Monday 17 December 2012

Stinking Billy

Queen Anne and William, Duke of Gloucester - by Sir Godfrey Kneller

An active weekend - 12,000 steps on the pedometer on Saturday and 15,000 on Sunday - but I still found time on these long nights to finish reading Anne Somerset's biography of Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion .

I confess I didn't know much about the last of the Stuarts but this filled the gap. It was a hard slog because the politics is complex, not just the comings and goings of Whigs and Tories but the added problem of James II's son the "King over the Water" (Catholic/Jacobite version) otherwise known as the "Old Pretender" (Protestant/Hanoverian version) - so called because allegedly not a royal at all but a "supposititious" infant smuggled into the queen's bedroom in a bed-pan - and the inexplicable and ultimately pointless War of the Spanish Succession (Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenarde, Malplaquet - all those battles won by the Duke of Marlborough). I said it was hard.

I suspect that this complexity is why students stick to the Tudors - much easier to understand! Also Anne was the first British monarch never to execute anybody for treason - noble on her part (especially in view of the provocation) but not so much fun for "Horrible Historians".

Somerset tries to make Anne seem her own woman but failed to convince me that she was more than a limited personality who mainly influenced policy through delays and obstruction rather than proactively. She was arguably therefore the first truly constitutional monarch whose ministers really ran the country. We've never looked back.

Not that her family was much better. I already knew that her father the deposed James II was a clot with tyrannical tendencies but I hadn't fully appreciated what a boorish and prickly character was his usurper (and Anne's brother-in-law) William II - also known as William of Orange or "Sweet William" (to Protestants/Hanoverians) or "Stinking Billy" (to Catholics/Jacobites).

But nobody comes out worse than the appalling Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, who patronised and exploited Anne mercilessly and then betrayed her confidence and put it about that she was gay - a cruel "outing" in those days even if it had been true but it almost certainly wasn't.

Poor old Anne went through 17 pregnancies but was predeceased by all her children including William, Duke of Gloucester, who died aged 11 (you can see the signs of hydrocephalus which killed him in the picture above). Had he survived they wouldn't have had to import those Germans who still squat like cuckoos in the privileged nest of British monarchy.


20 years ago my Catholic friend Nick dragged me across Paris to Saint-Germain-en-Laye to look at the palace and memorials of the Jacobite court in exile which struggled on to launch the 1715 and 1745 rebellions and then slowly became objects of romanticism for Sir Walter Scott, Queen Victoria (oddly enough, given that she was their usurper's descendant), and latterly Hollywood (eg Errol Flynn in
The Master of Ballantrae - 1953).

Interesting, but I wasn't moved. In truth they were a snooty and despotic lot without a care for ordinary citizens. The ones we ended up with instead may not be much better but they soon relinquished any major function in running the country so that today their successors' personal qualities and views of the world can be matters of indifference to us.

Postscript 2:

My Mum tells me that my story about the bigamous marriage (see this link) is incomplete: the mayor who inadvertently witnessed the illegal ceremony was also the daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury. You couldn't make this up.