The extravagant death of Queen Mary II

By Holly Marsden

At 12.45am on 28th December 1694, Queen Mary II of England died of smallpox at the age of 32. She had suffered for a reasonably short time, only recognising a rash on her arms and chest on December 21st. However, Mary had not been feeling herself for some time. Around May of 1694 she was treated for exhaustion and directed to drink a course of asses’ milk by her doctor. Throughout the year Mary tried to cheer herself up by shopping, one of her favourite activities, purchasing multiple gowns, jewels, shoes, and accessories. Mary liked all things grand, including visits to the theatre. However, she was so worn out throughout her last year that Mary was unable to complete the public appearances she enjoyed, foregoing her outgoing pursuits for frequent retirements at Kensington Palace.

It is perhaps Mary’s fabulousness in life that encouraged the grandiosity of her death. Despite having written a letter containing wishes of a modest funeral, only to be discovered after the arrangements had been made, the celebration of Mary’s life was one of the largest in British royal history. Her body was embalmed a few hours after her death in December, but she wasn’t buried until 5th March 1695. Before her funeral, her commemoration was staged through the ritual of the lying-in. Mary’s body was situated in an open casket, dressed in purple and gold and publicly mourned in state at the Banqueting House in Whitehall. For a fee, the public could pay their respects between 12 and 5pm each day. Huge crowds had gathered every morning by 6am, eager to take part in the ritualised spectacle of Mary’s crossing between life and death.

The lying in of Mary II. Romeyn de Hooghe, Koningin Maria II Stuart op haar sterfbed Etching, 1695, Rijksmuseum. https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/nl/collectie/RP-P-OB-76.277

Mary’s physical body was also commemorated in the form of a wax effigy, which still stands in her burial place at Westminster Abbey. The effigy encapsulates the symbiotic relationship between the social and natural body, aiming to offer great likeness to the monarch whilst acting as a lasting public presence. With the Abbey as the end point, Mary’s funeral procession began at Whitehall, passing through St James’ Palace en route. With the drama of a March snowstorm, her Christopher Wren-designed catafalque was followed by the chief mourner, the Duchess of Somerset, important members of London’s local and national government and 400 poor women shrouded in black. Bells from the Tower of London tolled every minute, the same method used to inform the public of Mary’s passing three months earlier.

Mary’s lifelike wax embodiment. Wax Effigy of Mary II at Westminster Abbey. Image from Westminster Abbey Library. https://www.westminster-abbey.org/abbey-commemorations/royals/mary-ii

After the arrival of the procession to music specially composed by Henry Purcell, Mary’s favourite composer and a dear friend, the ceremony was conducted by Archbishop Tenison. His sermons were later published en masse, and the grand funeral was reported in broadsheets and through visual prints after the occasion. The press cashed-in on Mary’s public mourning, adding to her celebrity-like status which was reflected by diarist John Evelyn, who stated that ‘never was there so universal a mourning.’ The glamour and grandiosity of this funeral was yet another performance of a public identity, reflecting how the royal body is greater than the individual. Mary’s life, and death, symbolised a nation in its social function. The cultivation of such a powerful image throughout her life was maybe why Mary was so widely and magnificently mourned, amongst a myriad of reasons, which included both personal attributes and public actions. The fact her young life was so suddenly ravaged by disease evoked an emotional response throughout the nation and beyond.

An artist’s depiction of Mary’s huge funeral procession. Jan Luyken, Lijkstatie van koningin Maria II Stuart, 1695. Etching, 1703, Rijksmuseum. https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/nl/collectie/RP-P-1896-A-19368-2201

Bibliography and Recommended Reading

Gargangio, Alex. “William without Mary: Mourning Sensibly in the Public Sphere.” The Seventeenth Century 23.11 (2008): 105-141.

Jenner, Greg. Dead Famous. London: Hachetee, 2020.

Llewellyn, Nigel. The art of death: visual culture in the English death ritual c; 1500-c; 1800. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1991.

Van der Zee, Henri and Barbara. William and Mary. London: Macmillan, 1973.

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