Anne of Denmark: a killer queen?

Anne of Denmark was wed as a teenager to the fiercely Protestant James VI (and later I), but had strong Catholic sympathies. As the state of her marriage deteriorated, Tracy Borman asks, could Anne have been a "great patron" behind the gunpowder plot?

Anne of Denmark, wife of James I of England. Although she gave the appearance of a dutiful consort, Anne was ambitious for power and meddled in politics, says Tracy Borman. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

Anne of Denmark was wed as a teenager to the fiercely Protestant James VI (and later I), but had strong Catholic sympathies. As the state of her marriage deteriorated, Tracy Borman asks, could Anne have been a “great patron” behind the gunpowder plot?

In July 1603, not long after his arrival in London, King James VI and I dispatched the spy and adventurer Sir Anthony Standen to Italy so that he might spread the news of James’s accession to the English throne. What should have been a straightforward mission backfired spectacularly. During Standen’s meeting at the Vatican, Pope Clement VIII gave him a rosary and asked him to present it to the new king’s wife, Anne of Denmark.

Anne’s Catholic sympathies had already stirred up trouble during her years in Scotland. Although she outwardly conformed to her husband’s reformism, it was rumoured that she had secretly converted to Catholicism several years before James ascended the English throne. When Standen presented Anne with the pope’s gift, the king flew into a rage and ordered his envoy to the Tower. The queen pretended indifference, but privately worked for Standen’s release.

Anne of Denmark was wed as a teenager to the fiercely Protestant James VI (and later I), but had strong Catholic sympathies. As the state of her marriage deteriorated, Tracy Borman asks, could Anne have been a “great patron” behind the gunpowder plot?

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In July 1603, not long after his arrival in London, King James VI and I dispatched the spy and adventurer Sir Anthony Standen to Italy so that he might spread the news of James’s accession to the English throne. What should have been a straightforward mission backfired spectacularly. During Standen’s meeting at the Vatican, Pope Clement VIII gave him a rosary and asked him to present it to the new king’s wife, Anne of Denmark.

Anne’s Catholic sympathies had already stirred up trouble during her years in Scotland. Although she outwardly conformed to her husband’s reformism, it was rumoured that she had secretly converted to Catholicism several years before James ascended the English throne. When Standen presented Anne with the pope’s gift, the king flew into a rage and ordered his envoy to the Tower. The queen pretended indifference, but privately worked for Standen’s release.

The controversy eventually died down, and Anne resumed her outwardly conformist behaviour. But she had certainly not relinquished her Catholic beliefs. They would become her chief source of comfort during the turbulent years of her husband’s reign in England, during which her relationship with James steadily deteriorated. They also gave her a sympathy with her husband’s increasingly discontented Catholic subjects – one that may have led her to support one of the most shocking terror plots in British history.

No dumb blonde

Anne of Denmark is not one of our most famous queen consorts. Traditionally, she has been either overlooked by historians or dismissed – by unnamed sources – as “anonymous”, “an uninteresting woman” lacking in intellect and influence. She has even been described as a “dumb blonde” who failed to captivate her more intelligent and cultured husband. More recent scholarship has proved such claims to be erroneous. Anne was culturally more sophisticated than James, and she was an active patron of music, art and architecture in both Scotland and England. Neither can she be blamed for failing to hold her husband’s attention: James’s preference for his male favourites is well attested.

Anne was the second daughter of Frederick II, king of Denmark and Norway, and his wife Sophia, daughter of the Duke of Mecklenburg. The idea of marrying her to James, then king of Scots, was first mooted in the early 1580s when Anne was just a child. But negotiations foundered, partly because England’s queen Elizabeth I favoured a match between James and Catherine de Bourbon, sister to the future Henry IV of France.

James eventually settled the matter himself. According to a contemporary account, he took the portraits of both candidates into his bedchamber to pray and meditate for three days. When at last he emerged, he declared his choice: Anne. The decision had probably not been too difficult for the 23-year-old king, because Catherine was seven years his senior, whereas Anne was just 14 and already renowned for her beauty. Although she had never met the king of Scots, she was also said to be so much “in love with him that it were death to her to have it broken off”.

A proxy marriage took place in Denmark in August 1589, and the couple finally met three months later. Anne was taken aback when her betrothed kissed her full on the mouth “after the Scottish fashion”, but soon recovered and they were married in person on 23 November. There followed several months of merrymaking, during which the newlyweds gave every appearance of being delighted with each other.

The couple returned to Scotland in May 1590. Anne was something of a novelty to her new subjects, who had not had a resident queen since the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots had fled to England more than 20 years before, and they welcomed her with great rejoicing. However, it was not long before cracks began to appear in the new marriage. Although she gave the appearance of a dutiful consort, Anne was ambitious for power, and soon began meddling in the turbulent world of Scottish politics. She also fell prey to the charms of the maverick Earl of Bothwell, who posed a serious threat to her husband’s regime. Although Anne had conceived during the early weeks of her marriage, she suffered a miscarriage in September 1590, and it would be three years before she was pregnant again.

Anne gave birth to the longed-for prince, Henry, in February 1594. James was delighted with his wife, but their relations soon soured when he insisted that the boy be raised in a separate household at Stirling, just as he himself had been. The queen complained bitterly at being parted from her infant son, but it no avail. The rift in their marriage this opened up would never be healed.

Nevertheless, Anne conceived regularly during the years that followed, giving birth to Elizabeth in August 1596 and Charles (the future Charles I) in November 1600. Tragically, the couple lost four children in infancy, and the queen also suffered a number of other miscarriages.

After her husband inherited the English throne in March 1603, Anne travelled to Stirling so that she could take custody of her firstborn son and take him with her to England. This angered her husband, but Anne ignored his protests. In June, she set out for London with Henry and his younger sister, Elizabeth, never to return to Scotland.

Anne was crowned with her husband in Westminster Abbey on 25 July 1603. Although the ceremony signalled the triumph of the Stuart dynasty, the queen’s refusal to take the Anglican communion fuelled rumours that she was a closet Catholic. It also renewed tensions with her husband.

Increasingly, the royal couple lived separate lives at court, and the gossips there noted that they did not converse together. “He was ever best, when furthest from the queen,” remarked the courtier Sir Anthony Weldon. James had long been rumoured to be a homosexual, and throughout his reign – both in Scotland and in England – he surrounded himself with a succession of beautiful young men. He made no effort to hide these from his wife, who was forced to suffer the humiliation of seeing them paraded in front of the court.

James’s licentious behaviour was mirrored by the court that he established in England, which provided a sharp – and shocking – contrast to that of his predecessor, the ‘Virgin Queen’. It was also at odds with his uncompromisingly Protestant faith and his determination to rid his kingdom of Catholicism in any form. Soon there was a growing body of enemies to the Stuart regime.

The most deadly was a group of “Catholic gentlemen” led by Robert Catesby, who hailed from a family of prominent recusants and who had joined the Earl of Essex’s ill-fated rebellion against Elizabeth I. He and his fellow conspirators hatched a shocking and audacious plan to blow up the House of Lords with “a great quantity of gunpowder” during the state opening of parliament on 5 November 1605. This was to be the prelude to a popular revolt in the Midlands, during which James’s nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, would be installed as the Catholic head of state.

It was only thanks to an anonymous letter to the authorities, received in late October, that the king and his Protestant regime were not wiped out. When the House of Lords was searched at around midnight on 4 November, just hours before the plot was due to be executed, a huge cache of gunpowder was discovered in a vault – more than enough to reduce the entire building to rubble.

Disaster averted

News of the discovery sent shockwaves across the kingdom. “The plot was to have blown up the King at such time as he should have been set on his royal throne, accompanied with all his children, nobility, and commoners, and assisted with all bishops, judges, and doctors,” reported the MP Sir Edward Hoby, “at one instant and blast to have ruined the whole state and kingdom of England.”

All of the conspirators were eventually rounded up, and those not killed in their attempts to flee faced the terrifying prospect of a traitor’s death. The men had hinted that some “great patron” had privately supported the plot, but even under torture they refused to give a name. This has sparked intense speculation ever since. A popular theory is that the king’s secretary of state, Robert Cecil, had secretly sponsored the plot as a means of whipping up fear and hatred of Catholics.

But another potential candidate has been largely overlooked: Queen Anne herself. Driven by years of emotional abuse by her husband, did she see the plot as the means to rid herself, and the kingdom, of her tyrannical and immoral husband? She was closely aligned to the gunpowder plotters in ideology and beliefs: her Catholic sympathies had grown stronger since her arrival in England.

In the months leading up to the plot’s discovery, Anne had gathered about her an enclave of intimate Roman Catholic bedchamber attendants. Among their number was Jane Drummond, later Countess of Roxburghe, who facilitated the queen’s private Catholic worship. This included smuggling priests into court and disguising them as her personal attendants. The Spanish ambassador reported that “Mass was being said by a Scottish priest, who was simply called a ‘servant’ of [the queen’s] lady-in-waiting, Lady Drummond.”

Behind the scenes

If Anne was capable of such subterfuge in order to satisfy her spiritual needs, it is at least possible that she was able to provide clandestine support to Catesby and his fellow plotters. Her priests would have been the perfect intermediaries. The Catholic underworld in Jacobean England was tightly knit, and priests supplied more than just spiritual fulfilment. Many of them had an extensive network of contacts among the gentry and nobility, and could be relied upon for their discretion. Father Henry Garnet is one notable example. He was closely connected with the gunpowder plotters and, though he privately disapproved of their schemes, he was later executed for complicity.

But though Anne had ample motivation to rid herself and the kingdom of her depraved husband, could she really have countenanced the murder of her two sons? Both Henry and Charles had been due to attend the opening of parliament – a fact of which the gunpowder plotters were well aware. Indeed, it fitted their scheme perfectly because their aim was to place Princess Elizabeth on the throne as a puppet queen whom they could marry to a Catholic suitor.

Anne would certainly have supported the notion of female sovereignty, particularly if it led to the re-establishment of Catholicism in England. In addition, her son Henry was becoming even more of a religious reformist than his father, which must have grieved his mother sorely. Whether her faith was stronger than her maternal bonds must rest with conjecture. What is certain is the strength of Anne’s convictions. She once asserted that “honour goes before life”, and a contemporary observed that she could be “terrible, proud, unendurable” to anyone who crossed her.

In the aftermath of the gunpowder plot, Anne’s relationship with James deteriorated even further. Before long they were barely on speaking terms, even in public. James made no secret of his derision for his “stupid wife”. Anne was increasingly afflicted by ill health, including a gynaecological condition that seems to have been caused by complications with her last pregnancy in 1606. This hampered marital relations, which created an even greater distance between Anne and her husband. James did not trouble to visit his wife during the last illness-racked months of her life. Neither did he show any regret when she died on 2 March 1619. She was buried in Westminster Abbey, but her husband chose not to erect a tomb in her memory.

It was left to Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth, whom the plotters had intended to put on the throne, to realise her mother’s ambitions. As queen of Bohemia, Elizabeth would wield considerable influence and establish a bloodline that, a century after Anne’s death, would wipe out all trace of the Stuart dynasty (Elizabeth’s daughter Sophia was the mother of Britain’s first Hanoverian king, George I).

If Queen Anne was the “great patron” of the gunpowder plot, then she took the secret to her grave. Only in fiction have I been able to cast her in that role more decisively. But the prospect that she really was behind the most notorious terror plot in British history remains a tantalising one.

Tracy Borman has written numerous books on the Tudor and Stuart periods. Anne of Denmark features in Tracy’s debut novel, The King’s Witch (Hodder & Stoughton). 

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This article was first published in the July 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine