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Queen Anne, Britain’s forgotten Queen

Olivia Coleman, left, plays Queen Anne in The Favorite, right a portrait of the Monarch by John Closterman

If you didn’t look into it closely, you could be forgiven for thinking we have only had three queens…. Queen Victoria and the Elizabeths. Perhaps the least celebrated in a line of overlooked women, Queen Anne (1702-1714) was the woman who unified England and Scotland, took ownership of Gibraltar and helped galvanise Britain’s maturing two-party political system. Despite this, the fleeting reign of shy overweight 'Brandy Nan' (as certain less reverential subjects knew her) has been routinely dismissed by historians.

In Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, Olivia Colman and 'her bitches', Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, are finally shining a light on Anne’s important and formative moment in history.

But who was the real Queen Anne? And why don’t we talk about her more?

The biographer

If you could blame anyone for Anne’s snubbing through history, it would be her most famous biographer and former friend, Sarah Churchill (ancestor to both Winston Churchill and Princess Diana), portrayed by Weisz in The Favourite. A renowned beauty, highly intelligent and vastly ambitious, Sarah had a powerful hold over Anne, in a relationship some have argued was more than platonic. She was controlling and highly critical of her friend – a 'bully', according to some. Surprisingly, Sarah did not take it well when the Queen banished her from the Court, in favour of her lowly cousin, Abigail Masham (played by Emma Stone in The Favourite).

First, Sarah helped stoke salacious rumours about Anne’s relationship with Abigail. Her close friend Arthur Mainwaring, a Whig politician, wrote a charming ballad, which Sarah herself allegedly distributed:

O Abigail that was her name/ She starched and stitched full well/ But how she pierced this royal heart/ No mortal man can tell

However for the sweet service done/ And causes of great weight/ Her royal mistress made her, Oh!/ A minister of state

Her secretary she was not/ Because she could not write/ But had the conduct and the care/ of some dark deeds at night

Anne’s death did little to soften her ex-friend (who would on live for another 30 years).'She meant well and was not a fool; but nobody can maintain that she was wise, nor entertaining in conversation,' Sarah commented in her posthumous biography. On the death of Queen Anne’s husband, Prince George, Sarah noted that though 'her love for him seemed to be prodigiously great', 'her stomach was greater' and she managed 'three very large and healthy meals' that day.

Hell hath no fury like a favourite scorned!

The real 'Anne

Blighted with ill-health, Anne’s life was filled with tragedy. Some historians believe she suffered from depression, following so much bereavement from an early age. By the time she was 16, she had lost her mother, her favourite governess and six siblings. Some of this may help to explain the intense attachment she developed towards chosen women throughout her life; something her father, James II noted and greatly disapproved of. From 1685 to 1700, Anne lost 17 children, through miscarriage, stillbirth and disease during infancy and childhood. Her final devastation came when Prince William, her last surviving heir, died in 1700, aged just 11. This event, it is said, further cemented her emotional dependence on Sarah. It probably also contributed to her love of brandy!

Modern day medical experts also suspect she had a form of lupus, which can cause chronic arthritis, repeated miscarriages and joint pains in the hands and legs.

Anne’s devout Protestant faith persuaded her to break with her father. James II was deposed in 1688’s Glorious Revolution, with her blessing, to be replaced by the joint rule of Anne’s sister Mary II and her husband, William of Orange, who Anne despised. When William died, in 1702 (Mary had died eight years earlier), Anne became queen, aged 37. Unlike her best friend Sarah, and gregarious sister Mary, Anne was painfully shy, and struggled famously in conversation. While her staff could script her speeches, the moment things went off-script, Anne was said to fall apart.

Physically destroyed by 18 pregnancies, Anne also suffered from gout and severe near-sightedness. Modern day medical experts also suspect she had a form of lupus, which can cause chronic arthritis, repeated miscarriages and joint pains in the hands and legs. Though Sarah spoke caustically of her healthy appetite, and Olivia Colman’s Anne gorges on cake and pineapple until she is sick, Anne’s later life obesity probably had more to do with her severe inactivity, as a semi-invalid.

When Anne died in 1714, a stroke had rendered her unable to speak, she had been unable to walk for months and her body was so swollen, she had to be buried in a vast square-shaped coffin.

Despite her misfortunes (many of which sadly leant themselves to ridicule!) Anne achieved a great deal in her 12-year reign, and without it, Britain, as we know it today, would not exist.

The Monarch

Though Sarah’s biography portrayed Anne as weak, she actually wielded considerable power during her reign – as demonstrated by Sarah’s own expulsion from the Court. It was Anne who finally achieved the unification of England and Scotland in 1707 – something England had been chasing for centuries. Anne led England’s fight in the War of Spanish Succession, which lasted her entire reign. Following England's military successes, throughout the war, the UK received Gibraltar in the final settlement. Anne oversaw huge developments in Britain’s two-party political system, with first the Whigs, and then the Tories obtaining dominance. Again, Sarah’s role in a failed power grab by the Whigs was a major factor in her fall from grace. Though she failed to produce an heir, Anne ultimately left the country far more stable and united than when she took it on.

So, did she actually have lesbian lovers?

We will probably never know. This was a time when sexuality was not clearly defined – the term 'homosexuality' would not be coined for another 150, or so, years. Insinuations around Abigail could have been simple Burn Book-antics from Anne’s ex-BFF. Her passionate declarations of love to Sarah was not uncommon language between female friends at the time. Many historians have pointed to Anne’s devout and prudish nature, which they argue precluded her ever acting on, or even acknowledging any latent desires. And, of course, there is the age-old argument that she was happily married……

Leading biographer Anne Somerset has further pointed out that, given her age and severe ill-health, she would probably have struggled to commit any 'dark deeds'…. with Abigail at least!