A Forgotten Queen: Mary of Modena

By Susannah Lyon-Whaley

Willem Wissing, Mary of Modena, Buccleuch Collection, Drumlanrig Castle.

One early modern queen consort has not yet received her share of the limelight, despite a dramatic and remarkable life. Mary of Modena (1658-1718), born Maria Beatrice Eleonora Anna Margherita Isabella d’Este, married James, duke of York (1633-1701) in 1673. She was only fifteen, and the duke was forty. While such age gaps sometimes occurred in noble marriages, they were unusual amongst the Stuarts. Of the most recent royal pairs, Charles I was nine years older than his wife, Henrietta Maria, and Charles II was eight years older than his consort, Catherine of Braganza. Mary’s new husband at least shared her Catholic faith, although this faith was reviled by many in England. In the early 1670s, Charles II’s failure to produce an heir meant it looked increasingly likely that his brother James would one day be king. The English Parliament therefore tried to stop Mary and James’ marriage from going ahead because of their fear of a male Catholic heir who would supplant James’ Protestant daughters with his first wife, according to England’s tradition of male primogeniture.

Twelve years later, however, James became king, and twenty-six-year-old Mary was the first consort to be crowned in England in eighty years, the most recent being Anna of Denmark in 1603. At the king’s order, Francis Sandford compiled A History of the Coronation, a publication indicating the queen’s grandeur at this event, during which she wore three different crowns. When Mary gave birth to Prince James Francis Edward in 1688 after years of fertility troubles, the response from Protestants, including the King’s daughter Princess Anne, and politicians such as John Wildman, was to claim that the child was not Mary’s. They claimed that he was smuggled into the bed as the queen lay in labour, or that he was illegitimate and Mary had affairs with her priests (she did not). At this time, Mary’s pregnant and maternal body was thrust into the public sphere. At court and in the streets, pamphlets and gossips dissected her appearance and actions. Was she really pregnant? Did her breasts leak milk? Some claimed she had her period when she was supposed to have conceived. Perhaps in response to these accusations, a medal shows the queen sitting up in bed holding her child, proclaiming his legitimacy. This was an unusually public visual depiction of an English queen’s childbed, and one satirised in playing cards that showed the bed with its curtains pulled furtively closed. In reality, the room had been crowded when Mary gave birth and, a few months later, James called a special council where witnesses testified that Mary was the prince’s natural mother. None of it was enough.

Medal showing the queen in bed surrounded by the Latin inscription ‘Public Happiness’. British Museum G3,EM.72.
The 2 of Diamonds and Knave of Hearts from a set of playing cards depicting the events of the Glorious Revolution, British Museum 1896,0501.920.1-51.

James had been accepted as a Catholic monarch in 1685 when he promised to support the Protestant religion, despite the Exclusion Crisis in 1679 – 1681, when three bills attempted to exclude him from the succession because he was Catholic. He had even won popular support against the claims of his brother’s eldest illegitimate son, the Protestant Duke of Monmouth, who was executed after attempting to take the throne. However, since James’ coronation, the increasing numbers of Catholics in his household and the army, his close ties to France, his attempt to suspend penal laws against Catholics, his dissolution of Parliament with the intent to introduce a new one supportive to his aims, and in 1688 his imprisonment of London’s bishops in the Tower, created a charged atmosphere that was heightened by the queen’s pregnancy and the birth of a son and Catholic heir.

The accusations of illegitimacy and James’ unpopular Catholic policies were a catalyst for the ‘Glorious Revolution’. The royal family went into exile in France before the end of the year. Mary escaped first, disguised as a washerwoman, and clutching her child on a stormy crossing to Calais. James made his escape soon after, leaving his crown to be seized by the staunch Protestants Mary II, James II’s daughter, and her husband William III.

Mary’s strong character, as evidenced during her time as queen and her flight from England, emerged even before her wedding, as is apparent from English accounts. The teenage princess was determined to be a nun, but James wanted a beautiful bride, and Mary’s graceful face, startlingly lovely dark eyes, and black hair fit the bill. Moreover, she was a choice approved by France, with whom Charles II had recently signed the secret Treaty of Dover, promising his eventual conversion to Catholicism in return for much-needed funds. After crying and protesting her fate, Mary acquiesced only when a letter from the Pope convinced her she could better serve God as a queen, aiding in England’s re-conversion to the ‘true faith’. A visit she made to see the heart of St. Francis de Sales, patron of the order she had hoped to join, on her way through France to England attests to her fervent belief that hers was a religious mission.

Unlike previous consorts, Mary spent twelve years in England before becoming queen and learnt to speak English well. In total, she was pregnant ten times before 1685; two of these pregnancies ended in miscarriages, three were stillbirths, and five of her children died young, leaving her without living children between 1682 and 1688. While regularly pregnant, Mary also engaged with music, commissioned art, particularly religious art, and was a common dedicatee of poems and plays, which demonstrates her popularity and cultural potency. She had a sense of adventure, which included engaging in snowball fights and sledding across frozen ponds, and was an avid rider, suffering a terrible fall in 1682 that nearly killed her. James admired the masterly way that Mary rode, and had a picture of her in riding clothes hanging in his chamber. Mary was so determined to be at her husband’s side during potential troubles that she insisted on accompanying James on a return journey from Edinburgh to London, despite being six months pregnant and needing to be winched into the ship.

Dressed for riding: Simon Verelst, Mary when Duchess of York, c. 1675, RCIN 404920.

As a duchess, Mary’s Catholicism and foreignness were perhaps mitigated by her beauty and charm and her assimilation into English court life and society. Even then, efforts to exclude James from the succession meant that both he and Mary were shunted from the English court from 1679-1682, first to Brussels and then to Edinburgh. After becoming queen, Mary’s position became thornier, as the satires directed at her in 1688 show. While some of her contemporaries accused her of giving herself airs, she was not universally hated; in 1687 the Tuscan ambassador reported that she gave audiences in a meadow in Bath ‘to all who desire[d] it’.

Mary’s early years in England shaped the role she was to play in her exiled French court. She continued to style herself ‘queen’, then ‘queen regent’ and ‘queen dowager’ for another thirty years in France. Like her well-known mother-in-law Henrietta Maria, she tirelessly campaigned for her husband’s then her son’s cause, selling her jewels, writing letters, and finding positions and food for the supporters that followed the king to France, all with limited means. She was not at all, as a 1960s biographer claimed, ‘uninterested in politics’ (Oman, 1962). Politics defined her life, and the lives of those she loved, to tumultuous ends. While her dedication to the ‘true faith’ was such that she refused to allow her son to convert in order to regain his throne, it would also be wrong to paint her as only interested in politics and culture insofar as they pertained directly to religion. Nicholas Field’s study of late Stuart musical patronage argues that Mary cultivated a wide musical taste for secular as well as religious themes. Among her admiring English ladies was the Protestant poet Anne Finch.

Benedetto Gennari, Mary and the Prince of Wales, 1690, private collection (credit: Historical Portraits, http://www.historicalportraits.com/Gallery.asp?Page=Item&ItemID=392&Desc=Mary-of-Modena-and-James-Prince-of-Wales-%7C-Benedetto-Gennari)

Mary’s cultural and political involvement as queen, her relationships, and much more remain to be fully illuminated in modern scholarship, yet among the reasons that Mary may have been sidelined in the historical narrative are those that make her particularly interesting to remember. These include the scandal surrounding her son’s birth in 1688, combined with her short tenure as queen in England. As pamphleteers, satirists, and even Mary of Modena’s stepdaughters Princesses Mary of Orange and Anne sought to portray James Edward Francis as illegitimate, delegitimising his succession required delegitimising Mary. However, as a queen, Mary of Modena was, for three years, the first lady of the London court, and the kingdom. For another thirty years, she was the ‘Queen over the Water’, and for many was still Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland.

Mary’s signature in 1687: ‘Maria R’ for ‘Maria Regina’ (author’s photo).

Bibliography and Recommended Reading

Barclay, Andrew. “Mary Beatrice of Modena: the ‘Second Bless’d of Womankind’?” in Queenship in Britain, 1660-1837: Royal Patronage, Court Culture and Dynastic Politics, edited by Clarissa Campbell Orr, 74-93. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.

Barash, Carol. “The Female Monarch and the Woman Poet: Mary of Modena, Anne Killigrew, and Jane Barker.” In English Women’s Poetry, 1649–1714: Politics, Community, and Linguistic Authority. Oxford Scholarship Online, October 2011. DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198186861.001.0001

Cavelli, Emilia Rowles Campana Di, ed. Les derniers Stuarts à Saint-Germain en Laye: documents inédits et authentiques puisés aux archives publiques et privées. 2 vols. Paris: Didier & cie, 1871.

Corp, Edward, ed. A Court in Exile: The Stuarts in France, 1689-1718. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Field, Nicholas. Outlandish Authors: Innocenzo Fede and Musical Patronage at the Stuart Court in London and in Exile. PhD thesis, University of Michigan, 2013.

Haile, Martin. Queen Mary of Modena: Her Life and Letters. London: J.M. Dent & Co. 1905.

Hopkirk, Mary. Queen Over the Water: Mary Beatrice of Modena, Queen of James II. London: John Murray, 1953.

Oman, Carola. Mary of Modena. Suffolk: Hodder and Stoughton, 1962.

Sandford, Francis. The History of the Coronation of the most High, most Mighty, and most Excellent Monarch, James II. by the Grace of God, King of England, Scotland, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, &c. and of His Royal Consort, Queen Mary. London: printed by Thomas Newcomb, one of His Majesties printers, 1687. Early English Books Online.

Toynbee, M.R. “An Early Correspondence of Queen Mary of Modena.” Notes and Queries 188, no. 5 (10 March, 1945): 90-94.

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