Anne’s Powers

G.C. Gibbs

  • Queen Anne by Edward Gregg
    Routledge, 483 pp, £17.50, April 1980, ISBN 0 7100 0400 1

The Revolution Settlement of 1689, though it plainly limited monarchy in ways intended to prevent future monarchs from acting as James II had done, was certainly not made by enemies of monarchy. Monarchy was thought of as indispensable: without a monarch there would be either anarchy or a dictator, such as Cromwell. Nor was the monarch meant to be a figurehead. It was his job to govern; executive power was vested in him: it was for him to formulate policies and to order them to be carried out. This did not mean that he was to exercise arbitrary power. In coming to important decisions he was supposed to ask for advice, though he was not bound to ask the advice of any particular person, or body of persons, in any given case, much less to take that advice, if asked. Moreover, certain of his acts had to be performed in prescribed ways, through appropriate Ministers whose countersigning or sealing of the necessary documents rendered them responsible to the courts for any breaches of the law. For although the king could do no wrong, he was not above the law. It was for the courts to say what the law was, and for Parliament to alter it, in so far as it could be altered, for at this time there was a general belief in fundamental law, unalterable by any human authority. The substance of the constitution, for example, was thought of as unalterable. Even Parliament, therefore, though mighty, was limited. The king, as part of Parliament, possessed and exercised specific powers’, to veto Bills, which William did more than once; to dissolve or prorogue Parliament; and to modify the composition of the upper house by appointments to bishoprics and the creation of peers.

Monarchy after 1689, therefore, remained an essential element in the structure and functioning of government and politics. To a considerable extent, it remained personal monarchy in which much turned upon the will, intelligence, experience and application of the monarch. Under William III, whose qualifications to lead were matched by a determination to lead, and whose power at first was all the greater because very few influential Englishmen were in a position to be dangerous critics, monarchy was a vital element in government and politics. Indeed, in his reign the extent of power remaining to monarchy seemed so much more apparent than the limitations on monarchy’s power that further statutory limitations upon that power came to be prescribed in the Act of Settlement of 1701. In practice, the Act of Settlement settled little, except the succession in the House of Hanover upon Anne’s death without issue, and it affected Anne not at all, since most of its other provisions were either soon repealed, or were not scheduled to come into operation until after her death, or simply formalised existing practice and long-acknowledged necessity.

Nevertheless, though Anne’s powers, so far as the constitution was concerned, remained as ample and as limited as those available to William III, their exercise was another matter. Anne, it is true, by virtue of her Englishness, enjoyed an advantage William had never possessed and when, in her first speech from the throne, she spoke of her heart as ‘entirely English’, she meant to point the contrast with William, and to strike a popular note. Doubtless it was comforting to her subjects to think that no more of the royal bounty would be diverted to Dutchmen, and that England would no longer be used, as many supposed England had been used, to further Dutch interests. But if Anne was popular, as William had not been, her popularity could not cancel out her personal deficiencies. She did not lack a certain common sense; she certainly had a will of her own, and made it felt to the discomfiture of those who crossed her; she was as much attached as William had been to the maintenance of the prerogative; she applied herself earnestly, effectively and, in the light of her chronic and debilitating invalidism, even heroically to public business, regularly presiding at meetings of the full Cabinet. In terms of abilities and experience, however, she was not capable of providing the leadership he had provided, and that England required in the war that began two months after her succession. Moreover, what Anne was incapable of providing certainly could not be provided by her husband. For if Anne was not a very intelligent woman. Prince George of Denmark seems to have been a very stupid man, an amiable ass who in the war enjoyed the empty honour of generalissimo of all English forces, and also occupied the office of Lord High Admiral. The extent to which he was occupied by that office is uncertain. The fact that he was assisted by a Council suggests that he needed others to do the job he could not do himself. But at least he could seem to be doing his bit in wartime, which was important for a prince of the royal blood at the time, though it was at the risk of making Anne vulnerable: the threat to criticise her husband might induce her to do things to which she was otherwise averse.

It was the war, however, which made Anne particularly vulnerable. The war itself, and questions of war aims, dominated English politics for most of her reign. Though the Queen exercised a positive role in the construction of her Cabinets, she soon discovered that in practice her choice of Ministers was mainly determined by views of the way in which the war should be conducted and, later, of the terms on which peace should be made. She depended upon her Ministers as William never had. She had to find competent Ministers to conduct the war or make a peace and, in order to get them, she had to endure much that ‘grated her soul’.

This much is common ground among historians of Anne’s reign. Though they may differ in their emphases, depending on whether they choose to stress the monarchical or the parliamentary elements in the constitution, there is agreement that Anne the Queen was very far from being a negligible force in government and politics, and was certainly not a cipher, even if at times she felt she had been reduced to one. This present state of the question has been well summarised by Geoffrey Holmes. In his British Politics in the Age of Anne, a work which has changed much in the landscape of 18th-century politics, and has contributed greatly to the process of reappraisal of the Queen’s role which has occupied historians of her reign over the past twenty years, he writes: ‘It is just not possible to write the history of politics in this reign and leave out Queen Anne. No more is it possible to explain how the political system functioned by concentrating purely on the politicians and virtually ignoring the Queen.’

Now the process of reappraisal has been taken a good deal further by Edward Gregg, a graduate originally of the University of Lawrence, Kansas, to whose scholars, and scholarly resources in the shape of the Spencer Research Library, students of English history in the 18th century are already greatly indebted. Dr Gregg sees the Queen as she sometimes saw herself, and as she wished to be seen, as the political reincarnation of Elizabeth I, and as the central inspirational figure of her reign, who to a large extent personally determined its political dynamics, and – ‘for 12 hectic years – succeeded in overcoming the limitations of her sex and ill-health to impose her views on the great men of the day’, and to preside over and/or dominate the age which fittingly bears her name.

He acknowledges a heavy debt to established scholars in the field, notably J.H. Plumb, Geoffrey Holmes, G.V. Bennett and Henry L. Snyder, and the extent of the debt is very evident in the book. But he is also his own man, able to draw upon his own published articles and unpublished London PhD dissertation, and a well-stocked armoury of documentation assembled from archival researches in England, Scotland, Paris. The Hague, Hanover and Nancy (an unusual stop in the itinerary of researchers into English history in the 18th century, which was made to consult the correspondence of Leopold. Duke of Lorraine, and his envoys in London, during the fateful final years of Anne’s reign when the future of the Protestant succession seemed in the balance). In England, among other labours, the author has slogged his way through the Blenheim archives, which contain the bulk of the Queen’s extant correspondence En passant, he has taken on the challenge of attempting to place more than a thousand letters in chronological sequence. No mean task, it has also proved to be a very necessary task, judging from the frequency with which corrections of one kind and another have been made to B.C. Brown, The Letters and Diplomatic Instructions of Queen Anne (1935, reprinted 1968). Just how successfully it has been carried out it is impossible to say. It was no part of the author’s brief to provide a new edition of Anne’s correspondence, and it would clearly have been out of place to have attempted an extended treatment of the problems of dating in the present biography.

However, material from the Blenheim archives is used to telling effect in the text, though not always to tell the author’s tale, and to great effect in describing Anne’s friendship with Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, who shows up as a bullying, bitchy and avaricious ogre. Macaulay was right, or right enough: it was ‘a grotesque friendship – such as, in a superstitious age, would have been ascribed to some talisman or potion – all the loyalty, the patience, the self-devotion, was on the side of the mistress. The whims, the haughty airs, the fits of ill-temper, were on the side of the waiting woman,’ While it is true, therefore, as Dr Gregg claims, that there emerges from Anne’s letters a picture of a woman and a ruler which differs in many points from the traditional image of a dull, weak, irresolute woman dominated by favourites, it is also true that the traditional image finds confirmation in her letters. Both these and the study as a whole confirm the present agreement on the centrality of her role in government and politics.

What does not emerge, however, is a convincing case for accepting Dr Gregg’s picture of a woman and a ruler who dominated her reign and the great men in it for 12 hectic years. The evidence is not there. At times the evidence proves to be no more than that already available to scholars, but, like a screw on a thread, it has been given an extra and unjustifiable turn. The fault is to be observed in the author’s muddled and oversimplified treatment of Anne’s exercise of the prerogative of mercy. The author, after confusing the Bill of Rights with the Act of Settlement, cites several instances in which the Queen, after consultation with one of her judges and a Secretary of State, was moved to recommend a pardon. He writes: ‘The Queen in dealing with such cases was genuinely moved by feminine compassion.’ Clearly she was moved by compassion in some of the instances quoted, though the evidence cited also suggests that she was moved by the advice of others, and perhaps by established criteria. Dr Gregg then jumps to a conclusion, making an imaginative leap which lands him in a bog of confusion. He continues: ‘It was no accident that the reign of Anne had the singular distinction in the history of England before 1760 that there were no political executions, despite the fact that several prominent Jacobites were captured during the abortive attempt in 1708. Such compassion became a Christian princess,’ Later, he adds, after repeating the statement that there were no political executions: ‘The single impeachment – that of Sacheverell in 1710 – ended with a ludicrously mild punishment, largely because of the Queen’s known sympathies; victorious politicians were denied the right to hound their defeated rivals to the scaffold.’ Taking on trust, for the moment, the truth of the ‘singular distinction’, and leaving aside the doubtful assertion that Sacheverell’s mild punishment was largely the result of the Queen’s known sympathies, two more serious questions remain. First, there is the question of establishing what Dr Gregg means by ‘political executions’. The phrase when first used appears to mean all executions for treason, in which case the statement about ‘the absence of political executions’ needs to be changed to take account of the execution for treason of Dr Gregg’s namesake. William Greg, in 1708. Later, however, the author equates political executions with impeachments alone. Whichever is the case, the absence of political executions in the aftermath of the abortive invasion attempt of 1708, and their almost complete absence throughout the reign, cannot be ascribed wholly or largely to Anne’s Christian compassion: other factors, political, legal and constitutional, played their part. Secondly, there is the question of the baffling last clause in the quotations from Gregg. Who were the victorious politicians allegedly deified by Anne ‘the right to hound their defeated rivals to the scaffold’, and in what sense can they be said to have possessed a right to do so?

Other cases might readily be cited in which the hand is similarly overplayed. Arguments are spoiled by overstatement and over-simplification, marred by minor inaccuracies and infelicities of language. There is sloppy thinking, sloppy writing, and too much straining for effect. The mind, and not only the mind, boggles and quakes at the assertion that James II was excessively prone to the prospect of deflowering virgins. And, of course, there are instances where the author fails to convince, not so much because of a lack of evidence, or of sufficient evidence, or because of his handling of the evidence, but because the nature of the evidence is such as to leave room, and probably always to leave room, for conjecture and differences of opinion. Such is the case with Dr Gregg’s interpretation of the murky and controversial business of the aims and respective roles of that duo of almost impenetrable opacity. Oxford and Bolingbroke, in negotiating with the Jacobites, and with Hanover, and in the framing of the infamous Restraining Orders which, we are told, gave rise to the legend of ‘perfidious Albion’. It is Gregg’s thesis that Oxford hoped to restore the Pretender and was the real author of the Restraining Orders. To the present reader neither proposition is proved. They cannot be properly tested, however, until the correspondence of the Abbé Gaultier, the French agent in London through whom the Jacobite negotiations were conducted, is published: an edition has been promised by Dr Gregg.