The Marriage of James II & Mary Beatrice of Modena


Mary Beatrice of Modena was only queen for a brief and volatile three years, but she bears the notable moniker of being the last Catholic to wear the crown, her husband, James II, serving as the last Catholic monarch. Born in Italy, her career in England was marred by growing religious paranoia and hysteria, accusations of her son being a “changeling” and exile. She would live through the reigns of her two stepdaughters – Mary II and Queen Anne – and in fact outlive them both, surviving to see the first four years of the German House of Hanover in England despite her son biding his time in exile. Today we’re going to take a look at her time as Duchess of York and queen.

Mary Beatrice was born on October 6, 1658 in Modena, Italy to Duke Alfonso IV and his wife, Laura Martinozzi. Laura was the niece of Cardinal Mazarin and one of seven “Mazarinettes,” who were brought to France during the reign of Louis XIV to marry influential French and Italian nobleman and ensure a power base through the region for the Cardinal. They were enormously successful, though with hindsight Laura stands out thanks to her famous daughter.


Mary Beatrice was born one year after a son, Francesco, who died in infancy, and she would be followed two years later by a second son, another Francesco, who survived. That would be a blessing for the family when, just two years after that, Alfonso IV died. Laura stepped forward to serve as regent for her young son, while simultaneously overseeing a careful and strict upbringing of her children. In addition to being taught languages, the primary theme of the ducal household was religion, which is to say fervent Catholicism.

Mary Beatrice herself was certainly a true believer, and the sincerity of her faith as her life unfolded cannot be questioned. Even so, rumors that she planned to enter a convent are debatable. It’s entirely possible that by adolescence this was an idea that she toyed with, however the likelihood that Laura would allow her only daughter to take herself off the market is slim. Instead, the Duchess seemed to be contemplating the possibility of marrying her to King Charles II of Spain, union with whom would have been the crown jewel of royal Catholic matches.

As such, when the English first approached Modena about securing a wife for the Stuart King Charles II’s younger brother their reception was lukewarm. In fact, neither was the other’s first choice, for the groom in question, James , Duke of York, had heard that Mary Beatrice was ugly and set on a convent and he himself thought he could do better. He couldn’t – in 1673, James was 40 years old and a widower with two young daughters. He was neither particularly good looking, nor intelligent. He was unpopular with his brother’s government, and Catholic in a firmly Protestant country. His saving grace was that his brother was childless 12 years into his marriage and since he himself had no sons, a potential second wife could imagine a reality in which her son became king.

It was this which Laura eventually saw, however the fact that England was Protestant was a considerable stumbling block. It was here where Louis XIV intervened, his ties to the Stuarts strong. For years Charles II and James’s younger sister, Henrietta Anne, had been married to Louis XIV’s younger brother, the Duke of Orleans, however the Princess was now dead and Louis liked the idea of forming another conduit into the English court. Maintaining England as an ally was a win, but even more so was the possibility of turning the country Catholic.

James’s Catholicism made him all the more intriguing a possibility for a young Italian bride. His first wife, Anne Hyde, had converted during their marriage and convinced her husband to do the same, however their daughters were raised Protestant.

On July 15, Louis XIV deputized Charles Colbert, Marquis de Croissy to propose both Mary Beatrice and her paternal aunt, Eleonora, as possible brides, promising to bequeath whoever was chosen with a generous dowry. James had by then already discarded both options, not only did he believe Mary Beatrice to be ugly and perhaps too delicate to bear children, but Eleonora was 30 and perceived as too old. Charles, on the other hand, was mostly uninterested in his brother’s opinion and pushed the matter. As such Henry Mordaunt, Earl of Peterborough was sent to Modena to investigate both women.

Louis XIV
Louis XIV

There the Englishman found that Mary Beatrice was in fact beautiful, 14 and in no way preparing for life in a convent. Instead he found himself negotiating with Laura and, by proxy, the Vatican, offering assurances that Mary Beatrice would be allowed to practice her faith in private. The Pope was impressed enough that he wrote to both Laura and Mary Beatrice encouraging them to accept the proposal for the good of the Church. It worked, though the unofficial blessing fell short of the papal dispensation needed.

Unfortunately, time was not on the English’s side, for they were hoping to wrap the marriage up before Parliament opened, James’s potential marriage to a Catholic princess deeply unpopular. Croissy, on behalf of Louis XIV, argued that the Pope’s approval was enough of a guarantee to move forward and thus it was that on September 20, Mary Beatrice and James were hurriedly married in Modena with Peterborough standing in as the groom’s proxy.

The Pope was furious and now demanded that Louis guarantee Mary Beatrice’s freedom to worship, as well as a promise that any children born from the marriage would be raised Catholic. In addition, he demanded that Laura confess her fault in pushing the marriage and beg for absolution, while James and Mary Beatrice were required to send a formal request for a dispensation for a marriage already conducted. This went forward, but in the meantime, Mary Beatrice was shipped off to England.

The bride en-route, Parliament opened in London on October 20 – they, too, were livid about the marriage and Charles prorogued it for a week. Even then, there were demands that the marriage remain unconsummated and threats not to grant the English army any more funding. In a perfect illustration of why the Stuars were less adept at handling Parliament than their Tudor forbears, Charles consulted an astrologer on how best to manage the situation. In the end, he decided to prorogue it again until after Christmas.

James II

The government in panic, there were also more serious calls that Charles divorce his wife, Queen Catherine, in the hopes that he could remarry a Protestant princess capable of producing children. Failing that, many argued that James be sent away from court. These measures, while extreme, were considered essential to many as a way of avoiding a potential civil war in England – it had, after all, only been 13 years since the Stuarts had been welcomed back into the country after Oliver Cromwell’s tenure, and 30 years since civil war broke out during the reign of Charles and James’s father.

It was against this backdrop that Mary Beatrice, accompanied by Laura, landed at Dover on November 21, 1673. She was welcomed by silence and the burning of the Pope’s effigy in Southwark. Though both women were warmly welcomed by Queen Catherine, herself a Catholic, her English ladies-in-waiting pointedly left the room when Mary Beatrice was allowed to sit in her presence. Horrified by the cold reception and annoyed that her daughter was not granted a public chapel, Laura left in a huff after a short visit, leaving her 15-year-old daughter to the wolves. The young Duchess of York sobbed in her chambers for days.

James, however, was delighted with his new wife and reveled in her beauty. Peterborough described her as:

“She was tall and admirably shaped. Her complexion was of the last fairness, her hair black as jet, so were her eyebrows and her eyes, but the latter so full of life and sweetness as they did dazzle and charm, too.”

In James Mary Beatrice had a genuinely kind and caring husband, though by no means a faithful one. Many noted, however, that while he continued to have affairs, he was more discreet with his second wife than he had been with his first. But if he fell in love with her, it is less likely that she did with him – though she was thankful for his kindness, she wasn’t attracted d to him – at least at first – and at one point referenced the realities of married life as her “cross to bear.” In fact, when she first laid eyes on him, she reportedly burst into tears.

Mary and Anne Stuart with their parents prior to their mother’s death

The real silver lining to the marriage for her was her two stepdaughters, Mary and Anne. Mary, aged 11, when her stepmother arrived, was only four years younger than the Duchess. When James introduced them, he told his daughters that he had brought them “a new play-fellow.” Mary took to Mary Beatrice immediately, however Anne was initially cold. It took months of the teenager coaxing and playing games with the nine-year-old to bring her around.

Within months of her arrival in London, Mary Beatrice was pregnant, but it ended in a miscarriage in March 1474. Traditionally, a royal bride’s popularity and perceived success was based on her ability to provide her husband with male heirs and secure the succession, however the Yorks’ faith made that difficult. While the Stuarts personally celebrated Mary Beatrice’s pregnancies and children, the King’s government and the public instead exhibited relief when she failed.

On January 10, 1675 the Duchess delivered a daughter named Catherine Laura for the Queen and the Duchess of Modena. Nine months later the young princess died of convulsions, prompting her mother to go into premature labor with her next child, who was born stillborn. Finally, on August 28, 1876, she gave birth to another daughter, Isabel. It was a ruthless childbearing regimen, particularly when you take into account that by her 18th birthday, Mary Beatrice had gone through four pregnancies.

By then, young Mary Stuart was 14 and the possibility of her marrying her first cousin, William of Orange, was the topic du jour. That she had to marry a Protestant was non-negotiable for the King’s government, despite James’s protestations. In fact, with Mary still her father’s heir – Isabel coming after her half-sisters in the succession – the matter first raised the strange situation that James found himself in with his daughters. Their Protestant faith was their greatest political leverage – and indeed, a necessity for their uncle – however their actions called attention to their possible accession of the throne, and the fact that many preferred them to their father.

When Mary and William were finally married in London on November 4, 1677, Mary Beatrice was heavily pregnant once more and Charles joked during the ceremony that they had best hurry up lest the Duchess give birth and produce a son that made the marriage less attractive to William. No one found it funny and in fact, when Mary Beatrice gave birth three days later to a son named Charles, William was notably cooler towards his wife.

Mary Beatrice

Within weeks Anne was ill with smallpox, but before anyone knew she visited her new brother and infected the nursery. Charles died on December 12, Anne recovered and William was cheered from The Hague. It was an untenable family dynamic to say the least.

The following year the Yorks were embroiled in what became known as the Popish Plot. A man named Titus Oates and an anti-Catholic clergyman named Israel Tonge wrote a manuscript accusing the Catholic Church of plotting the assassination of King Charles. Charles was alerted to this idea on August 13, 1678 when he was approached while out walking in St James’s Park by a man, Christopher Kirkby, who claimed to be able to name the would-be assassins, as well as the fact that if they failed, Queen Katherine’s Catholic physician was prepared to poison him.

Charles was skeptical, but willing to hear him out. He agreed to a private audience with Kirkby and Tonge, and then referred them to his Lord Treasurer, Lord Danby. Tonge then told Danby about the manuscript, claiming to have found it and to not know the author. Danby recommended that Charles order a formal investigation, but the King was dismissive. It wasn’t until news reached James that the entire affair came to light and Charles reluctantly agreed that the matter should be looked into. It was then that Titus Oates’s name was brought forth, however when Charles met with him he was quickly branded a liar and a “wicked man.”

Even so, Parliament was about to assemble and a formal inquest was deemed necessary given the breadth of the accusations. Oates testified before the King on September 6, and then on September 28 he testified before the Privy Council. It was in this second audience that he named names, including the Queen’s physician and Edward Colman, Mary Beatrice’s secretary. Colman was then discovered to have corresponded with Louis XIV’s confessor about the idea of dissolving the current Parliament and replacing it with a pro-French one. This, obviously, didn’t go down well.

A few days later, on October 13, Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, a Protestant member of Parliament was found murdered sending the city into an uproar. Under pressure, Charles agreed to banish all Catholics within a 20-mile radius of London on October 30. The accusations grew more ambitious once Parliament opened, with five lords being roped into the plot. Finally, the Earl of Shaftesbury used the moment as an opportunity to formally bar James from the succession. On November 5 that year, instead of burning effigies of Guy Fawkes, it was the Pope’s.

Charles was still unconvinced, but he was familiar enough with what happened when the monarchy was out of step with Parliament to save his own skin. In the early weeks of 1679, he asked James to either make his peace with the Church of England or prepare to leave court. By February 28, Charles upped the order with a request that James temporarily leave England. On March 3, 1679, James, Mary Beatrice, Anne and Isabel set sail for Holland. After a brief visit with William and Mary at The Hague, the four moved on to Brussels for an undetermined future.

It was a low point for Mary Beatrice. In 1678 she had given birth to another daughter, Elizabeth, who died immediately after birth, and she was then faced with the presence of one of James’s more serious mistresses, Catherine Sedley. Catherine was in Mary Beatrice’s employ, though no one could figure out what James saw in her, including the woman herself. She remarked at one point: “It cannot be my beauty for he must see I have none. And it cannot be my wit, for he has not enough to know that I have any.” Charles once joked in public that his brother’s penchant for unattractive mistresses must be penance dictated by his confessor.

Charles II

The Duchess was initially pleased by a visit from her mother that summer, but money was tight and it became clear that the situation in England wasn’t going to die down enough to let them return home soon.

In August Charles fell seriously ill and James returned to England in a panic, worried that Charles’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, would attempt to take the crown if he died. After Charles recovered, James hoped to end his exile, but continued pressure ensured that he was again asked to leave. This time, however, the King suggested he reside in Scotland instead of Brussels, and promised it wouldn’t be for too long. Even more, the reality of the King’s heir being forced abroad had begun to ruffle feathers and though still deeply unpopular with the public, he amassed a following of supporters among peers.

After a brief stop in England, James and Mary Beatrice moved to Edinburgh, settling in at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. This time, Anne and Isabel remained in London on Charles’s orders. Depressed at the separation from her young daughter and James’s anxiety over continued calls for him to be excluded from the succession, the next several months were hard on her. In February 1680, the Yorks were briefly recalled to England, however after a disastrous spring and summer of continued political tension, Charles again asked them to leave.

Unfortunately, in the early months of 1681 Isabel fell ill and on March 2, just a few days shy of her fifth birthday, she passed away at St James’s Palace. Mary Beatrice, who suffered another miscarriage that February, was devastated by the loss of her only child. She fell into a deep depression that manifested itself in even more fervent, defiant religious expression, to the point that her physicians worried for her health.

A year later, James was tentatively allowed to return to London and when his visit didn’t sound alarm bells, Charles finally agreed to allow the couple back into the country. Mary Beatrice was gratified to return home, but by then she had delivered another daughter, Charlotte Maria, in August 1682. The Princess lived but two months and was buried in Scotland.

Another stillborn child was born in October 1683 and the Duchess suffered another miscarriage in May 1684. After over 10  years of marriage and 10 pregnancies, the Yorks had no children to show for it. All eyes were increasingly on the childless William and Mary of Orange, and after 1683, on Anne and her new husband, George of Denmark.

Charles passed away on February 6, 1685 in St James’s Palace and was succeeded by James without marked opposition. He and Mary Beatrice were jointly crowned king and queen in Westminster Abbey on April 23. Almost immediately the elevation to queen had a profound affect on Mary Beatrice. Her demeanor during her tenure as Duchess of York had often been described as affable, sunny and charming. She showed no sign of interest in politics and she went out of her way to get along with everyone who crossed her path. Now first lady of the land, her personality changed almost overnight – she grew haughty, focused on hierarchy and an enforcer of etiquette and the respect she felt owed. Clearly she had not forgotten her treatment at the hands of the English and now that she held power, she was insistent that it never happen again.

Catherine Sedley
Catherine Sedley

She also grew decidedly less understanding of her husband’s affairs, a situation that was growing worse, not better, as he grew older. Though James tried to be come more discreet once he ascended the throne, he continued his relationship with Catherine Sedley and dozens of anonymous women throughout his court. At one point, Catherine was sent away, but when he allowed her to return, he was met with outrage and tears from Mary Beatrice. Catherine was once again asked to leave, though James visited her from time to time.

The other factor at play was Mary Beatrice’s health, which had never been strong and was likely only exacerbated by childbearing. She was seriously ill in 1685 and after another miscarriage in 1686 seemed resigned to never having children. She grew more and more sedate and closed off from the public, preferring to spend her time with her close friends and family in the privacy of her apartments. James, on the other hand, seemed invigorated by having become king – hunting, riding and pursuing women with reckless abandon.

James didn’t have the makings of a “bad king,” per se. Unfortunately, his faith was an insurmountable roadblock for the English. Once his accession had passed and an attempted rebellion from the Duke of Monmouth put down, James began to make moves encouraging greater religious tolerance towards Catholics, including letting them serve in government. His only saving grace, then, was that he had no male heir to supersede his Protestant daughter, Mary, waiting in the wings of Holland, a situation that grew increasingly annoying to James and Mary Beatrice.

And then, in the autumn of 1687, it became clear that the Queen was pregnant. At first this was hardly notable given how many times she had conceived and failed to produce an heir. But as the pregnancy wore on, hopes raised. James’s supporters, including prominent Catholics, saw it as a near-miracle that the couple would be blessed with a son at the 11th hour, bypassing Mary and her foreign husband. Protestants were horrified – even more, they were suspicious, whispering that it was a fake pregnancy and even it it was real, the couple would smuggle in a healthy boy to replace a stillbirth or a daughter.

Politically, the possibility of a living child raised altogether different questions. James was uncertain whether to call Parliament, for if it was a boy then the succession would need to be updated. It also enhanced Mary Beatrice’s position at court, for the delivery of a prince when the King was 57 raised the distinct possibility that there would be a minority government and Mary Beatrice, only 29, would serve as regent, or at the very least be a conduit to the crown.

From Holland, Mary and William were suspicious. So, too, was Anne, closer to home. Gossip floated to the continent that the progression of Mary Beatrice’s pregnancy was faster than normal, while her insistence that she carried a son was disconcerting. Anne wrote to Mary confirming the speculation, noting that she wouldn’t put it past the Catholics at court to have come up with a plot to trick the world into thinking the King and Queen had produced a son via a changeling. Anne further wrote that when Mary Beatrice undressed in her presence, she left the room to put on her smock and that she uncharacteristically slapped Anne with a glove after one too many questions. Relations between the two women, once close, permanently soured.

On June 9, Mary Beatrice spent the evening playing cards with her companions until late and then surprised court by going into labor. In the early hours of June 10, she delivered a son in St James’s Palace surrounded, notably, only by Catholics. When the King was informed he had a healthy son he fell to his knees and spent the rest of the night sobbing. When he recovered, he announced that the child would be called James Francis Edward.

Mary Beatrice and her son

Thanks to the belief of English doctors at the time that milk was bad for babies, the infant nearly died that August, thus closing the book on the entire affair. But when the Prince noticeably weakened, he was finally given milk and recovered. James and Mary Beatrice were aggrieved by those who whispered the child was a changeling, but they were more personally hurt by the distance of Mary and Anne. In July, the Queen wrote to her stepdaughter in Holland:

“Since I have been brought to bed, you have never once in your letters to make taken the least notice of my son, no more than if he had never been born, only in that which Mr Zuylenstein brought, that I look upon as a compliment that you could not avoid, though I should not have taken it so, if ever you had named him afterwards.”

It was too late – William had already been approached about “saving” England from James and a Catholic future. When James contemplated an alliance with France that would undermine Holland’s efforts on the continent, the rebellion was set in motion and in November, William landed in England.

The “Glorious Revolution” as it became known was in fact bloodless. James sent Mary Beatrice to France for her safety on December 10, and on the 23rd he was purposefully allowed to leave by William who accepted it as the least untidy option. The reign of James II was over, and for the next 30 years, Mary Beatrice would reside in France under the protection of Louis XIV and his grandson, Louis XV, working tirelessly to promote the birthright of her son.

2 thoughts on “The Marriage of James II & Mary Beatrice of Modena

  1. Fascinating story. One wonders if Mary Beatrice’s difficulties in given birth to healthy children were the same as Queen Anne’s. Are there any theories as why either were so unsuccessful?

    1. Hi! That’s a good question. I know the favored theory for Queen Anne’s issues in this department is that she suffered from Antiphospholipid Syndrome, however I’ve not heard that raised in discussion of Mary of Modena. It’s interesting, too, that Catherine of Braganza and Mary II all had similar problems, but while Anne Hyde, Anne of Denmark and Henrietta Maria of France both had miscarriages and/or lost children, they still were able to produce multiple children who reached adulthood. And then, Mary of Modena’s son lived to be 77, while a daughter born in exile made it to 19. This is probably worth its own post at some point, so I’ll do some more digging 🙂

Leave a Reply