Queen who Let Daylight in on Royal Magic

Towards the end of Queen Anne’s reign, Anne Somerset herself suggests that Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, said that the kingdom — which by then comprised Scotland as well as England and Wales — was blessed in having “so good and wise a Queen”. Anne Somerset notes that the duchess, who by this time had fallen from royal favour, meant the opposite, but suggests that, “Anne was deserving of both epithets.” Somerset’s comprehensive new biography aims both to show and to explain why. 

It is not an easy job. Alexander Pope, in his mock heroic jeu d’esprit, The Rape of the Lock, sums up Anne’s reign in another, more familiar, way. Anne’s court, he declares, is the site of gossip and tittle-tattle, where, “At ev’ry Word a Reputation dies./Snuff, or the Fan, supply each Pause of Chat,/With singing, laughing, ogling, and all that”, while in the figure of the queen herself  politics is reduced to the level of mere social exchange: “Thou, great Anna! whom three Realms obey,/Dost sometimes Counsel take — and sometimes Tea.” 

Beyond being a brilliant comic satirist who looked wearily upon the follies of the age, Pope was a Jacobite sympathiser and a Catholic, and thus likely to belittle the sagacity and influence of the Queen. Somerset does indeed make the case that there was more to Anne than Pope allows. What emerges from this well-researched and readable book is that dogged stubbornness and unflinching religious convictions enabled Anne to remain loyal to the Act of Settlement and thus guarantee the Protestant succession to the crown on her death in 1814. The Hanoverian succession and the Union of England and Wales with Scotland in 1707 were her great achievements, and the consequences of both are very much still with us. 

Anne was the second daughter of Charles II’s younger brother, James, Duke of York, born in England after the Restoration. She had little formal education, though she became a fine French speaker, and the cornerstone of her emotional and intellectual sense of self became an unwavering high Anglicanism. She called the Church of England “the only true Church”, mistrusted Dissenters and called Catholic doctrine, “wicked and dangerous and directly contrary to the scriptures”. It was this faith, more than any political allegiance or tortured friendship, that determined the course of her life. It meant that she, rather than her legitimate younger half-brother James, the Old Pretender, acceded to the throne when her brother-in-law William of Orange died in 1702, and ensured that, once there, she never made any concessions to her brother or his heir, Bonnie Prince Charlie.

In 1683 Anne married George, Prince of Denmark. Although the couple produced several children, and Anne endured numerous miscarriages, no children survived into adulthood. Her son William, Duke of Gloucester, hung on long enough to be painted and adored, but he died at the age of 11 in 1700, so Anne was crowned queen in 1702 without any heirs. The question of the succession haunted her 12-year reign, and, along with her own ill-health, ministerial struggles and the power ceded to the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, contributed to the atmosphere of turbulence and uncertainty that characterised it. 

Anne’s court, at St James’s, or Windsor in the summers, was both dull and tense: dull because of the Queen’s reserve and lack of broad interests and Prince George’s stolid inactivity; tense because Anne developed an over-reliance first on Sarah Churchill and then Abigail Masham for both company and support. Sarah Churchill — whose life has been amply documented, most recently by Frances Harris — was witty, compelling and relentlessly overbearing. Abigail Masham, altogether less remarkable, eventually took Sarah’s place, though her political influence was nothing like as great.

Anne Somerset ably documents all the twists and turns of the courtly and ministerial intrigues that these friendships fed off and generated. However, as she makes clear, the real drama of Queen Anne’s reign took place not in England, but on the Continent, where Sarah Churchill’s husband, John, secured a series of brilliant victories on the battlefield in the long melée known as the War of Spanish Succession and thus, by effectively beggaring Britain’s neighbours rather than any specific territorial gains, laid the foundation for the nation’s emergence as a great imperial power. Rather than Anne herself, or any of her ministers, John Churchill, as Duke of Marlborough, became the greatest figure of the age.

Marlborough’s military victories were consolidated as much by Scottish — and, later, Irish — elites as English ones. The greatest political act of Anne’s reign was the passage of the Act of Union in 1707. Scottish popular sentiment was firmly against Union, but it was “crammed down Scotland’s throat”, as one observer put it, helped by concessions and, most probably, anaesthetising dollops of Treasury cash. Educated and wealthy Scots could see where their interest lay. They became great beneficiaries of the Union and the growth of the empire. The Scots and the Irish not only dominated the upper echelons of the army after 1763, (the navy remained more English) but provided the backbone of the colonial administration, especially in India. By the turn of the century the Scots had a considerable presence in Westminster as well. Expansions — imperial or otherwise — can often benefit enterprising minorities. Romantic nationalism, on the other hand, seldom does. The great wave of romantic nationalism that has been sweeping across Europe since the late 19th century offers a horrendous lesson that should give pause for thought for all those who view May 1, 1707, when Great Britain came formally into being, as a black day.

Apart from the Union, the great achievement of Anne’s reign was the peaceful transition to the Hanoverians after her death in 1714. The lure (and legitimacy) of the Stuarts had confused and compromised some leading figures, but no amount of glamour made up for their lack of organisation, money and both broadbased support. When the time came, so did George I, and with his accession the character of the British monarchy changed. Whereas Queen Anne could still command enough popular mystique to continue the magical practice of “touching for the King’s evil”, the moment the Hanoverians arrived the monarchy assumed a truly constitutional air. It became irremediably dull, and this has been its strength. Too law-abiding and orderly ever to do much more than flirt with extending their powers, long-lived when it mattered and too stolid ever to be more than conventional mistress-takers, with the possible exception of George IV, the Hanoverians never invited more than passing unpopularity and never courted danger. 

By a stroke of luck, 1714 also marked the beginning of the long Whig supremacy that lasted until the 1790s. Queen Anne had favoured the Tories. In the natural change of administration when George I arrived, the Whigs therefore took over the government. The Whigs were a self-confident lot. Arguably one reason why Britain did not have a revolution in the 18th century was precisely because of this monarchical dullness and a ruling elite that was forward-looking and flexible enough to allow for some forms of change. The combination meant that the regime neither crumbled from within nor stood rigid in the face of outside pressures. 

The success of Queen Anne, as Anne Somerset makes clear, lay in living long enough to be an effective transitional monarch. In her heritage she was the last of the Stuarts; in her demeanour she was the first of the Hanoverians. With the possible exception of the Prince Regent — who luckily arrived on the throne too late to be anything but a cipher — Charles II was England’s last glamorous monarch. Anne, the Hanoverians and their Germanic successors proved much less compelling but much better suited to the self-sacrificial strait-jacket of constitutional monarchy. To Anne, then, must go some of the credit for the survival of the British crown, and that in itself is reason enough to recognise her importance.

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