Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion
By Anne Somerset (HarperPress 416pp £25)
Poor old Queen Anne. Fat, lame, with an obstetric history that would break the hardest of hearts: seventeen pregnancies in seventeen years, sixteen of them resulting in miscarriages, still births or infant deaths. William, Duke of Gloucester, was the only child to survive its first birthday; the apple of his mother's eye, hailed as the saviour of Protestant England, he was hydrocephalic and died of smallpox when he was just eleven. Anne knew tragedy in her life. And she had piles. How could you not feel sorry for her?
Quite easily, as Anne Somerset's new biography demonstrates. The queen emerges from its pages not as a figure to be pitied, but as needy, spiteful and incapable of leadership, with an unerring knack of alienating the affections of everyone who knew her - not the kind of qualities one looks for in any job applicant, and certainly not in a sovereign.
I should qualify this right away by saying that The Politics of Passion is no hatchet job. Somerset is scrupulously fair to her subject, and without ever once succumbing to that curse of truly objective writing - dullness. Moreover, her book is one of the most enjoyable biographies I've read in the past year, elegantly written and with an encyclopaedic grasp of the period. I loved every page of it. It's just that Queen Anne wasn't very nice.
Raised a Protestant at the insistence of her uncle, Charles II, Anne was never comfortable with the fact that her father, mother and stepmother were Catholics. Mary of Modena (second wife of James II), who was cast unfairly by Anne as the wicked stepmother, bore the brunt of her malice: she was 'a very great bigot' and a lover of flattery. The way she said one thing and meant another 'really is enough to turn one's stomach,' declared the priggish princess, before going on to say without batting an eye that she was pretending to like the queen 'that she may not have any just cause against me'.
It may not have been Anne who started the rumour that the hoped-for son and heir that Mary produced in 1688 was no heir at all. But she certainly believed that a stranger's child had been smuggled into St James's Palace in its place, even after the queen's dresser told her to her face that she had watched 'the midwife cut the navel string'. The idea never left her, confirming her conviction that Catholics 'will stick at nothing, be it never so wicked, if it will promote their interest'. It conveniently enabled her to desert James II during the Glorious Revolution, a blow which, coming on top of everything else, caused the devoted father to lose his mind.
After some jockeying for position, Anne's place in the line of succession was fixed in the Convention Parliament of 1689. The crown was vested jointly in William and Mary; then it would go to their children, if they had any; and then it would come to her. While still ranting against her stepmother and hypocritically pretending to make peace with her father, she fell out with William for dismissing Marlborough after the latter stirred up anti-Dutch sentiment in Parliament; and with Mary, who barred Marlborough's wife and Anne's best friend, Sarah Churchill, from the court. The king and queen were 'monsters', Anne said. William was 'the Dutch abortion' and 'Mr Caliban'.
It is only after Mr Caliban's death that one begins to regard Anne in a kindlier light. Not because monarchy conferred wisdom or improved her character, but because everyone around her was so much more awful. Godolphin, her Lord Treasurer, played ruthlessly on her insecurities. I lost count of the number of times he threatened to resign if she didn't give in to one or another of his demands. Her Woman of the Bedchamber, Abigail Masham, exploited her without a qualm. Her Captain-General, the Duke of Marlborough, won battles for her while negotiating with the Jacobites behind her back and taking bribes from foreign powers.
Then there's the duke's wife, the dreadful Sarah Churchill. Somerset's book overflows with astonishing instances of Sarah's appalling behaviour. She told the queen that her husband, Prince George, was having a homosexual affair, which he wasn't. She accused Anne herself of being in a lesbian relationship with Masham - and then threatened blackmail. When Anne expressed concern for her reputation, Sarah countered by telling her it 'surprised me very much that your Majesty should so soon mention that word after having discovered so great a passion for such a woman. I'm sure there can be no great reputation in a thing so strange and unaccountable.'
All the time Sarah was 'borrowing' thousands of pounds from the Privy Purse and presenting an alternative set of accounts that contained no trace of the loans. At their final parting, she stole the grates and the brass locks from her St James's lodgings. The locks, for heaven's sake!
Somerset guides us expertly and effortlessly through the labyrinthine party politics of the reign with its rhythm of alliance and betrayal, setting out for our education and entertainment the unprincipled double-dealing that characterised both Whigs and Tories. After scoring a point against his arch-rival the Earl of Oxford, Anne's secretary of state Lord Bolingbroke boasted of how he had spent the day: 'In the morning I went to the Queen and ruined the dog [ie Oxford]; at dinner I got drunk with champagne; and at night was put to bed to the prettiest whore in England.'
Oxford was little better. He mumbled, so that no one could hear what he said. And when he spoke up, his utterances were so Delphic that no one could understand them. When Anne finally dismissed him, she said it was because 'he was seldom to be understood; [and] that when he did explain himself, she could not depend upon the truth of what he said'. Oh, and she wasn't too keen on his neglect of business, his lack of punctuality, his drunkenness, and the fact that 'he behaved himself towards her with ill manner, indecency and disrespect'.
Not everyone who gathered around Anne was a villain. One or two were just plain odd, like her cousin the 3rd Earl of Clarendon, who as governor of New York used to attend functions dressed as a woman because, he claimed, only in this way could he represent his queen. And a few were kind and decent: Prince George of Denmark, for example, generally regarded as a dullard ('neither good nor bad, but he is a bit fat', said the French ambassador), was a loving husband, and a source of comfort and common sense.
But most were bad - either venal, like Anne's hangers-on, or petulant and querulous, like her. Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion brings them all to life with flair and scholarship, a perfect illustration of the adage that bad people make good history.
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Adrian Tinniswood's next book, The Rainborowes, will be published in 2013.