Five years after ascending the throne in 1702, Queen Anne united England and Scotland and became the first queen of modern Great Britain. By the end of her reign, Britain had emerged as a major power; the victories won by her general, the Duke of Marlborough, had humbled France and laid the foundations for naval and colonial supremacy. But while the Queen’s military was performing dazzling exploits, her own attention increasingly rested on a more intimate conflict: her passionate and tormented relationship with Sarah Churchill, the beautiful Duchess of Marlborough, whose scathing wit and personal enmity have long distorted our view of Anne.
Award-winning biographer Anne Somerset has drawn extensively on royal archives and previously unpublished material to create a riveting reassessment of a shy, overlooked monarch—one who was both shrewder and more fascinating than we knew.
Nothing But Uneasiness
The duke and duchess of Marlborough’s only surviving son, John, Lord Blandford, was studying at Cambridge. He was sixteen years old and considered a promising student, when in February 1703 he caught the dreaded smallpox. His distraught and fearful mother immediately rushed to Cambridge to be at his bedside.
The Queen was naturally appalled to hear that this talented young man had contracted the deadly disease that had killed her daughters fifteen years earlier, and was desperate to do all she could to help. She des- patched two of her personal physicians in her own coach to tend the boy and fretted when they were “long upon the road.” She also sent medicine that she believed might bring him through the illness, wishing that the messenger carrying it “could fly, that nothing may be wanting.” Sadly, none of this availed to save Blandford. Having been summoned to Cam- bridge by Sarah, the Duke arrived there just in time to see his son die on 20 February.
Once it had become clear that there was little hope of Blandford’s survival, Anne had written to his mother, “Christ Jesus comfort and support you under this terrible affliction, and it is his mercy alone that can do it.” Sarah, however, lacked the reserves of faith that had afforded Anne some vestige of comfort when she had experienced similar losses. When Sarah shut herself away at her house near St. Albans, the Queen ached to come and see her, pointing out, “I know so well what you feel” and that “the unfortunate ought to come to the unfortunate.” Sarah rejected the offer outright. Such was her agony that Anne’s attempts to console her in her letters only aggravated her pain. Trying not to be hurt, Anne wrote that “though what your poor unfortunate faithful Morley says may not suit with your humours,” she hoped that Sarah would recognise that she meant well.
The Queen saw the bereft parents when Marlborough and his wife came to wait on her on 28 February, four days before the Duke left for the Continent to resume military operations against France. After her husband had sailed, Sarah went back to the country, still enveloped in misery. Later in the month one person reported, “We hear the Duchess of Marlborough bears not her affliction like her mistress.” At night she was glimpsed wandering around the cloisters of St. Albans Abbey like a ghost, and it was said that Blandford’s death affected “not only her heart but her brain.” This tragic event would indeed have a permanently corrosive effect on Sarah’s personality.
Far from making her feel a greater affinity with the Queen, on the grounds that they had experienced equally dreadful losses, Sarah’s grief acquired a competitive edge. She came to believe that Anne’s suffering when her children died had not been nearly as intense as hers. Noting that Anne had never given way to the uninhibited weeping fits that over- came her at this time of sorrow, Sarah would even suggest that Anne had not been particularly “concerned” by the Duke of Gloucester’s death. “Her nature was very hard, and she was not apt to cry,” the Duchess observed harshly.
Sarah’s bitterness at the loss of her only son stifled her generosity of spirit. Now, intolerance and inflexibility became her dominant traits. By her own account, she had never derived much emotional satisfaction from her friendship with Anne, but henceforth it was validated in her eyes principally by the belief that she must mould Anne to her will and thus aid not only her husband and Godolphin but also the political party she favoured. Finding in politics an outlet that distracted her from her grief, Sarah devoted herself to it with febrile energy, seeing things in absolute terms that left no room for nuance. It became increasingly hard for her to accommodate any form of disagreement, or to concede that other people’s beliefs had any legitimacy at all. In the case of the Queen, she could not even accept that Anne was capable of forming her own convictions; instead, whenever they differed, she at once assumed that these ideas had been placed in her mind by others.
By late spring, Anne was becoming upset by Sarah’s distant manner. The Duchess rarely came to court, and in her letters addressed the Queen as “your Majesty” rather than “Mrs. Morley.” Anne begged her friend “to let me know if you are angry with me, or take anything ill, that I may justify myself, if you have any hard thoughts of me.” However, when she saw Sarah in London on 5 May, the encounter left the Queen with a “very heavy heart,” as the Duchess was “formal and cold” towards her. In consternation Anne implored, “For Christ Jesus’s sake tell me what’s the matter,” adding that while she did not believe herself at fault, “few people know themselves, and I am very sensible I have my failings as well as other people . . . Have pity on me and hide nothing . . . but open your dear heart freely, for I can have no ease till everything is set right between us.”
Anne was understandably perplexed when Sarah maintained that the change was not on her part but on the Queen’s, and implied that she could sense that Anne’s feelings for her were cooling. At the time the Queen fervently denied this, but with hindsight Sarah was confident that her instincts had been correct. The Duchess later came to believe that Anne had already become unhealthily fond of Abigail Hill, the poor cousin whom Sarah had installed as a Woman of the Bedchamber prior to the accession. Although, according to Sarah, Anne “could dissemble as well as any lady that I ever saw in my life,” the Duchess could detect that she was withdrawing emotionally from her, even if she had not yet identified the cause.
In one sense of course, the Duchess was correct in saying that Anne “was changed.” Since ascending the throne the Queen’s character had inevitably developed as she acquired a sense of her own authority and a stronger faith in her judgement, and Sarah had difficulty coping with this transformation. Anne longed to preserve her intimacy with her best friend, accounting herself fortunate for having forged such a bond, but perhaps inevitably her devotion had become less obsessive upon her accession.
Only the most hardened cynic could contend that the letter that Anne wrote to Sarah, probably on 22 May 1703, was insincere. Sarah had recently warned the Queen that her husband was feeling seriously demoralised. Apart from being saddened by the death of his son, he was upset because the Dutch were refusing to follow the military strategy he had advocated, and he also knew that some of his ministerial colleagues were criticising his conduct of the war. When he wrote telling Sarah that he would have to retire if things did not improve, she had passed this on to the Queen, who responded with a letter almost lyrical in its intensity. In this moving document Anne passionately reiterated her dependence on the Marlboroughs and Godolphin to sustain her through the challenging tasks that faced her:
It is no wonder at all that people in your posts should be weary of the world, but give me leave to say you should a little consider your faithful friends and poor country, which must be ruined if ever you put your melancholy thoughts in execution. As for your poor unfortunate faithful Morley, she could not bear it; for if ever you should forsake me, I would have nothing more to do with the world, but make another abdication; for what is a crown when the support of it is gone? I never will forsake your dear self, Mr. Freeman nor Mr. Montgomery but always be your constant and faithful friend, and we four must never part till death mows us down with his impartial hand.
Marlborough was so heartened by this letter that he shelved any thought of premature retirement, but Sarah’s discontent was not so easily assuaged. Since Anne had urged her to be frank whenever anything troubled her, Sarah began bombarding her with criticisms.
Scotland was one area that aroused the Duchess’s concern, as she made clear to Anne. Sarah mistakenly thought that Anne was both ignorant and misinformed about Scots affairs. This did not make it easy for the two women to discuss the issues calmly.
Sarah believed that the Queen should prioritise bringing Scotland into line with England as regards the succession, so that it was settled in law that on Anne’s death the Hanoverians would inherit the Scottish, as well as the English crown. The Queen, however, wanted more than this, believing that it was preferable to pursue Union between England and Scotland, and fearing that prematurely addressing the question of the succession would jeopardise this greater prize. Because of this, when a newly elected Scots Parliament met at Edinburgh in May 1703, the Queen’s letter read by her commissioner (the equivalent of the Queen’s speech at the opening of Westminster Parliaments) merely requested a grant of money, the hope being that once the Scots government had established itself on a more stable footing, it would be possible to introduce another bill for Union in a subsequent session. Unfortunately it soon emerged that the Scots ministry was too weak even to achieve the modest aim of obtaining a revenue. The Queen’s commissioner, the Duke of Queensberry, found their Parliament unmanageable, and when the ministry asked for a grant of taxes, the Marquis of Tweeddale said that before supply was considered, the question of what would happen in the event of the Queen’s death should first be discussed. Although Anne’s ministers had wanted to avoid this contentious subject, they had to agree to a debate.
The Duchess of Marlborough considered it lamentable that the Queen had not shown herself determined to have the Hanoverians established as her Scottish heirs, but Anne would not concede that her approach had been misguided. She wrote that while she was “sorry to see things go so ill” in Scotland, “I must beg dear Mrs. Freeman’s pardon for differing with her in that matter as to the succession.” She explained that if a Union could “ever be compassed there would be no occasion of naming a successor, for then we should be one people.” She continued, “The endeavouring to make any settlement now would in my poor opinion put an end to the Union, which everybody that wishes well to their country must own would be a great happiness to both nations.”
Sarah doubtless felt vindicated when the Scots parliamentary session ended in fiasco. On 13 August the Scots asserted their self-sufficiency from England by passing the Act of Security, stating that if Anne died childless, the Scottish Parliament would choose a successor to the Scots crown, who would be “of the royal line of Scotland and of the true Protestant religion.” This would not be the same person who occupied the English throne unless the Scots were satisfied by measures guaranteeing their autonomy, religion, and trading rights.
While it was some consolation that the Scots had not declared outright that they desired a restoration of James Francis Edward, the prospect that Anne’s death would terminate the Union of crowns—in being since 1603—was horrific for the English. The Duke of Queensberry advised Godolphin that sentiment in Scotland was so strong that Anne must endorse the measure by permitting the Act of Security to be touched with the sceptre, but the Lord Treasurer believed that the consequences would be too serious. Once it became clear that the royal assent would be withheld, there was fury in Scotland, and their Parliament retaliated by refusing to vote any taxes at all. The chamber rang with angry cries of “liberty and no subsidy,” and an English politician heard that “Some could hardly forbear threats and laying hands on their swords.” Far from having progressed towards the merger she desired, Anne had to acknowledge that “the rent is become wider.”
Excerpted from Queen Anne by Anne Somerset. Copyright © 2013 by Anne Somerset. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Winner of the 2013 Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography
“A spirited and extremely convincing defense of . . . an unlikely queen.” —The New York Times Book Review
“History at its best. . . . A grand achievement. . . . If ever a work of history managed to be ‘definitive’ and yet great fun to read, this is it.” —The Daily Beast
“A triumph of research and empathy. . . . Here, in brilliant detail, unfolds the passionate highs and tragic lows of a woman who fought to place her own mark in history.” —Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire
“A meticulously crafted view from the cockpit of power. . . . Queen Anne, Somerset shows, deserves fresh respect.” —Times Literary Supplement (London)
“Definitive. . . . Clearly the fullest, best and most sympathetic account of Queen Anne yet written.” —Evening Standard (UK)
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“Formidable. . . . It is has taken immense patience and skill . . . to create a new and subtler image of the last of the Stuart monarchs. Anne Somerset has done a real service both to us and to her namesake.” —Sunday Times (London)
“Sympathetic and engaging. . . . Somerset brings Anne’s anxious and dutiful character to life with delicacy.” —Daily Express (UK)
“Magisterial . . . incisive and compelling.” —Country Life
“Fascinating and rewarding. . . . In this excellent biography [Queen] Anne’s reputation is reclaimed.” —Sunday Express (UK)
“Excellent. . . . It is time to think differently about Queen Anne.” —Mail on Sunday (UK)