Anne of Denmark was Queen of England during a highly tumultuous period of history, which is part of why her own life has not been examined very thoroughly. Her husband was James I, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, and they were coronated after the death of the beloved Queen Elizabeth I. So in the first place, it was a tough act to follow. But also, England was still in the midst of lots of religious violence and persecution, and as foreigners (James, from Scotland; Anne, from Denmark) they were mistrusted by many of the population. This is part of what led to the whole Guy Fawkes/Gunpowder Plot situation, a huge moment in English history that further upstaged Anne’s personal story. Honestly, the whole Stuart dynasty (which started with James and Anne) tends to be overlooked compared to the Tudors maybe just because there was so much drama surrounding Henry VIII et al. Anne herself is just as interesting to study as any of the previous Queens and notable women, but currently there’s just one biography about her at all — and it was written in 1970. So her life is RIPE for re-examination, because this is an incredibly interesting story. Let’s dig in!
Anne was born in 1574, the second daughter of King Frederick II of Denmark and Sophie of Mecklenburg-Güstrow. Right away, her parents and the country of Denmark were disappointed by her gender, as they all had been hoping for a son. Despite being a princess, she was already a bit of an underdog. Anne and her older sister Elizabeth were sent away for the first years of their lives to be raised by their maternal grandparents in Güstrow (in Germany), which was maybe for the best. Their parents oversaw a royal court known for its overall debauchery with just like food and sex and wine everywhere all the time, whereas their Lutheran grandparents were stable and frugal and perhaps better role models for the girls. Their mother, Sophie, visited often. Sophie herself was much closer to her parents than was usually the case back then, and she was determined to nurture a similar bond between herself and her own children. This included breastfeeding her own children, rather than using a wet-nurse, which was so exceptional at the time that everyone was confused.
A boy, Christian, was born to the royal couple after a few years, and he joined his sisters in Güstrow. When Anne was five years old, all three children were returned to their parents’ court in Denmark. Frederick and Denmark were doing pretty well, so princes and kings from all over were vying to get to marry Anne and Elizabeth. But as the national religion was Lutheranism, Anne’s parents would only consider suits from Protestants, which limited the pool of possibilities. The best option Frederick and Sophie found for Anne was James VI, the King of Scotland. Frederick passed away before anything could be finalized, and with the new King Christian being just eleven years old, Sophie took the lead on marriage negotiations. James was a good option both for dynastic and political reasons, and also because he was only eight years older than Anne — a much smaller age gap than the 24 years there had been between Sophie and Frederick. James’s mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had just been executed for treason and so things were sort of dicey for him, meaning that he was under a lot of pressure from his councillors to get married. He wasn’t interested in women, perhaps at all, but knew that landing a Protestant wife and having a child would help make him a more appealing potential heir to Elizabeth I. And so, after years of negotiations, a marriage treaty was signed. Phew.
In advance of the marriage, five hundred tailors and embroiderers set about working on the gowns that would comprise her trousseau. Anne herself worked at stitching shirts for her husband, which was both the custom of the time, and also is such a sweet thing about how excited she was about the match. She could speak German, Danish, and went on a crash course to learn French so that she and James would be able to speak without needing an interpreter (she didn’t speak Scots or Latin, the other languages that James was fluent in). They wrote letters back and forth, and James oversaw renovations of a castle despite not having enough money to do so, which shows that he was also anxious and keen on the marriage. He asked for a bigger dowry than had previously been agreed upon, and Sophie was like “Um no” but you can’t fault him for trying.
Anne and James were married by proxy on August 20, 1589. This is the sort of thing where someone standing in for Anne married James, and someone standing in for James married Anne, even though they were in separate countries at the time. To complete the total weirdness, there was a proxy-consummation as James’s proxy lay fully clothed next to Anne, also fully clothed, in a bed. Ten days later, the young “bride” set sail for Scotland among sixteen ships containing her furniture, clothes, horses, and a carriage made of SOLID SILVER. Time to go meet her gay husband and start her new life as Queen of Scots!
James had twelve ships ready to greet her when she and her squad arrived. BUT the oceans were not in the mood to make this very easy. Six of her ships arrived in Scotland, but the other ten were unaccounted for. James, who was very superstitious and also obsessed with witchcraft, ordered that everyone in Scotland should fast and pray for her safekeeping, and sent out a search party. He wrote brooding songs about how worried he was, and began obsessing about all the bad omens he felt he should have taken more seriously: when one of his own ships had set out to green Anne, a cannon had exploded and killed some sailors; the boat of one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting-to-be, had sunk on its way to the port and all 40 of its passengers died. But don’t worry! It turns out that Anne and her other ten ships had made an emergency landing (docking?) in Norway and, although she was traumatized and several of the ships were damaged, they had taken shelter in Oslo and were totally fine.
But it was now winter, and it was way too dangerous to cross until spring, but Anne was like, “We can try sailing over again, maybe?” but James was like “Hell no, I’ll come get you myself!” and, despite literally every member of his council warning against it, set out with three hundred people to go and pick her up himself. He arrived in Oslo on November 19th, clad in red velvet, tall and gorgeous, and ran up and tried to kiss her in front of everybody. All the Danish Lutherans were shocked, but he was like, “That’s just how we do things in Scotland!” and Anne was like, “OK, then,” and they had a little chit-chat wherein they decided to just get married in Oslo instead of sailing back to Scotland.
And this is how this Scottish man married this Danish woman in Oslo in a sort of thrown-together wedding that just makes me think of Frozen, and sounds lovely until I mention that JAMES BURNED ELEVEN WOMEN. That’s right, the Scottish King was so superstitious and paranoid about witches, that he blamed the bad weather on witchcraft and the only way to fix it was to, again I repeat: BURN ELEVEN INNOCENT NORWEGIAN WOMEN AS WITCHES. So like… that’s what we’re dealing with here. Some other, more low-key drama, was that Anne opted not to take part in the communion part of the mass because she was still following her Lutheran religion rather than James’s Presbyterianism and everyone was like, Oh this sort of thing might be important later, so let’s put a pin in this.
Post-witch-burning, the young couple had a pretty cool time that winter hanging out for an impromptu Scandanavian honeymoon. They took the party to Elsinore (yes, like in Hamlet!!) so James could meet Dowager Queen Sophie and King Christian. They were also able to attend her sister Elizabeth’s wedding in Copenhagen, and then finally headed off to Scotland in March.
Anne revealed her own propensity for glamour and drama by making her official entrance into Edinburgh in her solid silver coach, which had luckily survived the stormy seas and the whole Norwegian adventure. And turns out that James also lived for drama, and so this coronation became the most. Not only was the whole thing seven hours long, but James included a thing I’ve never heard of before, where Anne’s dress was opened up and the minister poured oil onto her breast and arm. James was like, “Oh yeah, this is a really old ritual in like…. Protestantism,” and he was the King so nobody could stop him so Anne, half-topless and glistening with oil, became the new Queen of Scots.
The whole point of Anne marrying James was for her to give birth to a bunch of Scottish heirs to the throne, but the first two years of their marriage went by without her becoming pregnant. Everyone was freaking out about this, and I’m sure that added pressure did nothing to help her vis-a-vis fertility. And drama just spiralled around them like they were magnets and the drama was so many paperclips, like people were trying to kidnap them and betray them constantly; at one point, one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting helped an attempted kidnapper escape out her window, and James wanted Anne to fire the lady and Anne was like, “I would sooner return to Denmark myself, you dick!” and just screaming, screaming, fighting, that was what their relationship was like.
Eventually, she gave birth to their first child, Henry Frederick, five years after the Frozen themed marriage, and everyone calmed down. Except for her, because it turns out that she was expected to be separated from her son Henry so he could be raised in a different castle. She was despondent and upset and missed her mother and, let’s all take a moment to remember that she was seventeen years old at this point. The separation was partly just how things were done for royal Scottish babies, but also was because Anne and James were so constantly almost being kidnapped/murdered themselves, it was thought Baby Henry should be kept in the most fortified of all the castles, which was in Stirling, under the watchful eye of James’s trusted allies the Dowager Countess and Earl of Mar. Anne was devastated.
Anne refused to be separated from her son, and set to work convincing everyone she could that the child’s place should be with her. When James heard Anne was planning to visit Henry, he ensured he came along for the trip too, so that she wasn’t able to kidnap the baby herself. Anne lobbied for support from some of the Asshole Scottish Lords ™, and was gaining so much support that James made the child’s new guardian write a letter saying “I WILL NEVER GIVE HENRY TO YOU, ANNE, EVEN IF YOU COME HERE AND ASK, AND EVEN IF THE KING DIES, YOU CAN’T HAVE HENRY BACK.” And again: screaming, yelling, crying, misery, drama, Anne missed her mother, James was a dick, rinse, repeat.
The couple pretty clearly hated each other from then on, but did their royal duty and conceived a bunch more kids, six more in total. Their next child was a daughter named Elizabeth, who was sent off to be raised in another castle but Anne didn’t mind as much because it was her own castle so she could visit it whenever she wanted. Also during this time, she secretly was (allegedly) baptized as Catholic which was a huge plot twist due to the whole religious chaos constantly happening around them. She dismissed the Danish chaplain who’d been working with her this whole time, and secretly hired a Jesuit to instruct her in religious matters. This wasn’t a decision to be made lightly, as punishment of even hosting a Jesuit at your house was death. James found out about Anne’s new Catholic ways and, while he didn’t agree with her, agreed it was OK so long as she kept it all secret and didn’t convert any of their children.
During this whole time, Anne never stopped secretly looking for ways to get Henry back. And, eight years later, she figured out a new scheme. While everyone was preoccupied with James going to London to become the Queen of England (as the heir of Elizabeth I), Anne gathered up some of the Asshole Lords and headed off to the castle where her son Henry was living. He was now nine years old, and she’d hardly seen him for the past five years of his life. The Dowager Countess and Earl of Mar refused to let her in, and refused to even let her see her son. Anne became so distraught and upset that many believed this caused her to miscarry, because she had been pregnant at the time. Yet, even in her grief and rage, she didn’t stop looking for a loophole. James sent a message like, “I’m King of England now! You have to come to England and be Queen here!” And Anne wrote back like, “Sure, but I’ll only join you in England if I can bring Henry with me, and let me have custody over him.” James had no choice but to agree, because he had to have his Queen in England with him, and so after she’d recovered from the miscarriage, Anne and Henry triumphantly rode to England to become the royal family there.
Before she’d died, Queen Elizabeth I had been suspicious of Anne’s religious loyalty. It was incredibly important for the new King of England to be Protestant, not Catholic or Lutheran and Anne just sort of politely side-stepped letting anyone know what she truly felt about any of this. Queen Elizabeth I had written letters warning Anne not to let anyone convert her to Catholicism, and demanding the names of any Catholics who tried to do so. Anne wrote back like, “No worries! All good here!” Meanwhile, one of Anne’s confidantes was a woman named Henrietta Gordon, whose husband was an exiled Catholic. Some even suspected that Anne might be an Atheist; but officially, she was Protestant, like her husband. Even when a Catholic minister was caught trying to smuggle a rosary to her and got thrown in the Tower of London, Anne was like, “I never asked for a rosary, lol, how embarrassing,” but then also ensured that the rosary-deliverer was freed from prison. So what was her deal? Nobody knew. Maybe her religion was just to mess with people.
Anne and James’s marriage continued to be a series of incredibly passionate arguments, which makes sense given both of their personalities. Among their greatest hits was surrounding the Gowrie Conspiracy of 1600. This was a thing where the Earl of Gowrie, John Ruthven, and his brother Alexander allegedly tried to assassinate James and got themselves killed. Their sisters, Beatrix and Barbara Ruthven, had been among Anne’s ladies in waiting but James had them fired for assassination-brother reasons. Anne was so mad about this and, even though she was pregnant at the time, went on a hunger strike and refused to leave bed for two days until the Ruthven sisters were returned to her service. They yelled and screamed and fought, and James hired an acrobat (??) to come in and do a show to get her mind off of things. Anne started eating and leaving bed again, but would not give up on her crusade to have the Ruthven sisters hired back, like for three years she was unrelenting. In 1602, she smuggled Beatrix Ruthven into the castle but she was found, and James kicked her out again. Finally, he agreed to give Beatrix a pension, like sort of severence pay. Anne = 2; James = 0.
Another of their bigger fights was when Anne “accidentally” killed James’s favourite dog, Jewel, while out on a hunt. James freaked the fuck out at her, but then eventually forgave her and gave her a giant diamond as a memorial to the dog. Starting in 1607, Anne mostly lived in London while James spent more and more of his time in the countryside, which seems like the best case for this borderline toxic pairing. And Anne and James were just like sloppy gossips about each other, slipping secrets to courtiers and envoys and ambassadors about each other. Note: all of the secrets Anne slipped were personal, never political. James knew that Anne was gossipy and so didn’t trust her with secrets of state but honestly? Anne only cared about that stuff when if affected her children or friends, and otherwise paid zero attention to politics — although she would sometimes play different courtiers against each other for her own reasons (and/or amusement).
Anne’s whole religious thing kept popping up, and at around this same time the literal Pope wrote a letter like, “IDK what religion this woman even believes in, like she keeps changing her mind, she might even be a secret Catholic, like, no idea what’s going on with her.” Despite this apparent inconstancy and her surface-level frivolity, Anne was a badass and super beneficial wife for James. In public, she was gracious and a great diplomat, and the parties she threw were both legendary and also helped elevate the appearance of the English court to the other European nations. Anne was a dedicated patron of the arts, especially writing and theatre, and she would sometimes perform herself in the many, many, many plays that were put on during her time as Queen. When she was Queen of Scotland, this whole side of things wasn’t as popular because at that time, Scotland was very frugal and straightlaced and Presbyterian. Anne’s penchant for glamour and extravagance (which she shared with her husband, who also loved shiny and pretty and expensive things) fit in much better in England, where her encouragement allowed artists to flourish creatively.
Her parties were masques, the sort of ball you may be familiar with from the Shakesepeare plays where they happen. Basically, at a masque, a theatre company would be hired to bring singers, musicians, and performers, and the King and Queen and courtiers would join them in dancing. There would also be a play performed, and with Anne as the party planner, these would have some of the most sophisticated and ornate sets ever. When there was a Queen Anne masque coming up, people would come from other countries just because they knew it was going to be such an amazing good time. In this way, Anne helped to raise the profile of England as a cultural hub, and also showed off how rich they were, which made everyone more eager to deal with them. It was at around this time that women began to be permitted to act on stage, which was another thing that Anne helped to mainstream. In fact, Anne would sometimes cast herself or her ladies in waiting in roles in the show. This sometimes led to controversy, as when Anne wore a toga in her role as Athena that some audience members felt was too short. But she’s the Queen, so what you gonna do?
Note: James hated plays, and fell asleep during them. But he was really into witchcraft, which is why Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, which is a shorter-than-usual play about a Scottish King who hangs out with witches. I bet James still fell asleep, though.
In 1612, Anne’s beloved son Henry died of old timey diseases, and the next year her oldest daughter Elizabeth was sent off to Heidelberg to be married, and Anne just fell into a deep depression and began having lots of health problems. She held her final masque in 1614, and mostly hung out by herself. With her out of the picture, James fell more into the thrall of his male courtiers (which led to the whole Thomas Overbury murder situation, among other messed-up stuff). Her illness got worse and worse, and her son Charles slept in the room next to her (James only visited three times). When Anne was dying, Charles lay in the bed next to her. She passed away at age 44 on March 2, 1619 and was laid to rest in King Henry’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey.
James, true to form, went over the top with his grief over Anne’s death. He of course loved her, but he was also highly performative with all of his emotions. He was unable to attend her funeral as he was sick at the time, with an illness that sort of like Anne’s, seems one-part physical and one-part psychological. Just as James had written songs while waiting for her to arrive from Denmark, he marked her passing with a new poem:
So did my Queen from hence her court remove
And left off earth to be enthroned above.
She’s changed, not dead, for sure no good prince dies,
But, as the sun, sets, only for to rise.
Anne’s son Charles would go on to become King Charles I of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Anne’s daughter Elizabeth became Queen of Bohemia and, through her grandson George I, established the royal house of Hanover. Basically, Anne of Denmark an ancestor to every English monarch Charles I to the present day.
There have been no (????) movies made about her, which is confusing because it’s all right there, moviemakers. Her story has it all: being stranded in Oslo! A Frozen theme wedding! A fierce mother who will stop at nothing to get her son back! A debauched loser of a husband who basically abandons her! Inventing the idea of letting women act on stage! Like, someone get on this, ASAP, thanks so much. I think Alicia Vikander would be great in the part, too.
There aren’t even many books written about her! What is the deal? What I can find at the moment are Scotland’s Last Royal Wedding: The Marriage of King James VI and Anne of Denmark by David Stevenson and Anne of Denmark by Ethel Carleton Williams. Historical biographers and novelists: get on this too! The material is literally all right there!