A quick guide to Queen Anne
Born: 6 February 1665
Died: 1 August 1714
Ruled from: 1702 to 1714
Family: The daughter of James, Duke of York (later James II) and Anne Hyde
Successor: Georg Ludwig, Elector of Hanover, who ruled as George I
Remembered for: Achieving the Union of England and Scotland and bringing the War of the Spanish Succession to a conclusion
What was Queen Anne like as a princess?
Anne Stuart and her older sister Mary were the only surviving offspring of James, Duke of York by his first Duchess, Anne Hyde. At the age of three, Anne was sent to France to have her eyes treated (as she suffered from an eye condition). There she stayed more than two years, learning the language perfectly.
In 1671, not long after her return, her mother died, and her father, who had become a Roman Catholic, was soon in search of a duchess. His 15-year-old bride, Maria Beatrice of Modena, was less than four years older than Princess Mary, who would later be married (at 15) to William of Orange.
Princess Anne’s own marriage was delayed by politics: fearful of Catholics in the wake of a supposed plot to assassinate the king, a strong party in parliament attempted to pass laws preventing James from succeeding to the throne. Charles sought to defuse the crisis by sending James and Maria to Scotland, where Anne visited them in 1681–82.
In 1683, shortly after Charles had defeated his foes, Anne married Prince George of Denmark. When the king died (on Anne’s 20th birthday), her father succeeded as James II, but his arrogant attitude toward parliament and his aggressive Catholicism alienated the English establishment, and a group of powerful men invited William of Orange to invade.
Anne and her husband supported the Revolution of 1688, which replaced James II with William and Mary, though they later had reasons to regret that choice. The princess, who had already suffered several miscarriages and had lost two infant daughters to smallpox in 1687, gave birth to a son in 1689, just months after the coronation. As William, Duke of Gloucester, he would live the longest of her children.
Despite the welcome presence of a Protestant heir, the two sisters quarreled, and when William removed John Churchill, Earl of Marlborough, from his court and military posts, Mary insisted that Anne part company with Sarah Churchill, who was her favorite. Refusing to obey this command, Anne left the court and moved into separate lodgings – this was the beginning of estrangement that continued until Mary’s death in 1694. To Anne’s eternal regret, Gloucester died in 1700, a few days after his 11th birthday.
Who were Queen Anne’s feuding favourites?
Beautiful, intelligent, witty and strong-willed, Sarah Churchill (née Jennings) could be described as the opposite of the plainer, less intellectually gifted Queen Anne. Yet from their first meeting as children, the pair formed a tight bond, which made them almost inseparable at times. Such was Anne’s a ection for her that she suggested that they come up with alternative names for each other so that they could be more equal. Sarah, therefore, became ‘Mrs Freeman’, while the Queen would be referred to as ‘Mrs Morley’.
Sarah’s influence over Anne grew, making her one of the most powerful people in England – as well as furthering the position of her husband, John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough. For herself, she earned the title Keeper of the Privy Purse, Groom of the Stole and Mistress of the Robes. Yet she was perhaps too headstrong to get away with it for long.
When Anne started to tire of her constant pro-Whig mutterings and the heated disagreements between them, she turned to another woman, Abigail Masham. Sarah’s jealousy led her to come to court with a poem, suggesting a lesbian relationship between the Queen and Masham, and in an argument at the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, she told Anne to be quiet – a humiliation for any monarch. By 1710, Anne had had enough. After a fractious final meeting, she stripped Sarah of her titles and dismissed both of the Marlboroughs from her service.
Read more about Queen Anne’s favourites…
Queen Anne’s reign
When William died (on 8 March 1702), Anne succeeded to the throne. Within a few weeks she had named Marlborough as her Captain-General and her longtime friend Sidney Godolphin as Lord Treasurer. For most of her reign, these two men executed her policies at home and abroad. Forming an alliance with the Netherlands and the Holy Roman Empire, the queen declared war on France in May, and Marlborough won significant victories at Blenheim (1704), Ramillies (1706), Oudenarde (1708), and Malplaquet (1709).
Despite these unprecedented successes, domestic politics were fierce. The Tory party gained a substantial majority in the election of 1702, and withstood an attempt by the ministry to break their power in 1705. The Whigs swept into power in 1708, but were soundly defeated in 1710 and 1713.
Because the party holding a majority in parliament did not automatically gain all the ministerial posts, the queen was subject to relentless partisan pressure from both sides, yet she managed to prevent party passions from erupting into violence, and achieved a major success in forging the Union with Scotland in 1707.
What were the Acts of Union during Queen Anne’s reign?
Since the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, England and Scotland had been ruled by the same monarch, beginning with James I (of England) and VI (of Scotland). Yet it took over a century and several attempts before the two countries were united into a single kingdom. So what was different in the first years of the 18th century?
Firstly, Anne proved an ardent advocate of union, announcing in her inaugural speech to Parliament that is was “very necessary”. That need became greater when the Scottish passed a law in 1704, allowing them to ignore the Act of Settlement and name their own successor on the event of Anne’s death. The English retort was the Alien Act, a draconian measure that threatened Scots living south of the border. Both sides had reason to stop the petty back-and-forth of increasingly extreme laws. In Scotland, they were still reeling from the ‘Darien scheme’, a disastrous attempt to establish a colony in modern-day Panama to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. They needed the economic security England could provide. The English, meanwhile, wanted to make the border safe from potential attacks from the French (in case any nostalgic Scots looked to reignite the ‘Auld Alliance’) and put an end to the succession crisis.
It took just three months in 1706 for the commissioners, appointed by Anne, to agree on a treaty, leading to the passage of the historic law by mid-1707. Not everyone was happy with Scotland coming under the yolk of England, however, as it meant there would only be one Parliament – in Westminster. The argument over Scottish independence still rages on today.
The later years and death of Queen Anne
Anne was left devastated by the death of her beloved George, aged 55, in 1708. At the time when she needed loved ones the most, she couldn’t rely on them. Her relationship with Sarah had soured over politics, as she grew frustrated by her friend’s pro-Whig stance and insistence that the Queen should appoint men against her wishes. Things only intensified with George’s death, and they parted company. Anne found a new favourite in Harley’s cousin Abigail Masham, signalling a shift in who held influence over the Queen. Unsurprisingly, the dismissals of Marlborough and Godolphin followed. All Anne knew had been shaken or removed, and there was little left on this Earth to comfort her.
At 7.30am on 1 August 1714, Anne passed away, worn out physically and mentally. One of her doctors wrote: “Sleep was never more welcome to a weary traveller than death was to her.”
At the time of her death, Anne had grown so vast that she had to be placed in a square-shaped coffin, before being carried (once again) to Westminster Abbey and buried next to her faithful husband. The Stuart line ended, and George I became the first Hanoverian king.
The reign of Anne, it could be argued, fulfilled the promise that she made on her coronation. While a nation’s happiness is a subjective matter, England certainly became more prosperous, with gains made in the war, the unification with Scotland and a flourishing in the arts, architecture and culture.
Today, we still talk of Queen Anne furniture. Her unfair assessment as weak-willed and ignorant stems from the pen of the embittered Sarah. In her memoirs, she commented: “She certainly meant well and was not a fool, but nobody can maintain that she was wise, nor entertaining in conversations.”
Anne lived at a time when monarchy gave way to parliamentary authority, but she wielded power when she could, appointed who she thought to be the right people, like any monarch before or after her, and provided the first female royal voice in a century, since Elizabeth, and the last for another century, when Victoria would be crowned. And she did it all facing debilitating illnesses and enduring more heartbreak than most could be.
James Anderson Winn is a professor of English at Boston University and the author of Queen Anne: Patroness of Arts (Oxford University Press, 2014).
This article was first published by History Extra in July 2014