Mary of Modena

On October 5, 1658, in the pretty town of Modena in Italy, Mary Beatrice d’Este, future wife of James II and last Stuart Queen of England, was born. She was the daughter of Alfonso IV, Duke of Modena, and was therefore expected to marry into a European royal family. She was given a thorough education to prepare her for her future role and particularly excelled in languages.

Mary was thought to be pretty, and she was sought as a bride for James, Duke of York. After some reluctance on the part of Mary’s mother, who was acting as regent of Modena, the proposal was accepted, and they were married by proxy just before Mary’s 15th birthday. She traveled to England shortly after, where she met with a chilly reception. Neither Parliament nor the people were pleased with this Catholic match, and Parliament even threatened to have the marriage annulled. To prevent that, King Charles II suspended Parliament until after the marriage ceremony.

James was 25 years older than his wife and had been scarred by smallpox. Mary allegedly burst into tears when she first saw him on November 23, 1673, the day of their second marriage ceremony, but they eventually warmed to each other, and she set about winning over his two young daughters from his first marriage to Anne Hyde.

Anne became embroiled in a scandal in 1678, when Titus Oates implicated her secretary, Edward Colman, in a plot against the king. The plot—which never actually existed—gave rise to the Exclusionist movement, which sought to bar James from the throne. Things got so heated the Yorks were forced to go to the Continent for a while, taking with them James’s daughter Anne and their own young daughter Isabella. They returned to England when Charles became ill, and were immediately sent to stay in Edinburgh while Anne and Isabella remained in London. There, Isabella died in 1681. Until that point, she was the only one of the Yorks’ children to survive infancy, and her death threw Mary into a religious mania.

Despite the efforts of the Exclusionists, James ascended his brother’s throne on Charles’s death in February 1685. He and Mary were crowned on April 23.

Mary’s health remained so poor following Isabella’s death that the Florentines and the French began quietly preparing to offer James new marriage candidates, should Mary die. She recovered sufficiently to become pregnant again in 1687, which worried the country’s Protestants, who feared a Catholic heir to the throne. When Mary gave birth to a son, James Francis Edward, the Protestants started spreading rumors that he wasn’t the king’s child at all, but the infant of a commoner smuggled into the birthing chamber in a warming pan. They ignored the fact that there were 200 witnesses to the birth, both Protestants and Catholics. Nonetheless, the Protestants decided they were through with their Catholic king and invited William of Orange, the husband of James’s daughter Mary, to invade England. The resulting Glorious Revolution saw James deposed and sent him, Mary, and their young son fleeing to France, where they stayed as guests of King Louis XIV.

Mary shone in France, becoming friends with King Louis and his secret wife, Madame de Maintenon. She was a popular fixture at court, where she was known for her dignity and quick wit. James, on the other hand, was thought to be dull. He launched an expedition to Ireland in 1689, hoping to regain his throne, but his defeat at the Battle of the Boyne put an end to that.

James died following a stroke in September 1701. Louis XIV wasted no time declaring James Francis Edward King of England, Ireland and Scotland, a move that irritated King William and Queen Mary. Scottish Lord Belhaven was sent to France to request that Mary agree to her son’s conversion to Protestantism, which the Scots believed would enable him to take the throne after William’s death. Mary wouldn’t hear of it, though they did agree that, if young James became king, he wouldn’t meddle with the Church of England.

As she grew older, Mary retreated from the world by visiting the Convent of the Visitations near Paris. After her son was made to leave France following the Treaty of Utrecht in 1711, she remained at the convent permanently. She died of cancer in May 1718, fondly remembered by her many friends in France.



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