Thursday, August 31, 2006

Queen Anne's Womb

The failure of England's Queen Anne to produce an heir is significant enough that one could argue the United States itself may not even exist today – at least not in its present form – if not for this singular event in the 18th century.

Anne came to the throne of England in 1702, when her brother-in-law, William III, died without an heir. William, of course, had been the William of William & Mary fame, Protestant co-regents who overthrew Mary and Anne’s Catholic father, James II, in the Glorious Revolution, bringing Protestantism to the English throne for good.

In 1701, after it had become apparent that Anne would succeed her childless brother-in-law, a succession crisis occurred because Anne did not have any children either. There was a fear that once Anne died, her half-brother, James Stuart, who was Catholic like their father, would take the throne. To keep that from happening, Parliament passed the Act of Settlement to ensure that Protestants remained on the throne. Thus, the Act decreed that the throne would pass, after Anne’s death, to Sophia, who was the Protestant regent of the German province of Hanover. Sophia was the granddaughter of James I, through James’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth. Princess Elizabeth had married into the Hanoverian royal family. James I had been Anne’s great-grandfather, making Sophia Anne’s second cousin.

It was through no easy, or even likely, path that Anne came to be without an heir. In fact, it’s the unlikeliness of the fact that she didn’t produce an heir that makes this story so interesting. She wasn’t barren, and her husband was not sterile. They tried desperately to produce offspring. Between 1684 and 1700, Anne was pregnant no less than eighteen times. Eighteen times! Twelve of those pregnancies produced stillborn children, including a set of stillborn twins. Of the remaining six children, three were born alive, but died the same day, and two died before the age of 2 years. That left Anne and her husband with only one child, William. William was not a healthy child, and had continual physical ailments, including the brain disorder hydrocephalus (although that wasn’t determined until after his death). In July of 1700, he got sick and was treated for smallpox. It didn’t work. He died five days after his 11th birthday.

Can you imagine the sadness that must have accompanied twelve stillborn children, five infant deaths, and the death at age 11 of your only surviving child? Indeed, the physical and emotional stress of all these pregnancies and stillbirths left Anne with chronic ill health and chronic pain disorders. She eventually died of complications from gout, and it was said that death brought her a sort of sweet release from pain and suffering. She had grown so obese in her later life, from her inability to get around much, that she had to be buried in a coffin that was square, rather than rectangular.

Sophia of Hanover had died only a few months before Anne. This meant that her son, George, became Anne’s heir. George was a full-blooded German, already quite old by 18th century standards when he took the throne (54 years old....he was, in fact, older than Anne by five years). He did not speak English, and never learned English fluently even after assuming the English throne in 1714. Additionally, he concerned himself primarily with Hanoverian issues, even after moving permanently to England.

When he died, his son, George II, took the throne. George II had also been born and raised in Germany, spoke German has his first language, and was so dismissive of English culture that he brought his own German court composer to England with him....a little somebody named George Frederick Handel. Apparently the English musicians weren’t good enough.

George II outlived his eldest son, so the throne passed to his grandson, George III. George III, of course, is the King George of American Revolution infamy.

The Georges were notoriously dismissive of the American colonies. The colonies had enjoyed relative peace with their parent country under Anne and the other Stuarts. But with the ascension of the heavy-handed and autocratic Hanoverians, the colonies began to develop unrest. Western expansion was limited in order to avoid wars with Native Americans, and this greatly upset many of the American colonists. Then heavy taxes began to be levied against the colonies, which ultimately led to things like the Boston Tea Party, the Intolerable Acts, and all the events leading up to the Revolution itself.

An argument, I believe, could be made that without the Hanoverians’ autocratic rule – particularly that of George III – the American Revolution would not have happened when and how it happened. It’s possible to even speculate that it wouldn’t have happened at all.

And of course, the worldwide changes in history just snowball from there.

Without the American Revolution in the 1770’s and ‘80’s, there would have been no French Revolution in the 1790’s. Without the French Revolution, there would have been no Napoleon, and no French Empire. Without the French Empire, not to mention the United States, all of 19th century history would have been altered. For instance, there would have been no Civil War. No Abe Lincoln.

Additionally, without the Hanoverians’ rise to power, there would have been no Queen Victoria, thus no Victorian Age in England, and all the effects Victoria had on her country and the world.

Without the loss of the American colonies, British expansion into South Africa and India may not have happened, or at least not on the same scale. Thus, all of the sordid history of British colonialism in Indian and South African is altered.

All the events causing and leading to World War I would have been wiped out. Without a World War I, you have no Russian Revolution, and thus no USSR, and you have no Hitler and no World War II. Without a USSR, you have no Cold War, and there is no United States to have a Cold War with anyway.

And without these major events, even individual lives would have been greatly changed. World events shape our lives, and even our very existences. Without the wars and upheavals to mix populations around, people would have married different spouses, had children at different times. Diseases may have spread differently around the population, altering the population trends from what we know today. It’s possible that history would have changed so much that no one alive today would be alive today...instead, there would be a whole different generation of people with a different world view, a different understanding of reality, and a different set of experiences.

Of course, different events would have occurred in place of the events that we know and study today. A United States-type country would have eventually evolved from the American colonies, for instance. But Spanish influence in North America may have been stronger, due to the absence of French influence, as well as the lack of an independent country in place on the mainland of the continent. Wars would have happened, but they would have been different wars, with different circumstances. Again, all these differences would have led to a completely different population set. You and I wouldn’t be here discussing this.

All the major events of western history over the last 300 years would have been inexorably changed, or negated all together, without the inability of Queen Anne to produce an heir.

In that sense, I believe it’s not unreasonable to say that Queen Anne’s womb is the most important thing in western history.


deine schwester :) said...

Very interesting stuff. But in honor of the day, couldn't you have written something about Saucy Jack?

Lis said...

Heh, I was thinking that after all those horrible Hanoverian Georges inciting revolutions with their ill treatment of the colonies, now you have a George Bush!

Not that Australians are in a position to cast aspersions on the experiences of the US.

Scott said...

Yeah, and George Bush is as "mad" as George III too!

Anonymous said...

Actually, one could argue that Katherine of Aragon's was more important. Had she bore a living son, Henry VIII would not have sought his divorce, brought the Reformation to England and begun the Anglican church. England would have remained Catholic and a Spanish ally, which could have helped stem the spread of Protestantism in Europe. Plus, Queen Elizabeth never would have existed, the Stuarts might never have gotten a shot at the throne, had Henry IX been able to produce an heir of his own.

Scott said...

Yeah, there are countless scenarios one can come up with about how the whims of chance/fate can unalterably change history.

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