Queen Anne proved her might as she presided over the Act of Union of 1707, which united England and Scotland…
Popular history recalls Queen Anne (r. 1702–1714) as an obese, gout-stricken ‘Brandy Nan’ given to hearty eating and drinking, and who, despite 18 pregnancies, failed to produce a surviving heir to Britain’s throne. But there’s much more to her character and reign than this, and as Scotland currently debates its relationship with the UK, perhaps it’s timely to reflect on the Act of Union 1707 between England and Scotland that saw Anne become the first monarch of Great Britain.
Anne was the last of the Stuart dynasty to reign, providing the closing act to an era of intense religious and political upheaval, of civil war, regicide, a short-lived republic and restoration of the monarchy: all in scarcely more than a century, which is why it’s hardly surprising that she is so often overlooked.
Born in 1665, she was the second daughter of James, Duke of York (later King James II of England and Ireland and King James VII of Scotland) and Anne Hyde. Sadly, when she was six, her mother died and Anne cut a rather shy, lonely figure, disliking her stepmother Mary of Modena and, devout Protestant that she was, becoming distanced from her father who converted to Roman Catholicism. Following a poor education and a court scandal when she was 18 – she was reputedly seduced by ‘the terror of husbands’ Lord Mulgrave – she was married to Prince George of Denmark.
When Anne’s father became King James II (r. 1685–1688) he embarked on the usual Stuart collision course with Parliament, and seemed determined to restore Catholicism in England and Scotland. Anne supported the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 that deposed him and gave joint rule to her Protestant sister Queen Mary II and William of Orange. The subsequent Bill of Rights of 1689 aimed to enable parliament to function without royal interference, and Catholics were excluded from succession.
Mary and William died childless, so Anne came to the throne in 1702, already 37 years of age, overweight, worn down by repeated miscarriages and stillbirths, and nearly lame from years of ill health. Yet this unpromising figure possessed a beautiful speaking voice and won over England’s Parliament with her first address: “As I know my heart to be entirely English, I can very sincerely assure you that there is not one thing you can expect or desire of me which I shall not be ready to do for the happiness or prosperity of England.”
“There is not one thing you can expect or desire of me which I shall not be ready to do for the happiness or prosperity of England”
Immediately Anne’s reign was overshadowed by the War of the Spanish Succession, which saw the country joined with Austria, Portugal, Denmark and the Netherlands against France, Spain and Bavaria. Anne confirmed John Churchill as captain-general of her forces and he was also appointed supreme commander of the allied forces, allowing full rein to his military genius.
Victories at Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenarde and Malplaquet followed, delighting the nation; Gibraltar, Menorca and Nova Scotia were also captured. Anne made Churchill the 1st Duke of Marlborough and rewarded him with the royal estate of Woodstock in Oxfordshire, partly funding his Baroque masterpiece Blenheim Palace, today the dazzling heart of a World Heritage Site.
Yet people grew tired as the ruinously expensive war rolled on, with Anne giving royal voice to general concerns when she exclaimed, “When will this bloodshed ever cease?” She supported peace negotiations even though some condemned them as dishonourable. The Treaties of Utrecht (1713–1714) brought war to a close and many gains to Britain.
At home the major concern of Anne’s reign was to secure her succession. With her Roman Catholic half-brother James Stuart (son of King James II and Mary of Modena) at large on the Continent, the threat of trouble constantly hung on the horizon.
Anne had been happily married to Prince George since 1683, a man seemingly content to be a nonentity in the background of royal public life. That he tried to do his duty in fathering an heir, however, is clear from Anne’s 18 pregnancies. Unfortunately only one child, William, Duke of Gloucester, survived infancy, and he died in 1700 from smallpox, aged just 11, before Anne became queen.
Desperate for healthy children, Anne repeatedly took spa ‘cures’ in Royal Tunbridge Wells and Bath, but to no avail. The English government put greater faith in political measures and by the Act of Settlement 1701 had laid down that if the queen died without issue, the throne should pass to the Protestant grandchild of King James I, Sophia of Hanover, and her heirs. Not overly fond of her Hanoverian cousins, Anne nevertheless accepted a deal that sidelined James in order to lessen the possibility of civil war.
It says much for Anne’s character that as pregnancy after pregnancy ended in tragedy she maintained a courteous disposition. During her reign, despite gout, rheumatism and exhaustion taking their toll, she still did her public duty, even if she had to be carried in a sedan chair.
She sought escape in extending the gardens at Kensington Palace, where you can still see her handsome orangery that doubled as a ‘summer supper house’, and she hunted deer at Hampton Court Palace, following the chase despite her decrepitude in a two-wheeled cart. Horse racing also found favour with the queen and she gave us world-famous Ascot, ordering her Master of the Horse to mark out a racecourse on open heath there in 1711.
“It says much for Anne’s character that as pregnancy after pregnancy ended in tragedy she maintained a courteous disposition”
Religion sustained her through her darkest moments, and she revived the tradition of ‘Touching for the King’s Evil’ whereby it was believed the sovereign had the power to cure the skin disease scrofula by touching the afflicted.
Anne also cultivated intense friendships, notably with Sarah Churchill (née Jennings), wife of the Duke of Marlborough, whom she appointed to the key positions of Groom of the Stole, Mistress of the Robes, and Keeper of the Privy Purse. They frequently corresponded by letter, dispensing with protocol and using the ‘levelling’ noms de plume Mrs Morley (Anne) and Mrs Freeman (Sarah).
It was claimed Anne was in Sarah’s thrall, but Anne could still wield authority and dismissed Sarah after a spectacular falling out, partly for the latter’s promotion of Whig propaganda against Anne’s own Tory preferences.
The most significant change of Anne’s reign was the Act of Union 1707 that united England and Scotland as
Great Britain. Until then, though they shared a sovereign, each country had its own parliament and could have conflicting policies. This was thrown into sharp relief when the Scots declared they were free to choose someone other than Sophia of Hanover as their successor to Anne, with the implication it could be the exiled James Stuart.
After much bitter debate, the two parliaments agreed to unite, with one British Parliament sitting in Westminster, a common flag and coinage, while Scotland retained its own established Church and its legal and educational systems. Anne, who had personally encouraged the union throughout, declared, “We shall esteem it as the greatest glory of our reign … being fully persuaded it must prove the greatest happiness of our people.”
Anne’s latter years after her husband’s death in 1708 were particularly hard to bear and, after suffering two strokes at Kensington Palace in 1714, she died aged just 49. “I believe sleep was never more welcome to a weary traveller than death was to her,” wrote her doctor. Her poor body was so swollen that the coffin in which she was buried in Westminster Abbey, near her husband and children, was almost square.
Despite fears to the contrary, the immediate accession of the House of Hanover went smoothly. Sophia of Hanover had died, so it was her son, King George I, who inherited a kingdom in good shape and increasing in power.
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