The history of British monarchy is in many ways the story of a long effort to make monarchs seem different to normal people. In the words of Charles I as he stood on the scaffold outside Banqueting House in January 1649 "a subject and a sovereign are clean different things". This process of turning certain people into superhuman beings had a long history. Olga Soffer has written that it may have come about as people struggled for survival during the last ice age:
"It's hard to tell archaeologically, but after the glacial maximum I think there were... leaders in charge of ritual. Sacred information is, after all, the easiest to control, because it can't be checked. If I were to tell you that there were reindeer over the next hill, you can climb up and see for yourself. But if I tell you that I speak to God and he speaks to me, how are you going to prove me wrong?" (Olga Soffer, quoted in The Neandertal Enigma by James Shreeve P 317)
Religion became an excellent basis for leaders who did not want their position challenged. Anointing English monarchs as if they were priests began with the coronation of Edgar the Peaceable in 973AD. Today the same instinct survives, not in our choice of leaders, but in the continuing influence of various religions, and also perhaps in a passion for celebrity. The anointing of a king or queen was almost like an early version of the X Factor where ordinary people are suddenly turned into stars. It seems we've always wanted certain people to appear special. It gives a sense of security that a select few have superhuman powers. The rest of us can then follow secure in the knowledge that at least those special people know what they are doing. But while the desire to turn ordinary people into god-like figures is still with us, the system of making monarchs into stars appointed by God came to an end with the reign of Charles I's granddaughter, Queen Anne.
Anne Stuart was born at St James's Palace on 6th February 1665, fourth child of James, Duke of York, and his wife Anne Hyde. James was brother of the king, Charles II. After the execution of their father Charles I by Parliament in 1649, Charles and James had lived as exiles on the continent. Even though they were both penniless, little more than wandering tramps, they both retained their royal "specialness". There were many women for both men, attracted by the deceptive glow of royalty. James, however, met his match with Anne Hyde, daughter of a mere lawyer. This girl refused to be a princely fling. Even though she was working as a maid to James's mother, Henrietta Maria, Anne Hyde had intelligence and confidence. She resisted James's advances until some kind of marriage contract had been signed. This document turned out to be binding in the eyes of the Church. Soon after James began his relationship with Anne Hyde, his brother Charles was recalled to England and restored to the throne as Charles II. James could have had the pick of any princess in Europe, but he was married to ordinary Anne, who in true X Factor style was quickly made a duchess. Anne Hyde was to have eight children, before dying of the effects of repeated pregnancies and over eating in 1671. Only two of those children, Mary and Anne were to survive to adulthood. Maureen Waller suggests that they may have survived because as girls they were considered less important than the boys. This allowed them to some extent to escape the deadly attentions of seventeenth century doctors.
Most of Anne Stuart's childhood was spent at Richmond Palace, which served as a kind of girls boarding school. The young princess was only six when her mother died, and she saw little of her father, or of his new wife Mary Beatrice, a fifteen year old Italian princess. James had converted to Catholicism and his influence over his young daughters was not considered healthy. So Anne stayed in Richmond with her older sister Mary and some other girls of suitably noble birth. The education on offer was probably limited, and the only real priority was that Anne and Mary were educated to become good protestants. Anne's friend Sarah Churchill was later to write that Anne was "ignorant of everything but what the parsons taught her as a child" (quoted in Ungrateful Daughters by Maureen Waller P 60). The girls seemed to spend their days in pleasant undemanding activities, gossip and riding. In every sense Anne seemed to be a normal girl, an unlikely candidate for God's choice of divinely appointed monarch. These happy school days came to an end when Mary was married off to the Dutch prince, William of Orange on 4th November 1677. Anne then took her sister's apartments at St James's Palace.
The years were passing, and by the time Anne turned seventeen she was well past the age when most girls of her rank were married. A plan to marry her to George Ludwig, Duke of Hanover, came to nothing. Then John Sheffield, Lord Mulgrove, took what was considered an inappropriate interest in Anne, and was sent off to Tangiers to get him out of the way. Mulgrove was a womaniser and something of a scoundrel, but even so Anne retained a soft spot for him. Years later, as queen, she was to make him Duke of Buckingham. The new duke was also granted part of St James's Park, where he built Buckingham House, which after much rebuilding and remodelling became the Buckingham Palace of today. Buckingham Palace, one of the most famous landmarks in Britain grew out of a failed love affair between a princess and an unsuitable older man with a wandering eye.
Anne was eventually married in July 1683 to Prince George, brother of King Christian V of Denmark. Charles II was to say of Prince George: "I have tried him drunk and I have tried him sober and there is nothing in him." Nevertheless Anne was very pleased with her husband. Anne managed to have her childhood friend Sarah Churchill transferred to her household, and her happy domestic scene was complete. She had a docile husband who didn't have affairs, and a friend to play cards and chat with. Within months Anne was pregnant, the first of seventeen pregnancies which were to destroy her health.
On 6th February 1685 Charles II died, and Anne's father became king as James II. Anne quickly showed herself a vehement opponent of her father, and her stepmother. Anne was a staunch protestant, and had no time for the catholic faith followed by James and Mary Beatrice. Then on 10th June 1688, Mary Beatrice gave birth to a boy. This child, James Francis Edward Stuart, was now heir to the throne, pushing Anne down to third in the succession. It was certain that the boy would be raised a catholic, and rather than James II being an irritating but short lived aberration with his unpopular beliefs, a catholic dynasty was now in prospect. A malicious rumour was put about that young James Francis Edward Stuart was not the queen's son at all, but had been smuggled into the birth room in a warming pan. There is some evidence that this famous rumour could have originated with Anne herself. She suggested that the birth was a hoax in a letter to her sister Mary dated 14th March 1688, a letter which survives. Jealousy may well have been involved. All of Anne's pregnancies had so far ended in stillbirths, or the children had died in their early years.
Chatsworth - home of the Earl of Devonshire, a leader in the move against James II
By 1688 James II had alienated most of Parliament, which was actually made up of generally conservative MPs who were natural supporters of monarchy. But they had been driven into a corner by James's insistence on repealing laws discriminating against catholics. A small group of leading churchmen drew up a petition, protesting against a catholicising policy. All those involved were sent to the Tower, only to be acquitted when juries refused to convict them. A group of parliamentarians, led by William Cavendish, Earl of Devonshire, then met to work out what could be done about James. A letter was prepared by the group of seven, which at the beginning of July 1688 was taken to Holland by Admiral Arthur Herbert. The letter called on William of Orange to invade with the aim of re-establishing English liberty and law. The letter, however, did not offer William of Orange the Crown.
On 5th November 1688 William of Orange landed with an army at Torbay in Devon, and advanced unopposed across England. On 19th November James was with his army at Old Sarum near Salisbury, but incapacitated by nose bleeds and misery he withdrew back to London without fighting. On 27th November Anne disappeared from Whitehall, leaving her maids of honour running around in a panic, claiming hysterically that catholics had taken her. Anne's clothes were strewn around her room, and there was every evidence that she had left in a hurry. Soon it became apparent that Anne had fled to Nottingham, fearing James's imminent return to London from Salisbury. The escape had been made down a back staircase, with the help of Sarah Churchill. Anne, however, had little to fear from James. The invasion broke his will, and even though there seemed to be no plan to actually depose him, he decided that fleeing to the continent was his only option. After a failed escape attempt in the middle of December, the King finally managed to get away from lodgings in Rochester on 24th December and make it to France. When she heard news of her father's disappearance, Anne decided to play cards. Lord Clarandon reproved her for this, but Anne, showing typical obstinacy said she didn't care.
With James refusing to stay in England, Parliament found itself reluctantly having to hand the crown to William of Orange, and his wife Mary, Anne's sister. The couple were to rule as joint monarchs. Anne quickly grew to hate William, who she called Caliban, the Monster, and the Dutch Abortion. Queen Mary felt guilty over her divided loyalty between her husband William, and her father James. Anne, a very different character had no time for worries of this kind. A serious rift occurred between the two sisters, which was fuelled by Anne's argumentative friend Sarah Churchill. William also angered Anne by questioning her extravagant expenditure. Anne was a keen gambler. Fortunately for her, Parliament granted Anne a large independent income. Using this Anne could gamble as much as she wanted. As always with Anne there is no sense in which she was a special person picked out by God. She had been an ordinary girl, whose fate it was, like all of us, to turn into a less than perfect adult. On 28th December 1694 Queen Mary died at Kensington Palace. Following the death of his wife, a shattered William was reconciled with Anne. Anne was now heir to the throne, and had to be accommodated. Anne herself continued her efforts to produce a male heir, with six failed pregnancies between 1695 and 1700. Her health was now wrecked, and the one boy, named William, who did survive beyond babyhood, developed hydrocephalus and died in July 1700, a few days after his eleventh birthday. When she was finally crowned queen on 23rd April 1702, following William's death, Anne had to be carried to her coronation, an overweight invalid.
Anne was now queen, at a moment of fundamental change in the way monarchs were viewed. Since James II had been clumsily removed by Parliament and replaced by William, it was increasingly difficult to believe that God was in charge of appointing kings and queens. And yet people are conservative in times of change, and in many ways society still clung to its old ideas. The story of Sarah Churchill is very illuminating in this regard. Sarah found that she was obliged to treat her old friend differently now that she was queen. The monarch seemingly still had to be a "clear different thing" to a subject like Sarah. Rather than becoming subservient, however, Sarah became an intimidating bully. The death of Sarah's only surviving son John has been suggested as partly explaining her increasingly wild behaviour. Nevertheless there is also a sense in which Sarah just could not bear the ridiculous charade of a very flawed person being set up as a leader appointed by God. Sarah had become interested in educating herself, and had always demonstrated a lively intelligence. Sarah had grown up with Anne and knew her as a person, with none of her faults hidden by clever presentation. Anne was the last monarch to "touch for the evil," using the supposed royal healing power to treat scrofula. Sarah was impatient with notions of the mystical power of royalty, and refused to help with organising the healing ceremonies. For a while Sarah's behaviour had to be accepted because her husband the Duke of Marlborough was playing a prominent part in the continuing war against France. Marlborough's victories were being rewarded by the building of Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. Sarah's impatience with the airs and graces of royalty was only matched by her own social climbing, which involved hectoring the government for money to build an ever bigger house. The architect at Blenheim was given a very hard time. Sarah embodied the contradictions of her age, impatient with delusions of grandeur, and yet buying into them herself. The name of Blenheim Palace is significant in this regard, as it is the only non-royal building to be termed a "palace". By 1711, however, Sarah had gone too far, and she was forced out of the royal circle, and into exile. But even after getting rid of Sarah it was impossible to hide the human reality of monarchy. Lawyer and parliamentarian Sir John Clerk, after meeting the Queen, was to write:
"Her majesty was labouring under a fit of the gout, and in extreme pain and agony, and on this occasion everything about her was in much the same disorder as about the meanest of her subjects. Her face which was red and spotted, was rendered something frightful by her negligent dress, and the foot affected was tied up with a pultis and some nasty bandages." (Memoirs of the Life of Sir John Clerk P62. Quoted in Ungrateful Daughters by Maureen Waller P380)
Even Anne herself, although she was a devout anglican, realised she could no longer claim to rule by divine right. As Barry Coward says in The Stuart Age: " In 1710 she irritably dimissed references in a royal address from the City of London to the divinity of her crown" (P407). In the same year Daniel Defoe was to write in The Review; "Passive obedience, nonresistance, and the Divine right of hereditary succession are inconsistent with the rights of the British nation... inconsistent with the Constitution of the British government... and inconsistent with the declared, essential foundation of the British monarchy." (The Review, January 1710, quoted in Riot, Risings and Revolution by Ian Gilmour P23)
Anne's reign was a sad one. She was to lose her beloved George, who died at their home Kensington Palace in 1708. The Queen was finally to succumb to her own ailments on 1st August 1714. But Anne's reign was a milestone in many ways. War raged on the continent as Britain's government tried to stop a French catholic king succeeding to the throne of Spain.This war, the biggest in which England had ever been involved, was expensive. This encouraged acceptance of money lending, and the foundation of the Bank of England in 1694, which in turn led to an economic revolution. By 1700 England was the richest country in Europe. Then for reasons that still remain mysterious Scotland and England, two very different countries, decided to sign the Act of Union, ratified in March 1707. Great Britain came into being. Scotland probably realised that it would do better economically in association with England, and England realised that an independent Scotland was a security threat. Ever since the two countries have got along in grumpy partnership. But perhaps the most crucial milestone of Anne's reign was the effective end of the idea that monarchs are placed in their position by God. In 1701 the Act of Settlement allowed Parliament to select Anne's successor, with succession being shifted to Hanoverian royal family, via a grand daugther of James I. The divine right of kings was over, The power of Parliament to select monarchs had now been legislated for. It was a stage in the removal of supposed supernatural influence over human affairs. And yet the desire for superhuman people remained. By the nineteenth century the idea of celebrity had started to take shape, with Lord Byron and Alfred Tennyson pointing the way ahead to celebrity as we know it today.