Nothing is more difficult than to recreate in all its complexity than a distant age and not only to get it right, but make it seem fresh and relevant. Fortunately, Anne Somerset has already done this brilliantly in her outstanding biography of Elizabeth I. In the case of Elizabeth, of course, Ms. Somerset had the advantage of writing about one of the most famous (and most compellingly interesting) of all English monarchs, the subject of so many different plays, films, and television dramas that we almost feel we know and understand her. Her new subject Queen Anne, on the contrary, does not loom large as a figure around which to build a television miniseries, and most readers, in the United States at any rate, would be hard pressed to place her exactly in time, or say anything about her reign.
In fact, Anne’s relatively short reign (twelve years) was pivotal, and marked the emergence of England as a major power in the endless wars of European succession, sealed once and for all the future of England as a Protestant nation, and brought to the throne a woman of great intelligence, political skill, and determination to rule—as well as one whose strongest emotional (and perhaps sexual) attachment was to other women.
It is sometimes the fate of England to do what seems daring and difficult in politics long before the United States (which, did not of course yet exist in Queen Anne’s day) gets around to doing it. We have yet to elect a Jewish president on this side of the Atlantic, while Benjamin Disraeli was a hugely successful prime minister in the latter part of the 19th Century, and we only just tested whether a lesbian can be elected mayor of New York City, while England may very likely have had one on the throne in the 17th Century.
While there was no equivalent of Rupert Murdoch at the time, there were also no secrets in the densely packed court of the 17th Century, in which there was no such thing as privacy, and when everything the monarch did was closely attended by courtiers and gossipy servants—it was not considered unusual that James II’s wife, Mary of Modena, gave birth before an audience of forty courtiers. Speculation about their monarch’s private life was widespread, but it was not as important to her subjects as the fact that she represented the Protestant succession, at a time when people still lived on the dangerous edge between the return of a Catholic monarchy and a the shaky hold on the throne of a Protestant one, a period described well in that famous old English satirical song The Vicar of Bray:
“When Royal Anne became our Queen,Then Church of England’s glory,Another face of things was seen,And I became a Tory…And this is the law, I will maintainUnto my Dying Day, Sir,That whatsoever King may reign.I will be the Vicar of Bray, Sir.”
The whole country shared the same ambition; after the Civil War, the Puritan Commonwealth, the beheading of Charles I by Parliament, the restoration of the monarchy in the person of King Charles II, and the short, stormy reign followed by exile of James II, the national impulse was merely to emerge on the winning side. The English had not yet completely lost their taste for extreme religious disputes, but after nearly a century of political turmoil and bloodshed, they were tired of staking their prosperity and peace of mind on the religious belief of their sovereign, nor did they want to repeat the experience of living under the clanking, authoritarian military dictatorship of Cromwell and his major generals. Charles II was admired because—although he was suspected of being a Catholic, in sympathy if not in fact—he lived a spectacularly secular life, and seemed to have little or no interest in religion himself. The English were like a man recovering from a wild binge, which had begun a century earlier with Henry VIII’s decision to break with Rome over his divorce, and carried them on a wild rollercoaster ride from one religious extreme to another.
Anne came to the throne in consequence of these tangled dynastic, political, and religious quarrels. Born in the reign of Charles II, her father the Duke of York was the King’s younger brother, and was deposed only three years after he came to the throne as James II because of his open adherence to Catholicism. Anne and her older sister Mary had been brought up as a Protestants on the instructions of her Uncle Charles II—although he is usually referred to as “merry,” the King was also wise, and had returned from exile with an unrivalled gift at reading the mind of his fractious subjects. The birth of a son to James II shortly after his succession to the throne more or less guaranteed a Catholic heir, and that threat precipitated the tumultuous events that brought about James’s flight to France, “The Glorious Revolution” that placed Anne’s older sister Mary (and her husband the Dutch Prince of Orange) on the throne. Since they were childless, Anne became next in line for the crown. She was by no means an innocent bystander to these great events, however—a devoted card player, she played her own hand shrewdly and carefully, indeed her refusal to recognize her infant half-brother as the Prince of Wales, or to support her father, who complained not without reason that even his own children had deserted him, was calculated to bring herself to the throne. Married to the dull, but worthy Prince George of Denmark, Anne had seventeen pregnancies, but only four of them produced live infants, none of whom survived long.
Those who are compulsive watchers of The Game of Thrones or The Tudors would in fact be better off reading Anne Somerset’s masterful and fast-paced biography. Anne’s grasp of politics, the almost unbelievably dramatic events that surrounded her life, the plots and counterplots around her, above all the dominating “love interest” of the Queen’s life, Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, the tempestuous wife of the most gifted and successful general in English history, whose descendants would include Winston Churchill, and for whom Blenheim Palace, that grandest of private homes, would be built. The relationship between the Queen and her beautiful, fascinating, conniving, demanding, passionate, infuriating, jealous, and ambitious confidente Sarah, is dealt with by Ms. Somerset with a deft blend of consummate tact and unflinching detail, and remains one of the more astonishing episodes in the long history of the English royal family. Sarah was witty, acerbic, shrewdly manipulative in furthering her husband’s interests while he was away on the Continent winning his great victories, and yet capable of great, indeed stifling loyalty to Anne. Clearly, Anne adored her with a combination of passion and extraordinary patience that is, alas, only too frequent in great love affairs, and equally clearly, Sarah, despite her rages, her tantrums and her determination to squeeze every political and material advantage she could out of the besotted Queen, adored her back, a relationship which caused a scandal in their time, and would still no doubt cause one in ours. Anne, for her part, though long-suffering, never forgot that she was the Queen, not Sarah, and eventually put an end to Sarah’s domination, and with steely determination replaced her in the ultimate humiliation with Sarah’s own cousin, the quieter, but equally determined Abigail Masham. Sarah fired back with a volley of scandalous innuendo about the Queen and Abigail Masham, but in those broad-minded days Anne’s determination to adhere to the Protestant succession, and the tricky settlement that would bring the crown on her death, through his mother, to the Prince-Elector of Hanover, a fat and unsympathetic German who spoke not a word of English, rather than to her dashing Catholic half-brother, mattered more to the English than her somewhat muddled passions.
This is all Game of Thrones material, sex, jealousy, and politics, but fascinating as it is, Ms. Somerset is a serious biographer and a very readable historian. She is fortunate, as are her readers: these people wrote an enormous number of letters, and lived surrounded by a court which dealt in gossip, in an age when a malevolent pen was a more dangerous weapon than a sword, and when the broadsheet, the cartoon and popular ballads were as deadly and pitiless as pieces in the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror or the Daily Express are today, and perhaps more so. Nothing the current royal family has had to put up with comes close to the vitriolic, stinging libels that greeted Stuart monarchs, in an age when the personal life of the royals was not just good gossip, but bound up with bitter political and religious strife between Whig and Tory, and between those who clung to the Protestant succession and those who yearned for “the king across the sea,” and it was Anne’s fate to attempt to square this circle. To this day, water is not served at table in the officer’s mess of some of the older British Army regiments, for in the 17th Century many officers, when the King or Queen’s health was toasted, passed their wine glass across their water glass to signify that the exiled Stuart Pretender was their rightful monarch, while water is served in wardrooms of Her Majesty’s ships (where it is even less likely to be drunk) because the Navy’s loyalty was never in doubt.
Anne Somerset tells brilliantly the story of this tangled reign, in which England and Scotland were finally combined to create “Great Britain,” and in which English conquests and victories on land an on sea made it a worldwide empire, and a serious contender for European power. Above all she brings Anne to life as a shrewd and an instinctive politician, in her middle age increasingly gouty and overweight, but with a compelling personality and a deft touch in an age when the monarch still reigned. Ms. Somerset’s book is history at its best, authoritative without being overbearing or over-detailed, constantly illuminated by a canny eye for the revealing detail or anecdote, and above all readable as we follow Queen Anne’s life and her increasingly firm grip on power, despite a life full of tragedies, intense family pressures and divisions, and the constant difficulty of dealing with her endlessly demanding and outspoken friend Sarah Churchill.
Those who write history are constantly being criticized for being either too “popular” or too “academic,” but Anne Somerset manages to strike the perfect balance between the two, her book being at once entertaining and yet solidly based on meticulous scholarship. It is a grand achievement and sheds welcome light on one of the more underappreciated English sovereigns, and on what might be called the Age of Jonathan Swift. If ever a work of history managed to be “definitive” and yet great fun to read, this is it.