The Queen of Great Britain, Anne Stuart, can sometimes be hard to place in history. Her reign was relatively short, from 1702 to 1714, and with no surviving children she was the last of the Stuart dynasty. Her reign lacked the juicy gossip and taboo that the Tudors held so dear and whose legacy has fought the test of time.
Throughout the Tudor monarchy, there was a solid century of scandal: from Henry VIII’s excommunication by the Pope; a country changing its prominent religion a total of four times; Edward VI burning Catholics to Mary I burning Protestants; Henry’s six wives, to his legitimate and not so legitimate children; Mary’s phantom pregnancy; to an unmarried Elizabeth I, the first queen to rule entirely without a dominant male partner.
Today, the Tudors have featured in endless movies, TV series and books as historians try so desperately to recapture a family so riddled with drama and intrigue.
And then, after all this, there were the Stuarts, whose legacy, despite huge political turmoil has not quite stood the test of time with the same salacity and rigor as the Tudors. Anne Stuart, born in 1665, sixty-two years after Elizabeth I died, quietly ruled for twelve years, married to Prince George of Denmark and was the first married queen to rule independently of her husband.
The couple had an estimated eighteen pregnancies, but only five children born that lived to childhood. Despite her personal tragedies, people do not tend to know that Anne’s reign was pivotal for England, with her political skill and intelligence; she finally cemented the undecided Church of England as Protestant after a century of religious quarrels, was victorious in war against France and was the first sovereign of the Kingdom of Great Britain (the union of England and Scotland), officially formed in 1707.
Another interesting aspect of Anne’s reign was her strong emotional and perhaps sexual attachment to women, as well as in what ways these attachments affected her political decisions. Speculation into Anne’s sexuality has revealed evidence of her intense affection towards female acquaintances, most notably with the Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill (ancestor to Winston Churchill), a friendship that lasted twenty-five years.
Whether these relationships verged on sexual expression has not been proven and is considered unlikely, because lesbianism as we know it today did not exist in the same way in the 18th century. However, this does not mean her relationships with other women are not considered romantic, proven through hundreds of “love letters” exchanged between Anne and a handful of different women over the years. Anne’s intimate relationship with Sarah Churchill has also been considered by sexuality historians as crucial to the acceptance of romantic relationships between upper-class women.
Historian Ophelia Field, author of “Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough: The Queen’s Favorite” claims that the series of letters shared between Anne and Sarah suggest a female equivalent to the 18th-century phenomenon sometimes labeled “sentimental sodomy.”
The remaining evidence of their adoring, patient and jealous love is mainly shown in the large number of letters written by Anne to Sarah. Sarah’s letters to the queen did not survive, however, instead burnt at her request.
In an article for the Gay and Lesbian Review, Field quoted early letters from Anne, begging Sarah to return to her side: “Oh come to me tomorrow as soon as you can that I may cleave myself to you.” In another letter she wrote, “I hope I shall get a moment or two to be with my dear…that I may have one dear embrace, which I long for more than I can express.”
The intimacy of their friendship did not remain a secret in high society. In an Eighteenth Century court, just like a Tudor court, secrets did not exist and rumor and politics were the dominant topics of conversation. It did not take long for the Queen and her clear favorite Sarah Churchill’s relationship to spark gossip of their passionate and fiery bond.
Their attachment also began to attract negative attention, especially with the numerous gifts Anne bestowed on Sarah and her husband, including her promotion to first lady of the bedchamber, giving her unlimited access to the queen. Critics considered it an “immoderate passion inappropriate for a princess.”
Supposedly, her sister and predecessor, Queen Mary, attempted to label their relationship as criminal in order to have her removed from Anne’s household. Anne then reassured Sarah in a letter: “I had rather live in a cottage with you than reign empress of the world without you.”
Nevertheless, like many epic love stories, towards the end of Anne’s reign, Sarah fell out of favor due to their petty arguments and continually strained relationship. She was finally dismissed from court after a violent quarrel in 1710. After they fell out, Sarah became one of her harshest critics saying she had, “no inclination for any but her own sex.” Queen Anne then replaced her with Sarah’s distant cousin Abigail Masham. Anne died four years later at age forty-nine.
It seems that if we were to discard the word “lesbian” as we know it today and instead focus on the language used by these women in their correspondence, we can see a clear level of companionship that goes beyond the socially restricted limits of friendship in 18th-century England. A physical relationship is not the only way to denote romantic feelings, and it is quite apparent that Anne harbored romantic feelings for Sarah Churchill.
In fact, the Queen developed other infatuations that were considered too intimate by those around her, including a brief friendship with Mrs. Mary Cornwallis when Anne was a teenager, who was quickly dismissed from her service by her Uncle due to the nature of their friendship.
It is hard to ignore the evidence of her passionate friendships and to what extent they went above and beyond ordinary correspondences. This intimacy and the ways it affected Anne both personally and politically has now been captured by authors such as Field and also Anne Somerset, who published her novel “Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion” on January 1, 2012.
Somerset’s historical book on Anne uses her letters, public gossip and 18th-century media to paint a portrait of the Queen and the significance of her sexuality. It seems that the significance of her reign can no longer be ignored, especially during the current advancement of LGBT equality as well as Scotland’s attempts to become independent once more.