Thursday, 12 March 2015

Happy Birthday Anne Hyde

To celebrate the publication today of England's Queens: From Catherine of Aragon to Elizabeth II, I thought I would write an article about one of the women featured, whose birthday it is today. Not all the women covered in the book were actually queens. One of those was Anne Hyde, the wife of a king and the mother of two ruling queens, but a woman who never wore the crown herself.

Anne is relatively little known today but she was, in her day, as controversial a figure as her husband, James, Duke of York, who became King James II. She was born on 12 March 1637 and has one of the most unlikely backgrounds of any king's wife. Anne was the eldest child of Sir Edward Hyde, a lawyer in the service of the king. She was close to her father, who later commented that 'he had always had a great affection for her, and she, being his eldest child, he had more acquaintance with her than with any of his children'. Her childhood was disrupted by the English Civil War. Her father remained loyal to the Crown throughout, going into in 1646. He was soon joined by his family on the Continent.

During their time in France, Hyde remained a close advisor to the future Charles II, while his eldest daughter served the prince's sister, Mary of Orange, in the Netherlands. She was no beauty, with the diarist Samuel Pepys, commenting that she was 'a plain woman and, like her mother, my lady Chancellor'. Another contemporary more flatteringly considered that she 'had a majestic air, a pretty good shape, not much beauty, a great deal of wit, and so just a discernment of merit, that, whoever of either sex was possessed of it, were sure to be distinguished by her: an air of grandeur in all her actions made her to be considered as if born to support the rank which placed her so near the throne'.

In February 1656 the Princess of Orange returned to Paris, bringing Anne with her. James, Duke of York, came out of Paris to greet his sister and (as he later commented) 'it was there that the Prince for the first time saw Mistress Hyde'. James was a notorious womaniser and had soon seduced young Mistress Hyde. She was already pregnant when she returned to England with her parents in 1660, following Charles II's restoration to the throne.

In order to bed Anne, James had promised before witnesses that he would marry her and, in London, she pressed him to fulfil his promise. Suddenly finding himself heir to the throne, however, James was not so eager to bind himself to Anne. He tried to steal the evidence of the engagement from his fiance, as well as obtaining testimonies that she had enjoyed other lovers. Unfortunately, for James, his brother relied on the support of Anne's father and, when told of the affair, insisted that 'he must drink as he brewed, and live with her whom he had made his wife'. The couple were married a month before the birth of their son.

Anne's time as Duchess of York was largely taken up with childbearing although, of her eight children, only two daughters - Mary and Anne - survived. Her husband was also spectacularly unfaithful, with it well known about court that Anne was 'very troublesome' to her husband due to jealousy. She took her own revenge, enjoying a flirtation with two young courtiers.

Anne, like her namesake daughter, grew hugely fat. She was unkindly called 'one of the highest feeders in England' by one contemporary. By 'gratifying her good appetite' she 'grew so fat and plum, that it was a blessing to see her'. Her health was also poor after the birth of her youngest son, Edgar, in 1667, and, over the next few years she became increasingly unwell. For consolation, she turned to religion. From at least the end of 1669 it was suspected that she was a Roman Catholic. She always publicly denied that she had converted but, privately, she wrote a paper setting out her justification for taking such a drastic (for seventeenth century England) step.

Anne collapsed suddenly in March 1671, soon after the birth of her youngest child. She was probably suffering from breast cancer. The queen, Catherine of Braganza, helped to ensure that no Protestant ceremonies were carried out as her friend died. James was with his wife as she slowly expired, whispering to him at the end 'duke, duke, death is terrible, death is very terrible', before passing away on 31 March 1671. She was thirty-four years old. If she had lived another fourteen years, she would have been queen.

You can read more about Anne Hyde and other queens of England in the two parts of my England's Queens.

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