Mary II and Queen Anne: The Representations of Two Sisters

By Imogen Haywood

Born in 1662 and 1665, respectively, Mary II and Queen Anne were the only surviving children of James Duke of York (later James II/VII) and his first wife Anne Hyde. Their father married a Catholic, Mary of Modena, in 1673, confirming publicly his own religious beliefs. This placed him in conflict with his daughters, who had been raised Protestant, and in doing so created issues for them in the future; when they were born, it was never expected that either of them would be queen, but with a lack of male (Protestant) heirs and the deposition of their father, they were thrust onto the throne and placed in opposition to each other. With this in mind, this post hopes to present the comparisons that Mary and Anne have faced throughout their lives and history and how the different paths their lives took affected their relationship with each other.

Historians have traditionally separated and compared Mary and Anne through the lens of their appearance, with Mary being looked on far more favourably than Anne. Some historians described Mary, even from a young age, as being “tall and slender, with a clear complexion, almond shaped eyes and dark curls, with the elegant grace and beauty of the Stuarts.”[1] Marjorie Bowen writes in The Third Mary Stuart that “Anne was commonplace, barely pretty and even at that age inclined to be round and plump.”[2] Anne suffered many health issues throughout her life and was favoured by her mother, causing her to take after her in her diet of sweet treats, rich foods and ultimately her appearance.

Even though authors such as Bowen describe Anne in this way, this is different from how contemporary painters portrayed them. Painters presented both sisters as the archetypal beauty of the era and neither one appears more attractive than the other.

Representations of these sisters in portraiture and in contemporary writing present the differences they were to face in their later life. However, in their childhood they were close and like most royal children only had one another, but in their early teens Mary and Anne formed a close friendship with Frances Apsely and Sarah Jennings (later Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough), respectively. Anne initially copied Mary in her friendship with Frances, and they both used pennames when writing to her;      Mary took on the role of ‘Mary Clorine’ and Frances as ‘husband’. Anne switched the dynamic of her relationship with Frances taking the male role of ‘Ziphares’ and Frances ‘Semandra’ from the play Mithridates. This giving of pennames later reappears in Anne’s relationship with Sarah, but they address each other on an equal footing as ‘Mrs Morely’ and Mrs Freeman’. Mary was initially jealous of Frances and Anne’s attachment, but once she was older and married her friendship with Frances matured, and Anne’s friendship with Frances cooled as she shifted her attentions to Sarah, who became the dominant party in their friendship.

Mary married William of Orange in 1677 and moved to what is now the Netherlands, a defining moment for them as it was the first time the sisters had been apart and it allowed Sarah to be the dominant influence in Anne’s life. This was subsequently reinforced by Anne’s remaining in England after her marriage to George of Denmark instead of returning to his home, just as Mary had done; therefore keeping Anne under Sarah’s shadow. Unlike her sister, Anne’s friendship with Sarah never changed and the dynamic of their relationship was never able to adjust. Mary, separate from her family, matured and so did her childhood friendship with Frances Apsley, whereas Anne remained besotted with and heavily under the influence of Sarah.

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the events that led up to it set in motion the final breakdown of the relationship of Mary and Anne as their reunion presented how much they changed whilst away from each other. On the 10th of June 1688, Mary of Modena gave birth to a son, finally giving James II/VII a male Catholic heir, Mary had written to Anne frequently during the pregnancy, with many questions after the birth on whether it could be a changeling baby following the bedpan rumours of a still birth. Because of this Catholic heir, Parliament invited William and Mary to bring an army to England to take the throne. Unfortunately, this reunion of the sisters was not to last. In her memoirs, Mary wrote that “she (Anne) shewed great passion and kindness for her (Sarah), and so much indifference and coldness to me that it really went to my heart…I did what I could towards a reconciliation without effect, it made me change and grow…as different as she is.”[3] Once Mary was in England again, Anne never confided anything in her or allowed William to influence her. In 1692, Marlborough was dismissed from the King’s service and Anne refused to dismiss Sarah from hers after Mary’s request, instead choosing to leave court with her.

Both women also experienced great pain and difficulty in motherhood; Mary suffered a miscarriage and never conceived again. Anne had 2 daughters who died young, along with several miscarriages and still births, having only one child who survived infancy. Her son, William Duke of Gloucester, lived to the age of 11 before also falling ill and passing away. In total, it is thought that Anne experienced around seventeen to nineteen pregnancies. Although they both experienced motherhood differently, they both faced political and dynastic questions as a result of contemporary understandings of their role as mothers.      

When Mary was ill in April 1692, she was unable to visit Anne, who was suffering a difficult labour and death of the child. When Mary later visited Anne, instead of healing the rift Mary pushed for Anne to end her friendship with Sarah. In 1694, Mary contracted smallpox and Anne, pregnant again, sent Mary a letter, writing that “she would run any risk to see her sister again”, but Mary declined the offer via her groom of the stool.

Regrettably, the sisters never saw each other again after 1692, with all possibility of a reunion fading away with Mary’s death. Their relationship had been complicated and placed them at odds with each other, but ultimately both these sisters were similar in that contemporaries and historians compared and frequently placed in opposition to each other throughout their lives. This, along with their familial and political situation, created a tumultuous relationship that ultimately ended broken and irreparable.

Cover Image: House of Stuart by Unknown Engraver, National Portrait Gallery, NPG D19756,

Recommended Reading

Bowen, Marjorie. The Third Mary Stuart Mary of York, Orange and England: Being a Character Study with the Memoirs and Letters of Mary ii of England 1662-1694. London: John Lane the Bodley Head Limited, 1929.

Field, Ophelia. The Favourite: Sarah Duchess of Marlborough. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2018.

Gregg, Edward. Queen Anne. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980.

Keates, Jonathan. William and Mary: 1688-1702. London: Penguin Random House, 2018.

Somerset, Anne. Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion. London: Harper Press, 2012.

Van Der Kiste, John. William and Mary: Heroes of the Glorious Revolution. Stroud: The History Press, 2008.

McClain, Molly. “Love, Friendship and Power: Queen Mary II’s Letters to Frances Apsley.” Journal of British Studies, 47 (2008), 505-527.

Field, Ophelia. “Queen Anne’s Ladies.” Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, 11 (2004), 21-23,

O’Keefe, Sean. “Monarchy Rules: A Look at Queen Anne.” Royal Central.

Price, Richard. “An Incomparable Lady: Queen Mary II’s Share in the Government of England, 1689-94.” Huntington Library Quarterly, 75 (2012), 307-326. Accessed 8th December 2019.

[1] Bowen, Marjorie. The Third Mary Stuart Mary of York, Orange and England: Being a Character Study with the Memoirs and Letters of Mary ii of England 1662-1694. London: John Lane the Bodley Head Limited, 1929, 24.

[2] Bowen, Marjorie. The Third Mary Stuart Mary of York, Orange and England: Being a Character Study with the Memoirs and Letters of Mary ii of England 1662-1694. London: John Lane the Bodley Head Limited, 1929, 24.

[3] Memoirs of Mary Queen of England 1689-1693, together with her Letters and those of Kings James ii and William iii to the Electress Sophia of Hanover. Edited by D. R Doebner. Leipzig: Veit and Comp, 1886, 234.

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