Daily Archives: January 31, 2012

It’s Not That Easy Being Queen

A flattering portrait of Queen Anne by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1705

If you’re flipping through the pages of a history book and come across Queen Anne of Great Britain (ruled 1702-1714), you would conclude that she was a fairly successful monarch.  Technically she was the first monarch of Great Britain, since the 1707 Act of Union, which united the kingdoms of England and Scotland, happened while she was on the throne.

The arts and sciences flourished during her reign.  To this day, Queen Anne style is a term applied to furniture and decorative arts.  She knighted Isaac Newton in 1705; he was the first scientist to receive that honor.

Anne wasn’t personally leading the troops, of course, but Britain had some major military victories while she was queen.  In fact, she is one of the rare monarchs in history who has a war named for her.

Ask any 10 North Americans where (and when) Queen Anne’s War was fought, and they’ll respond with a gesture like they’re swatting away a mosquito.  Maybe 1 in 100 know that Queen Anne’s War was fought in North America from 1702-1713, and that it resulted in Britain’s acquisition of Nova Scotia, the Hudson Bay region and the island of St. Kitts.

What the history book might not mention is how profoundly miserable Anne must have been. 

Royal females were expected to produce heirs, and that was a task at which she failed.  Not that she didn’t try — from the time of her arranged marriage to a Danish prince at age 17, the princess Anne was almost constantly pregnant until she was 35.  Various sources list the number of her pregnancies between 16 and 18, but she had no children who survived.

Most of her pregnancies resulted in miscarriages or stillbirths; only five were live births.  To compound the tragedy, two daughters — Mary (not quite 2 years old) and her sister Anne Sophia (10 months old) — died of smallpox within days of each other.  Anne’s longest surviving child, William, lived just past his 11th birthday.

There has been a lot of speculation by historians about the medical reasons for all that sadness, but very little admiration is expressed for Anne’s courageous efforts to give her people what they wanted.  The truth is, she had a host of health problems:  gout, arthritis, some sort of facial skin eruption, and possibly lupus erythematosus. 

Those conditions were aggravated by poor dietary habits — way too much eating and drinking.  Writing in the online British Medical Journal (BMJ), pathologist H.E. Emson characterized Anne as “massively obese”.

She had to be carried in a sedan chair to her coronation, and had great difficulty walking from around age 30 or so.  when she died at 49, the Stuart line ended.  Anne was buried in Westminster Abbey in a coffin that, due to her girth, was almost square.

Portraits painted during her lifetime bear no resemblance to written descriptions by her contemporaries, because court painters want to a) get paid, and b) not get beheaded.  They flattered her, but she undoubtedly knew she was no beauty queen.  Anne just did her royal job day after day, even though she was in agony most of the time.  It couldn’t have been easy.