I adore London’s West End. Whenever I am there, I do all the things I cannot do in California. I go to my favourite club and read newspapers made out of real paper. I guzzle grouse and Welsh rarebit for lunch, washing it all down with ancient, brown-coloured claret. And I go to see plays about royalty. The last time it was Mike Bartlett’s Shakespeare pastiche Charles III. This time I opted for Helen Edmundson’s play about the last Stuart monarch.
Nothing can rival the insights you get from really good theatre. Having seen Queen Anne at the Theatre Royal Haymarket on Monday, followed by the political theatre of prime minister’s questions two days later, I now understand everything.
Brexit is just the latest iteration of our ancient love-hate relationship with the European continent. That relationship is, as usual, being made more complicated by the ancient love-hate relationship between England and Scotland. Theresa May is just the latest female ruler to be made miserable by it all. And Westminster politics is nearly all a matter of succession planning.
The reign of Queen Anne may be terra incognita for most Britons today. Indeed, if there is a school in the country that teaches it, I would be amazed. Yet the period (1702-14) sheds a surprising amount of light on our own time.
And what an era it was! The age of Defoe, Pope and Swift, to say nothing of Vanbrugh’s Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard — arguably the most magnificent of all England’s aristocratic residences. It seems wrong that Queen Anne should be best remembered for mere furniture.
Despite her royal birth, Anne’s was a hard life. Born in 1665, she was plagued by ill health throughout her 49 years. She endured 17 pregnancies, which nearly all ended in either miscarriage or stillbirth. Of her five live-born children, four died before the age of two. Her only son to survive infancy, Prince William, died at the age of 11.
In addition to whatever ailments made her pregnancies so problematic, Anne suffered from gout and obesity. She can scarcely be blamed for seeking solace in intense friendships, of which the most famous were with Sarah Churchill, later the Duchess of Marlborough, wife of the greatest general of the age, and Abigail Hill, a woman of the bedchamber with whom the Queen was accused (almost certainly falsely) of having a lesbian affair.
Anne acceded to the throne only because her sister, Mary, failed to produce an heir. As the only children of James II and his first wife to make it to adulthood, the two girls might have come unstuck when their father went over to Roman Catholicism and, as a consequence, lost his crown in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. However, Mary and Anne had been raised as Anglicans and were married to reliable Protestants: William of Orange, who ruled jointly with Mary after James’s fall, and the self-effacing Prince George of Denmark. When her father was toppled, Anne unhesitatingly backed the Protestant invader.
Anne’s reign was dominated by a war with the French, just as what remains of Mrs May’s reign in Downing Street will be. If you do not yet realise that Brexit is a war with the French, you clearly have not met either the French president, Emmanuel Macron, or the divorce lawyer for the EU, Michel Barnier, who between them have as much Gallic hauteur as Louis XIV at his zenith.
Like the causes of the War of Spanish Succession, the causes of our own War of English Secession will be difficult for future historians to explain. In both cases many contemporaries were also unsure what it was all for. “None of [my sons] had known what they were fighting for — not properly,” says a grieving mother in the play. “Except to beat the French, of course.” As Brexit becomes ever more complicated, I suspect many people will start to feel equally bewildered. Even today, how many people can accurately explain the difference between “hard” and “soft” Brexit?
My prediction is that when the government finally reaches an agreement on Brexit, its terms will be as baffling to the man in the street as the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht were in 1713.
It was in Queen Anne’s reign that the Scottish question was supposedly settled with the 1707 Act of Union, which united the two nations’ parliaments and created the hugely successful joint venture called “Great Britain”. Yet the question was only half settled. In 1708, in 1715 and again in 1745, Anne’s Catholic relatives would seek to take back the throne with the help of the Scottish Highlanders. In our own time, the Act of Union has been overturned (with the re-establishment of a Scottish parliament in 1999) and, although the threat of full independence has receded since the 2014 referendum, the Scottish Nationalists remain as painful a thistle in Mrs May’s side as the Jacobites were in Anne’s.
Modern party politics was also born in Queen Anne’s time, with the bitter battles between Tories and Whigs. In the play, I especially admired James Garnon’s performance as the Speaker of the Commons, Robert Harley, who successfully insinuated himself into the Queen’s good graces. I loved his catchphrase: “Yes. No. Perhaps.”
Then, as now, satirists made cruel fun of the nation’s leaders, regardless of their sex. Theresa May’s transformation into the “Maybot” is bad, but the treatment of Queen Anne by Whig hacks such as Arthur Maynwaring was worse.
Finally, the vexed question of the succession never ceased to loom over Queen Anne’s reign. And just the same is true of Mrs May’s reign today. The Act of Settlement at least made it clear that, if both Mary and Anne died without issue, the crown of England and Ireland (but not Scotland) would go to Sophia, Electress of Hanover, and her Protestant descendants. That was why Anne was succeeded by Sophia’s son, George I of Hanover. Yet plots to restore the Stuarts persisted for more than 30 years.
The succession question today is murkier still. Mrs May seemed broken by her election humiliation in June. Yet no obvious heir is apparent. Once too often, Tory MPs have heard Boris Johnson utter the words: “Yes. No. Perhaps.” The party faithful want a reshuffle so that younger talent can audition for the part of premier.
In her bitter memoir, the Duchess of Marlborough savaged Queen Anne: “She certainly . . . meant well and was not a fool, but nobody can maintain that she was wise, nor entertaining in conversation . . . [She was] ignorant in everything but what the parsons had taught her when a child . . . Being very ignorant, very fearful, with very little judgment, it is easy to be seen she might mean well, being surrounded with so many artful people, who at last compassed their designs to her dishonour.”
Mark Twain gets the credit for saying that history does not repeat itself, though it sometimes rhymes. (Actually, what he wrote was that “the kaleidoscopic combinations of the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends”.) But sometimes it does repeat itself — and with exquisite precision.