Sunday, August 11, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Anne of Denmark by Ethel Carleton Williams

Time to break out of my blogging slump. We’ve been busy in my house with summer break drawing to a close and my reading has become a bit erratic. I started and stopped one perfectly fine historical novel about the miseries in Ireland. Nice writing and interesting characters, but I just wasn’t in the mood for all that misery. I may go back to it some day because I don’t usually abandon novels without a better reason than that.

Since fiction wasn’t grabbing me, I tried something else: a book I could read in small chunks interspersed with all my distractions. I needed something that didn’t require any emotional involvement on my part. A biography! But whose?

I’ve read Wolf Hall and I’ve read books about Queen Elizabeth, and I knew that, historically, King James came next, but it occurred to me that I had no idea who James’ queen was. In fact, I knew little at all about King James’ reign, other than that he had been King of Scotland also. So I  wanted to read about his wife.

Surprisingly, there isn’t a lot out there. Anne of Denmark by Ethel Carleton Williams is the one biography I was able to locate, published in 1970, which is older than I like to think. (There is also a cultural biography of Anne, but that is supposed to focus on her interest in masques, which isn’t quite what I wanted.)

Anne was a princess of Denmark who was chosen at age fifteen to be the wife of King James VI of Scotland. She was a dutiful wife, though not a devoted one. The book discusses the marital problems of the couple, placing most of the blame on the king. Anne was a devoted mother. She was generous and extravagant. Her life in Scotland was not particularly happy, but when James ascended to the throne of England, whole new worlds opened up for Anne.

A picture of the book cover is not available, but this is the portrait of Anne that is on the book. (It's a public domain picture

This is very straightforward biography. Williams delves into the primary sources including letters of the king and queen. I did end up with a sense of the woman and the times, but only a sense of it. The scope of the book was quite narrow. Compared to the exhaustive biography, Catherine the Great. Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie, Anne of Denmark seems to skim the surface. It’s only 205 pages long, as opposed to Massie’s 670+ pages, so you can see the difference in amount of content. Granted, Anne was not the ruler; her role was different. But I would have liked to get a more complete picture of the political issues of the day. Was Anne really focused only on her children’s marriages, her husband’s "favorites," her masques, and her personal finances?

Maybe I need to read a biography of King James to get a better view of the history. But for now, it’s back to fiction. If anyone knows of another biography of Anne of Denmark, I’d love to hear about it.


  1. My main impression of Anne is as someone quite kind and generous. Of course this comes from Pocahontas 2 when she's at court so who knew how accurate that could be? Would love to know more about her though and wish there was a better biography! Unfortunately I've just never found the Stuarts as interesting as the Tudors and obviously a lot of people have agreed with me.

  2. I know nothing about Anne really, so this sounds interesting. Is it true that James was into men as well as women? I can't remember where I read it or saw it, but apparently this caused problems in their marriage?

    1. Oh, and if you want to know more about the reign of James, Antonia Fraser's 'The Gunpowder Plot' is really good on how he failed to deal with the issue of religion.

    2. It seemed that James was MORE into men than women. As far as this book told the story, he never cheated on Anne with another woman, but had a series of young male favorites that he showered with attention and favors. But there were more problems in the marriage than that. He sent her babies away to be brought up by other people. He spent all his time hunting. They just weren't well suited. The Gunpowder Plot was mentioned in about a paragraph in this biography. So while I thought Anne was a potentially interesting queen, I was frustrated by how much I was missing that was surely going on in the background. Thanks for the suggestion. Reading about the time period may be a better way to fill out my impression of Anne.