Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion

By Anne Somerset.

Queen Anne (1665-1714; queen 1702-14) was yet another English monarch who struggled to produce an heir. Henry VIII wanted boys when he had capable girls; Mary I was good at phantom pregnancies; Elizabeth I preferred to avoid making an her herself by importing one from Scotland; James I managed to father Charles and James, although the former failed to produce any legitimate heirs, and the latter, who was more fecund at home, messed up the succession. Mary II produced no heirs, and Anne followed in the same unfortunate tradition in spite of innumerable pregnancies.

As far as I can tell, Anne wasn’t quite the cully that, say, Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, thought she was, but she does seem to have been prey to all sorts of muddle-headed ideas, especially during her (seemingly one-sided) feuds with her stepmother, Mary of Modena (who seems to have been a nice enough person misrepresented by Anne’s religious bigotry), and William and Mary (although William seems to have been a colossal tosser).

However, Anne was gullible enough to believe that her half brother was a changeling smuggled into the palace in a warming pan.

Her relationships with her confidantes are only partly covered because we have plenty of material from the highly opinionated Duchess of Marlborough (who doesn’t really seem to have ever cared that much for Anne; for one thing, their politics were diametrically opposed), but much less from Lady Masham (Abigail Hill, a relative of Churchill’s). As far as I can tell, Anne was not so swayed by the latter as she was by the former.

Accusations that she was having a lesbian relationship with Lady Masham seem implausible because her relationship with her husband, Prince George of Denmark, seems to have been too close and affectionate for her to even have considered some same-sex alternative. She went into mourning for two years after her husband’s death. In reality, relationships between women at the time seem to have been characterised by extreme expressions of fondness between friends.

Anne’s religiosity seems to go back to a previous age, and it poisoned her relationship with Mary of Modena. It also meant that Dissenters, who liked Catholicism no more than Anne, were seen as a threat because of their heterodox views.

If Anne’s half brother, James, had been king, it’s hard not to imagine her being resentful of missing her turn in the Big Chair just because he was a boy. Although she may have been fervently religious, she doesn’t seem to have espoused her grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s views about the divine right of kings.

Anne’s great misfortune was her health, having had so many miscarriages, having had a surviving child who was born with the odds heavily against him, and having suffered from painful gout, lupus, and obesity.

The early 18th century was an age of vicious, partisan party politics. While the queen was not the shrewdest political operator herself, she had, it seems, fairly sound guidance from Lord Godolphin. The picture of Godolphin in the book is of a man who tried to do his best for the queen, although it’s difficult to judge whether he was more honest and decent than his usually corrupt contemporaries. He frequently lamented the strain that politics and the queen placed on his health. Regardless of what Godolphin was like in real life, Anne seems to have trusted him.

Anne also had the War of the Spanish Succession to deal with. On the one hand, she a great general, Marlborough, but on the other, the war was economically ruinous for both sides, and party politics were always in the background, making things even worse. She saw Union with Scotland, thus creating a supposedly united Britain.

The queen was less keen on the Hannovers with frequent pressure on her to let one reside in Britain. Her response, that they should be kept out of the country, was probably for the best because with party politics there were already enough troubles in Britain without the potentially disruptive presence of the heir to the throne.

I thought the book was ultimately a bit like wading through mud because it frequently resorted to primary sources to tell and drag out the story, but didn’t do much pro history until the final chapter. Ultimately, the reader is left to make their own mind up about the queen and her supporting cast. She was perhaps not quite the incompetent she appeared to be; Sarah Churchill was immoderately passionate about her views; Lady Masham may not have had quite the influence everyone thought she did, but could’ve been a victim of social snobbery given that she rose from low estate.

The book needed a chronology for quick reference and, perhaps, a few short biographical notes about the major players in Anne’s reign, including some sort of character sketch.