Friday Royal Read: Queen Anne: Patroness of Arts by James Anderson Winn

Queen Anne (r. 1702-1714) has gone down in history as one of England’s most mediocre reigning queens. She is neither remembered as one of the great monarchs like Elizabeth I, Victoria or Elizabeth II nor as a villain like “Bloody” Mary I. Between these extremes, Anne appears to have been an ordinary woman in an extraordinary position. She enjoyed eating, drinking and playing cards. She had a close relationship with her husband Prince George of Denmark, and spent hours each day with her various female friends including Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough and Abigail Masham. Like numerous other eighteenth century women, Anne mourned the deaths of many children in infancy and a beloved eleven year old son.

In Queen Anne: Patroness of Arts, Professor James Anderson Winn, author of The Poetry of War and John Dryden and His World, argues that history has underestimated Queen Anne. She may not have received a classical education in the manner of Elizabeth I or Mary, Queen of Scots but she played the harpsichord and guitar, danced and performed in court theatricals, promoted the opera, spoke fluent French, quoted poetry from memory, appreciated architecture and painting and mastered political oratory. Since Anne’s brother-in-law, King William III, had little interest in artists or musicians, Anne’s court became a cultural centre while she was still heir to the throne and she remained an influential patron as Queen.

As England’s third constitutional monarch since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Anne ushered in key elements of the modern monarchy. George III and Queen Charlotte are often credited with beginning the “welfare monarchy” focused on philanthropy (see Royal Bounty by Frank Prochaska) but Winn provides evidence that Anne was also cast in this role. When the Queen visited Oxford University in 1702, eighteen year old Simon Harcourt, son of the Solicitor General, recited a welcome poem that declared, “These happy Walls by Royal Bounty plac’d/Often with Royal Presence have been Grac’d.” His words emphasized Anne’s role as a patron and benefactor of England’s cultural and intellectual institutions.

Throughout her reign, Anne demonstrated a keen awareness of popular opinion similar to that of Elizabeth II today. When parliament voted to award her the same annual income enjoyed by William III, £700,000, she returned £100,000 to the treasury, stating that “while her subjects remain’d under the Burden of such great Taxes, she would straighten her self in own Expences, rather than not contribute all she could to their Ease and Relief.” The current Queen’s decision to pay income taxes and reduce her own expenses over the course of her reign follows a long tradition.

Despite her personal frugality, Anne had strong feelings about proper upkeep of royal residences. Today, there is popular debate over the cost of renovations to the Kensington Palace apartment of William and Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. During Queen Anne’s reign, the monarch sought to restore the Kensington Palace gardens, which had been neglected by William III. Anne’s presentation of herself to the public as “entirely English” with an understanding of how English gardens should be maintained, in contrast to her Dutch predecessor, contributed to public support for this expensive landscaping project.

While Anne appears modern in her philanthropy, cultural patronage, economies and interest in popular opinion, her active involvement in party politics demonstrate how much the constitutional monarchy has changed since the early eighteenth century. The Queen was a staunch Tory, which contributed to the breakdown of her decades long friendship with the Duchess of Marlborough, who tactlessly encouraged her to support the Whigs. Anne was also the last monarch to refuse royal assent to a piece of legislation. The Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707 required the Queen’s active participation as she sent letters to the Scottish parliament advocating a united Great Britain.

Queen Anne: Patroness of Arts is much more than a fascinating study of the Queen’s cultural patronage and inspiration to early eighteenth century artists. Winn restores Anne to her rightful place in British political history, revealing her contributions to the creation of the modern constitutional monarchy and the unification of Great Britain.  As Anne herself once said, “Whoever of the whigs thinks I am to be Heckter’d or frighted into a complyance tho I am a woman, are mightily mistaken in me.” Readers of Queen Anne: Patroness of Arts will never underestimate Queen Anne again.

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