Rethinking Queen Anne: A Conundrum of Queenship
In a BBC poll from 2015, just 1% of voters decided that Queen Anne (1665-1714) was the best queen in English history; Queen Elizabeth I scooped 45% of the vote, while Victoria and Elizabeth II received 10% each. Although up against stiff competition, the vote is typical of Queen Anne’s historical reputation- a forgotten queen from a period often overlooked in public history. While many English queens achieved fame or notoriety, Anne’s legacy has been hazy at best. Yet her reign arguably achieved more than those of her immediate predecessors and successors: she oversaw the pivotal Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707, as well as military success during the War of Spanish Succession. By the end of her reign, the constitutional problem of succession had been resolved and an increased number of poor were provided for in pension lists. Even the chaotic trial of the seditious Dr Sacheverell in 1710 was relatively civilised compared to the political violence of the previous decades . So why has public history been so reluctant to discuss Queen Anne?
The issue at the heart of the problem here is gender; more specifically, femininity. When compared to Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria, two queens who also ruled in their own right, Anne appears ambiguous. She lacked the passion and vim of the Virgin Queen, who both bemoaned and transcended the perceived weaknesses of her sex, but she also lacked the family dynamic that dominated Queen Victoria’s public image. By comparison, Anne’s seventeen failed pregnancies, happy marriage and willingness to conform to contemporary ideals have made it difficult to find in her the transgressive qualities that characterise more popular queens, like Elizabeth I and Empress Matilda.
Furthermore, her meticulous reforms concerning the royal household and her self-styled image as the “nursing mother of the nation” have evoked images of a domestically minded, housewifely queen, who had little interest in matters of state . Her education had been largely focused on the domestic, as suggested by her persistent use of the phrase “in my poor opinion” in conversation with her advisers . After her death, politicians championed her passivity and personal morality once government relations with George II hit turbulence. The memoirs of her former favourite, the Duchess of Marlborough, further muddied the waters. According to the duchess, Anne was a “stubborn”, “corpulent” woman with “nothing of brightness or wit”, who “loved fawning…and hated plain-dealing”. This testimony was first published in 1725, over a decade after the Duchess left court following her husband’s fall from grace, but despite its evident prejudice this damning indictment has shaped an enduring portrait of Anne as a queen of mediocre ability.
Our understanding of Anne’s reign, however, has been overturned by recent research. Although reform of the royal household was a priority for Anne, she also kept tight control over patronage- thekey to unlocking government office for political hopefuls. Gregg’s pioneering biography has exposed her strong, active presence in politics, as evidenced by her daily meetings with ministers and the long hours she spent dealing with correspondence. She presided over cabinet meetings at least once a week- in fact, during her reign no meeting was conducted without her . Although Anne has been portrayed as dependent on her male and female advisers, she refused to privilege either the Tories or the Whigs, having written to Lord Godolphin in 1705 that she wished to keep out of “the power of the merciless men of both parties”- no mean feat during a period known as the ‘rage of party’. Moreover, even before her accession, during the Glorious Revolution Anne forsook her father, James II, to follow her Anglican convictions, allying with her brother-in-law, William of Orange. This behaviour was a far cry from filial obedience and duty.
How, then, should Anne’s reign be read? The Queen’s reform of the royal household illustrates her ‘housewifely’ grip on the Court, and this supplemented attempts to style herself as the ‘nursing mother’ of the newly born British nation. Even in her portraits, the Queen appears buxom and mild, rather than elegant or commanding. Yet when we consider her substantial role in government, then Anne’s public image as ‘mother’ of the nation wasn’t necessarily about concealing an active politician behind a polite façade; rather, it created a legitimate space in which ideas of femininity in politics could be reshaped. It should not be forgotten that Anne operated within a rigid patriarchal context, and the fact she chose to legitimate her rule through maternal tropes, despite Elizabeth I’s precedent, alludes to a savvy woman willing to bend constraint to her own advantage. Although depicted as apologetic and unconcerned, she was politically aware, if not sharp, and governed according to her own sense of what the nation needed, even if this brought her into conflict with her advisors as it did over the union with Scotland . In this way, she could be both ‘mother’ and ‘ruler’ without the two necessarily contradicting each other.
For history to condemn Anne for embracing femininity undermines the importance of feminist thought in historical scholarship. Regardless of whether Anne truly internalised the virtues she was celebrated for, the truth is she was a successful queen in her own right, and her interpretation of royal prerogative and her female counsel were vital in articulating a space for femininity in high politics.