Princess Anne, the Princess Royal was the eldest daughter of George II. She was born into what we would call an extremely dysfunctional family in May 1709. (For more information about her grandmother and the House of Hanover read my blog on 15th November.) Anne was a remarkable woman in many ways; she is criticised and praised by contemporary chroniclers for her arrogance and her accomplishments both of which she had in equal measure.
Anne was born at Herrenhausen Palace, Hanover, five years before her paternal grandfather, Elector George Louis, succeeded to the British throne as George I. Her parents’ relationship with King George I was a troubled one. Her mother, Caroline of Ansbach, had been brought up in the Prussian Court where she had been treated as a surrogate daughter and had been well educated. It is difficult to know to what extent her experience of life at the boorish and brutal Hanoverian Court influenced her opposition to George I in England. Did Caroline suspect her father-in-law of having her mother-in-law’s lover killed? Did she support her husband’s desire to set his mother free from her imprisonment at Ahlden? Whatever the case Anne’s parents left Hanover in 1714 and did not return.
Political differences between father and son led to factions in the court in Hanover from the late 1710s and these disagreements were carried over the British court coming to head following the birth of George and Caroline’s second son, Prince George William in 1717. At the baby’s christening, Anne’s father publicly insulted the Duke of Newcastle. This so infuriated George I he banished his son and daughter-in-law from St James’s Palace and kept their children, including Anne under his guardianship at Leicester House. The family rift was healed, in part at least, in 1720 when Anne’s brothers were returned to care of her parents but the girls remained the wards of the King.
That year Anne’s body was ravaged by smallpox. The disease killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans a year during the closing years of the 18th century. This near-death experience and her parent’s experience of the disease at the beginning of their marriage caused her to support her mother’s efforts to test the practice of variolation (an early type of immunisation against smallpox), which had been witnessed by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Charles Maitland in Constantinople. At the direction of her mother, Caroline, six prisoners condemned to death were offered the chance to undergo variolation instead of execution: they all survived, as did six orphan children given the same treatment as a further test, (there were no medical ethics committees then). Convinced of variolation’s safety, the Queen had her two younger daughters, Amelia and Caroline, inoculated and with this royal patronage the practice spread amongst the upper classes.
On 22 June 1727, George I died while in Germany, making Anne’s father king. The following year, her elder brother, Frederick, who had been educated in Germany, was brought to England to join the court. Father and son had not seen one other in 14 years and when they did the fireworks began. Their relationship was even more tempestuous than the one between George I and George II especially after 1733 when Frederick purchased Carlton House and set up what George II considered to be a rival court.
As a daughter of the future British King Anne’s marriage was always going to be a dynastic one. As a princess requiring a Protestant marriage, her options were limited. The government hit on the idea of a marriage with the rather lowly William, Prince of Orange-Nassau to sure up their anti-French alliance. George II was not enamoured with the proposal and Anne was concerned herself for William had a well-known physical deformity. She dispatched Lord Hervey, a close confident, to report on its extent. Hervey reported that although William was no Adonis and his body was as bad as possible; William suffered from a pronounced curvature of the spine, probably the result of sclerosis-like the English King Richard III; he had a pleasing face.
Despite his deformity and the inferior territory, Anne decided she would take him. She was already 25 years old and did not want to end up an old maid surrounded by her warring relatives. When they married in 1734, her mother and sisters wept through the ceremony and Lord Hervey described the marriage as more sacrifice than celebration.
As an outsider and British, Anne was not popular in the Netherlands. Her life must have been a lonely one as she did not get along with her mother-in-law and her husband was frequently on campaign, his power base dependent on his ability to protect the states of the Dutch Republic from its enemies. In these lonely years Anne concentrated her efforts on literature and playing the harpsichord; she was an accomplished, artist, musician, and lifelong friend of her music teacher Handel.
Producing the required heir was problematic too. In 1736, she gave birth to a stillborn daughter and another in 1739. Her first live birth came in 1743 with the arrival of Princess Carolina of Orange-Nassau who was followed by another daughter, Princess Anna two years later. Her only son arrived in 1748 when she was 39 years old.
When her husband died three years later in 1751 at the age of 40, Anne was appointed regent for her 3-year-old son, Prince William V. She was given all prerogatives normally given a hereditary Stadtholder of the Netherlands, with the exception of the military duties of the office, which were entrusted to Duke Louis Ernest of Brunswick-Lüneburg.
To say that she took to the role like a duck to water would not be an exaggeration. Finally free to exercise some power, in true Hanoverian style, Anne used her wit and her determination to secure her personal power base and with it the dominance of her family and the Orange dynasty.
She was hard-working but remained unpopular. Commercial rivalry between the Dutch and the British East India Companies was part of the cause. Another reason was the constitution of the United Provinces. But what made her most unpopular was that she seized the opportunity to centralise power in the office of the hereditary Stadtholder over the traditional rights of the Dutch states particularly the State of Haarlem and in her foreign policy, she favoured the British-German alliance over alliance with the French.
Ultimately, as a woman she was reliant on the men around her and it is fair to say that her husband and her son were fighting a losing battle against the tide of history at the end of the 18th century and Anne with all her skills could not realise the ambitions of the House of Orange on her own. She ruled the Netherlands for eight years dying of dropsy in 1759 when her son was 12. She was replaced as regent by her mother-in-law, Marie Louise of Hesse-Kassel and when she died in 1765, Anne’s daughter, Carolina, was made regent until William V turned 18 in 1766.
Anne was a remarkable woman. With her beauty shredded by smallpox, she took on the world and won. (I am sure she took the opportunity to show herself in her best light in her self-portrait above.) She accepted and made a success of her marriage which on the face of it held little prospect for personal happiness. She was an intelligent if haughty woman who endured years of loneliness, the pain of 2 stillborn children and widowhood. She exercised the role of Staadholder (chief executive of the Dutch Republic) as effectively as any man and laid the foundations of the Dutch royal family. Her grandson, William I became the first king of the Netherlands in 1815.
George II: King and Elector By Andrew C. Thompson, 2011, Yale University Press.