Show Hide image

“Ugly, gouty, fat”: the problem of Queen Anne’s body

From the memoirs of the 1700s to The Favourite, depictions of Queen Anne have always fixated on her body.

Queen Anne had to be carried to her coronation ceremony on a specially designed sedan chair. At just 37, she was too unwell and overweight to walk the traditional processional route from Westminster Hall to Westminster Abbey – about 400ft – by herself. When she died in 1714, aged 49, she was placed in a coffin described by one onlooker as so wide it was “almost square”, and “bigger than that of the prince, her husband, who was known to be a fat, bulky man”. It was taken to Westminster Abbey by a chariot with particularly “large, strong wheels”, drawn by eight horses draped in purple, where it was then carried inside by no less than 14 men. Some even claim the coffin didn’t fit inside the vault and that other royal coffins had to be moved to accommodate it.

Queen Anne is one of Britain’s lesser known monarchs. Many only know the briefest details of her life; many more are surprised to hear she existed at all. She is studied, discussed and depicted significantly less than any other British queen. But stories of her reign habitually start and end the same way, bookended with these two images. If you only know one thing about Queen Anne, it’s probably that she was fat.

Yorgos Lanthimos’s absurd, caustic, irresistible snapshot of Queen Anne’s court, The Favourite, gleefully dispenses with history – such grand scenes, usually staples of period dramas, are thankfully absent. But her body remains the central focal point of the narrative, a site of contradiction, where divine rights and mortal wrongs co-exist. The film opens with Olivia Colman’s petulant, manipulative, pathetic Anne being ceremonially disrobed in her chambers after a speech, her long train and heavy crown silently lifted from her as she agonises over whether or not she lisped. Soon, we’re watching raw beef being slapped on her bare, gout-ridden leg as she howls in agony. The tension of the film revolves around who attends to the queen’s body: who does her make-up, who dances with her, who wheels her chair, who heals her wounds, who dresses her, who feeds her, who fucks her. The razor-tongued Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and the social-climbing lady’s maid Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) are locked in a battle over who has the privilege of rubbing the Queen’s leg.


Olivia Colman as Queen Anne. (Fox Searchlight)

The real Queen Anne was ill, overweight, and living in a state of constant grief. She experienced 17 pregnancies in her lifetime, resulting in multiple miscarriages, six still-born infants, two babies who died within hours of birth, two daughters, Mary and Ann Sophia, who died as infants, and a son, William, Duke of Gloucester, who died when he was 11 years old. Her contemporaries were not moved to kindness by the heartbreak she experienced, but made cutting remarks on her body regardless. After their spectacular falling out, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, wrote a damning account of their friendship that paints a lasting portrait of Anne as miserable, dull, childish, and “exceedingly gross and corpulent”.

One Lord complained he was “sorry to see she grows fatter”. The contemporary writer (and Whig) Roger Coke described her as “monstrously” fat, with a face that wore “a tincture of sourness” and was “rubicund and bloated”, blaming her weight on overeating and an addiction to hot chocolate. The Whig politician John Clerk, after twice encountering the Queen during an acute attack of painful gout, wrote in horror of Anne’s “frightful” “red and spotted” face, “negligent dress”, “nasty bandages” and “dirty-like rags”, surmising that Anne “appeared to be the most despicable mortal I had ever seen in any situation”. “Nature seems to be inverted,” he declared, “when a poor infirm woman becomes one of the rulers of the world.”

Later scholars and biographers seem to share his revulsion, painting vivid pictures of not just Anne’s fatness, but her immobility and her infertility, in jarring language. A Victorian scholar of Alexander Pope introduced the Queen as “ugly, corpulent, gouty, sluggish, a glutton, and a tippler”. In 1848, Agnes Strickland wrote, “Few of those to whom the rotund form and high-coloured complexion of queen Anne are familiar can imagine her as a poet’s love”. Historian Linda Colley describes her as simply “poor, dumpy Queen Anne”. Mark Kishlansky, in his 1991 Penguin History of Britain, introduces the Queen as “unattractive”, quipping that her “insipid” tastes were “limited to gambling and dining, losing pounds at one set of tables and gaining them at the other”. Gimson’s Kings and Queens describes Anne as “grotesquely” fat, while Anne’s most recent biographer Anne Somerset describes her as “alarmingly” so, adding that, “By the time Anne came to the throne she had long lost her personal attractions” as she was “corpulent, coarse-complexioned, and ungainly”. In a 2001 work on royal doctors and medical treatments in court, Elizabeth Lane Furdell writes colourfully of the symptoms of Anne’s gout, including “monstrous swelling”, “grotesque postures” and “flatulent contortions”, as well as describing, in a grim and emotionless turn of phrase, the Queen’s “tragic fecundity”.

The objectification of Anne’s body only intensifies over time, defining her in terms of her sexual appeal (whilst implicitly suggesting that a fat woman is necessarily an unattractive one), even when referencing her many bereavements, until her body is emptied of personhood. In the 1950s, JP Kenyon wrote in a particularly charming sentence that Anne’s body, “never more than graceful, had been battered into shapelessness by an unrelenting series of pregnancies”. His description was clearly influential: David Starkey writes in Crown and Country, that Anne’s “handsome, womanly figure” had the misfortune of “rather running to seed after repeated miscarriages and stillbirths”, while Anne Somerset says matter-of-factly, “Numerous pregnancies had obviously played a part in ruining her figure”. The word “battered” appears again in Ophelia Field’s The Favourite: Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, which says of Anne’s last living hours: “Her forty-nine-year-old body, battered by seventeen years of pregnancy and a lifetime of obesity, lay surrounded by few friends and no family.” The satirical 1930s history book 1066 And All That takes corporal fixations to the absurd, divesting Anne’s body of all humanity by insisting that she was, in fact, dead for the entirety of her reign. In the entry “Anne: A Dead Queen”, Sellar and Yeatman write, “Besides being dead […] Queen Anne was considered rather a remarkable woman”, concluding that the Whigs, the most mocking of the Queen’s critics, were “the first to realize that the Queen had been dead all the time”.


Queen Anne circa 1705. (Getty)

In The Favourite, Queen Anne is both undeniably, furiously alive and troublingly mortal. She is unapologetically lustful, whispering “Fuck me” to Sarah one day, and using Abigail to taunt her the next, hissing “I like it when she puts her tongue inside me.” We watch her howl in agony at her gout-ridden leg, grimacing and pulling at it. “This fucking leg,” she mutters. “It’s like a monster attacking me. Cut it off for me, will you?” We watch as her health deteriorates, her eye drooping, her mouth sloping, her left arm losing mobility, her appearance growing wilder and more dishevelled. We watch, in slow motion, as she is dressed in hunting gear. We see her made up like a badger, and utterly unkempt. She limps and lollops around her chambers in a yellowing nightgown like one of her rabbits. We watch her use her own ill health as a tool of manipulation – threatening suicide, and wailing, “I’m tired! It hurts! Everything hurts! Everyone leaves me! Dies!” She even feigns fainting to escape a particularly challenging moment in parliament, then dwells over the aftermath: “I looked like a fool. They were all staring, weren’t they? I can tell even if I can’t see, and I heard the word fat. Fat! And ugly.”

And we watch her eat. She shares cake with Abigail and her rabbits, and demands hot chocolate, despite Sarah’s insistence that “the sugar inflames” her stomach to the extent that “a bucket and a mop for the aftermath” will be required. (If drowned in a bath of hot chocolate, Anne tells us grinning, she would “die happy”.) We watch as she inhales handful after handful of sponge cake slathered in bright blue icing, pukes it up into a royal urn – then, with a perfunctory wipe of her mouth, continues eating. Colman, who gained weight for the role, triumphantly accepted a Golden Globes for her performance saying, “I ate constantly through the film and it was brilliant.”

Anne’s size, appetite and infirmity become symbols of her unsatisfying and decaying relationship with the Duchess of Marlborough. “I am not food,” Sarah tells Anne before their estrangement. “You cannot just eat and eat.” Once their friendship is irrevocably destroyed, Anne says curtly, “Some wounds do not close. I have many such. One just walks around with them, and sometimes one can feel them filling with blood.” Field notes that historic accounts of Anne and Sarah’s relationship often locate the turning point in their relationship with an anecdote suggesting that Sarah once accidentally wore Queen Anne’s gloves, but threw them off in disgust when she realised, shouting, “Have I put anything on that has touched the odious hands of that disagreeable woman?!” without knowing the Queen could hear from outside the door. “The connotations of the glove anecdote,” Field observes, “include the obvious one of the ‘gloves coming off’ in the arguments between Anne and Sarah, but the story also focuses the reader’s attention on Sarah’s rejection of Anne’s body”. The Favourite dispenses with this mannered portrait of female conflict for fights far more explicit, brutal and vicious, but similarly places their disagreements in this context. Abigail unreservedly embraces the Queen’s body with constant flattery and physical affection, but Sarah does not. In their final confrontation, she says sarcastically, “You wish me to lie to you? Oh. ‘You look like a... a... an angel fell from heaven, Your Majesty’. No. Sometimes, you look like a badger. And you can rely on me to tell you.”

Clearly influenced by contemporary accounts and subsequent descriptions, Colman’s Queen Anne is by turns nauseating, irritating, charming, resilient, pathetic, monstrous, exuberant, self-pitying, oblivious, calculating and thrillingly silly. She is given flashes of decisiveness, good sense and compassion that prevent her from becoming a hysterical, one-dimensional cartoon. Freed from the constraints of history, this exaggerated portrait feels less of a reductive, mocking indictment of a complex ruler than a deliberately surreal and mischievous reverie. Anne’s body is magnified, distorted, and made metaphor through a twisted lense: but one that feels distinct from the male gaze.


Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) dresses Queen Anne. (Fox Searchlight)

Queen Anne hasn’t made many appearances in popular culture. When she is seen, it’s as a punchline: The Favourite is the first depiction of her on screen since 1983’s Yellowbeard, where she was played for laughs in a brief turn from Peter Bull in drag. The way her body has been analysed, criticised and mocked by her contemporaries and subsequent chroniclers has influenced hundreds of years of thought on her reign. Anne exemplifies Ernst Kantorowicz’s concept of the King’s two bodies – the problematic, simultaneous existence of a monarch’s tangible, human body, and their political, divine, stately one. Anne was the last English monarch to practice the royal touch – touching her subjects to supposedly cure their skin diseases. Field notes the 18th century correlation between the Queen’s body and the body politic made reactions to Anne’s body particularly strong. “Anne’s gout was a subject of public horror,” she writes, moving her opponents to use “images of diseased putrefaction as a metaphor for the country’s political ill-health”. Starkey sees Queen Anne’s body as inherently undermining of her regality: “Anne’s reign was a paradox, between public power and popularity and personal physical weakness”.

Still, it’s remarkable these 18th century associations persist. Field credits Sarah with moulding history’s image of Queen Anne with her embellished sketch of a stubborn, miserable, vapid, fat, spotty woman in her memoir. “It was Sarah,” Field writes, “after the relationship had soured who turned Anne into the caricature of ‘insipid heaviness’ that makes her appear a minor figure beside, say, Elizabeth I or Queen Victoria.” Robert Bucholz, in a comprehensive, definitive analysis of how contemporary and subsequent depictions of Queen Anne’s body relate to how individuals rate her as a ruler, writes that “what strikes the historian of Anne’s body is how, for all periods since her death, there seems to be a direct correlation, in both popular and scholarly accounts, between how an author portrays the queen’s physical size and shape – from pleasantly maternal to grossly obese – and his or her estimation of Anne’s political abilities and achievements as sovereign”. Bucholz outlines how those who fixate on her weight in a disgusted tone see her as stupid, weak-willed, and insignificant, while those who seek to rescue her from unfairly dismissive portraits tend to describe her as “comely”, “well-proportioned” or even “majestic”. It’s unusual for someone to describe the Queen as fat – without judgment or disgust – and also as competent.

After she died, the results of Queen Anne’s autopsy were recorded in a document titled, “Upon the Observations of the Opening of the Queen’s Body” (which brings to mind a perversely satisfying image of the Queen’s corpse as a cabinet). The observations made on her body are uncharacteristically few. “Upon opening the Body of her Late Majesty of Blessed Memory, we found a small umbilical hernia,” her doctors remark, before going on to describe her “too smooth” stomach, her “tender and flaccid” liver, and a small ulcer on her left leg. “We can give no further account,” they conclude, “being forbid making any other inspection than what was absolutely necessary”. History has been less restrained. Scrutinised, criticised, reanimated: more than 300 years after her death, the relentless dissection of Queen Anne’s body is, it seems, still not complete.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.