Friday, 30 December 2011

Queen Anne

Been reading an inspiring biography of Queen Anne, just lately. Her reign saw the union of Scotland and England to create the United Kingdom and the establishment of the economic basis for both the stability and the excesses of the eigtheenth century. Anne has often been overlooked as a weak monarch - someone of inferior education who could barely spell. Yet her story shows her to be a dutiful and stubborn person of great integrity and amazing firmness when it came to her beliefs and her sense of what was good for her people. She endured 17 pregnancies in the bid to provide an heir and it is utterly remarkable that, despite the demands on her physical well-being, she ruled with attention to detail and moral constistency.

In her day, the Church of England was beset with problems - the Tory party adopted the slogan 'The Church in Danger'. The problem was that the Church, of which she was Governor, was rent in two between 'High' and 'Low' parties. The Toleration Act of 1689 (which granted freedom of worship to all Trinitarian Protestants) had undermined the monopoly position of the Church of England, proving conclusively that there were a great many more Dissenters in the country than had previously been thought. The High Church Party emphasised loyalty to the Stuart line, the sanctity of the priesthood and the importance of ceremonial while the Low Church Party were wedded to more radical Protestant reform and all that that meant in terms of political alliances. Anne's personal sympathies were more in tune with the High Church party, but, like her predecessor, Elizabeth I, she had a great distrust for anything that tended to divide the nation, cause factions or boulster factious clergy. Henry Compton, the bishop of London, had taught her when she was the Lady Anne and had instilled in her a great respect for the doctrines of the Church of England as representing the true catholic faith.

The things that stand out for me in terms of Queen Anne's reign are to do with balance, duty, family, compassion and determination to assert her own views and independence of mind in a world in which she must have felt inferior in terms of her education and gender. I am not aware that anyone has appraised Anne as a feminist activist or politician but I think that she has something valuable to contribute to the 'can women have it all?' debate. She herself would not understand or sympathize with the question. Yet she is, I think, very much a woman who successfully blended personal belief, the call of family, professional or (in her case) constitutional duty and a real compassion for those for whom she had responsibility. I am not sure that she would have used the word 'successful' or indeed that most political commentators would use it. However, a close reading of her life reveals that Queen Anne worked with the personal, political and religious influences of her time to achieve a great deal that was valuable for the good of the nation.

Her chosen belief that the Church of England embodied a true interpretation of Christian tradition was, frankly, amazingly costly. It set her apart from her own, father, James II . Most historians downplay the significance of this; it is deeply costly to espouse beliefs which alienate us from our families, however remote. From an early age Anne showed her own independence of thought by very decidedly and even calaculatingly placing herself on the Protestant side of the national debate. Her Christian faith and understanding were deeply important to her and she adhered to her beliefs consistently and persistently even when under considerable pressure to give way.

Of course, the need to supply a Protestant heir and the power which accrues to a woman who can fulfill this role shaped Anne's life. Much has been written of the political outfall of her 17 pregnanacies. As someone who has, from time to time, been rendered very ill through gynaecological conditions, I marvel at Anne's capacity to undergo the physical and psychological trauma associated with bearing an heir while also coping with the day to day demands of monarchy in a time when the constitution was emerging and modern notions of monarchy taking shape. Were history to be written predominantly by women, I feel that Anne's contribution would be differently assessed.

Queen Anne's reign demonstrated a new departure in terms of compassion. Her reign had the singular distinction of being the first before 1760 during which there were no political executions despite the capture of several Jacobites who might have been executed for treason. She was recorded as having decreed that it would be 'a barbarous thing' to hang a woman when she was with child or to hang a man 'who has to support a wife and six children.'  Anne also shaped much of her life through friendships, notably with Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, but also with other prominent women of the day and, in this, she is very like modern women for whom a series of profound if somethimes turbulent friendships may turn out to to be the defining relationships of their lives.

She established Queen Anne's Bounty, a fund formed in 1704 to augment the livings of poor clergy and which was later used to build and repair parsonages. This was a very practical way of shoring up the ministry of the Church of England and in this, she showed her willingness to support in real terms the outworkings of her theological position as regards the church.

So Queen Anne gets my vote as someone who lived out her theological beliefs in very costly and practical ways and who was also ready to tread the difficult path of combining the moral duties which arise from a working (ie. constitutional or professional) life with the psychological and emotional demands of family life. To my way of thinking, she was the first truly modern monarch and a worthy mother of women who try to combine familial, theological and political vocations. To put it in contemporary language, she is an inspiration to women who wrestle with the demands of family, work, social expectation and traditional models of morality for the sake of our faith and our beliefs. She was more radical than ever she would have thought herself to be and she achieved some notable political advances through a balanced and undramatic sense of duty. 

Make your own assessment by reading Edward Gregg's  Queen Anne  Yale University Press 2001          


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