Opinion | Niall Ferguson

Queen Theresa and the War of English Secession

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street to attend the weekly Prime Ministers' Questions session, in parliament in London, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Frank Augstein/AP
Prime Minister Theresa May.

Nothing can rival the insights you get from really good theater. Having seen Helen Edmundson’s play “Queen Anne” in London last Monday, followed by the political theater of prime minister’s questions in Parliament two days later, I now understand everything.

Brexit is just the latest iteration of Britain’s ancient love-hate relationship with the European continent. That relationship is, as usual, 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 people. Yet the period (1702-1714) sheds a surprising amount of light on our own time.


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 a staggering 17 pregnancies and yet nearly all ended in either miscarriage or stillbirth.

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In addition to whatever ailments made her pregnancies so problematic, Anne also suffered from gout and obesity. She can scarcely be blamed for seeking solace in intense friendships, of which the most famous were with her childhood companion Sarah Churchill, later the Duchess of Marlborough, and Abigail Hill, a woman of the bedchamber with whom the queen was accused (almost certainly falsely) of having a lesbian affair.

Anne’s reign was dominated by a war with the French, just as what remains of Theresa May’s reign in Downing Street will be. If you do not yet realize 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 European Union, 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 today’s 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. 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 nation’s parliaments and created the hugely successful joint venture called “Great Britain.” Yet the question was only half settled. In 1708, 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 Scottish Nationalists remain as painful a thistle in 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 Tory Speaker of the House of Commons, Robert Harley, who successfully insinuated himself into the Queen’s good graces. I loved his catchphrase —“Yes. No. Perhaps.”

Finally, the vexed question of the succession never ceased to loom over Anne’s reign. And just the same is true of May’s reign today. The Act of Settlement at least made it clear that if Anne died without issue, the crown would go to Sophia, Electress of Hanover, and her Protestant descendants. That was why, when Anne died in 1714, she was succeeded by Sophia’s son, George I of Hanover. Yet plots to restore the Stuarts persisted for more than 30 years thereafter.

The succession question today is murkier still. May seemed broken by her election humiliation in June. Yet no obvious heir seems available. 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. The atmosphere at Westminster is subtly toxic: The prime minister, once feared, is now viewed as a caretaker.

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 judgement, 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 history does repeats itself — and with exquisite precision.

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford.