Monday, January 30, 2017

Queen Anne, Last M.C. of the Stuart Dynasty

While I doubt I would have personally enjoyed living in her era (or at any time before modern medicine, really), I must confess to finding the reign of Queen Anne, last Stuart monarch of England, curiously appealing. Anne had become an anachronism even before her coronation. Parliament had by statute excluded the Catholic members of her family from the succession, making her by 1702 the only Stuart eligible to wear the crown. More tragically, Anne’s eighteen (!) pregnancies ended either in stillbirths or childhood deaths, so by her accession she knew she would have no successors of her body or blood. From the very beginning of her reign Anne knew that her dynasty had reached the end of the line.

During Anne’s regime Parliament and the various ministries busied themselves with the War of the Spanish Succession, a conflict known in Her Majesty’s colonies as Queen Anne’s War. Anne herself played no direct role in managing the conflict, other than leaving much of the fighting to one of her favorites, John Churchill (a competent general), and vetoing a Scottish militia bill in 1708. Anne became the last British monarch to disallow an Act of Parliament; her successors, all German, preferred to stay clear of lawmaking.* She otherwise devoted herself to the ceremonies and rituals that sacralized and legitimated her rule. Anne committed the details of court ceremony to her prodigious memory, criticized her courtiers for trivial lapses in protocol and minor flaws in costume, and publicly advertised her divine right by “curing” commoners of scrofula, the “king’s evil.” The queen in this respect resembled other end-of-the-line monarchs, like Charles X of France and Franz Joseph of Austria, substituting atmospherics for the actual exercise of power. 

Queen Anne later acquired a reputation as a sickly and unpleasant person. A contemporary described her as “ugly, corpulent, gouty, sluggish, a glutton, and a tippler." These features, if accurately described, one may attribute to Anne’s profound health problems. In addition to gout, the queen almost certainly suffered from lupus or an illness very like it. Her chronic joint pain made exercise difficult and doubtless gave her a short temper, alleviated by the liberal consumption of alcohol. Lupus also caused Anne’s numerous late-term miscarriages, which blighted her adult life and undermined her political standing (the production of a living heir being a monarch’s chief duty). Despite her disabilities, however, Anne displayed in her short life (1665-1714) a variety of personal talents. She spoke French fluently, committed poetry to memory, supported art and architecture**, and, when her hands were up to it, played the guitar like an expert. We err, perhaps, in viewing Anne simply as an obscure monarch, and do better to consider her a disabled woman who strove, in spite of her illnesses, to fulfill her professional duties: master of ceremonies for a constitutional monarchy and patroness of the arts. 

Source: Cedric Reverand, ed., Queen Anne and the Arts (Lewisburg, Pen., 2015), 7, 207-208.

* With some indirect exceptions: William IV and George V both threatened to enlarge the House of Lords to secure its assent to popular legislation, namely the 1832 Reform Act and Irish Home Rule.

** Saint Paul’s Cathedral was completed during Anne’s reign, and her statue now stands outside its main doors, where her crowned head provides a welcome perch for pigeons.

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