The Problematic Legacy of Anne Hyde, Duchess of York


In October 1660, rumors began swirling that the child Anne Hyde was carrying was fathered by the King’s brother, James Stuart, Duke of York. Even worse, the child wouldn’t be a bastard because the couple secretly married the month before. James’s mother, Henrietta Maria of France, was enraged; Anne’s father, Edward Hyde, a councilor to Charles II, stated publicly that he would rather his daughter was James’s whore than his wife. In short, it wasn’t well-received.

The rumors were quickly confirmed – James and Anne had married privately in September at Edward’s home at Worcester House. Within days of the news coming out, Anne was brought to bed of a son, christened James. The only voice of reason was that of the newly restored Charles II, who visited his sister-in-law during her lying-in, declared the marriage valid and told others he thought Anne would be a good influence on his younger brother.

Edward Hyde, Anne’s father

In 1660, Anne was 23. She had been born in Windsor to Edward and his wife, Frances Aylesbury, the eldest of six children, four of whom would live to maturity. In 1649, when Charles I was executed, the staunchly royalist Hydes fled England for Holland where they were granted refuge at the court of James’s elder sister, Mary Stuart, Princess of Orange. Reportedly against the wishes of Henrietta Maria, Mary made Anne a maid of honour in her household.

Pretty and charming, Anne was popular with men. She was pursued by Spencer Compton and fell in love with Henry Jermyn, whom she quickly dropped when she met James around 1656 or 1657. Whether he meant it or not, James promised Anne he would marry her in the autumn of 1659, they apparently began sleeping together and by January 1660, she was pregnant. Despite a years-long relationship by the time their marriage was discovered by their parents, James nearly caved when people began sharing gossip about Anne’s “easy virtue” and it was in fact Charles who helped ensure his brother followed through on his word.

Anne as the Duchess of York

Married and a mother when she re-joined court at the end of the year, the new Duchess of York was nevertheless wildly unpopular thanks to courtiers unused to seeing a commoner marry into the Royal Family. Charles elevated Edward Hyde to the peerage via the earldom of Clarendon, but the fact remained the Hydes were far below the rank of most aristocratic families. And in this case, given that Charles was unmarried and without legitimate heirs, James’s marriage was of the utmost dynastic importance. Luckily for her, attention was split thanks to the arrival of Henrietta Maria and Princess Henrietta Anne, newly engaged to the Duke of Orleans.

James and Anne’s son died on May 5, 1661 of smallpox and court went into mourning. Two months later, Anne was pregnant again and on April 30, 1662, she gave birth to a daughter named Mary. A second son, also named James, was born on July 12, 1663, followed by another daughter, Anne, on February 6, 1665. A third son, Charles, was born on July 4, 1666 before disaster struck.

James, Duke of York

In May 1667, the infant Charles died of convulsions, followed just a month later by the death of his elder brother, James, from the plague. The only children left were the couple’s two daughters, however Anne was pregnant and delivered yet another son, Edgar, that September.

The rapid succession of pregnancies and the depression that followed the early deaths’ of her sons undermined Anne’s health. She grew increasingly overweight as the decade wore on and increasingly religious, the last of which was of particular concern. Anne converted to Catholicism shortly after her marriage, exposed to it during her time abroad. The matter was only reinforced when Charles married a Catholic princess from Portugal, Katherine of Braganza, who was also allowed to practice her faith privately. However, so long as Charles remained childless, it was incredibly important that the York children – directly in line for the throne – were raised Protestant. As such, Anne’s unpopularity, never high to begin with, only deteriorated as time went on.

Arabella Churchill, James’s mistress

As for her marriage, James and Anne were volatile, passionate and publicly affectionate. James was not, however, faithful and Anne was upset by the constant stream of mistresses that he paraded about court, sometimes even complaining about the situation to the King. One in particular, Arabella Churchill, went on to mother a handful of James’s bastards and was an open secret at court.

The health of Anne’s younger daughter, Anne, wasn’t ideal due to a eye problem. When physicians recommended that she be exposed to a healthier climate, the child was duly packed up and sent to live with her grandmother in France. When Henrietta Maria passed away in 1669, she joined the household of her aunt, the Duchess of Orleans, until her death in June 1670. She then returned home to rejoin her parents’ household.

Anne gave birth to two more children – Henrietta in 1669 (who lived only 10 months) and Katherine in February 1671. During her last pregnancy she was extremely ill, likely with breast cancer, and she never recovered from her final delivery. She passed away on March 31, 1671 at St. James’s Palace in London and is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Princess Anne

Within three months of her death, Edgar died, followed by Katherine. Of all of her children, only Mary and Anne survived – and survive they continued to do. Thanks to their Protestant faith both women would end up as queens in their own right and, somewhat ironically, they have their mother to thank for that. Due to Anne’s influence, James converted to Catholicism. When he remarried to another Catholic two years after Anne’s death, the couple were wildly unpopular with the English public. Once James ascended the throne in 1685, showed indulgence to Catholics and fathered a son, the Glorious Revolution swiftly knocked him off the throne in favor of his Protestant daughter, Mary.

In short, had James not converted, Mary and Anne might never have been queens. And had James not married Anne, he might not have converted.

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