The First English Princess of Orange


We know that the Glorious Revolution concluded with the accession of William III and Mary II, and we know that the Dutch couple was called upon because Mary was the deposed king’s Protestant daughter. But a lesser-known truth is that William was half-English himself, his mother having been Mary Stuart, the Princess Royal and daughter of Charles I. Because of that, William was closely tied to the royal House of Stuart as a grandson of one of Britain’s kings.

Of the two Mary Stuarts who became Princesses of Orange, certainly the second would become the more famous, ruling Britain for six years as queen regnant, but her aunt and mother-in-law was an interesting character, too. The eldest daughter of Charles I and Henrietta Maria of France, she was old enough to comprehend the significance of the civil war that broke out in England in the 1640s, and yet was long-married and removed from the conflict as the war came to a close and her father was executed. She, in many ways, had a birds-eye view of the monarchy’s temporary abolishment, but was protected from its effects in a way her younger siblings were not.

She would die just a few months after her brother’s restoration to the throne as King Charles II, wholly unaware of how the later Stuart line would unfold, from its ties to the Catholicism that would undo it or her own son’s eventual accession 28 years after her death.

Mary was her parents’ second surviving child, born on November 4, 1631 at St. James’s Palace in London. She joined in the nursery her elder brother, Charles, and would be followed by five more siblings: James (the future James II), Elizabeth, Anne, Catherine (who lived only a few hours) and Henry. For all that political storm clouds were brewing in Great Britain over the course of 1630s, the royal children were largely protected from them, their parents having settled into a happy domestic pattern, developing a genuine love from what had started out as an arranged match.

The five eldest Stuart children, Mary is on the far left

The presence of a true family around the throne was unique for the time. Certainly James I and Anne of Denmark had had children, but most of them died young, and before that had been the long reign of Elizabeth I and the familial dysfunction of the rest of the Tudors. The last real sense of a strong royal brood was the reign of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York well over a century before. And it was a dynamic that wouldn’t be immediately repeated either, for the subsequent Stuart marriages weren’t lucky in fertility and it wasn’t until George II and Caroline of Ansbach arrived in England in 1714 as the new Prince and Princess of Wales that the monarch’s popularity would be bolstered by royal births.

And certainly Charles I needed all the help he could get on the goodwill-front given his battles with and dissolution of Parliament, and his subsequent long personal rule. His Catholic wife, Henrietta Maria, did him few favors – she openly practiced her faith and maintained strong ties to her native France and the Vatican. The British public eyed her suspiciously as not only a queen, but as a mother, afraid that she would instill her Catholicism in her children, particularly her eldest son, the future king.

To a certain extent, they would be right. Both Charles II and James II would die Catholics, a fact which directly brought about the summons of William and Mary of Orange to take over and maintain Protestant rule. And thus, for all that her brothers would have a more direct impact on history, Mary was dynastically important – her marriage a safeguard for the Stuarts which allowed their continuation past the Glorious Revolution.

That marriage came about when Mary was only 11 years old in the form of William of Orange, son of Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange and Stadtholder of the United Provinces. Her parents had originally desired a match with a Spanish prince, but it thankfully fell through, the public having little appetite for one of their princesses converting and deepening ties with a Catholic country.


The wedding took place on May 2, 1641 at Whitehall Palace. It was a somber affair due to political tension having nearly reached the breaking point; indeed, the war would officially begin the following year. Mary, nine years old, was escorted by her brothers, Charles and James, while her Catholic mother watched the ceremony from the window of her private closet. The young couple (William was then a few weeks shy of 15) then went through the formal bedding ceremony, Mary being disrobed in her mother’s chambers, however, given the bride’s youth the relationship wasn’t actually consummated for several years. Instead, their bare legs were exposed and touched to symbolize the act for legal purposes.


Soon after, William wrote to his father:

“At the beginning we have been a little serious, but now we are very free together. I think she is far more beautiful than her picture, and love her very much and think she loves me also.”

It wasn’t until February 1642 that preparations were made for Mary’s departure and when they were it was a rushed affair. The month before Charles I had stormed the House of Commons at the head of an armed guard hoping to arrest five of his political rivals, only to find that they had been tipped off and weren’t present. The family decamped to Hampton Court Palace amid public outrage while Henrietta prepared to accompany her daughter to the Dutch court, as much for her safety as to help Mary acclimate.

The young girl was heartbroken to take leave of her father, who remarked he had no idea if he would every see her again (he wouldn’t). Indeed, with war looming on the horizon, it was unclear if or when the Stuart family could be made whole. Along the way Henrietta and Mary would be met by Charles I’s sister, Elizabeth, the former Queen of Bohemia. With her was her youngest daughter, Sophia of Palatine, who would eventually become the mother of the future George I and the matriarch of the royal House of Hanover.

The Dutch’s reaction to Mary’s arrival at The Hague was tepid. While marriage into the British Royal Family was an honor, Charles I’s reign was unstable and it was with a certain amount of wariness that a union with the Stuarts was viewed. At best, Mary’s maintenance appeared costly and, given her age, her usefulness undetermined. The presence of Henrietta, on the other hand, was met with outright hostility. Her Catholicism, thick French accent and dramatic flair was jarring to the Calvinist court, and her primary objective appeared to be extracting as much money as she could for the royalist cause back home. She stayed about a year, eventually prying some funding from the Prince of Orange, but not nearly as much as she had expected.


Early on, Mary was closely supervised and had little privacy or freedom. Her ties to home were also weak, however she did receive letters from her family here and there to keep her abreast of new. A few months after her departure, her brother, Charles, wrote:

“My father is very much disconsolate and troubled partly for my royal mother’s and your absence, and partly for the disturbances of this kingdom. Dear sister, we are, as much as we may, merry; and more than we would, sad, in respect we cannot alter the present distempers of these troublesome times. My father’s resolution is now for York, where he intends to reside, to see the event or sequel to these bad unprpitious beginnings […] Thus much desiring your comfortable answer to these my sad lines, I rest your loving Brother, Charles Princeps.”

Mary’s homesickness wouldn’t evaporate, nor would her time in Orange end up particularly pleasant. She didn’t get along with her mother-in-law, Amalia of Solms-Braunfels, who had considerable influence with her son, and William was constantly unfaithful, souring relations with his wife. Unfortunately, too, the marriage wasn’t particularly fertile. While it’s unclear when exactly the relationship was consummated, but it certainly had been by 1646 when Mary suffered a miscarriage late in her pregnancy, which took a significant physical and emotional toll on her. The following year William succeeded his father as Prince of Orange, but neither Mary’s marriage nor her happiness in her adopted home improved.

Mary and William

It wouldn’t be until the spring of 1650 that another pregnancy was announced, but as the birth approached her husband was more focused on attempting to take control of Amsterdam and away from home. While gone, he contracted smallpox and shortly after his return to The Hague he died. Ten days later, on her 19th birthday, Mary delivered a healthy son.

He would be christened William after his deceased father, but the name was the end result of a battle of wills between her and mother-in-law, Mary having wanted to name her son Charles after her own father who had been executed in January 1649, concluding the English civil war. She would be more successful in maintaining guardianship of the infant, however, by producing a codicil to her late husband’s will which empowered her custody of any minor children when he died.

Mary was in a tricky position as both a widow and a British princess. As Plowden writes:

“Not long after this, a diplomatic mission arrived from the republican government in London which, for the first time, was given official and public recognition by the [Dutch] States General. Needless to say, the occasion was ostentatiously boycotted by the Princess of Orange, who retired to her dower residence in Breda taking her baby son with her.”

Mary and William

As the 1650s unfolded, Mary’s household and The Hague became a port in the storm for the exiled Stuarts. Her mother took refuge in France with her youngest sister, Henriette, born in 1644 after Mary had already left England, but her older siblings had a slightly more nomadic experience. Her younger sister, Anne, had died at the age of three, while her sister, Elizabeth, had lived through the war only to die aged 15 at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, where she had spent her last years alongside their brother, Henry.

In 1651, 11-year-old Henry arrived at The Hague to Mary’s delight, who offered to provide him with a permanent home, however her mother begged for her son to be restored to her, having been separated from him for years. Charles, now nominally Charles II and the head of the family, agreed that Henry should be transferred to Paris. The concern, of course, as it had always been with Queen Henrietta, was her fervent Catholicism and the influence she had with her children. It was shortly after a visit to Germany during which Mary and Charles were reunited after several years when both discovered that their mother had convinced Henry to convert to Catholicism, in keeping with the religion of his adopted home, but doing nothing to bolster the royal cause. After all, should the Stuarts be reinstated it was not going to be prompted by the younger generation embracing papacy.

Several members of the family, including Mary, expressed their displeasure, and Charles went so far as to tell his brother that if he ever desired to see England or him again, he would abandon his plans immediately. Brother won out over mother and Henry swiftly departed France to meet Charles in Germany, his mother refusing to speak to him or say goodbye.


Early in 1656 it would be Mary who traveled to Paris to visit her mother, who she hadn’t seen her since she was a child. Politically, it was a dicey move, France having made its peace with Cromwell’s Britain, but Mary insisted the visit was a private matter and that she traveled in the capacity as a daughter and King Louis XIV’s first cousin. Indeed, the visit also allowed Mary to finally meet her youngest sister, the 12-year-old Henriette. An English court reported to Charles that:

“There is great preparation and disposition to pay her all the honours that she had cause to expect at her arrival, and to divert her during stay. The great balls and masque are reserved for her, and much of the good company of the place resolved to pay her all sorts of respects and civilities, especially those more particularly related than others to you and her.”

The visit was a success in many respects. Mary arrived decked out in her finest jewels and gowns, to the point that it garnered raised eyebrows from her mother, who stated her daughter “is not like me; she is very lofty with her ideas, with her jewels and her money. She likes splendour.” Given that Henrietta was hardly known for being squeamish over expenditure, the remark smacks of jealousy, albeit a natural vein given her displacement as queen.

But besides her mother, she was well-received by the French. Still only 24, she was bored at The Hague and chafing against the limitations of widowhood – she couldn’t, for example, take part in any of the dancing at the balls held in her honor. But one courtier noted, “The Princess of Orange outshone all our ladies, although the Court was never more crowded with handsome women.”


The question of whether or not Mary would marry again was still a definite possibility, though her brother’s exile made an alliance with the Stuarts tricky at best. The Duke of Savoy and Prince Ernest Augustus of Brunswick-Luneberg, both in Paris at the same time, were raised as possibilities, but Mary showed little interest. While her personal feelings on the matter are unknown, it’s also entirely possible that given how unhappy she had been in her own marriage, she wasn’t eager to embark on another. There was also the matter of her son, who would have to remain at The Hague as Prince, however that appears to have been less of a concern given that Mary publicly expressed a desire to go and live with Charles as soon as he settled somewhere.

The visit did foretell a marriage, however, just not Mary’s. A handful of British royalists had made their way to the Princess’s court in the aftermath of the war, including girls from noble families who joined Mary’s household. Among them was Anne Hyde, son of the controversial politician, Edward Hyde. Anne became a popular figure at the Dutch court and a good friend to Mary, but during the trip to Paris she met and began an affair with James, Duke of York. The relationship would be kept under wraps, but nearly three years later the two would marry in secret on November 24, 1659 to the horror of the Stuarts and her father, who declared he would rather see his daughter James’s “whore than his wife.” When news of the marriage came out, helped, in part, by the birth of a son, Queen Henrietta had every intention of undoing the union; the couple were saved only by Charles, who insisted his brother do the honorable thing and stand by his wife.

In September 1658, news spread through Europe that Oliver Cromwell had finally died, though it was unclear in the immediate aftermath exactly what that meant for Charles. Nearly a decade since his father’s execution, Charles was nearly bankrupt and dependent on charity from friend and family, including Mary who wasn’t kept particularly flush in her dower residences. Mary was also miffed by her brother around this time as he had interfered in a rumored relationship with the British politician Henry Jermyn, who Charles detested. The relationship was likely purely gossip, but Mary didn’t appreciate being ordered around and she was further put out when she heard he had been entertaining thoughts of marrying one of her sisters-in-law, all of whom she hated. By the time news of Cromwell’s death reached the Dutch, she was hosting her brothers, Henry and James (likely more interested in seeing Anne Hyde), and pointedly not Charles who was down to rationing out one meal a day in Brussels.

Charles and Mary dancing during his exile

The rift wouldn’t last long; brother and sister were famously loyal to one another and their arguments usually healed quickly. Indeed, by 1660 Charles was back in Mary’s good graces and it was at her home in Breda, alongside their brothers, where he found out he had been invited by the English government to return home and begin his reign. It was both a victory and a relief for the entire family, for if there was one other person who came as close to feeling Charles’s displacement as keenly as himself, it was Mary. The siblings traveled from Breda to The Hague in triumph, Mary’s son, William, playing a role in leading the procession and honoring his uncle, while Mary sobbed when Charles departed to set sail for England, making him promise he would send for her as soon as he was able.

The restoration was beneficial for Mary’s situation with the Dutch as well, for she was now able to argue that her son was fifth in line to the British throne. She worked hard to expand his power, which on some fronts she was successful, however she was livid with her cousin, Louis XIV, when he annexed Orange under his protection, taking advantage of William’s youth. Regarding Mary’s relationship with William, Plowden writes:

“Mary has often  been accused of being an uncaring mother, putting the interest of her own family before those of her child. It is true that she once told Charles that she could not love her son above all things in the world as long as Charles himself was alive, but there is nothing to suggest that she did not also love her son, or that she ever neglected his welfare. On the contrary, she kept him at home with her for longer than was usual at the time, and William was almost nine before he left his nursery at the Hague to go to the university town of Leiden, where a separate establishment had been set up for him. Even then Mary brought him back for a few day’s private leave-taking at Breda, which suggests she was finding it as hard to part with him as any mother seeing her baby off to boarding school for the first time.”

William III as a child

Even so, Charles back in London meant Mary could finally return home. She did just that in December, planning to spend the Christmas holiday reunited with her mother and siblings in their childhood residences, however soon after landing she fell ill and was quickly diagnosed with smallpox. Defying the risk of infection, particularly significant given his new role and responsibility, Charles remained by her side until the end. Mary died on Christmas Eve 1660 at Whitehall Palace.

Mary’s death was little remarked-upon in London, despite being her stature as the Princess Royal. Having left England as a child, and given the family’s absence for over a decade, she hadn’t been given much of an opportunity to make an impression on the British public. Nor was she particularly popular in Orange, which acknowledged her death with perfunctory mourning out of respect for her son.Within the family, however, her death was felt deeply, particularly since her brother, Henry, had also died only three months before.

Indeed, as Charles II started out his reign, the great family of his parents had been winnowed down to three – himself, James and the young Henriette, who was betrothed to Louis XIV’s younger brother, the Duke of Orleans. Between her marriage, James’s to Anne Hyde, who would later convert to Catholicism, and Charles’s own soon-to-be nuptials with a Portuguese princess, had Mary lived she would have been the firm Protestant holdout. In light of that, it’s perhaps less remarkable that her son would be called upon to succeed his Stuart uncles, his mother ensuring him a firm place in the family fabric.

Personally, Mary had had a difficult life, her marriage and her time in Orange plagued by political and familial issues, none of which were helped by the tragedy of watching her father’s deposition and execution. It is thus bittersweet that she would get to see her beloved brother restored, and be returned to her cherished homeland, so soon before her own premature death at only 29.

For more, see From Normandy to Windsor.

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