Britain’s male monarchs vastly outnumber their female counterparts, making the few women who have ruled Britain even more iconic. Elizabeth I and Victoria are hailed as exceptional leaders in a world ruled by men. There is one queen, however, who ruled during one of the most important periods of British history, but whose reign is often overlooked. How did Queen Anne – the last of the Stuarts – rise above her personal tragedies to oversee the creation of Great Britain?


Born in 1665, during the reign of her uncle, Charles II, Anne knew how treacherous the path of the monarch could be – the execution of her grandfather, Charles I, was still fresh in many minds. Her father was James, the Duke of York, heir presumptive, but it seemed doubtful he would rule as there was still time for Charles to produce legitimate children. Anne also had siblings who would need to predecease her in order for her to become queen, so at her birth it looked unlikely that she would ever reign. But out of her seven full-blood siblings, only herself and her elder sister Mary survived to adulthood.

Her father may have been royalty, but her mother – Anne Hyde – was not. She was a common-born lady-in-waiting to James’s sister Mary. Her parents’ marriage caused a scandal that rocked the royal family: Hyde was plagued with enemies at court, who spread rumours about her infidelity and unsuitability as a consort to James – causing Anne to later feel unfit to wear the crown.

Although both her parents were Roman Catholic, Anne and her sister were raised as Protestants at Charles II’s request. There were fears within government that the royal family was too sympathetic to the Catholic cause, and anti-Catholic sentiment still lingered from the Bye Plot of 1603 and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, both of which would have seen James VI and I removed from the English throne.

Who did Queen Anne marry?

Anne’s marriage to Prince George of Denmark in 1683 – her second cousin once removed – was an arranged but happy union. Charles II wanted to cement an Anglo-Danish alliance, and Anne’s father approved as it restricted the power of the Dutch Republic and therefore his son-in-law, William of Orange, who was married to his other daughter, Mary.

Even though Anne was content with her loyal husband, he was reputed to be a bore, with Charles II commenting: “I have tried him drunk and I’ve tried him sober, but there is nothing in him.” Years later, Queen Victoria would comment that she hoped Prince Albert would never occupy the role of the “stupid and insignificant husband”, as George had.

A frail Anne at the Knights of the Garter ceremony in 1713
A frail Anne at the Knights of the Garter ceremony in 1713, a year before her death. (Photo by: PHAS/UIG via Getty Images)

Charles II died without legitimate heirs in 1685, so Anne’s father ascended the throne as James VII and II, to the dismay of Parliament. James tried to promote religious liberty by reversing laws that punished Catholics and nonconformist Protestants. The fear of the King’s tolerance and his close ties with France led to fierce opposition in political circles, which reached their zenith in 1688. at was when his new wife – Anne Hyde had died in 1671, and James had remarried in 1673 – gave birth to a son. The infant, another James, displaced Mary as heir apparent and would almost certainly have been raised as a Catholic.

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Seven leading nobles secretly called for William of Orange to sail from the Netherlands to seize the throne in Mary’s name. Anne did not protest, and when the invasion came in November 1688, Anne announced her support. The so-called Glorious Revolution had begun.

William III and Mary II became joint rulers in 1689. The Bill of Rights was declared later that year: it restricted the rights of the royal prerogative, created a constitutional monarchy and settled the line of succession so that in future only a Protestant could wear the crown. This put Anne next in line.

As a female member of the royal family, Anne was constantly reminded that her principal duty lay in producing children to ensure the future of the Stuart dynasty. Fears of a Catholic monarch had whipped Britain into a frenzy during James’s reign, circumstances that no one wanted to see repeated.

In 1689, Anne delivered, giving birth to a son named William – her first surviving child after a string of miscarriages. He was the cause of much joy, as his birth cemented the Protestant succession.

Sarah Churchill: who was Queen Anne's favourite?

The relationship that would define Anne’s life and reign, was that with her childhood friend Sarah Churchill. Their close bond is often seen as a weakness of Anne’s – contemporaries believed she was under the thumb of Churchill’s scheming. Some historians have even suggested that Churchill was the real power behind the throne. Friends from a young age, Churchill was swiftly promoted through the royal household and under Anne became the Mistress of the Robes – the most senior position a woman could hold – meaning that she always had Anne’s ear.

Unusually for a woman at that time, Churchill was obsessed with politics and was allowed to control her salary, allowing her to become one of the richest women in England. Her husband, John, reaped the benefits from Anne’s relationship with his wife. Anne made him captain-general of her forces when she became Queen, as well as Duke of Marlborough.

The bonds between Anne and her sister, on the other hand, became strained over time. They argued over money, with Anne claiming an allowance – spurred on by Churchill – and declaring that William was unkind to her. She also distanced herself from many of William and Mary’s policies, to the point that the King and Queen thought Anne might be trying to undermine them.

The joint monarchs despised Churchill, who they believed held far too much sway over Anne. Repeated calls to have her dismissed were ignored. After a severely painful labour in 1692 that resulted in a child who survived just minutes, Anne, who was still in bed recovering, received a visit from her sister.

Sarah Churchill
Sarah Churchill drew Anne's admiration early in her reign, but later became a thorn in her side. (Photo by Charles Phelps Cushing/ClassicStock/Getty Images)

Mary chose this moment to again demand Churchill’s dismissal – and Anne refused for the last time. The two sisters would never meet again. Mary died in 1694, childless, leaving William to rule alone until his own death in 1702. It was then that Anne, aged 37, ascended the throne.

Like her sister, Anne too was now childless. The hope that had blossomed in 1689 with William’s birth proved short-lived. Within weeks, it became clear that he was an ill child. He suffered from debilitating convulsions and struggled to walk, and he died in 1700 at the age of 11. That caused Parliament’s fear of a future Catholic monarch to resurface, which led to the 1701 Act of Settlement. Should Anne not produce another heir, the throne would pass to James VII and II’s cousin Sophia, the Electress of Hanover.

When did Anne become queen?

Anne, who by this time suffered badly from gout, had to be carried into her coronation on a sedan chair. It was hardly the regal and independent impression she had hoped to give. Yet her reign was marked by two major events that would demonstrate her effectiveness as a ruler.

The first was her role in the War of the Spanish Succession of 1701–14. At the turn of the 18th century, Europe was ruled by a collection of related and powerful families. When Charles II of Spain died childless in 1700, his closest heirs were members of the French Bourbon and Austrian Habsburg families: the ascension of either to the Spanish throne would overturn the delicate power balance that had persisted for so long.

Anne involved herself in political decisions, attending more cabinet meetings than any of her predecessors. She had the wisdom to realise that the war was unpopular. She sought peace and the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which granted Britain territories including Gibraltar and Menorca – ensuring naval supremacy for Britain in the Western Mediterranean – as well as the right to a controlled trade with the Spanish New World.

The second was the creation of Great Britain. When James VI and I ascended the English throne in 1603, the kingdoms of England (which included Wales) and Scotland had the same monarch but were separate sovereign states. Tensions between the two parliaments had been high for years, and a union was deemed the best solution to avoid war. Scotland needed economic security and England wanted assurance that Scotland wouldn’t be a back door for a Jacobite rebellion. Anne was in full favour of a union: “We shall esteem it as the greatest glory of our reign…being fully persuaded it must prove the greatest happiness of our people.”

The Acts of Union came into effect on 1 May 1707, uniting England, Scotland and Wales as the Kingdom of Great Britain. The entirety of Ireland, at this time, was a separate polity. Despite these triumphs, Anne’s personal tragedies haunted her throughout her life.

She suffered no less than 12 miscarriages and stillbirths, and of the five children she gave birth to, only William survived past infancy. The horrific loss of so many children hit both Anne and George hard. Her multiple miscarriages are now thought to have been caused by Hughes Syndrome or Lupus – conditions that affect the immune system. Anne’s inability to produce a surviving heir stalked her: she believed God was punishing her for abandoning her father.

What happened to Sarah Churchill?

Anne’s friendship with Churchill was also suffering. While Sarah was a strong supporter of the Whigs, Anne preferred the Tories. They were known as the Church party and religion was a subject close to Anne’s heart – she was a devout Protestant and was well aware of the trouble religion had caused her family. Sarah’s behaviour towards Anne also differed to many at court. She would never flatter or compliment the Queen, and insisted on giving her advice on state matters.

In earlier years, Anne had found this a refreshing change from the pandering and fawning of court, but as the years went on, the Queen’s affection for Churchill waned. At the death of Prince George in 1708, Churchill reprimanded the Queen for mourning, removed a painting of George from Anne’s room and refused to adhere to the rules for mourning attire. This perceived heartlessness hardened Anne’s heart against her once-beloved friend. Just as the devastating grief Queen Victoria felt at the loss of Albert has been well documented, so was Anne believed to have been as affected by her loss of George. She allegedly burst into tears when handed papers regarding naval affairs, which George had dealt with as Lord High Admiral.

Out of pity for a poor relation, Churchill had introduced the Queen to a distant cousin of hers, Abigail Masham, in the hope of finding her a role at court. This had the unintended consequence of giving the Queen a new favourite, and Churchill became incredibly jealous, spreading rumours about Anne’s ‘immoral’ relationship with Masham. Unlike Churchill, Masham was timid, unassuming and never spoke out of turn.

Finally fed up of the Churchills’ attempts to influence her, Anne removed John as Captain-General and cut Sarah from the royal household. With the loss of both Prince George and Sarah Churchill, Anne was left without the two people who had been constants in her life for more than 20 years.

By July 1714, the Queen’s health had worsened – she struggled to walk and was overweight. On the anniversary of Prince William’s death, she suffered a stroke and died two days later, with one of her doctors commenting: “I believe sleep was never more welcome to a weary traveller than death was to her.” She attended cabinet meetings up until her stroke and it’s possible the stress of matters of state took their toll on her – on top of her own losses and illness.

Many modern opinions of Anne come from Churchill’s disparaging memoirs, in which she wrote that Anne “certainly meant well and was not a fool, but nobody can maintain that she was wise, nor entertaining in conversation” and “ignorant in everything but what the parsons had taught her”. These comments could be the cruel remarks of a scorned woman; modern assessments view Anne as a queen who was popular with her people, had a strong sense of loyalty to her country and was known to like a brandy or two.

With Anne died the House of Stuart, though many pretenders to the crown rose up in rebellion over the years. The House of Hanover began its rule of Britain and the Georgian era swept in – though Anne’s reign forever changed the face of Britain, politically and geographically, and created a prosperous nation that flourished for centuries.

Ask the expert: Anne Somerset

Lady Anne Somerset is a historian who specialises in the Tudor and Stuart monarchies. Her book Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion (Harper Collins, 2012) is an in-depth biography of the life of the last Stuart

Q: Why is Anne often overlooked as a monarch?

A: One mundane reason for Anne not being betterknown is that when students study the Tudors and Stuarts, Anne’s reign comes at the fag-end of the period, and often the time to focus properly on the subject is lacking. Studies of the reign tend to concentrate on the Duke of Marlborough’s [John Churchill’s] victories in the War of the Spanish Succession, for which Anne is given no credit, and that Great Britain effectively first became a major power during her reign is not ascribed to her.

She is perhaps best known for her tragic history as a mother, and this has overshadowed all other aspects of her life. She lacked glamour and charisma, presided over a pretty dreary court and was certainly the least colourful Stuart. On the other hand, it is also arguable that she was the most successful member of the dynasty, but spectacular failure would perhaps have made her more memorable.

Q: How did the losses of her children affect her reign?

A: The fact that Anne had failed in what many would have regarded as the primary function of female royalty – to secure the succession by providing a direct heir – lessened her prestige. After the death of her son in 1700, Anne was so emotionally shattered that she withdrew from the world, but on her accession to the throne “considerations of the public good ... dragged her out of a retired life that suited her so greatly”. But her tragic history inevitably shaped her character, and she made no secret of the sadness that still haunted her.

Her relations with her Hanoverian heirs presumptive were complicated by her sense of personal loss. For the first few years of her reign, Anne still clung to the hope that she would produce a child of her own, and the insensitive demands of Sophia of Hanover to be given official recognition as Anne’s successor infuriated the Queen – implying that it was out of the question that she would have another baby.

If Anne’s son William had survived, no one would have imagined that Anne hankered to reinstate her half-brother James in the succession, and the Whigs would have been unable to create the impression – prevalent by the end of her reign – that the Protestant settlement was in danger.

Q: Was she an effective ruler?

A: The assumption that Anne was a weak and ineffective ruler is without foundation. She did not suffer from a belief that because she was a woman she was automatically unfitted to wield power, and was not prepared to allow her male ministers to impose their will on her on that account. Despite herb lack of training, she adapted to the demands of sovereigntyv remarkably well.

Her great aim was to prevent any one political party from becoming dominant, at the expense of the monarch’s power, and on the whole, she achieved this. She held out against the Whigs taking permanent control of government, but when sheb dismissed her Whig ministers, she also resisted allowing the Tories to monopolise power. At her death, monarchical power was handed largely intact to her successor.

Q: What was her lasting legacy?

A: It is sometimes alleged that Anne damaged the interests of her country by bringing the War of the Spanish Succession to a premature close, meaning that France remained more powerful – and more of a threat to Britain – than would have been the case if Marlborough had been permitted to inflict a resounding defeat on the enemy. But, conversely, if the war had continued for longer, Britain might have been bankrupted by the struggle, and revolution and social unrest could have ensued.

Although Anne is often depicted as a secret Jacobite, who longed to bequeath her throne to her half-brother James, this is grossly unfair.

She should be credited with the fact that at her death, the crown went not to a Catholic Stuart with absolutist tendencies, but to the Protestant Hanoverians who, for all their flaws, had to work with Parliament. Anne has some claim to be regarded as Britain’s first constitutional monarch, and deserves recognition for her role in ensuring that Britain remains a constitutional monarchy to this day.

The fact that Anne did not confer the title of King on her husband changed for ever the position of Queens Regnant, ensuring that their power to rule in their own right was formally established.

Emma Slattery Williams is BBC History Revealed's staff writer


This content first appeared in the Christmas 2018 issue of BBC History Revealed