English Legal History
Nov. 29, 2007
Mary of Modena (1658-1718)
Mary Beatrice of Modena, the wife and consort of James II of England, was England’s only Italian queen and had the misfortune of being the better half of one of its most maligned monarchs. Mary’s most notable contribution to the Glorious Revolution was to give birth to a healthy son, thereby forcing opponents of James II and his Catholic rule to set in motion events which altered the course of English history. Even though the history of her era tends to relegate women into the background of major events, Mary secured her place in English history by performing that most womanly of tasks—giving birth. Though it was a defining act of her life, this birth was not Mary’s sole contribution to history. Debate exists as to exactly how much influence Mary had at James’ court, but the fact remains that she was a unique and captivating addition to the illustrious line of English queens.
HER CHILDHOOD & MARRIAGE TO JAMES II (1658-1673)
Her Illustrious Italian Family
Mary Beatrice was born in Modena, Italy on September 25, 1658. She was raised primarily by her mother, Laura, the Duchess of Modena, because her father died in 1662. Laura was from the great Roman House of Martinozzi and the niece of the famous Cardinal Mazarin. She had married Alfonso IV d’Este, Duke of Modena, whose family had produced four Cardinals. Thus, through both sides of her family, Mary Beatrice had an intimate connection to the Papal Court. In addition, Laura had been educated and married in France, and so Mary Beatrice also had close ties to Louis XIV.
Her Religious Devotion and Desire for the Convent
Mary Beatrice wanted to join the convent for the Sisters of the Visitation, which was next door to the Modena’s castle. Throughout her life, she was first and foremost a devoted and pious Catholic. She was quite scared of the rumored debauchery that took place at Charles II’s court in England and she was reluctant to marry the forty-year-old Duke of York, which would also require her to move to a kingdom where her Catholic devotion was persecuted. When Mary Beatrice was on her way to England, she wrote to the Reverend Mother of the Convent, saying:
“My dear Mother, remember your daughter, although she is far away; I assure you my heart ever remains close to yours…Pray to God for me…I have many distractions,…though I certainly do not desire them.” (Haile, 34)
Mary Beatrice was eventually able to attain the religious seclusion she desired, during the last years of her life.
Seeking Her Hand
After James II’s wife, Anne Hyde, died, many princesses were sought for his new bride. James was adamant that his bride be Catholic, although such a choice would probably be abhorrent to the English people. The Earl of Peterborough, the Duke of York’s marital negotiator, was incredibly flattering in his description of Mary Beatrice:
“Tall and admirably shaped; her complexion was of the last degree of fairness, her hair black as jet; so were her eyebrows and her eyes, but the latter so full of light and sweetness, as they did dazzle and charm too…” (Hopkirk, 13)
Even though she stood up to several formidable people—including her mother, her uncle, and two Cardinals, Mary Beatrice’s resistance to the marriage was finally broken down by none other than Pope Clement X. He wrote a note to her in Latin in his own hand, saying that her marriage to James was the greatest thing she could do for the Catholic faith:
“For although We appreciated that this [resistance] was due to your desire, most laudable in itself, to embrace religious discipline;…We therefore…earnestly exhort you…to reflect upon the great advantage which would accrue to the Catholic faith in the aforementioned Kingdom through your marriage.” (Hopkirk, 14)
Facing such a request from the Pope, Mary Beatrice had no choice but to acquiesce.
Her Secret Marriage & Arrival in England
Mary Beatrice was married by proxy in Modena, on September 30, 1673. She was terrified at leaving Italy and even though she was already married, she could not be persuaded to go to England unless her mother came with her. When she arrived in England, James gave her a ruby ring, which she regarded as her most prized possession for the rest of her life. She was then married in person to James in Dover, England, on November 21, 1673.
HER ADAPTATION TO ENGLAND (1673-1685)
The New Wife: A Proper Handsome Lady
The English aristocrats were highly concerned about James’ marriage to this Italian Catholic girl. As one historian has observed:
“That James should have married not only a Papist, but such a particularly Papistical Papist and a protégée of the King of France into the bargain, without first informing Parliament of his intentions, was regarded with righteous indignation.” (Hopkirk, 18)
However, people soon warmed to the new Duchess of York. Mary Beatrice was slow to admire her husband, but she was immediately fond of Charles II, who also liked her and decided that she was much better than his brother deserved. Upon her arrival, she was honored by the famous poet Edmund Waller, who gave tribute to her through such lines:
“Thus we write then: your brighter eyes inspire; A nobler flame, and raise our genius higher;…Your matchless beauty gives our fancy wing; Your judgment makes us careful how we sing…” (Bevan, 21)
This gesture meant a lot to Mary Beatrice, as she later became a patron of the arts, encouraging the best Italian artists to come to England. The English people eventually welcomed her, despite her adherence to the Catholic faith. As historian James Macpherson described:
“As for the people, their prejudices were gradually removed by her behaviour. The uneasiness conceived on account of her religion was soon forgot; she was universally esteemed and by many beloved. Her beauty rendered her the favourite of the populace.” (Haile, 51)
Thus, despite many fears about her arrival, both English nobles and the population in general liked Mary Beatrice, much better than they liked James II.
Her Relationship with James
Even though she was initially repulsed by his age, Mary Beatrice grew to love James. As she wrote in a letter a few years after James’ death:
“I became very fond of my husband…It was sinful for any one to love an earthly creature as I loved him, but the fault brought its own punishment in the pain I suffered on discovering that I was not the exclusive object of his regard.” (Hopkirk, 27)
James was a notorious adulterer, although his brother Charles often mocked his choice in mistresses, finding them very ugly. Despite her disappointment in his fidelity, Mary Beatrice was very complementary of James’ faith. She writes to the Reverend Mother in Modena:
“May it be a consolation to you, dear Mother, to know 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.” (Haile, 44)
Throughout the years of his reign and then exile, Mary Beatrice was loyal to James and always a dutiful wife.
Her Relationship with Mary & Anne
When Mary Beatrice arrived in England, she was fifteen. Her stepdaughters Mary and Anne, were thirteen and eleven, respectively. James was actually hopeful that the girls would be playmates. Even though Mary Beatrice was genuinely fond of them and shared a cordial correspondence with Mary when the latter moved to Holland, neither daughter ever completely warmed up to their new stepmother. After Mary married William of Orange, Mary Beatrice always addressed letters to her as “My dear Lemon” as an affectionate joke. Her relationship with Mary basically dissolved when William began making preparations to enter England, even though Mary Beatrice was slow to make accusations against her family. She writes to Mary:
“The second part of this news I will never believe, that is that you are to come over with him [William]; for I know you to be too good, that I don’t believe you could have such a thought against the worst of Fathers, much less perform it against the best.” (Haile, 198)
Her relationship with Anne was much more strained, mostly as a result of Anne’s hatred for the Catholic faith. In later years, Anne played a pivotal role in spreading the rumor that the birth of the heir James Frances Edward was fake.
Her Life as Duchess of York
Her natural ally in the English court should have been Catherine of Braganza, Charles II’s Portuguese Catholic wife. However, Mary Beatrice, in devotion to her family and her husband, unwittingly offended the Queen. First, Hortense Mancini, a great beauty who was Mary Beatrice’s cousin and also niece to Cardinal Mazarin, came to Charles’ court in the hopes of seducing him and undermining his current favorite mistress. Mary Beatrice was required to call on her regularly, as Hortense was family. James then encouraged Mary Beatrice to visit with the favored mistress, the French Louise de Kerouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth, who at the time had the most influence over Charles and was known to be a formidable adversary if she felt slighted. The Queen, who loved her husband and hated his mistresses, viewed these visits as an insult and it chilled relations between herself and Mary Beatrice. In addition, the Queen was jealous of the obvious affection that Charles harbored for Mary Beatrice. As the Queen was barren and not as a pretty as Mary Beatrice, she always remained cold to her sister-in-law, even though as foreign-born princesses and Catholics, they should have been good friends. In fact, many Protestant courtiers took advantage of this jealousy to prevent any alliance between the two ladies. As one courier observed:
“It is certain there were those who knew how to seize the occasion, and from hand to hand sowed tares between two Princesses who for every reason of justice and mutual interest should be more closely united in affection than they are.” (Haile, 55)
Mary Beatrice’s greatest disappointment in the relationship was that she was not able to worship Mass with the Queen in her private chapel.
Her Fertile Womb
Over the years and despite many miscarriages, Mary Beatrice gave birth to six healthy children. Unfortunately, only two made it to adulthood. Mary Beatrice’s first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, but fortunately, she gave birth to a girl, Catherine Laura, soon after on January 10, 1675. Sadly, this baby girl died a little under a year later on October 3, 1675. Her next child was a girl, Isabella, who was born on August 18, 1676. This girl lived a little longer, but died too early on March 2, 1681 while Mary Beatrice was away in Scotland. Mary Beatrice gave birth to her first son, Charles, on November 7, 1677. He died tragically soon on December 12, 1677, after catching smallpox from his half-sister, Anne. Mary Beatrice wrote to her brother on the death of her son, displaying her usual piety:
“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, G-d knows what He does.” (Haile, 67)
Her third daughter, Charlotte Maria, was born on August 16, 1682, and died very shortly thereafter on October 6, 1682. Her second son, whose birth initiated the Glorious Revolution and who grew to be known as “The Old Pretender”, was born on June 10, 1688. He died at the ripe old age of seventy-eight, after many futile years of trying to reclaim the English throne. Mary Beatrice’s last child, Louisa Maria, was born during the exile in France. Sadly, even though she was one of the children that made it to adulthood, she died of smallpox at the age of twenty on April 8, 1712. Thus, the only child to survive Mary Beatrice was her most famous son, James Frances Edward. Even though contemporaries cast aspersions on the nature of James Edward’s birth, as noted above, there is ample evidence that Mary Beatrice was capable of producing a male heir.
Though Anne and other members of the English court liked to blame James’ excesses on Mary Beatrice’s influences, this is not accurate. As Mary Beatrice had been raised in the Catholic faith, she was much more reasonable than her husband, who as a convert was zealous and prone to extremism. The only hint of political scandal for Mary Beatrice was during the Popish Plot of 1678 controversy. Mary’s secretary, Edward Coleman, was fired for allegedly leaking military secrets to the French. Most importantly, Coleman’s papers were used to prove Titus Oates’ previously unsubstantial claims of a Catholic conspiracy to kill Charles II. Mary Beatrice had her chaplain, Dom Giacomo Ronchi, write an account of Oates’ Popish Plot to her brother. Regarding Coleman, he wrote:
“Among the papers seized at Mr. Coleman’s house are said to be copies of letters from the Duchess of York to the Pope. She however is perfectly tranquil, knowing that she has never written any but letters of compliment to His Holiness…Coleman was hanged, drawn and quartered last Tuesday. He denied to his last breath that he had taken part in any conspiracy against the King.” (Haile, 78)
Mary Beatrice did not seem to know what Coleman had done, and felt sorry for what befell him. In March 1679, Mary Beatrice and James had to leave England as a result of political tensions, going first to Brussels and then settling in Scotland. Eventually, they were allowed to return to England when things had calmed down. Mary Beatrice’s devotion to Catholicism was intense, but she attempted to temper James’ more extremist leanings and policies, even though she was mostly unsuccessful.
QUEEN OF THE THREE KINGDOMS (1685-1688)
Mary Beatrice was officially crowned Queen at Westminster Abbey, on April 23, 1685. However, the night before she and James had been secretly anointed and crowned in the Chapel Royal of St. James’s by James’ chief confessor. This was a relief to Mary Beatrice, who was worried about having to be crowned under Anglican services at the Abbey Church of St. Stephen (Bevan, 73). Mary Beatrice made this observation about the public coronation in her later years:
“There was a presage that struck us and everyone who noticed it. They could not make the crown stay firmly on the King’s head; it appeared always on the point of falling, however carefully they fixed it.” (Hopkirk, 85)
As a result of numerous miscarriages and tragedies, Mary Beatrice was childless and James II was without a Catholic heir when they were crowned King and Queen of England.
Mary Beatrice liked to conduct herself as modestly as possible. One notable exception was when she strenuously and publicly opposed James II’s devotion to his mistress, Catherine Sedley. Catherine Sedley had been a lady-in-waiting for Mary Beatrice, and she had seduced James while he was still Duke of York, bearing him several bastard children. When James was first crowned, he made Mrs. Sedley leave Whitehall, but she still remained in London. Even though Mary Beatrice knew of the affair and had long disapproved of it, she was forced to tolerate it. The breaking point came when James named Catherine the Countess of Dorchester. At this point, Mary Beatrice’s Italian pride could not allow her to tolerate such an insult. She threatened to renounce her throne and join a convent if James did not get rid of Catherine. She cried out to James at dinner one night, “Give her my dower; make her Queen of England, but let me never see her again!” (Bevan, 78) Mary was joined by several Catholic politicians including Father Petre in condemning Catherine. They were worried that Catherine, a Protestant, was being supported by English Protestants to undermine the influence of Mary Beatrice, the Catholic wife. Furthermore, James’ flagrant adultery with a heretic mistress was hurting the Catholic cause by making him look as equally dissolute as his brother. Therefore, James banished Catherine Sedley to Ireland, with a generous yearly pension. This was the only instance where Mary Beatrice publicly stood up to James, and the event is evidence of both her devotion to James and to her religion.
Her Role in Court Politics
There is no evidence that Mary Beatrice had any substantial role in the English court, policy-wise. Even though Monmouth wrote her a letter after his failed rebellion, begging her to save him from execution, she neither had the inclination nor the political sway to help him. She wrote in her reply to him:
“had he offended against herself alone, she would gladly have forgiven him, but since he was a traitor to both King and country, she could not and ought not to interfere.” (Hopkirk, 88)
She also failed to prevent Father Edward Petre being appointed to the Privy Council. Even though Father Petre had supported her when she demanded James dismiss Catherine Sedley, Mary Beatrice though Father Petre was too extreme and did not like him. As an observe noted, Father Petre was appointed:
“contrary to the Queen’s advice…for, as soon as she heard what was designed, she earnestly beg’d[sic] of the King not to do it, that it would give great scandal not only to the Protestants but to thinking Catholicks[sic] and even to the Society itself, as being against their rule.” (Hopkirk, 98)
Mary Beatrice also did not trust Lord Sunderland, James’ chief minister. Thus, contrary to some historical claims, it seems that Mary had little sway with James when it came to important political decisions.
Her Most Important Pregnancy
In 1687, Mary Beatrice found herself with child, after five years of being barren. Even though she was still well within childbearing age, immediately rumors started to circulate that the pregnancy was false. The biggest promoter of these rumors was Mary Beatrice’s own stepdaughter, Anne. Anne wrote to her sister Mary:
“Whenever one talks of her [Mary Beatrice] being with child, she looks as if she was afraid one should touch her. And whenever I have happened to be in the room as she has been undressing, she has always gone into the next room to put on her smock…when she is brought to bed, nobody will be convinced ‘tis her child, except it prove a daughter. For my part, I declare I shall not except I see the child and she parted.” (Hopkirk, 119)
This characterization of Mary Beatrice was extremely unfair because her natural modesty made it likely that she would hide herself from people watching her undress. Furthermore, she had given birth to many children before this, including a son, so this pregnancy should not have been shocking to anyone.
THE GLORIOUS REVOLUTION (1688)
The Birth of James Frances Edward
James Frances Edward was born on June 10, 1688. Mary Beatrice was highly embarrassed by the Privy Council meeting on October 22, 1688 to hear testimonies to prove the validity of the birth. Shortly after the birth, William received a letter from the Immortal Seven, asking him to invade England. Perversely, Mary Beatrice’s desire to provide her husband with a Catholic heir was the act that provoked his enemies to take his throne.
Her Appointment to Run Affairs in London
On November 17, 1688, James left London to join his army that was advancing to meet William when he landed. Mary Beatrice and part of the Privy Council were left in charge of the government. James had also signed a will that named Mary Beatrice as Regent if he died. Immediately leading up to William’s invasion, France and the Pope had been at odds with each other. Mary Beatrice was highly concerned about these events and, though she was worried about James safety in going to war, she underestimated the gravity of the situation in England. She wrote to her uncle, the Cardinal d’Este about it:
“Uncle, I can give you good news on the Pope’s consent to the mediation of the King my lord in the differences between France and the Holy See…When by the Grace of G-d this war, which cannot apparently last long, shall be happily ended, we can more freely apply ourselves to this mediation. But, dear Uncle, we have too many affairs of our own at present to think of others.” (Haile, 209)
Mary Beatrice was soon struck with the reality of the situation in England. When James returned a little over a week later, he decided that she needed to flee with their young son to France.
Her Flight to France
On December 10, 1688, Mary Beatrice left Whitehall with her infant son, a few trusted servants, and escorted by the Comte de Lazun. Mary was disguised as a laundress. Though she safely made it into France, she was concerned about James being able to meet her. She wrote to her brother:
“Having fled by night with my child, with a frightful but favourable wind, we arrived in little more than twenty-four hours from London to Calais…my only consolation is that my son is well, and thrives amid these troubles;…I am entreated by all to go to Paris, and speak to the King of France, from whom I am certainly receiving a thousand benefits; but I am resolved not to leave the coast until I have news of my king….what a great consolation it would be to have you beside me in so hard a trial, but I have desired it so often without being able to obtain it, that I dare not hope for it now!” (Haile, 222)
She also wrote to Louis XIV, asking for his help:
“Sire, a poor fugitive Queen, bathed in tears, has not reared 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…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.
Sire, your very affectionate servant and sister, The Queen of England” (Haile, 221)
Fortunately, Louis XIV sent for her soon after her landing and brought her to Paris to wait for James.
HER TWILIGHT IN FRANCE (1689-1718)
Her New Home in Louis XIV’s Court
Louis XIV gave Mary Beatrice and James II his palace at St. Germain-en-Laye for their place of residence as long as they lived in France. Upon her arrival in Paris, the French court immediately loved her. They admired her dignity in the face of all that had happened to her. On June 28, 1692, she gave birth to a daughter, Louisa Maria. She and James hoped that this birth would dispel any beliefs that James Frances Edward had been illegitimate, but no apologies were forthcoming. The French court, captivated by any new fashion, was fascinated with the baptism dress of the little girl. At this point in time, Louis XIV had a morganatic marriage with the Marquise de Maintenon, a devoted Catholic and former nanny to his children. Because of their mutual religious devotion, both ladies got along with each other. However, because the status of Madame Maintenon was not officially “Queen”, Mary Beatrice was ostensibly the highest ranked woman in Louis XIV’s court. The most illuminating evidence that Mary Beatrice had no political aspirations is that she did not take advantage of this position in any way, except to ensure that the nearby convent for Sisters of the Visitation at Chaillot received regular funding.
Her Devotion to the Convent
During her new life in France, Mary Beatrice was finally able to achieve her childhood dream and devoted herself to the Convent of the Visitation at Chaillot. She became friends with the nuns, who recorded many of her memories and preserved many of her letters. In discussing her devotion to the convent, Mary Beatrice wrote:
“I believe that a heart full of divine love is at peace and content in any kind of state, wherein it cannot but be well;…it is the one thing necessary, having which all that the world calls misfortunes and disgrace cannot cause unhappiness.” (Haile, 390)
For the rest of her life, Mary Beatrice would often retreat to worship within the convent’s walls, even though she was never able to fully seclude herself as she desired. Her longing for solitude and religious contemplation is understandable, given that this was the best way she felt she could handle all the things that had happened to her.
Her Opposition to Her Son’s Reclamation of the Throne
When James died on September 16, 1701, Mary Beatrice became de jure Regent of England, Scotland, and Ireland for the next five years, until James Edward reached maturity. In 1702, Mary Beatrice strongly opposed James Edward venturing to Scotland to oppose the accession of Anne. She was against this action because she felt it was silly for James Edward to push for his restoration while she was still Regent. Though she never gave up hope he would eventually become King, when James Edward came of age, Mary Beatrice stopped worrying as much about his pursuit of the throne and instead just became concerned with his finding a good wife.
Her Last Years
After resigning herself from any more political activity, Mary Beatrice became fully devoted to the Convent and the sisters. In 1712, Mary’s only surviving daughter, Louise Maria, died of small pox. Mary herself was suffering from breast cancer tumors and sought to lose herself in religious devotions. Mary Beatrice finally died of breast cancer at St. Germain-en-Laye, France on May 7, 1718. She was buried in the Convent of the Visitation at Chaillot, which was eventually destroyed during the French Revolution. One French courtier wrote:
“The good and pious Queen of England died yesterday…Surely she must be in heaven. She kept nothing for herself and gave all she had to the poor;…I am convinced…that she is more to be regarded as a saint than her husband.” (Hopkirk, 294)
Upon searching through her belongings, a prayer was found that Mary Beatrice wrote in her own hand:
“Lord, give me grace to drink the chalice Thou hast prepared for me.” (Hopkirk, 297)
This small note is illustrative of the immense dignity and elegance with which Mary Beatrice conducted herself throughout her tumultuous life.
Barclay, Andrew. “Mary of Modena”, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Lawrence Goldman, ed., Oxford University Press, 2004. Rev. ed. of: Dictionary of national biography. 1885-1901).
Beven, Bryan. I Was James the Second’s Queen, (London: Heinemann Ltd., 1963).
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, (Great Britain: Hodder and Stoughton, Ltd., 1962).