Anna of Denmark: Queen, Patron, and Matriarch

Written by Dr. Steven Veerapen

Historically, Anna (or Anne) of Denmark has not received a great press. To too many, she is an unknown quantity – a name, glimpsed as an adjunct to King James: a non-speaking background figure, literally, seen in dramas as varied as 2017’s Gunpowder and Disney’s direct-to-video Pocahontas 2. She has, moreover, enjoyed unfavourable comparisons to her predecessors as queens consort, especially of England. Whilst bookshop and library shelves heave with volumes on Henry VIII’s wives, there remains comparatively little available on James VI and I’s queen.

This is a great shame. Partly, it can be attributed to the successes of both King and Queen. James ruled over a period of peace, and he never descended into tyranny. His relationship with Anna, too, appears to lack the stuff of grand romance or tear-inducing tragedy. Their relationship, rather than foundering or resulting in bloodshed, has in some ways been a victim of its own success: they were matched politically and, over the years – and despite James’s extramarital affairs with men and at least one woman – they performed their procreative duties and developed a mutual love and lasting affection. This, perhaps, makes for less dramatic copy.

However, there was drama aplenty in the life in Anna of Denmark. Her parents, Frederick II and Sophie of Denmark, were a colourful pair: he bluff and blustering, she possessed of a steel-trap mind and a talent for organisation. Anna was their second daughter (born in December 1574) and raised in her earliest years by her maternal grandparents and thereafter at the Danish court – a hive of burgeoning humanist, Lutheran, and intellectual thought.

It was expected, of course, that royal princesses would enter the international marriage market – and the greatest prizes were always emperors and kings. It so happened that the youthful James Stuart, King of Scots, was, following the execution of his mother in 1587, eager for a bride. This was music to Frederick and Sophie’s ears, as they had had their eyes on him for years.

James, however, was a young man insecure on his throne and, as a result of his having long lived under the shadow of his imprisoned mother, Mary Queen of Scots, touchy about his status. He sought not Princess Anna, but her elder sister, Princess Elizabeth of Denmark. Unfortunately for him, the negotiations dragged on for so long that an exasperated Frederick pledged Elizabeth elsewhere. James was left with a choice: take the second daughter of Denmark or look to France for a match.

When Frederick died in 1588, the dowager Queen Sophie was determined to step into the breach. While the Danish government would not let her stand as Regent for her son (Anna’s brother, young Christian IV) she was able to exercise power in other ways. Chief amongst them was relighting a fire in the Scoto-Danish marriage negotiations. A year later, James had renounced his mooted French match (with Catherine of Navarre) and was ready to sign a contract for the fourteen-year-old Anna’s hand. Sophia was, accordingly, delighted at having achieved what her late husband could not: Scotland was locked in marital alliance with Denmark-Norway.

Yet being Queen Consort in Scotland could be no sinecure. The country had not seen a consort since the flight of Mary Queen of Scots’s last husband, the 4th earl of Bothwell. Prior to that dangerous and disreputable fellow, Henry Lord Darnley had been the nation’s uncrowned consort. Worse, from the perspective of the young bride awaiting passage across the North Sea, was that the Scottish Reformation had heralded a weakening of the Crown, a growth in theocratic republican thinking, and – thanks to preachers like John Knox – a distrust of women in positions of power. Gone were the days in which Scottish consorts like Margaret Tudor and Marie of Guise had slipped easily into the role of political players.

As daunting as the prospect of a new life must have been, it was less so than the sight of the wild seas which battered northern Europe in the winter of 1589-90. On setting out from Denmark, Anna and her party were driven onto the coast of Norway (then Danish territory) and forced by what appeared to be almost devilish weather to retreat to Oslo.

In Scotland, King James was appalled. With mounting anticipation, he had eagerly desired the arrival of his bride. Determined to show the world that he was willing to do what his southern neighbour Elizabeth of England (whose throne he knew himself to be heir to, even if she would not admit it) never would – marry and provide issue – he resolved to hazard his own person. James Stuart would be every inch a Renaissance prince, travelling incognito to rescue his stranded princess.

Thus, for the first time in his life, the bisexual King James left his kingdom (and left behind him his latest male lover, Alexander Lindsay) and rode the wild waves. Arriving in Oslo, his head filled with idealised visions of feminine submissiveness, he met and married Anna (attempting to steal a kiss, despite her demurral). The pair were, if appearances are to be believed, in raptures of love at first sight; and, given both were attractive (she tall and golden-hair, he solemn and fair-haired and -bearded), the marriage looked likely to prove a royal fairy tale. There followed an idyllic winter at the Danish royal court – hunting, feasting, masques, and a great deal of drinking amongst James’s warring retinue. But it could not last. Scotland, now that it had a Queen, was as eager to see her as James was to show her off.

On her arrival in Scotland, Anna was unimpressed (and not only by the outbreak of witchcraft trials resulting from attempts to discover the cause of the freak weather, nor of the frenzied attacks by one of the accused witches, the 5th earl of Bothwell). Her new husband, in fairness, had bestowed properties on her and quickly set about establishing her royal household. However, he was swiftly to be as disappointed as she was – and Anna was far from content with luxurious palaces built purely for pleasure and leisure. She had already come to understand that her predecessors as Scottish consort had enjoyed rights, privileges, and properties which James was denying her.

Thus was born the first royal conflict. It is sometimes claimed that despondence set in on the part of the King, who realised that his youthful bride was scatter-brained and ill-equipped for life with an academically-minded, deeply learned sovereign. In fact, the opposite was the case: James was horrified to discover that his bride had a formidable, practical intellect and an even stronger will of her own. Anna, crowned at a splendid coronation, was encouraged to see herself as nothing more than a baby-making machine. But, daughter of Sophie as she was, she had in mind a more active role in restoring the Scottish monarchy to a state of visible grandeur and political pre-eminence. From the first, she fought for the traditional rights of consort – the right to organise and manage her own household and her rights to lands filched by acquisitive government ministers – with a tenacity that exasperated her husband. James, he realised, had married a girl of fire and mettle rather than the dull-witted submissive which his reformed, Scottish Humanist education had led him to demand.

Anna’s early years in Scotland were thus characterised by her battles to establish herself not – as some historians have claimed – out of wilfulness or greed but out of a keen awareness of her position and all that it entitled her to. What Scotland expected of her, of course, remained, primarily, a male heir. This she provided in the form of Prince Henry, born in 1594.

The story of Henry’s early life provides another well-known saga in the royal marriage (which, it should be stressed, remained in rude health, despite the litany of slanders thrown against the Queen’s chastity by jealous and mischievous courtiers and ambassadors). James, understandably worried at the thought of his son being snatched and himself deposed, decided that the Prince was to be raised in Stirling Castle by the Erskines of Mar. Anna, realising that whoever held the Prince held the future of the kingdom, was determined to raise her son herself.

Throughout the 1590s, this custody battle wore on. It survived further births (of Charles and Elizabeth), deaths (of Prince Robert and Princess Margaret), and the enmity of the Scottish Kirk, which attacked both King and Queen for alleged Catholic sympathies. Whether or not Anna truly converted to Catholicism in these years is a matter of conjecture. In the balance of probabilities, however, and given the conflicting reports of this supposed conversion, it seems likely that she did not. Rather, despite the troubles over Prince Henry, the King and Queen remained united in entertaining Catholic hopes in order to smooth the path to their expected English succession. As they quarrelled, intrigued, developed an enviable bond of affection, and together worked to stabilise Scottish politics, they waited. Queen Elizabeth, they knew, could not hold on forever.

In 1603, the long-awaited news arrived. In March, the old Queen passed away. James, without any objection, was proclaimed King by a hastily reassembled English Privy Council (operating, under Robert Cecil, as the ‘Great Council’).

As her husband rode south to claim his kingdom, Anna remained in Scotland. Her immediate goal on her husband’s departure was to end the wrangling over Prince Henry by claiming the boy for herself. This she did – at considerable personal cost. In ugly scenes, Anna found herself denied custody by her former friend, Marie Stewart, Countess of Mar – and as a result, she lost the baby she had been carrying. However, the Queen was, indeed, a woman of courage and strength. Overcoming her loss and subsequent illness, she won James’s approval and had Henry released into her custody. She could, and did, travel into England with its heir, very visibly, in her train.

At some point on her own long, colourful ride south, Anna came to realise that her new role – Queen Consort of England – was something different from her ongoing role as Queen of Scots. As a result of England’s colourful royal history (especially with regard to marriages), the old mediaeval ideal of importing foreigners as consorts had fallen into disrepute. This was a new, patriotic, post-Elizabethan England which was defining itself via war with Spain as fiercely Protestant and increasingly nationalistic. Doubly foreign, Anna had her work cut out.

Her solution was, and would continue to be, to refashion the role of consort – a role no one in England had seen save those who could remember Mary I’s marriage to Philip of Spain. As consort, Anna would be a patroness of English literature and letters; at the centre of a hub of literary activities; and in a highly visible role as what might now be termed the PR director of the new dynasty. Helping her in this were her family: her brother Ulrik would visit, as would Christian IV, providing scenes of English royal hospitality not seen since the days when Henry VIII had entertained Charles V. Amongst Anna’s clients would be such luminaries of English Renaissance culture as Ben Jonson, Inigo Jones, Thomas Campion, and John Florio. The Queen would revolutionise the role of English Consort, taking to the boards herself in elaborately-staged masques which surpassed the entertainments given for Queen Elizabeth even at the height of her reign.

It was as well that she had this role and that – in time – she would prove adept at it. Though James remained an affectionate husband and the pair continued to cohabit regularly, his attention, at least sexually, began to drift. His same-sex desires, hitherto kept in check during his marriage – as far as the records show – reasserted themselves. Soon, he began to absent himself at countryside hunting lodges with male companions. Even the royal couple’s shared encouragement of Catholic hopes – always ad hoc and hitherto successful – fell away following the Gunpowder Plot. By 1606, following deaths of two more children – Princesses Sophia and Mary – sexual relations between the royal couple seem to have faltered. The reason for this might well be that the King, though he loved his wife as family (something always dear to his heart), had fallen in love with someone else.

The steady rise of Robert Carr, later elevated to the earldom of Somerset, was greeted with antipathy by Queen Anna. Her suspicions of the handsome youth were justified. Not only was he bereft of any great political or intellectual talents, but he and his mentor, Thomas Overbury, showed little respect towards her. However, James was smitten. Anna, powerless in the face of this unexpected May-to-December romance, threw her energies into cultivating Prince Henry (who was no more a lover of the royal favourite than she was). If Somerset was the present, Prince Henry – a bright, exuberant, martial-minded young fellow – was the future. Or so it seemed.

To the shock and horror of James’s kingdoms, Henry died of typhoid in 1612. Anna was devastated. Yet her husband shared his own grief not with her, but with Somerset. The Queen, who soon had to say goodbye to her surviving daughter Elizabeth (a girl who had inherited her mother’s height and artistic tastes) on her marriage to the Elector Palatine, confined herself to her chambers. Focusing her energies now on the new heir, Prince Charles, Anna began addressing the lad as her ‘little servant’ and would show herself as assiduous in finding him a suitably grand marriage as she had been in negotiations for Henry’s hand. Charles, for his part, loved his mother deeply, and would soon share her cultural interests and her disapproval of Somerset.

When the favourite’s fall came, it was swifter than had been his rise. James, who could deny his lover nothing, allowed Somerset to marry (expecting, no doubt, a loveless match to ensue). Somerset, however, committed the cardinal sin of falling in love with his bride, the former Lady Essex – a young woman whose divorce from the Earl of Essex James himself had helped secure. Following this marriage, the new groom increasingly showed an intolerance of his royal lover’s touches, and James, heartbroken, was induced to accept the lingering end of the affair.

Spotting an opportunity, a cabal of nobles who detested the upstart Somerset moved in. Their plan was to substitute the falling favourite with a protégé of their own – one George Villiers. In their scheming, they turned to Anna. She, after an initial demurral, was convinced by the Archbishop of Canterbury to sponsor the new man all the way into her husband’s bed. Putting aside her objections, she acquiesced. James, utterly delighted by the fact that his wife approved this astonishingly handsome young man, fell in love all over again – though not with Anna. Villiers, who would reach the zenith of his career as Duke of Buckingham and Lord Admiral, was also perceptive and canny (or well coached) enough to ensure that he always treated his sovereign lady with absolute deference. Thus, there formed a royal ménage à trois – which survived the ultimate downfall of Somerset (who, with his wife, was tried and found guilty of having poisoned his old mentor Overbury).

Despite this curious newfound harmony in the royal family (with even Prince Charles being won over by the charming Buckingham), Anna was unwell. Frequently ill with what was likely osteo-arthritis (usually called gout in contemporary records), she was unable to continue arranging masques; her greatest royal progresses now took her to the restorative waters at Bath. Her interests were now conducted remotely: supervising the beginning of architectural work at Greenwich and joining James in pioneering attempts at silkworm-farming at Oatlands. She was unable, in 1617, to join the King on his brief return visit to Scotland, nor did he give her the regency or indeed any political power (a right to which the precedents of Katherine of Aragon and Katherine Parr should have entitled her) in his absence. She did not fight. Her final battle, in fact, was to save Sir Walter Raleigh’s life after his failed mission to the Americas in search of gold. In this she failed – and even Buckingham would not help her. In March 1619, the Queen died, leaving everyone arguing over her property, her true faith, and – at least in terms of historians – her intellectual abilities.

Anna of Denmark has, in recent years, undergone scholarly reappraisal. In place of the vain, stupid woman scorned by Victorian and many 20th century commentators (who appear to have expected a Queen Consort to be as classically-educated and -fixated as a Queen Regnant), there has emerged a woman at the forefront of literary, visual, and material culture. However, Anna was more even than this. She was a determined queen who cannily read and understood the traditions of what were, to her, two foreign kingdoms. From her youth, she fought doggedly for her rights in Scotland; in her later years, she fought for her children’s rights and privileges; and, in an age of religious fanaticism, she had the wit and guile to retain a personal faith which remains as elusive to modern scholars as it was to the Popes of her own day. Anna’s life was one of danger, intrigue, death, mystery, and – ultimately – enormous political and dynastic success. It – and she – deserves to be better known.

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