The Royal Custody Battle


Anne of Denmark is one of the forgotten queens of England. And, to a certain extent, it makes sense. The reign of her husband, James I, is sandwiched between the more eventful and historically significant reigns of Elizabeth I and Charles I – he is perhaps best remembered now for the edition of the bible that bears his name, overlapping with Shakespeare and almost being blown up by Guy Fawkes. Or, perhaps, you have heard rumors that he might have been gay.

Which brings us back to his wife. Anne, born in 1574 in Skanderborg, was the daughter of King Frederick II of Denmark and his consort, Sophie of Mecklenburg-Gustrow. She was married to King James VI of Scotland in August 1589, just two and a half years after the execution of his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, on the orders of Elizabeth I. James, meanwhile, had been on the throne since he was an infant, his reign having begun when his mother was forced to abdicate in 1567.


The rumors of his sexuality already abounded at this point, but likely would have initially not made their way to Anne. She was, after all, only 14 at the time of their marriage, thrilled with the match, and had decided before she even arrived in Scotland that she was in love with James. Reportedly, while tailors sewed together her wedding gown, she embroidered his shirts.

Anne’s strict, happy and domestic upbringing in Denmark ill-prepared her for her marriage. By her standards, James was uncouth, the Scottish people bizarre, the castles were drafty and the customs strange. Despite this, Anne was relatively popular with the public and her early years of marriage with her husband pleasant.

James in 1586

Naturally, this goodwill would quickly begin to strain. The primary issue was simply that the couple didn’t conceive, doing nothing to quell the rumors already swirling around James and jeopardizing Anne’s popularity and influence. There were signs of infidelity on James’s side, while Anne was also the subject of scandalous whispering. Both, too, were prone to histrionics and fought regularly and publicly.

It was to mutual relief when Anne finally conceived in 1593 and gave birth to a son on February 19, 1594. He was christened Henry Frederick, ostensibly after James and Anne’s fathers, but “Henry” was also a nod to Elizabeth I’s father, Henry VIII, a politic gesture since the English queen had yet to name her successor. Anne’s happiness would be short-lived, however, and what followed essentially caused the implosion of what had once seemed like a relatively pleasant royal match.

Shortly after the christening, James informed Anne that the infant would be sent to the household of John Erskine, Earl of Mar. Apparently this was news to Anne who had not only expected to raise her children herself, but personally disliked the Erskine family. While James explained this was the traditional arrangement for Scotland’s heir, he having been brought up by Mar’s father, Anne was unmoved and began an unflagging campaign to have her son restored to her.

The ruins of Dunfermline, a castle favored by James and Anne

She struck up an uneasy alliance with John Maitland, the Scottish Lord Chancellor, who also disliked Mar. As Anne’s biographer, Ethel Carleton Williams, noted:

“Throughout the remaining months of 1594 until August 1595, Anne’s quarrel with her husband raged with growing intensity. The Queen wept so long and so bitterly and gave way to such outbursts of hysterical rage that she became seriously ill. James, wearied of tears and scenes, retired to Falkland Palace to seek solace in hunting. He refused to see Maitland, whom he suspected of encouraging Anne’s resistance.

“On May 25, 1595, when Anne was with her husband at Linlithgow Palace, the quarrel flared up again with even greater acrimony. One of Cecil’s agents gleefully reported that he had overheard Queen Anne desperately pleading to be allowed to have the care of her child, reminding King James ‘how she had left all her dear friends in Denmark to follow him,’ that her brother King Christian had always been his loyal friend and ‘it was an ill return to refuse her suit, founded on reason and nature, and to prefer giving the care of her babe to a subject who neither in rank nor deserving was the best his Majesty had.’ This nettled the King and he retorted that ‘his infant, he knew, to be safe in Mar’s keeping and though he doubted nothing of her good intentions yet if some faction got strong enough, she could not hinder his boy being used against him, as he himself had been against his unfortunate mother.”

In July 1595, upset that a plan to secure custody of Prince Henry had failed, Anne suffered a miscarriage, casting a further pall on the marriage and James’s court. An uneasy peace would then be struck, with neither wavering in their stance on the issue, but the relationship seemingly moving forward. Between 1596 and 1603, Anne would have two daughters and two more sons, only two of whom  lived past infancy.

Prince Henry

Elizabeth I died on March 24, 1603 and James succeeded her on the throne, leaving Scotland in such a hurry he barely had time to set his affairs in order, much less say goodbye to his family. In his absence, Anne, heavily pregnant once more, saw an opportunity to finally remove her son from the Erskine household since James had taken the Earl of Mar with him.

Stirling Castle

Surrounded by friendly nobles that supported her cause, Anne arrived at Stirling Castle and demanded that Henry be turned over to her. The Dowager Countess of Mar, unmoved, refused on the grounds that the boy was only to be released to the King or on his orders. Livid and distraught, Anne suffered yet another miscarriage. James responded by sending Mar back to Scotland to escort Anne to join him in England, a bizarre move since Anne made no secret of detesting him.

Anne, who had been dangerously ill since her miscarriage, informed her husband that she wouldn’t leave Scotland without her son and she wouldn’t go anywhere with Mar. James, concerned over her health and genuinely afraid for the mortality rate of his children, gave in. Anne and Henry were reunited on May 23rd, traveling from Stirling to Edinburgh to begin the longer journey to London.

James I in 1605

But while Anne won the custody battle, it had permanently damaged her marriage. Anne’s chaplain described their relationship thusly:

“The King himself was a very chaste man, and there was little in the Queen to make him uxorious; yet they did love as well as man and wife could do, not conversing together.”

Once in England, they largely lived separate lives, Anne cultivating a reputation as a great patron of the arts, and James escaping as often as possible to hunt in the country and keeping a running queue of male favorites. After the birth and death of a daughter in June 1606 that threatened Anne’s life, she decided not to risk having any more children, further widening the gulf between her and her husband. Instead, she spent much of her time fawning over Prince Henry, who would be invested as a Knight of the Garter in July 1603 and made Prince of Wales in June 1610. During his adolescence, his popularity grew so great that it risked undermining James’s position, but he was widely lauded a promising future king.

Prince Henry

It wasn’t to be. Henry died of Typhoid on November 6, 1612 at the age of 18. England was plunged into mourning, perhaps all the more so since his younger brother, Prince Charles, inherited his claim, a largely unknown boy who suffered significant bouts of ill health during his childhood. At the time, the Venetian ambassador was advised not to offer condolences to Anne, “Because she cannot bear to have it mentioned; nor does she ever recall it without abundant tears and sighs.”

Indeed, Anne would never to fully recover: the following year her only daughter, Princess Elizabeth, married and left England, and the year after that she staged her last masque in London. From then on she spent most of her time in retirement, spending less and less time with James, who became more dependent on his male favorites and alcohol.

Anne in 1605

Anne died on March 2, 1619 from dropsy and James, who had not visited her during her illness or attended her funeral due to his own illness, wrote the following verse:

So did my Queen from hence her court remove
And left off earth to be enthroned above.
She’s changed, not dead, for sure no good prince dies,
But, as the sun, sets, only for to rise.

James would live another six years, at which point he was succeeded on the throne by his son, Charles I. Charles would reign for 24 years, leading England into a civil war that saw him executed in 1649 and the monarchy abolished for 11 years.

Anne and James are ancestors of today’s current British royal family, the House of Hanover and Windsor descended from them through their daughter, Elizabeth.

A depiction of James, Anne and their children

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