When it comes to tragic lives, Queen Anne undoubtedly wins the competition hands down, mainly due to her horrific gynaecological record. In sixteen years, she had seventeen pregnancies: twelve were either miscarried or stillborn, having died weeks before in her womb. Of all her children, only one survived to 11 years of age before he died as well. There would have been nothing more heartbreaking than seeing Anne and her husband mourning together over a tiny empty cot. Sometimes they wept uncontrollably together. Other times they would just sit in silence, staring at nothing. It must have been unimaginably awful.
By the time Anne came to the throne, she was sick with grief after losing so many children and she took the throne knowing she was the last of her line - The Stuart dynasty.
No one had ever called Anne glamorous. She had very poor vision, she was not highly intelligent, and she suffered from polyarthritis, blotchy skin and gout. From birth, she was plagued with numerous health problems and no one had ever really expected her to live to adulthood. In any case, England was not too concerned. She was the second of James II’s two daughters and her uncle, Charles II, seemed more than willing to produce a large family, if you know what I mean. Anne was so far down the line, she was almost forgotten.
You’d think that being a royal would mean that your mortality rate would be considerably lower than most, but that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. Anne grew up in a world full of controversy and death. In 1669, at only 4 years old, she was sent to France for some medical treatment where she lived with her paternal grandmother Queen Henrietta Maria at a chateau outside of Paris. Within a year, her grandmother was dead and she was hurriedly sent to live with her aunt, Henrietta Duchess of Orleans, who had been married for 10 years to Louis XIV’s younger brother Philippe.
Henrietta had been having problems with her own health at this stage. For 2 years, she had been complaining of an intermittent, intense pain in her side and shortly before Anne arrived, the pain had progressed and she was having digestive problems so severe, she could only drink milk. Then one morning late in June, she drank a glass of chicory water to relieve the colic and immediately, she felt the all-familiar pain in her side again and days later, she was dead.
With the sudden death of her aunt, 4-year-old Anne was hurriedly rushed back to the family home in England. In two years, Anne had lost two close family members and had already lived in four different homes. But there were even more changes for her in the future.
In the space of 7 years, Anne’s mother had delivered 6 children but she had been ill for around fifteen months after the birth of her youngest son Edgar. By then, she had already lost two small boys within a month of each other just before Edgar’s birth, and at a time when Anne would have been a lively 4-year-old, Anne’s mother was heavily pregnant again, which is perhaps part of the reason why Anne was sent to live with relatives in France in the first place. Her elder sister Mary was 7 years old and could look after herself in a fashion with the help of a nanny but we all know how much attention a 4-year-old toddler requires. To make matters worse, Anne and her mother were both suffering from ill health, so with a sickly baby to look after and another child on the way, Anne’s mother would never have been able to cope.
While Anne was away on the continent, her mother delivered a daughter she named Henrietta and by the time Anne returned home, her mother was heavily pregnant yet again. But within months of Anne’s return, Henrietta was dead as well. You’d think that things could not get any worse but one month after giving birth to her last child Catherine, yet another sickly daughter, Anne’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. After receiving the diagnosis, she simply gave up.
There didn’t seem a time in Anne’s short life when someone wasn’t dying. In the space of nine months, Anne’s mother died, her young brother Edgar died and in December of the same year, her youngest baby sister Catherine died as well. Of her seven brothers and sisters, the only sibling left was her elder sister Mary.
Her world at 6 years old must have been so full of confusion and death. On top of everything else that had happened in her short life, she and Mary were only one year away from being sent to live at Richmond in the care of Colonel Edward Villiers and his wife Frances. After their mother’s death, they would be separated from their father who was starting a new chapter in his life by marrying an Italian princess only 7 years older than Anne herself. On the bright side however, she was also only one year away from meeting the charismatic Sarah Jennings. Not too far in the future, Sarah Jennings would become Sarah Churchill after marrying John Churchill, a promising young officer in the English army and the brother of her father’s former mistress, and she would be destined to become Anne’s closest friend and advisor for most of Anne’s reign, although somewhat controversially.
The next few years were even more monumental for Anne. Life seemed to settle down at the home of the Villiers for a short while although there was a rather wobbly health scare for her at the age of twelve when she contracted smallpox. With her health always fragile, and so many robust people succumbing to the disease, no one really expected her to live through the illness. To their utmost astonishment, she did.
Almost at the same time as she was recuperating, her sister Mary was betrothed, then quickly married off to William of Orange, leaving England soon after to begin her new life in Holland. A year later, Frances Villiers contracted smallpox and was dead as well.
To have had so many changes in her young life must have left the 14-year-old almost numb with shock. Her mother, grandmother and aunt were all dead and her father had little to do with her. She had lost all but one of her siblings and that one had left the country to live with her new husband in Europe. Even her guardian had died. She was utterly alone.
To all intents and purposes, Anne must have been a lost little girl, isolated and alone. It helps to explain why Sarah Jennings was able to step in and cement their relationship with such ease in a world full of upheaval and it’s easy to understand why Anne clung desperately to the one constant in her life.
At 15, Anne was still unbetrothed and her uncle Charles II had begun looking for an eligible match who would be welcomed by his Catholic ally, Louis XIV of France. Her sister Mary had been living in Holland for six years by this time and even though both William and Louis hated each other with a passion, Louis was keen on an Anglo-Danish alliance to help contain the growing power the Dutch seemed to be amassing. Prince George of Denmark, the younger brother of King Christian V, seemed the ideal match to appease Louis and Anne’s uncle on her mother’s side, Laurence Hyde Earl of Rochester, made the negotiations while Anne’s father James eagerly consented. It was the ideal solution to diminish William of Orange’s influence.
William’s enemies seemed to be gathering together under his very nose and there was very little he could do about it. So naturally, when the betrothal was announced, William was very concerned. But despite this, or perhaps because of it, the marriage went ahead in July 1683 and Anne moved to her new residence at the Palace of Whitehall. With her, she took her best friend Sarah Churchill.
Although an arranged marriage, both Anne and George seemed devoted to each other and England breathed a sigh of relief. Within a couple of months, Anne fell pregnant and England celebrated joyously with the news. But the revelries did not go on for very long: Anne miscarried soon after the announcement and sadly for her, it would be the first of many.
Year after year, pregnancy after pregnancy, miscarriage after miscarriage, Anne began to lean more heavily on Sarah for support and companionship. When babies died, Sarah was the one by her side comforting her. When Anne’s uncle Charles died and her father James became king, it was Sarah who fully understood the implications.
The year 1687 was particularly devastating for Anne. In January, she suffered a miscarriage and barely two weeks later in the first two weeks of February, her only two surviving children, Mary and Anna Sophia aged 2 and 1, died of smallpox within six days of each other. In October the same year, Anne delivered a stillborn son when she was 7 ½ months pregnant and in April of the following year, she miscarried yet again. Through all of it, Anne became more dependent and emotionally fragile and Sarah seemed to be Anne’s most loyal companion. As for the smart, young, ambitious Sarah, it was the perfect arrangement.
The House of Stuart desperately needed an heir for its survival and England was beginning to feel nervous. That nervousness escalated when James and her stepmother finally produced a son in 1688 and a Catholic succession seemed more than likely. That is, until Parliament stepped in and invited her brother-in-law, William of Orange, to invade and the Glorious Revolution began.
On the advice of Sarah and John Churchill, Anne refused to side with her father after William landed in England on 23rd November 1688. She even sent a letter to William offering him her support and the next day, Churchill withdrew his support from James. Prince George followed the same night.
At a time when James’ head must have been spinning from the number of changes in his life, it seems surprising that he took the time to single out his youngest daughter for punishment. After all, his young wife had just delivered the long sort-after heir. But James had to take his anger and frustration out on someone and his daughters became the recipients of his rage. Parliament was constantly berating him concerning both his religion and his overspending, and his son-in-law William had done the unthinkable and taken up Parliament’s offer and invaded England to overthrow him. Despite having sent endless angry letters to Mary, it seemed she even condoned her husband’s invasion.
And then, on July 24, 1689 at Hampton Court Palace, Anne gave birth to a live baby boy. The child was baptized William Henry three days later and his godfather King William III declared that the title of Duke of Gloucester would be his. After William’s birth, Anne would eventually go on to have more unsuccessful pregnancies: two premature babies who lived for about two hours, four stillbirths, and four miscarriages.
When William was born, he seemed to be a bright healthy little boy. But shortly afterwards, he suffered from a series of convulsions and his doctors feared the worst. Anne and George were inconsolable and never left his side, wringing their hands and crying softly throughout the night. Almost miraculously, he pulled through, although weaker and less lively than before. When he was stronger and given the all clear by his doctors to be moved, he was given his own household at Campden House near the Kensington gravel pits because of the purer air. There he could be taken outside every day for exercise in a tiny coach pulled by Shetland ponies.
The little boy did not walk or talk until the age of 3 and as he grew older, it became more apparent that there was something terribly wrong with the child. The little boy had to be held up by his servants when he attempted to walk and even then, he tottered. He could not even go up and down stairs without help. Although he seemed to have grown, although slowly, by 5 years old, his head was so round that his hat was big enough for most men. This was the dawning of awareness that William had hydrocephalus.
Anne and George seemed oblivious and glowed with happiness. Until his 11th birthday when he complained of a headache and a sore throat. Everyone assumed it was because of the excitement from his birthday so he was put to bed and left alone to rest. In the evening, his throat had worsened and he had chills. Two days later, he was no better and he’d developed a serious fever and was delirious. At first, his doctor suspected scarlet fever and then smallpox, so they waited for the rash to appear. Nothing happened. They used the usual dreadful treatments of the time, bleeding and blistering, which no doubt made the boy’s already fragile condition even worse. It was as his mother and father were bent in anguish over his bed that William died in the morning of July 30, 1700 at Windsor Castle. Since Anne was past childbearing days, it meant the end of the Stuart dynasty.
Parliament searched desperately through the Stuart family tree looking for a more suitable candidate than the Catholic son of James II and his second wife, Mary of Modena - James Francis Edward Stuart. But with fifty of Anne’s Catholic relatives standing in a long queue to claim the throne, they needed to be quick. One by one they went through the list crossing names off as they went, even the names of those who had a legitimate claim to the throne were discarded in their frantic attempt to find a Protestant heir. Until the name Sophia Electress of Hanover finally popped up. She was the granddaughter of James I through his daughter Elizabeth and as such, she had Stuart blood running through her veins and she was a Protestant. Parliament quickly told Sophia the good news and then breathed a sigh of relief.
Through Anne and George’s marriage and the deaths of all her children, George had always been her rock. He’d stood by her and supported her, whether he thought Anne was right or wrong. So his death in October 1708 marked the point when things became unglued for Anne. With her rock gone, what was the point anymore? Occasionally she would rouse herself but it was never with the same fervour as before.
Although considerably older than Anne, Sophia of Hanover enjoyed much better health. But at 83 years old, Sophia knew her demise could come at any time. She constantly sent letters to Anne begging to be allowed to visit, but angrily, and rather rudely, Anne constantly refused. It was only after receiving yet another angry letter from Anne refusing her permission to enter the country that Sophia began feeling ill. Two days later she was walking in the gardens of Herrenhausen when she ran to shelter from a sudden downpour of rain. It was there, alone in the garden, that she collapsed and died.
One month later, at only 49 years of age, Anne suffered a stroke and died as well. After twelve months in bed, obesity, gout and seventeen pregnancies had finally taken its toll on her body and it finally caught up with her.
It would be a new era for England and they were to find that their new king, George of Hanover, was a short, quiet German who could barely speak a word of English.
But at least he was a Protestant.