
The tipping point came when his second wife, the Catholic Mary of Modena, gave birth to a son. James’s older daughters from his first marriage, Mary & Anne, were both Protestant & most people had been content to allow James to reign as they knew his successor would be Protestant. The birth of his son changed all that. The thought of a Catholic Stuart dynasty was abhorrent to many. Rumours started that the child was an imposter, smuggled into the Queen’s bedchamber in a warming pan. James’s daughters believed this. Anne apparently believed it until the end of her life. The ridiculous story was latched onto by powerful men who feared the return of Catholicism & after only three years as King, James was replaced in a bloodless coup by William & Mary.
Mary had been living in the Netherlands but Anne was at Court & presumably able to weigh up the rumours for what they were. Her behaviour to her father was duplicitous to say the least. Right up until he was deposed, James believed that Anne supported him & he was devastated by her betrayal. Anne’s inability to be straightforward with her father is one of her least attractive traits. She was a very shy woman & always tried to be conciliatory even if it meant being polite to a servant or government minister one day & sending them a letter of dismissal the next.
Anne is generally known for two things. The number of children she lost & her friendship with Sarah Churchill, later the Duchess of Marlborough. Anne’s family life was cerrtainly tragic. She was married to Prince George of Denmark & although it was an arranged marriage, they were devoted to each other. George was seen by the Court as a nonentity, heavy & dull, but Anne loved him. Anne’s sad history of miscarriages, stillbirths & infant deaths is distressing to read about. Only one son, William, Duke of Gloucester, survived infancy but he died at the age of 11 from complications from hydrocephalus. Anne’s sister Mary also had no children & Anne succeeded her brother-in-law, William, when he died in 1702.
Anne’s relationship with Sarah Churchill was, in many ways, the most important relationship of her life. Sarah was a much stronger character than Anne & dominated her accordingly. Sarah had married a young soldier, John Churchill, who would be the military hero of the age, winning many decisive battles in the War of the Spanish Succession which dominated Anne’s reign. He was created Duke of Marlborough & Anne granted him the land in Oxfordshire where he built Blenheim Palace as a tribute to his glory. Sarah & John had befriended Anne when she was a lonely princess & they took full advantage of their position in later years.
Sarah & Anne’s friendship was so close that they wanted to ignore their difference in rank. They wrote to each other as Mrs Freeman (Sarah) & Mrs Morley (Anne) & Anne is often pathetically eager for Sarah’s approval. She often referred to herself in the correspondence as “your poor, unfortunate, faithful Morley”. Sarah used her friendship with Anne to gain many material advantages for herself & her family & became a prominent figure at Court when Anne became Queen. However, she failed to recognize that their relationship changed once Anne was Queen & her increasingly bullying behaviour only led to estrangement & misery for them both. Sarah was especially enraged when a young relation of hers, Abigail Hill, replaced her in the Queen’s affections. Sarah’s fury was boundless & she even insinuated that Anne & Abigail were lovers. Sarah became obsessed with justifying herself & her behaviour grew more unbalanced.
When it became obvious that Anne would have no more children, the question of who would succeed her dominated the final years of her reign. The country demanded a Protestant succession & the nearest Protestant claimants were the House of Hanover, who were descended from James I’s daughter, Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia. Although Anne would not allow her cousin, Sophia, or her family to visit England, let alone live there, she acknowledged that they were her heirs. The alternative for Anne was unthinkable. To recognize her half-brother, James Francis Edward, the warming-pan baby who was now known as the Pretender. James was living in France, supported by Louis XIV, and constantly intriguing with friendly Scots & Englishmen who became known as Jacobites. When Anne died, just months after her cousin, Sophia of Hanover, the succession passed smoothly to Sophia’s son, George.
Anne’s reign was dominated by war in Europe & the creation of modern party politics with the Whig & Tory parties vying for political dominance. Although Anne had had very little education, she was a sensible woman who wanted moderation in all things. She did her best to keep a balance in the political sphere & supported Marlborough in his military feats. She was committed the importance of her public role, even when her poor health made it difficult to fulfill her duties.Anne may have suffered from lupus & her many pregnancies added to her tendency to gain weight which only made her health worse. She died from a series of strokes at the age of 49.
Anne Somerset’s biography is sympathetic & full of detail on every aspect of Anne’s life & times. Anne’s reign may have been overshadowed by war, the fractious Union with Scotland & the speculation about her successor but she was a woman who did her duty well & with dignity. She certainly doesn’t deserve to be dismissed as a nonentity.