Some people are destined to live their lives as an appendix to other people. Through the march of history, many of these appendices have been women, having had little control over the major decisions in their lives.
This does not necessarily mean that these women were unhappy – in my experience, whether we are happy or not depends much more on temperament than on actual circumstances. Plus, of course, it helps if the expectations are realistic to begin with.
A girl born into any of the European noble houses in the 17th century quickly realised she was a pawn to be used in securing new alliances, or buttressing old ones. She probably did not expect to be allowed to choose her future husband, instead she had to hope her father would make a match that held some hope of future contentment for her. And no matter her opinions about the groom, she knew her duty, which was to be compliant and do her duty by her family and husband – plus birth an adequate number of children.
In 1658, the Duke of Modena welcomed a daughter to the world. Named Maria Beatrice Anna Margherita Isabella d’Este, she was found to be pretty and healthy and already then all those high-ranking matchmakers that were constantly on the look-out for potential brides noted her name.
Of excellent family, little Maria came with the added benefit of a French Connection, her mother being one of Cardinal Mazarin’s nieces. Ergo, the French king considered this particular little princess to be within his circle of influence, which effectively meant any proposed match would have to be approved by magnificent Louis XIV himself.
Little Maria knew nothing of this. She only knew she had a Mama and a Papa, and then she no longer had a Papa, and her snotty-nosed baby brother was the Duke instead, which meant Mama did all the duking about on his behalf. Maria’s mother, Laura Martinozzi, was by all accounts a gifted and well-educated woman, who ensured her children were equally well-tutored, with Maria becoming fluent in both French and Italian and proficient in Latin.
Maria grew up. Tall and shapely, by all accounts sweet and even-tempered, she had most of the qualities a top-notch royal bride was expected to have. Maria’s mother began looking for a suitable husband, and high up on that list was that sad result of generations of incestuous marriages, Carlos II of Spain, but fortunately Maria was spared that fate. Instead, Maria’s Mama decided – after ensuring Louis XIV approved – to marry her precious daughter to the much older widowed Duke of York.
James Stuart had been looking for a new wife since his first wife, Anne Hyde, died. That first marriage was something of a mesalliance, with James promising Anne a ring before seducing her – and surprising everyone by actually keeping his word afterwards. Not that anyone expected him to: little Anne Hyde was a commoner, should not expect to end up the wife of the king’s brother, but it seems James cared for her and wanted her as his wife and the mother of his future children. Sadly, Anne failed rather dismally at the future children part. Over 11 years of marriage, she gave James eight children, of which “only” two daughters lived beyond childhood.
When Anne died, James had already converted to Catholicism – in secret, of course, as otherwise the very Protestant Parliament would have a major fit. He had also come to realise that the future of the Stuart dynasty depended on him. Not that brother Charles wasn’t leaving a trail of pretty children behind, but they were all illegitimate, while the Queen, Catherine of Braganza, was quite incapable of producing a living heir.
Said and done, James went wife-hunting, and among the candidates was one very young Italian princess, our Maria. Okay, so James didn’t do the actual hunting himself – he sent a capable and trusted servant to do so. Lord Peterborough was quite taken by Maria – or Mary, as he chose to call her. At the time, Mary’s aunt, a lady of thirty or so, was also in the running, but Peterborough decided to put youth before age, being quite convinced the Duke of York would be thrilled with little Mary. The fact that James was twenty-five years older, pox-scarred and in general somewhat less than bright and shiny, did not worry anyone unduly. Such was the lot of princesses, that they were sold – oops, married – off, and were expected to make the best of it.
In September of 1673, not quite fifteen-year-old Mary was wed by proxy to James Stuart, Duke of York and next in line to the English throne. Two months later, she landed in England, where she had inadvertently caused a roaring fire-storm due to her faith. An heir to the throne to marry a papist? The new Duchess of York was branded the “Pope’s Daughter” by the intolerant English public, and the pretty Italian teenager risked the humiliation of having her marriage declared invalid by Parliament, general opinion being that the Duke of York was not free to marry without Parliament’s consent.
Charles II sorted this by suspending Parliament and ensuring the marriage was hastily consummated. Faced by this fait accompli, Parliament grumbled and squeaked, but stopped talking about annulments. Instead, the savvier members of Parliament began to talk about barring the Duke of York from the succession all together, frightened out of their wits by the notion of the Duke fathering a legitimate son with his new wife.
While James was delighted with his new wife, Mary initially had no such feelings for her new husband. In fact, she avoided him as much as possible and had a tendency to burst into tears at the sight of him. With increased familiarity, her fears passed, and by the time she became pregnant with their first child, Mary had settled into contented married life. And as for James, he was over the moon: his new wife was expecting! (Not so over the moon as to stop wooing other women. But hey, the man needed his pastimes…)
In early 1675, Mary gave birth to her first child. The little girl died in infancy. This was to become a recurring event in Mary’s life – giving birth to babies that did not survive. In 1676, there was a new baby – yet another girl. Little Isabel survived babyhood, remained alive as Mary had other babies who died young, but in 1681, her precious little girl died. Mary was devastated. James was equally distraught.
On top of all these personal losses, Mary and her husband had a hard time of it during the latter half of the 1670’s. In the wake of the Popish Plot, the fiery Protestant faction lead by the Earl of Shaftesbury began hounding the Catholic Duke of York in earnest. (As an aside, the Popish Plot was an invented thing, the attempt of a singularly unattractive character named Titus Oates to leave a permanent mark on the world. He most certainly did – because of his ungrounded accusations several Catholics died, condemned for participating in a plot that never existed but that purportedly was planning to do away with Charles II. Titus, being not only slimy but also stupid, even accused Charles IIs wife of being one of the conspirators…)
Charles II felt obliged to exile his brother to allow things to calm down. They didn’t. When Charles fell ill, James with Mary in tow rushed back to London, fearing that Charles’ eldest illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, might otherwise make a claim on the throne. Charles recovered, was not exactly happy to see his brother – or rather, he was, but things being as they were, he found it best to send James off again, this time to Scotland where he was to remain until the so called Exclusion Crisis (Parliament’s attempt to bar James from the throne) had safely passed.
In 1685, James became king of England. In general, there was little protest upon his ascension – after all, he had two staunch Protestant daughters from his first marriage, and poor Mary seemed destined to give birth to children who died. The English people might not love their Catholic queen, but they did feel sorry for her.
Had things continued as before, i.e. Mary birthing babies that died, who knows what would have happened. But in June of 1688, Mary presented her overjoyed husband with a healthy son – and ironically, this her happiest moment was the beginning of the end. Little James Francis Edward Stuart was welcomed with open arms by his mother and father, with lurid gossip insinuating the baby was a changeling by his half-sister Anne, and with stunned silence by the English peerage. Their Catholic king had a Catholic son, and God alone knew what fate lay in store for England with a Catholic dynasty in the making!
Six months after the birth of her son, Mary was yet again in exile, her husband dethroned and replaced by his eldest daughter (yet another Mary) and her husband, Dutch William. James was determined to win back his throne – his wife, of course, cheered him on. Now there was a little prince to think of. James launched his Irish campaign, Mary sold her jewellery to support the cause. By 1691 it was evident James had failed, and instead of returning in pomp and circumstance to London, James and Mary built a life for themselves in France, where Louis XIV received them relatively generously.
Mary was popular at the French court, and was a special favourite with Louis XIV under-cover wife, Madame de Maintenon. James, however, did best to stay well away from the French court – his hosts found him dreadfully boring and tiresome, going on and on about his lost kingdom. (Not, one would have thought, all that strange…)
In 1692, Mary gave birth to her last child, a little girl named Louise Mary. The proud father was close to sixty, the mother was marked by all those pregnancies, and the baby was happy and healthy. This little princess was in every way a comfort to her parents, compensation for all they had lost. In James’ case, it wasn’t only about a lost throne, it was about two daughters who betrayed him, and he could never understand how they could have been so cruel as to spread the rumours that little James Francis Edward was not his true-born son, but a replacement for a stillborn boy, smuggled into the birthing room in a warming pan.
This new daughter was pretty, she was dutiful. She loved her Papa and her Mama, watched her father die when she as nine, and dedicated herself to being a good and dutiful daughter. Her contemporaries adored little Louise Mary, her half-sister Queen Anne held her in the highest regards, and various princes expressed an interest in her hand.
But in 1712, both Louise Mary and James Edward Francis contracted smallpox, but where he survived, she died, and Mary was left bereft and devastated. Yet another child to die away from her, yet another promise of future generations squandered. All Mary had left was her beloved son, so it was with considerable heart-break she watched him leave France in 1712, exiled as a consequence of the Treaty of Utrecht. Mary was left alone, without her husband, with her children gone.
Mary fell into a depression, and turned to the church. As a young girl, she had nurtured dreams of becoming a nun – fanciful, impossible dreams for a girl of her impeccable bloodlines, but still. Now, a lifetime later, Mary had nothing left beyond her son, the boy born to be king but reduced to the moniker “the Pretender”. A frustrated young man, one imagines, raised on stories of his illustrious family and his God-given entitlements. An angry and lonely young man – not much of a comfort to his grieving mother. So thank heavens for the nuns of the Convent of Visitations, who welcomed Mary among them. Thank heavens for Mary’s few female friends, such as Louis XIV’s wife, who stood by her during her last few years, years marked by penury and grief.
In 1718, Mary died of cancer. The girl born to birth kings and queens, to do her duty as commanded by her father, her mother, her husband had tried her best but failed. Not that it was her fault, but somehow I don’t think Mary saw it quite like that. If only her son had been born sooner, when his royal uncle was still around to keep him safe. If she’d been better at helping her husband to gauge the mood of his countrymen, if she’d succeeded in building stronger relationships with her step-daughters, if, if, if…
Some people are destined to live their life as an appendix to others. Some people do so with grace and with charm, stoically accepting whatever life throws their way. Mary of Modena is often relegated to being a foot-note, the tragic queen who was accused of presenting a changeling as her son. Maria Betarice Anna Margherita Isabella was much more than that. All of us are.