Queen Anne is Britain’s forgotten queen regnant, her reign and influence dwarfed by the influence and gains of her predecessor, Elizabeth I, and her successor, Queen Victoria. But it was her queenship that was most closely used as a model when Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, not necessarily as a template to follow, but certainly in terms of precedents laid out for how a female monarch could rule. Unlike the Virgin Queen or the morbid tenure of Mary I, Anne was the first queen regnant to rule with a husband who was not given equal footing to his wife. She also marked the end of the Stuart line, her 18 pregnancies failing to provide a single child that lived until adulthood.
She followed closely on the heels of her sister, Mary II, who ruled jointly with her husband, the Dutch William III, after the deposition of their father, James II, in the Glorious Revolution. Her rule, and the succession that followed her of the German George I, solidified Britain as a Protestant nation, one that still held a deep suspicion of Catholics, particularly in the ranks of its government. Indeed, for the entirety of her reign, her stepmother and half-siblings lived in exile in France, still claiming that by bloodline Britain was theirs. And in that they were technically correct, but Britain’s aversion to papacy had deep-seated roots stemming back to the Tudors and suspicion of foreign involvement, from Rome to France to Spain, and it was through Queen Anne and her sister before her that Britain declared its religion unchangeable.
Shortly after 8 o’clock am on March 8, 1702 King William III died at Kensington Palace. The King had injured himself out hunting in Richmond Park a few weeks before when his horse stumbled on a molehill and threw him, breaking his collar bone. He was moved to London to convalesce, where Anne and her husband, George of Denmark, visited him. At first there was no immediate cause for concern, but William’s health had been undermined by a bad bout of tuberculosis and the shock to his system caught up to him by March 7th. Less than 24 hours he was dead.
The crown passed to his 37-year-old sister-in-law, Anne Stuart. The Earl of Dartmouth recorded the event with:
“As soon as the breath was out of King William (by which all expectations from him were at an end), the bishop of Salisbury drove hard to bring the first tidings to St. James’s where he prostrated himself at the new Queen’s feet, full of joy and duty; but obtained no advantage over the Earl of Essex, lord of the bedchamber in waiting, whose proper office it was, besides being universally laughed at for his officiousness.”
It bears repeating that Anne wasn’t born to be queen, but was instead born to James Stuart, Duke of York, younger brother of Charles II. Once her father converted to Catholicism and became the expected heir of his childless brother, Anne and her sister, Mary, became more important – specifically, their religion was closely scrutinized, as Britain wanted Protestant rulers.
For a while James’s religion was tolerated, though it was wildly unpopular when he took as his second wife the Italian Catholic Mary Beatrice of Modena. Their childlessness, however, ensured the throne would eventually pass to his daughter, Mary, who had married the Protestant Prince William of Orange in 1677. That all changed when Mary of Modena, then queen, gave birth to a healthy son in 1688. The country erupted, Mary and William were called in from the Netherlands and their joint rule began by the end of the same year. When Mary died in 1694, William began a solo rule that lasted until his death.
Anne had therefore been brought up with not only a keen appreciation of the significance of her beliefs and actions, but in separating herself out from her father, a mentality that would otherwise have been foreign to a 17th century daughter. Anne and her sister essentially chose to rule over family – or, a glossier take: to put country before personal feelings.
It is for these reasons, so as to secure the Stuart line of succession, that Anne put herself through 18 pregnancies between 1684 and 1700. It was a choice that, combined with an already less than robust constitution, essentially left her an invalid by the time she ascended the throne. But certainly no one could say she hadn’t tried her best; the closest she came to an heir was her son, William, who tragically died at the age of 11 in 1700.
In the days preceding William’s death, key ministers began meeting with Anne to prepare for her accession, wanting to emphasize the smooth and peaceful transfer of power. Immediately upon learning she was queen, an accession council was summoned to St. James’s Palace and Anne swore an oath to uphold and defend Protestantism. After that the Members of the Lords and Commons came to meet their new sovereign and kiss her hand. Once the day was over, Anne, who had been living quietly since the death of her beloved son, retired alone, exhausted by the activity.
Her first act would be to address Parliament three days later, at which point her objective was to stress continuity while at the same time differentiating herself from her brother-in-law, who had never been popular thanks to his foreignness and Whig favoritism. Instead, Anne played up her English heritage, all the more so because her father had married a commoner, an act which had been scandalous at the time, but was politically handy to his daughter decades later.
On the day of the speech, Anne decked herself out in all the trappings of monarchy – a red velvet robe trimmed in ermine and gold, as well as the crown itself. She famously declared that, “I know my own heart to be entirely English,” a statement meant to separate herself from William and her stepmother, Mary of Modena, then living at Versailles at the court of King Louis XIV and grooming her younger half-brother, the so-called Prince of Wales, to believe himself the true king.
She won rave reviews, with one audience member saying:
“[F]or never any woman spoke more audibly or with better grace. And her pressing to support our allyances abroad will continue for what the Dutch may take amiss in that emphasis which Her Majesty layd on her English heart. But it did very well at home and rais’d a hum from all that heard her.”
Indeed, for the entirety of her 12 years on the throne, Anne enjoyed massive popularity with her people, quite a feat for a woman who would be handing off the dynasty to obscure Germans when she passed.
Little more than a month later Anne’s coronation was held at Westminster Abbey. Ironically, the date chosen, April 23rd, marked the 17th anniversary of her own father’s coronation in 1685. But the symbolism worked, for the opening days of her reign were widely heralded as a return to true Protestant and British values, an emphasis on unifying with Scotland and a monarch who didn’t grossly favor one party over another.
An interesting note to Anne’s popularity, and indeed the pure logistics of her rule and its propaganda, was that Anne was essentially an invalid, suffering from severe gout that often left her immobile. On the day of her crowning she had to be carried into the Abbey in a low chair, and though she walked out herself, maneuverings to disguise her limitations or navigate around them were a facet of Anne’s reign.
But while the Queen was faring well, what to do about her Danish husband was an immediate question for her government. Not only was he a foreigner, but he was a Lutheran, a faith that he never gave up, even after his wife ascended the throne. Married to Anne since 1683, George had failed to inspire confidence in Charles II, James II or William III; William had specifically kept him sidelined in government, even as the husband of his heir. Under Anne he was given a somewhat more robust workload, but his legacy would not be that of what Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, became – indeed, upon sorting out Albert’s future in the early 1840s, Victoria was quick to conjure up George’s memory as an example of what couldn’t happen to Albert. As Winston Churchill would later remark in the 1930s, he “mattered very little” to anyone beyond his wife.
Intriguingly, for all that Anne is overshadowed by other queens, she was perhaps more consistently popular with her contemporaries than either Elizabeth or Victoria – a fact likely helped by the relative brevity of her reign. Even so, characterizations of her rule and personality have often been dimmed thanks to the bitter work of an influential friend with whom she dramatically fell out as queen, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. Considering the disasters that had come before and the tepid warmth with which the British viewed her immediate successors, as well as the considerable physical roadblocks and unique factors that fed into her rule, Queen Anne should be recognized for having played the hand of cards she dealt with something nearing aplomb.