A Queen in Isolation: Mary Beatrice of Modena

On 7 May 1718, James II’s widow, Mary of Modena, died in exile at the palace of St Germain-en-Laye. Displaced as a result of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ Mary had been an important figure for Jacobites and thanks to her good relations with Louis XIV had also established for herself a prominent role in the court of Versailles, where she was granted precedence over all the other French princesses as a queen, albeit one without a kingdom. Dr Robin Eagles, editor of the House of Lords 1715-90 section, considers her transformation from queen to queen in exile.

Things had not started particularly auspiciously for Mary Beatrice. Daughter of the duke of Modena, which was in effect a client state of Louis XIV’s France, she was a rather pious girl whose early ambition was to have been a nun. At the age of just 15, though, she was selected as the bride of the (much older) widower James, duke of York, to whom she was married by proxy in 1673 (the earl of Peterborough standing in for York). Mary had not been York’s first choice. He had petitioned his brother, Charles II, unsuccessfully, to be allowed to marry Susan Belasyse, but had been turned down. Having considered, and rejected, various alternative European princesses, York eventually settled on Mary, in spite of warnings that she was ‘an ugly redhead’ [TNA, PRO 31/3/129]. He seems to have been unaware that the marriage had gone ahead until fairly late in the day. The news also took others by surprise, Sir Ralph Verney, for one, reporting

Our new Duchess from Modena makes us all wonder, because it was confidently reported that our King had broke it off.

Surprised or not, the choice of a Catholic proved widely unpopular, in spite of efforts to mitigate the situation. The earl of Arlington had been confident that as there was no suitable protestant candidate, Parliament would not object, while the French ambassador had written to his master passing on Charles II’s request that Louis would:

prevail upon the prince and princess of Modena not to raise any difficulties regarding the right to worship or other matters concerning the Catholic religion, and to reassure them that the duke of York will take all measures possible to give his wife advantage in this respect, without causing too much embarrassment to the king in the next parliament [TNA, PRO 31/3/129 ff.1-2]

All this had little effect. Contrary to Arlington’s expectation, there was a last minute intervention by Parliament to convince the king to forbid his brother from consummating the marriage and Bishop Crew of Oxford proved to be the only member of the episcopal bench willing to preside at the formal wedding of York and his new duchess when she arrived at Dover in November 1673. She seems to have been no happier than anyone else, and was reported to have burst into tears on seeing her new husband. [Callow]

Mary of Modena. Engraving by J. Audran after A. van der Werff, ca. 1700. (c) Wellcome Collection Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Lines relating to Mary by Andrew Marvell in his Advice to a Painter came to appear particularly prescient:

Poor princess! born beneath a sullen star,
To find such welcome when you came so far!
Better some jealous neighbour of your own,
Had called you to a sound though petty throne…

Through the 1670s Mary had to contend with suspicion, in particular at the time of the Popish Plot, when members of the York household found themselves under investigation. She also suffered from a succession of unsuccessful pregnancies and the loss of several children early in their lives (one daughter, Isabella, lived for five years). It was this sad history that helped stoke the general disbelief when in 1688 she finally gave birth to a healthy male child. Doubters seized hold of the ‘warming pan’ conspiracy, which suggested that the pregnancy had been a phantom one (or entirely contrived) and that an orphaned baby had been smuggled into the queen’s bedchamber so that it could be presented as her new prince. Changeling or not, the arrival of James Francis Edward Stuart precipitated the invitation to William of Orange by a select band of discontented courtiers and that winter Mary was spirited out of the kingdom with her son while James II’s grip on power faltered. In December, after a false start, James joined her in France.

From 1688 until her death in 1718 Mary lived in exile, principally at St Germain-en-Laye, the palace lent to James by Louis XIV, but she also spent significant periods at the convent of Chaillot, where she was able to indulge her earlier desire of a more sequestered existence. James’s death in 1701 left Mary in the position of regent to the court in exile. She played a key role in persuading Louis XIV to recognize her underage son as ‘James III’ even though it meant breaking one of the key provisions of the Treaty of Ryswick, which had acknowledged William III’s kingship. She was also a driving force in attempting to have her late husband canonized.

Mary’s active role in ensuring that France declared for her son had significant consequences back in England, and in February 1702 she was made subject to a bill of attainder. This appears to have been something of an afterthought, arising from the debates over the bill attainting her son. In response to it, the earl of Stamford communicated a number of amendments insisted on by members of his committee, which included adding Mary to the bill’s provisions. The committee justified the request:

Because there is as much Danger to be feared from the Practices of Mary Wife to the late King James, as from any Thing this pretended Prince can attempt.

In the event, rather than tack Mary onto the bill attainting James Francis Edward, she was treated to one in her own right. Thus on 12 February the Lords gave a first reading to the bill of attainder against Mary as well, which was passed eight days later. A minority of 14 peers and one bishop (Compton of London) objected to the measure sufficiently to subscribe a protest against it, asserting that:

there was no Proof of the Allegations in the Bill so much as offered before the passing of it, which is a Precedent that may be of dangerous Consequence.

If the attainder had little immediate impact on Mary, stripping her of long lost rights and possessions, what did was her increasingly perilous financial state. Although there were occasional promises of paying money owing to her, the political situation meant that it was never in either William III or Anne’s interest to do much about it. Besides, once James Francis Edward had come of age and was able to assume control of the court in exile, Mary retreated once more. Her remaining years were a fairly sad procession of observing her son try and fail to ‘win back’ his throne in 1708 and 1715, and finally seeing him forced to quit France and take up residence in Italy. She died in penury and was buried at Chaillot. Her tomb was later desecrated during the French Revolution.


Further reading:
Andrew Barclay, ‘Mary of Modena’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
John Callow, The Making of King James II: the formative years of a fallen king; and King in Exile: James II, warrior king and saint

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