“A charming, popular monarch”: Tracy Borman on Queen Anne

She was recently brought to life by actress Olivia Colman in the film The Favourite, but what was Queen Anne really like? Her reign was the final of the Stuart dynasty, but she was – as Tracy Borman argues – a much more popular monarch than her predecessor William III...

Sir Godfrey Kneller's portrait of Anne Stuart. Following the 1707 Acts of Union, she would be queen of Great Britain and Ireland. (Photo by Getty Images)

The fact that Queen Anne was the last of the Stuarts was due to an extraordinary, and tragic, quirk of fate. By the time of her accession in March 1702, she had been pregnant no fewer than 17 times, though only five children were born alive, and all of those died in infancy. Her son William, Duke of Gloucester, lived the longest, dying in 1700 at the age of 11.

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The same reproductive misfortune had befallen Anne’s sister, Mary, who had also failed to produce an heir – if she had, then Anne would not have come to the throne upon William III’s death on 8 March 1702. The two women were daughters of James II by his first wife, Anne Hyde. The future Queen Anne’s birth had taken place on 
6 February 1665 during the reign of her uncle, Charles II.

Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in 'The Favourite'. (Photo by Twentieth Century Fox/Entertainment Pictures)

At the time, there seemed little prospect of Anne’s inheriting the throne. Charles II had fathered numerous illegitimate children and there was little reason to suppose that his marriage to Catherine of Braganza would not result in a legitimate one. But his queen remained barren and, upon his death in 1685, he was obliged to leave the throne to his brother, Anne’s father, James. Anne was now second in line to the throne, but James had remarried after his first wife’s death and his second wife, Mary of Modena, was proving a fertile one. Ironically, when she gave birth to a son in 1688, it ought to 
have removed any prospect of Mary 
and Anne inheriting the throne. In fact, it brought them to it. By then, James II had so alienated his people that the prospect of a new son and heir continuing his dogmatic and absolutist policies was too much to bear. James was duly ousted from power and replaced by his protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange.

James never gave up the idea of reclaiming the throne for himself or his son, and the ‘Jacobite’ movement would remain a thorn in both Mary and Anne’s side throughout their respective reigns. Nevertheless, Anne’s accession in 1702 was a peaceful one – even if it had only been decided upon the year before. The death of her longest-surviving child, William, duke of Gloucester, in 1700 had thrown the succession into question. William III had adored the boy and had intended him as his heir. Anne was the next natural choice, but her gender and the fact that William disliked her made it possible that the throne would revert to the male Stuart line in the form of James II’s son. But James Francis Edward Stuart was as rigidly Catholic as his father had been and this proved the deciding factor. In 1701, Parliament passed the Act of Settlement, reaffirming the principle that a Roman Catholic should never be monarch.

Charm offensive

Anne was 37 at the time of her accession. She had never been a great beauty like her sister Mary, but she was a handsome woman. Her numerous pregnancies had taken their toll on her figure, though, and her widening girth would become ever more pronounced during the years that followed. It contributed to the gout that plagued her from her mid-thirties and which left her barely able to walk, often resorting to sedan chairs, wheelchairs and walking sticks. One uncharitable observer remarked: ‘Nature seems to be inverted when a poor infirm woman becomes one 
of the rulers of the world.’

But Anne made up for her physical deficiencies with the power of her personality. She had inherited the charm 
of her late uncle, Charles II, and had the popular touch that William III had so markedly lacked. When she gave her first speech to Parliament three days after her accession, she won widespread acclaim for declaring: ‘I know my heart to be entirely English.’ It was exactly what her naturally xenophobic people wanted to hear after being ruled by a Dutchman for eight years.

Queen Anne, based on a work by Sir Godfrey Kneller, c1702–10. Anne's reign saw women take centre stage in fierce political debates. (Photo by Bridgeman/National Trust Photographic Library)

As well as her gift for public relations, Anne possessed another attribute which made her subjects delight in their new queen. She was firmly committed to the Protestant Anglican Church, so there was no question that she would try to inflict her father’s despised brand of dogmatic Catholicism upon the nation. She also combined the perfect blend of a high regard for the ancient ceremonies and pageantry 
of the crown with a firm commitment to a modernised monarchy. During her reign, the notion of a constitutional monarchy, 
in which the sovereign reigned and the ministers ruled, was consolidated, thereby laying the foundations for the modern state of Britain.

Although she presented a welcome change to her predecessor, Anne upheld most of William’s policies – including his aggression towards France. Barely two months after her accession, the Grand Alliance of Britain, the Netherlands, the Empire and the German princes declared war on Louis XIV. Anne’s choice of commander was inspired. John Churchill had been dismissed from court by William III, but appointed captain of the forces towards the end of his reign. The fact that Anne retained him in this post was due not just to his undoubted qualities as a military leader, but to the fact that his wife Sarah was the queen’s best friend.

Losing her mother at the age of six and being separated 
from her father because of his conversion to Catholicism had made Anne reserved and lonely. She had subsequently forged a number of close friendships with women, and by far the most significant and enduring was that 
with Sarah. In the countless letters they wrote to each other, they assumed the pseudonyms of Mrs Morley (Anne) and Mrs Freeman (Sarah). William III’s dislike for the Churchills had prompted him to demand that Anne dismiss them from her household. When Anne refused, her 
brother-in-law had been furious and their relationship had never recovered.
As soon as she was queen, Anne wasted no time in appointing Sarah to the vaulted position of Groom of the Stole and head of the royal bedchamber. John, meanwhile, was given a plethora of military commands, as well as being made ambassador extraordinary to the Dutch Republic. He excelled in the latter post, freeing the Dutch from French domination, and winning himself the dukedom of Marlborough. His victory at Blenheim in 1704 inspired the building of his magnificent Oxfordshire palace of the same name.

Committed queen

Despite her poor health, Anne was assiduous in all of her duties as queen. She wrote letters to her fellow heads of state by hand, which must have been a challenge given that as well as gout in her hands, she had poor eyesight. One of the greatest achievements of her reign was the Act of Union, which came into effect on 1 May 1707. This united England and Scotland into a single state and parliament. It had been hard won: relations between the two kingdoms had been increasingly hostile, not least because of Scotland’s support of the Jacobite cause. In 1703, the Scottish Parliament had passed the Act of Security, which decreed that the next monarch of Scotland need not be the same person as the successor to the English throne. England’s Parliament retaliated with the Alien Act, which banned all of the major Scottish export trades south of the border. It followed this up with a proposal “that the two kingdoms of England and Scotland be for ever United into one kingdom by the name of Great Britain”. Threatened by the loss of their lucrative trade, the Scots relented and the union was forged.

Anne combined the perfect blend of a high regard for the ancient ceremonies of the crown with a firm commitment to a modernised monarchy.

The following year was a turbulent one for Anne. The overweening influence of the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough had caused widespread resentment across the court and country – in particular among the Tories, against whom the Whiggish Sarah had ceaselessly conspired.
By 1708, the queen herself was tiring of the Duchess’s domineering and high-handed manner. On 19 August, the simmering hostility suddenly erupted when the two women shared a coach to St Paul’s Cathedral for a service of thanksgiving for Marlborough’s victory at Oudenarde. Earlier, Anne had refused to wear the cumbersome jewels that Sarah had laid out for her and, as she stepped out of the coach, Sarah was heard to hiss ‘Be quiet’ to her royal mistress. She had gone too far. Anne never forgave this insult to her majesty and ended the friendship immediately.

From left to right: Queen Isabella of Castile; French regent Anne de Beaujeu; and Catherine of Aragon. (Photos by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/DeAgostini/Imagno/Getty Images)

Two months later, Queen Anne’s adored husband, Prince George of Denmark, died. In every other respect than producing heirs, theirs had been a successful marriage, marked by mutual love and affection. In 
her loneliness, Anne forged a close friendship with another female courtier, Abigail Masham. Modest and undemanding, she formed a welcome contrast to Sarah Churchill, who flew into 
a jealous rage and accused the queen of conducting a lesbian affair with her new friend and confidante.

Tired of the crippling expense and loss 
of life that the protracted war with France had exacted, and no longer cajoled into supporting her chief commander, Anne dismissed Marlborough in December 1711 and made peace with France. A treaty 
was formally agreed in 1713 and England emerged triumphant. Despite the heavy losses that she had suffered, she was now more powerful militarily than France 
and more commercially effective than 
the Netherlands.
Anne did not long savour her victory. She died on 1 August 1714, aged just 49, after suffering two violent strokes. Her 
Tory ministers secretly offered the crown to James II’s son on condition that he convert to Protestantism. He refused and the crown passed peacefully to George Louis, Elector of Hanover, as decreed in the 1701 Act of Settlement and confirmed by the Act of Union six years later. The turbulent century of Stuart rule was at an end.

Tracy Borman is an author and historian whose books include The Private Lives of the Tudors (2016) and The King’s Witch (2018).

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This article was first published in BBC History Magazine’s ‘The Life and Times of the Stuarts’ bookazine