I don’t know how many of you saw the recent film, “The Favourite,” but I did, and while I liked it, I also think it’s worth digging into what truth the story captured, and where they took some poetic license. The story follows a theoretical love triangle between Queen Anne and two members of her household, the Duchess of Marlborough and Lady Masham. All three women, of course, existed, and while we can never know for certain what happened behind closed doors, there is a long paper trail that follows this trio, so let’s dig in.
For all that Charles I led England into a civil war and then lost his crown and, well, head, he was at least one half of a happy marriage. For an institution once upon a time comprised mainly of foreign alliances and quiet desperation, that’s something, no? After a rocky start, Charles and Henrietta Maria of France settled into the kind of complacent domesticity to which political matchmaking aspired, and from this came nine children. Two of those sons – Charles II and James II – would end up kings. A daughter, Mary, would become the mother of another – William III. And another daughter, Henrietta Anne, would marry into the French Royal Family and end up a dazzling fixture at Versailles.
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.
The House of Stuarts brought about a lot of firsts, though they’re rarely given credit for it. Indeed, stuck between the Tudors and the forebears of today’s Royal Family, they’re an in-between group of monarchs that have always failed to inspire quite as much interest as their peers. And that’s a shame, because they were certainly as dysfunctional and dramatic as those that came before and after. Even more, they were just as politically significant to the evolution of Great Britain.
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.
A few weeks ago we covered the 1644 flight of Henrietta Maria of France from England to France in the middle of the Civil War. Her departure came on the heels of giving birth to her ninth and final child, a daughter she named Henrietta Anne (“Minette”). The Princess remained in England under the care of guardians for two years until she was spirited out of the country in the summer of 1646 to join her mother in France.
Her escape was like something from an adventure novel – the trusted noblewoman put in charge of her, Lady Dalkeith, disguised herself as a hunchbacked French peasant and passed off Minette as a boy named Pierre. Aided by servants who waited three days to sound the alarm that they were gone, the two managed to leave the country unscathed despite Minette’s insistence on telling everyone they encountered that her name wasn’t Pierre, but “Princess,” and her real clothes were much nicer. A girl after my own heart.
The Stuarts’ relationship with Catholicism is fascinating, but not wholly surprising. The founder of the royal House in England was James I, who succeeded the last Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I, in 1603. He originated in Scotland, the great-great-grandson of Henry VII and son of Elizabeth’s bested rival, Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary’s Catholicism – alongside her poor marital choices, gender and foreignness – lost her her crown and James’s Protestantism, even if sincere, was hardly a choice.
His faith ensured his place in the English succession, a point he reinforced by marrying the Protestant princess, Anne of Denmark, thus ensuring a Protestant heir. It spoke to anti-Catholic feeling in England – and Scotland, for that matter – but it’s worth noting the larger power balance in Europe. France and Spain, England’s true peers on the continental stage, remained Catholic. England was continually in and out of war with Spain, wounds which were very much wrapped up in the Reformation, from Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, to the earnest desire of their daughter, Mary I, to marry King Philip II and deliver England back to Rome. Elizabeth I began her reign with tolerance, but as the decades wore on, she moved further and further away from appeasement, religion the source of nearly every plot and rebellion against her.
Charles II was a bit of a man-whore – there’s not really another way to put it. He kept dozens of mistresses over the course of his life and ended up siring 20 bastard children. He was also married, so let’s take a moment to pity his poor wife, Catherine of Braganza, a convent-reared princess from Portugal who spent her life in England humiliated by her husband’s infidelities and forced to watch them give birth to his children when she could not.
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.