Historians have often underestimated Queen Anne because she was quiet and plain. In fact, her strong common sense and identification with the hopes and fears of her people would make her the most successful of the Stuarts.
Queen Anne’s Bad Press
Queen Anne would win the War of the Spanish Succession, not least because she chose able ministers to fight it for her and run her government. Their job was to fight the war but also to maintain her freedom of maneuver in the face of the two political parties, both of which sought to capture majorities in Parliament and force the queen to employ them in government. To do that, they had to sway a sizeable electorate on the three major issues of the reign: the succession, religion, and the war.
Queen Anne ascended to rapturous cheering, bells, and bonfires, but she has not received good press since.
Take this account from a current, popular, and (it must be said) a generally judicious survey of English history, written primarily for the American market by two historians whom I admire:
Princess Anne, daughter of James II, ascended the throne in 1702. She was 37 years old, exceedingly fat, red and spotted in complexion, and wracked by doubt. She had to be carried to her coronation. She was slow-witted, uninformed, obstinate, and narrow-minded, yet also pious, sensible, good-natured, and kind.
She bore 15 children and buried them all. She loved the Church and those who defended it, but had no interest in art, music, plays, or books. Her one hobby was eating; her husband’s was drinking.
This ordinary woman whom the laws of hereditary monarchy raised to the throne, helped shape events during these years in two ways: first, by naming the Earl of Marlborough in 1702 to command her troops, and secondly by dismissing him from that command in 1711. By the first act, she brought England unparalleled military victories; by the second, she brought peace to her kingdom.
Faint praise, indeed.
Yet even the most careless reader or listener can’t possibly miss the logical problem at the heart of the passage: On the one hand, according to the authors, Anne was clearly unfit by her constitution, her intelligence (or lack thereof), her temperament, her education, her experience, and apparently even her appearance, to rule. Yet this ordinary woman helped shape the fate of her people—and of Europe in general—by two actions that “brought England unparalleled military victories” and “peace to her kingdom.” No other Tudor or Stuart could make that claim.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of England from the Tudors to the Stuarts. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
The youngest daughter of James II, Anne was 37 years old at her accession. But a series of 18 pregnancies, plus poor eating habits and bad 17th-century medical care, had left her prematurely aged, overweight, and lame from gout and, finally, childless after the death of her beloved Gloucester in 1700.
Lacking “Star” Quality…
Anne was quiet, shy, thrifty, pious, happy in her marriage to Prince George, and of average intelligence. In short, she lacked the star quality of Queen Elizabeth or even her sister Mary II. As a result, historians used to portray her as a nonentity.
For example, Justin McCarthy wrote in 1911: “When we speak of the age of Queen Anne, we cannot possibly associate the greatness of the era with any genius or inspiration coming from the woman whose name it bears.”
In fact, I should perhaps take this opportunity to point out that nearly everything in our society that bears the designation Queen Anne, from lace to houses to chairs, has nothing to do with her and usually nothing to do with the period. If you see a Queen Anne house in the United States, you’re seeing something that would have struck Queen Anne as fantastical.
Beatrice Curtis Brown, in her lugubriously titled Alas, Queen Anne of 1929, wrote, “Anne as a historical pivot does not exist.”
I submit that this is a piece of simple sexism, whatever the gender of the historian. England’s previous queen, Elizabeth, has always received a good press, but it’s in part because, apart from her looks, her virtues tended to be those traditionally associated with males: courage, stubbornness, and presence. When male historians have wanted to bash her, what do they pick on? Only her indecisiveness.
Learn more about when Queen Anne’s lifelong fragile health finally fails
Anne’s virtues, on the other hand—her calmness, thrift, piety, and fidelity—are those of the “good” housewife. Is it any wonder that a profession dominated by men has—until very recently—found her wanting? Her one vice was overeating, but could she have picked a worse one from the point of view of modern prejudices?
In fact, in the course of my work on Anne, I found that generally if a historian describes her as “comely” or “plump,” then he usually thinks her a pretty good queen. If he or she describes her as “grossly obese,” she’s always a nonentity.
Possessing Rare Strengths
Anne had many positive qualities missing from her Stuart and even her Tudor forebears. She had a strong fund of common sense. She was dedicated to the job of being queen. She respected the postrevolutionary constitution, and she made no claim to divine right.
She understood that she was a constitutional monarch. She was pious and moral, and, in particular, passionately loyal to the Church of England.
Above all, she had an instinctive love for, understanding of, and sense of responsibility toward her people. How many Stuarts can we say that of? In fact, unable to have healthy children but happily married to Prince George, obviously Anne could not be the Virgin Queen wedded to her people as Elizabeth was.
Instead, she cultivated the image of the nursing mother of her people. This area of life where she’d obviously been a failure, she was able to turn into a positive by becoming their mother. Obviously, in this case, the queen’s matronly appearance actually played to her advantage.
Recent historians have come to realize that Anne, while no political genius, was nevertheless the most successful Stuart. Her reign would see the culmination of the Commercial and Financial Revolutions and widespread prosperity; an Act of Union with Scotland; a victorious war against France; a peace that would leave England the leading military power in Europe; a great flowering of English culture; and finally, she was the most popular sovereign with the possible exception of Elizabeth—and it’s hard to tell, because Elizabeth is always the one telling us how popular she was.
Common Questions About Queen Anne
Queen Anne suffered from many things. Psychologically she was extremely shy. Physically she suffered from gout, extreme eye watering and obesity.
Queen Anne died of a stroke.
Queen Anne became pregnant 18 times and bore only one child. Of the remaining 17 terminations, 4 died shortly after birth, 5 were stillborn, and 8 were miscarriages largely believed to be caused by Antiphospholipid Syndrome, which essentially pits the immune system against itself.
Queen Anne was succeeded by George I.