Curator’s Choice – Queen Anne

Posted: 9th September 2020

Humber Museums Partnership - Curator’s Choice – Queen Anne

This painting shows Queen Anne, it currently hangs in the Guildhall. She can be seen seated in full regalia, including a pearl necklace, large gold chain and red-cushioned crown.

Anne was born in 1665, the daughter of King James II of England. Anne married Prince George of Denmark in July 1683. This was not initially a marriage of love, but one encouraged by Anne’s father to support an Anglo-Danish alliance. Although this never came to fruition, the marriage between Anne and George was to be a happy one.

Anne became Queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland on the 8th March 1702. On the 1st May 1707, under the Acts of Union, the kingdoms of England and Scotland united as a single sovereign state known as Great Britain, making Anne the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland.

Anne first met Sarah Churchill (née Jennings) during childhood, she was 5 years older than her and Anne was captivated by her assertive but temperamental nature. This provided the foundations to allow Sarah’s opinion to become one of great value to the future queen. They were to develop an intense “romantic friendship” and become inseparable for many years to come.

The two would write passionate letters to each other, with Anne being much clearer about her feelings towards Sarah than would be returned. She wrote in 1692 “I had rather live in a cottage with you than reign empress of the world without you.”

In another letter she wrote “I can’t go to bed without seeing you. If you knew in what condition you have made me, I am sure you would pity.”

Although the extent of their relationship is unknown Anne’s words were certainly suggestive of desire, also reading “That I may have one dear embrace, which I long for more than I can express.”

Whilst Anne declared “I could never express how well I love you”, Sarah was possibly only thinking of herself. She knew that having such a close relationship with the queen would provide her with opportunities to gain power and wealth. Sarah was aware Anne was devoted to her and even wrote in her memoirs after Anne’s death that she “desired to possess me wholly.”

Once Anne became queen, she made Sarah the Keeper of the Privy Purse. This allowed Sarah to manage all the queen’s spending. Sarah’s influence on Anne’s decision making was stronger than ever and with her husband now General John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, she had secured herself a powerful position.

But soon Anne had begun to favour Abigail Masham over Sarah, and Sarah was not pleased about this at all. Abigail was Sarah’s cousin but was unlike her in many ways. By 1710 Anne had grown tired of Sarah following several arguments over politics and religion. This resulted in a fierce argument during a service at St Paul’s Cathedral. Sarah was publicly heard disrespecting the queen, telling her to “be quiet”. Sarah’s fiery attitude had been what enthralled Anne when they first met but she was no longer willing to accept such language directed at her now that she was queen.

This argument is often cited as the start of the end for Sarah and the queen. By 1711 Abigail had taken over the role of Keeper of the Privy Purse.

Around 1708 rumours had begun implying that the queen was engaging in a same-sex relationship with Abigail. Pamphlets had been circulating which suggested she had committed “dark deeds in the night”, both bathing and sleeping with her “dirty chambermaid” behind her husband’s back. This was possibly a political play to try and discredit the queen, but Sarah was aware of the damage this could do to Anne’s reputation and she was happy to encourage the rumours. Perhaps she was the one who started the rumours after all, as it was Sarah’s secretary who had been circulating the pamphlets.

Sarah was jealous of Abigail and vindictive, and furthermore she actively tried to blackmail the queen using her own words against her.

Sarah had saved all the letters Anne had wrote to her. She threatened to officially announce that she had “no inclination for any but one’s own sex”, knowing that this would guarantee she would be shamed and loose her crown. Anne asked for the letters back, but Sarah would not return them. Despite the threats Anne was clear with her response saying, “Sure I may love whom I please”. Sarah’s rage did not subside, and she threatened to publish the letters for all to read. Anne finally decided enough was enough, and she banished Sarah from court. The letters remained hidden until after Anne’s death in 1714.

In 1742, Sarah released her memoirs and within them she describes her relationship with Queen Anne. Of course, she is not kind and describes her as childlike and ignorant. How accurate this is has since been questioned, as it has been acknowledged that Sarah may still have remained bitter over how their relationship came to an end.

There is so much more to the story of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, and Queen Anne. Their relationship, whatever that might have been to them individually or as a pair was certainly volatile and emotionally charged. Without each other and the power struggle that grew over time, it is likely they would have lived quite different lives and the legacy of Queen Anne’s reign, which changed Britain forever, would have undeniably been altered in many ways.

Written by Research and Documentation Assistant Lauren Field.

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