Historically, the legacy of the reign of the last Stuart monarch, Queen Anne, has been marred by allegations that Anne was a weak woman who was ruled by her favorites. The accomplishments of her reign have been attributed to men she entrusted with leadership roles, most notably John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough. Similarly, the wrongs perpetrated during her reign have been imputed to the misguidance of her favorites. Historian and biographer Anne Somerset’s new book exhaustively shows that Anne, to the contrary, was a sensible and conscientious ruler, most consistent in her views and often very stubborn, although private and reserved.
Much of what was popularly known about Queen Anne came from the writings of Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, who was Anne’s close friend and confidante for many years before becoming her bitter enemy. Even when they were close, the duchess seems to have been a demanding harridan, whose idea of her own power and desserts grew too rapacious and who treated the queen abominably for years. Having read a biography of the duchess several years ago, I approached this book believing Anne was a weak and silly woman, but it has made me change my mind.
Somerset makes an interesting point that Anne’s lack of charisma and physical appearance may have hurt her legacy. Although the portrait of the young Anne reveals a beautiful lady, by the time of her reign she was grossly overweight and plagued by serious physical ailments. These were diagnosed at the time as various disorders, including gout, but a modern look at her symptoms indicates that she may have suffered from lupus, a serious autoimmune disease. For the most part she soldiered on uncomplaining to do her duty for her country.
This book lucidly explains the complex issues that echoed throughout Anne’s reign, including the ouster of King James II, Anne’s father, and the refusal to acknowledge his son, Anne’s half brother James Francis Edward Stuart, as a legitimate heir to the throne because of his Catholicism; the bitter feuds between the Whigs and the Tories; and the War of the Spanish Succession. The book is thorough in its research and very well written. Although I tired at times of its dissection of a seemingly endless series of disputes among those vying for power, I think the book offers a considered and balanced look at Queen Anne’s life and reign.
I received a copy of this book free through a giveaway on Goodreads.