Monday 22 July 2013

The Baby in the Warming Pan

Given the imminent royal birth, I thought I would also post about Mary of Modena, the queen who was at the centre of the most controversial birth in English history.

Mary of Modena (1658-1718) was the second wife of James II. She was the only daughter of Alphonso IV, Duke of Modena and his wife, Laura Martinozzi. Mary’s father died whilst she was still young and her mother was appointed as regent of the Italian duchy for her son. James, Duke of York began to look for a new wife in 1672, a year after his first wife, Anne Hyde, had died. As a convert to Catholicism, he sought a Catholic bride. Mary’s mother first offered her twenty-nine year old sister-in-law, Leonora but, on further enquiries from the English, she was forced to admit that her own fourteen year old daughter was also available. James sent his friend, the Earl of Peterborough, to Modena to discuss a possible match with either Mary or Leonora and the Earl was taken with the younger princess, writing approvingly to his master that:

‘The Princess Mary of Este appear’d to be at this time about fourteen years of age; she was tall, and admirably shaped, her complexion was of the last fairness, her hair black as jet, so were her eyebrows and her eyes; but the latter so full of light and sweetness so they did dazzle and charm too. There seemed given unto them from nature, Sovereign Power; power to kill and power to save; and in the whole turn of her face, which was of the most graceful oval that could be framed, there was all the features, all the beauty, and all that could be great and charming in any humane creature’.

James was smitten and asked for her hand in marriage. As well as beauty, Mary had received an excellent education and was particularly good at languages. As a kinswoman of Cardinal Mazarin, she was pious, something that suited James, although she caused consternation when, on being informed of her marriage, she insisted that she intended to become a nun.

Mary’s decision threw James’s embassy into confusion and her mother, who was herself a pious woman, insisted that she had no intention of forcing her daughter to abandon her scruples. The marriage was looked upon as important in Italy as well as in England and Pope Clement X, who hoped that James would be the man to bring England back to the Catholic church, was anxious that it should go ahead, taking the unprecedented step of writing personally to Mary on 19 September 1673 and declaring that ‘considering, in effect, the influence of your virtues, we easily conceived a firm hope that an end might come to the persecution still smouldering in that kingdom and that the orthodox faith, reinstated by you in a place of honour might recover the splendour and security of former days’. The pope continued, speaking of the anxiety he felt at Mary’s repugnance for marriage and effectively appointing her as a missionary for her faith in England. In the face of papal pressure, Mary had no choice but to capitulate and she and James were married by proxy on 30 September 1673. Whilst Mary had submitted, she was still filled with anxiety at the prospect of travelling to a distant land and meeting a husband who was well over twice her age. She therefore insisted that her mother accompany her to England and she set off on 5 October 1673, her fifteenth birthday, weeping as she left her homeland.


Whilst the marriage to a Catholic princess was personally satisfying to James, in England it caused a great deal of controversy and parliament petitioned the king before Mary arrived, asking him to break off his brother’s marriage and send the bride home. Charles II absolutely refused to countenance this, but he was unable to silence the mutterings and it was to a muted reception at Dover that Mary arrived on 1 December. James waited for Mary as her yacht landed and he was immediately taken with his young bride, conducting her to a house where the couple were formally married. Mary was terrified, but she was glad to find her new husband kind and, gradually, the couple fell in love. In January she wrote to her friend, the mother superior of the Visitation at Modena, that, whilst she would not have chosen marriage if she had been at liberty:


‘May it be a consolation to you, dear mother, to know (and I say it to the glory of God) that the Duke is a very good man and wishes me well and would do anything to prove it to me; he is so firm and steady in our holy religion (which as a good Catholic he professes) that he would not leave it for any thing in the world and in my affliction (which is increased by the departure of my dear Mama) this is my consolation’.


Mary was received favourably at court, with Charles II commenting that his brother had done well in his marriage. She soon became close to her two stepdaughters, Mary and Anne, although, given the tiny age gap between them, she was always more of a sister than a mother to them.


Mary found that she enjoyed many of the pleasures available in England and, in 1675, for example, her friend Lady Bellasyse commented that she had visited a fair incognito. On Christmas Day the following year the same friend recorded that ‘the Dutchesse is much delighted with making and throwing of snow balls and pelted the D[uke] soundly with one the other day and ran away quick into her closet and he after her, but she durst not open the doore. She hath also much pleasure in one of those sledges which they call Trainias, as is pulled up and downe the ponds in them every day’. Mary enjoyed playing cards, although she was less happy when she lost, with the diarist, John Evelyn, commenting one evening that ‘I observed that she was exceedingly concerned for the loss of £80’.

Whilst she was interested in pleasures and other diversions, Mary knew that her primary purpose was to bear a son. She fell pregnant within months of her marriage and, on 20 January 1675, shortly after dining with her two stepdaughters, she went into premature labour, bearing a daughter, Catherine Laura. The baby initially thrived but, in October 1675 she suddenly died, proving to be the first tragedy of many in Mary’s difficult childbearing record. On 7 September 1676 Mary bore a second daughter, Isabel, who was again born so quickly that none of the required witnesses to the birth were able to get there in time. Once again, Mary was pleased with her daughter who lived until the age of four. On 7 November 1677, only three days after her eldest stepdaughter’s wedding, Mary, to the joy of nearly everyone, bore a son, who was given the name of Charles, Duke of Cambridge. Disaster struck in December when Mary’s younger stepdaughter Anne, who had been ill with smallpox, rushed to see her baby brother as soon as she was well enough. The princess was still infectious and passed the illness on to Mary’s son, who died soon afterwards. Mary was grief-stricken at the loss of her child and wrote a despondent letter to her brother:

‘With my eyes full of tears I write to give you the ill news of the loss of my dear son, whom it pleased God to take unto Himself yesterday: at mid-day. You can imagine in what affliction I am, and great as was my joy when he was born, so much the greater is my anguish at his loss, but we must have patience, God knows what He does; may His holy will be done. I should have been too happy if this child had escaped. I am well in health, and should be very well if this affliction had not befallen me. This is the first day I am capable of writing, not having written even to our lady mother before to-day’.

Mary caused consternation in England when, soon afterwards, she declared that she had had a vision where Lady Frances Villiers, the Protestant governess of all James’s children and the person who had passed smallpox on to Anne before dying of the disease, had appeared to her from Hell. Whilst personally popular in England herself, Mary spent much of her time as Duchess of York either in Scotland or on the Continent as her husband was forced to leave the country due to distrust of his religion in England. Mary bore a further two daughters during Charles II’s lifetime, but neither lived longer than a few months.

By the time of her arrival in England, Mary knew that it was a near certainty that James would one day become king and, with the death of Charles II on 6 February 1685, he took the throne as James II. He was the first openly Catholic sovereign since Mary I and he was determined to assist the Catholics in England, hearing mass openly with Mary at St James’s Palace on the Sunday after his accession. James’s accession was popular and, at their coronation in April, the couple were greeted by cheering crowds. He was also victorious later in the year against Charles’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, who claimed the crown in preference to his uncle. James saw this as a sign that he could more openly promote his religion and, against Mary’s own advice, set about promoting Catholics, seeking a Cardinal’s hat for a particularly controversial Jesuit, Father Petre. As James himself recorded, none of his measures in support of his religion were popular in England and:

‘It was impossible for the king to do the least thing in favour of Religion, which did not give disquiet, notwithstanding all his precautions not to break in upon his engagement; and that the liberties he permitted to Catholicks should no ways interfere with the possessions, priviledges, and immunities of the Church of England; however the kingdom was so generall prepossess’d that the king’s intentions were otherwise, that nothing appear’d indifferent to them in that matter’.

In the absence of surviving children by Mary, James’s heir was his eldest daughter by Anne Hyde, who had been raised a Protestant and was married to his Protestant nephew, William of Orange. The people of England were prepared to tolerate a Catholic king for the duration of one lifetime but when, at the end of 1687, it was publicly announced that Mary was pregnant, the prospect that she and James might found a Catholic dynasty filled both William of Orange and the majority of the people in England with dread.

James had never been on friendly terms with his nephew and son-in-law, William of Orange, and he had been deeply opposed to his daughter’s marriage. William had always hoped that his marriage would bring him the crown of England and he was involved in attempts to suggest that Mary of Modena’s pregnancy in 1682, which had resulted in the birth of a daughter, had been faked. As soon as Mary’s next pregnancy was announced at the end of 1687, the rumours once again surfaced, with claims that, at twenty-nine, Mary was past childbearing age and that she was pretending to be pregnant in order to frustrate the Protestant succession of James’s daughters. Mary had always been kind to her two stepdaughters but, whilst she was particularly friendly with her elder stepdaughter in the Netherlands, her relationship with Anne was more difficult, with the younger princess writing to her sister in May 1687 that:

‘The Queen, you must know, is of a very proud and haughty humour; and though she pretends to hate all form and ceremony, yet one sees that those that make their court this way, are very well thought of. She declares always that she loves sincerity and hates flattery, but when the grossest flattery in the world is said to her face, she seems extremely well pleased with it. It really is enough to turn one’s stomach to hear what things are said to her of this kind, and to see how mightily she is satisfied with it’.

Mary’s elder stepdaughter, Mary of Orange, was childless and Anne had always been confident that she would eventually inherit the throne. With the prospect that she might be marginalised by a half-brother she threw in her lot with William of Orange and when James II requested that Anne attend the birth of Mary’s child, she refused, insisting on travelling to Bath for her health.

James and Mary were disappointed in Anne’s failure to attend the birth but they ensured that there would be a large number of witnesses present, as was required at all royal births, and when Mary went into labour, on 10 June 1688, there were forty-two people present in the room, including Charles II’s widow, Mary’s ladies and much of the privy council. As with all her labours, the birth was quick and Mary bore a son who was named James Francis Edward and proclaimed Prince of Wales. Both Mary and James were overjoyed, but they quickly became aware that the rumours surrounding Mary’s pregnancy had intensified. Princess Anne was one of the main rumourmongers and she planted doubts about the birth in her elder sister’s mind. According to one letter:

‘My dear sister can’t imagine the concern and vexation I have been in, that I should be so unfortunate to be out of town when the Queen was brought to bed, for I shall never now be satisfied whether the child be true or false. It may be it is our brother, but God only knows, for she never took care to satisfy the world, or give people any demonstration of it’.

Anne continued, complaining that she had never been permitted to feel the child kick before it was born, something that both James and Mary vehemently denied. Anne finished by commenting that:

‘The thing which to me seems the plainest thing in the world, is her being brought to bed two days after she heard of my coming to town [i.e. about to return to London], and saying that the child was come at the full time, when everybody knows, by her own reckoning, that she should have gone a month longer. After all this, ‘tis possible it may be her child; but where one believes it, a thousand do not. For my part, expect they do give very plain demonstrations, which is almost impossible now, I shall ever be of the number of unbelievers’.

Anne was not the only one to claim that the birth was suspicious and there were rumours that the baby had been smuggled into Mary’s bed in a warming pan. There is no doubt that the prince was the son of James and Mary and his resemblance to his mother was later commented upon. In spite of this, the rumours were extremely damaging and James was obliged to hold an enquiry, taking witness statements from all those who had been present at the birth. The child was a great inconvenience to both Mary’s stepdaughters and to William of Orange and Anne summed up their hopes when, in a letter to her sister in July, she commented that the prince was ill ‘and if he has been as bad as some people say, I believe it will not be long before he is an Angel in Heaven’. Mary of Orange pointedly omitted prayers for her brother in her chapel, claiming forgetfulness when her father challenged her.

William of Orange had no plans to see his wife’s place in the succession taken by her infant half-brother and, by the summer of 1688 there were rumours that he was preparing a fleet with which to invade England. In late June William received an invitation from a number of leading men in England, including the Bishop of London, asking him to liberate the country from its Catholic king. By 17 August Mary was aware of this hostility and she sent a hurt letter to her elder stepdaughter, who she had always viewed as her closest friend, complaining that Mary of Orange was indifferent to her new brother and did not wish him well. By September both James and Mary knew that William would soon arrive and James began to make preparations for the defence of his crown. By October, William was ready with a fleet of 300 ships and he landed at Torbay on 15 November, quickly attracting local support. William carried a flag with English colours and bearing the motto ‘The Protestant Religion and Liberties of England’. To much of the population, he was the savour of the Church of England and, even as James and his army marched to confront him, his soldiers began to desert, with Anne’s husband, George of Denmark, one of the first to flee. Unable to go further, James returned to London on 26 November to find that Anne had also abandoned him, leaving her house in secret one night. According to James’s own report, Anne’s conduct only served to inflame the situation and:

‘Her Nurs and my Lady Clarendon run about like people out of their sences, crying out, the Papists had murther’d her; and when they met any of the queen’s servants, asked them what they had done with the Princess; which, considering the ferment people were in, and how susceptible they were to any ill impression against the queen, might have made her been torn to pieces by the rabble’.

Anne soon turned up safe and sound in Oxford where she had rejoined her husband and thrown her support firmly behind her brother-in-law.

As the son of the executed Charles I, James believed that William’s invasion would end with his death and, in a panic, he made preparations for Mary’s escape to France with their son. According to James in his memoirs, Mary:

‘Had a great reluctance to this journey not so much for the hazards and inconveniences of it as to leave the king in so doubtfull a situation; she haveing never done it hitherto in his greatest difficulties and dangers: and therefore when it was first proposed, her Majesty absolutely refused it in reference to herself; telling the king she was very willing the Prince her son should be sent to France, or where it was thought most proper for his security, that she could bear such a separation with patience, but could never endure it in reference to himself; that she would infinitely rather run his fortune whatever it should prove than abandon him in that distress’.

Mary was finally persuaded when James promised that he would follow her within days and, at 2am on 10 December, she left Whitehall secretly with her son, accompanied by only two attendants and dressed as a servant. A carriage was waiting for them at the garden gate. The party drove through London unnoticed before transferring into a boat on the Thames. The journey must have been an ordeal and, according to Francesco Riva, one of Mary’s attendants, the night was so dark that, as they sat huddled together, they could see nothing. Miraculously the infant prince remained silent throughout the journey and they were able to land, coming to an inn where a coach was waiting for them. They travelled to Gravesend and boarded a yacht, reaching Calais at 9am the next day.

As soon as she arrived, Mary wrote to James’s cousin, Louis XIV, notifying him of her arrival and requesting his aid:

‘Sire, a poor fugitive queen, bathed in tears, has not feared to brave the perils of the sea, to seek consolation and refuge from the greatest king and most generous monarch in the world. Her ill-fortune has procured her a happiness which the most distant nations have ambitioned. Necessity does not lessen it; since she has made the choice and with singular esteem desires to confide to him her most precious possession in the person of her son, the Prince of Wales, who is as yet too young to share her gratitude. It lies entirely in my heart, and it is a pleasure to me, in the midst of all my grief, to come under the shadow of your protection’.

Louis offered Mary sanctuary and when James joined her on 4 January 1689, having abandoned his kingdom, the couple moved to Paris and were granted the palace at St Germains. Mary’s flight to France heralded thirty years of exile for her and, soon after James had joined her, the couple learned that William of Orange and his wife had accepted the English throne jointly as William III and Mary II. This was a major blow to James and he never forgot the treachery of his daughters, going to Ireland in early 1689 in an attempt to reclaim his crown from there. In early 1692 it became clear that Mary was pregnant and, seeking to prove the truth of his son’s birth, James sent messages to his eldest daughter and the English council, inviting them to come and witness the birth themselves. In the event, no-one came, and Mary bore her youngest child, a daughter named Louise Marie, later that year. James always called his youngest child his consolation in exile.

James never gave up his attempts to regain his throne but met with little success and, on 4 March 1701 whilst attending mass at St Germains, he suffered a seizure. He continued in ill health throughout the year and, in July suffered a second stroke which left his right side paralysed. He suffered a further stroke in chapel on 2 September 1701 and was left bedridden, with Mary staying, weeping, by his side. James had become increasingly pious as he aged and was regarded by many as a living saint and, as he lay dying, he forgave his enemies, specifically naming both his elder daughters and William of Orange. He then commended his youngest children to Mary before dying at 3pm on 16 September 1701.

Mary was inconsolable and retired to a convent for a time before emerging to assist her son, who had been proclaimed King James III in France, and was later remembered as the Old Pretender in England. The younger James’s struggle to regain the crown proved as fruitless as his father’s and Mary was never able to return to England. In 1712 she suffered further grief when her daughter died of smallpox and, later that year, her son was expelled from France after the French king made a peace treaty with England. Mary remained living quietly at St Germains in increasingly ill health and she died there on 7 May 1718.

Mary of Modena was queen of England for only a few short, troubled years and, whilst she found personal happiness with her husband and children, her life was blighted by the loss of her husband’s crown. The birth of her son, the Old Pretender, must rank as one of the most famous royal births in English history. I actually visited Hampton Court last week and saw the bed in which Mary gave birth. A warming pan is placed next to it and, I must say, it would have to be a very tiny baby to fit!

This article was adapted from the section on Mary of Modena in my book, England's Queens: The Biography (Amberley, 2011).


  1. Hello Elizabeth:
    Just wanted to thank you for this blog. I utilized some of the information during my historical research for my new book "Lucina's Destiny" with a fictional twist. I listed your blog in the bibliography at the end. In case you are interested, my book is available on Thanks again,
    Carole Penfield

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