Today’s figure is Catherine of Modena, James II’s wife because it was on the 9th December 1688 that James II lost the Battle of Reading which marked the moment when his son-in-law William of Orange effectively deposed the hapless Stuart with the help of his people. James having deposited his wife and son with his French cousin Louis XIV returned and the whole sorry matter dragged on for a while longer as he tried to hang on to the throne. He was caught by his son-in-law there was some umming and ahhing whilst the English worked out what to do with him and then they just quietly let him go rather than having to go through the tricky business of trying and executing him as they had done with his father.
We’re often taught at school that it was because of James II’s catholicism that the political elite of England toppled the second of Charles I’s sons to wear the crown but actually his lack of popularity was not for his personal beliefs alone. It was due to the laws he passed from 1685 onwards which offered religious toleration to everyone whether they were Catholic or Quaker. Other factors in the unrest included James’ links to France. James was not so good at dissimulating about a french pension as big brother Charles had been. There is also the fact that he didn’t have Charles II’s ability to juggle the different factions around him with good humour – his personality was a bit on the prickly side.
On the 10 June 1688 Mary of Modena gave birth to a boy – Charles Edward Stuart a.k.a. ‘The Old Pretender.’ This added to James’ woes because up until that point folk were prepared to tolerate him knowing that upon his death the throne would go to his eldest daughter Mary (if only she’d been called something different this would have been a far easier post to write) by his first wife Anne Hyde (James should have married a princess rather than the daughter of his brother’s leading minister but James had made Anne pregnant and had to be forced to the altar by his exasperated brother and future father-in-law). Mary (James’ daughter) was the protestant wife of the staunchly protestant William of Orange. Mary and her sister Anne conspired with one another to suggest that their half-brother wasn’t actually their half brother thus giving William the excuse he needed to accept the invitation to take the English crown. I’m not sure how Mary (daughter) squared that particular circle in her mind given that she was supposed to be friends with her slandered step-mother.
By December 1688 there had been anti-Catholic riots, plotting aplenty and rumour. James dithered. This was followed on the 9 December by the Battle of Reading, which James lost, and it was off to France for Mary of Modena the following day.
So who was she apart from James II’s second queen? Mary Beatrice d’Este, born 1658, was related to everyone important in Europe – the Bourbons and the Medicis. Her great uncle was the hugely influential Cardinal Mazarin. Her mother was very pious and little Mary grew up the same way.
Mary’s father died when she was just four. When she was eleven she contemplated becoming a nun but it was evident that a child with so much important ancestry wasn’t going to be allowed to do that. The Papacy, the French and even her own mother, who was acting as regent for her brother until he came of age, wanted to ensure the best and most beneficial marriage for themselves. Mary found herself being married off to Prince James a.k.a the Duke of York as the result of the usual diplomatic intriguing that went into most royal marriages the negotiations were strained. The pair eventually married by proxy and Mary, by now fifteen, left Italy to meet her new husband in 1673.
James was twenty-five years older than her, widowed with two daughters who weren’t terribly keen on their new step-mother. James was very admiring of his new bride but when she finally met him she is said to have burst into tears. Things probably didn’t get any better when James introduced her to her new step-daughters with the words “I’ve brought you a new play fellow.” Mary (the new duchess of York) was four years older than Mary (James’ daughter) and some six years older than Anne. She did try to befriend Anne by playing with her.
Elsewhere in the country even though as an individual it is clear that Mary was a hugely sincere and likeable person (Charles II regarded her highly) the population called her ‘The Pope’s Daughter” and muttered darkly – so darkly in fact that Charles II sent his brother and bride out of London to let the matter cool down.
Gradually the resentment became an undercurrent. The problem seemed to be one that would resolve itself in time. Charles II died. Prince James the duke of York became King James II. Mary’s relationship with her step-daughters had resolved itself into dislike by Anne and warmth with Mary. Mary had no real nursery to tend. Young Charles Edward was actually one of seven but all of them had died either at birth or before they reached the age of five up until that time – one little princess died as the result of illness caught from half-sister Anne. It can’t have helped Mary that there were plenty of other little Stuarts kicking about as James II had the same problems with fidelity as his elder brother.
Then came the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
So, where does that leave Mary? Louis XIV provided the royal fugitives with a home, the Chateau de Saint- Germain-en-Laye just outside Paris and a pension. Mary bore James another child, the Princess Louisa Mary (one of England’s forgotten princesses) but she died of smallpox when she was nineteen.
James made a number of attempts to reclaim his throne. Mary’s jewels had to be sold to finance the ventures. Gradually James sank into bitterness and then, it has been suggested, senility before dying in 1701.
Mary who’d cried at first sight of her husband had grown to love him over the years. She wore black for the rest of her life and became increasingly withdrawn to the contemplative life that she’d hoped for as a child in the company of the nuns of the Convent of the Visitations. She died in 1718 in poverty and was buried by the nuns.
Her only surviving child – the so-called “baby in the bedpan” after the claim that the royal child was stillborn and a substitute smuggled into the royal bedchamber – proclaimed himself King James III. If you feel the urge you can still see the bed where Charles Edward Stuart was born or emerged from the bedpan. http://www.hrp.org.uk/exhibition-archive/secrets-of-the-royal-bedchamber/the-royal-beds/#gs.hTi2n=Y
I think that Mary was the only Italian queen England has had. She was also England’s last Catholic queen as the 1689 act of succession, or more correctly Bill of Rights, which invited William and Mary to become joint sovereigns, identified the order of succession specifically excluding potential catholic heirs. The 1701 Act of Settlement which identified where the crown would go after Queen Anne popped her clogs specified that no one married to a catholic could become monarch either. This was confirmed in 1714 when George, elector of Hanover was invited to become King George I.
That’s not to say there might never be another catholic queen. The Crown Act of 2013 ended those restrictions along with the system whereby a younger son displaces an elder sister from the succession – now the first born is the heir to the crown irrelevant of their gender or the gender of any siblings they may subsequentially acquire.
There’s even a biography freely available if you feel the urge: