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5 October 2017

Mary of Modena – Queen of England

Catholic wife of James II greeted with suspicion

A 1680 portrait of Maria Beatrice by the  Dutch master Simon Pietersz Verelst
A 1680 portrait of Maria Beatrice by the
Dutch master Simon Pietersz Verelst
Maria Beatrice Anna Margherita Isabella d'Este, who would become known in England as Mary of Modena when she served as queen consort for almost four years in the 17th century, was born on this day in 1658.

The daughter of Alfonso IV, Duke of Modena, the princess, descended from the Bourbon royal family of France and the Medici family of Italy, was born in the Ducal Palace in Modena. Her mother, Laura Martinozzi, from Fano in the Marche, hailed from a noble Roman family.

Tall, elegant and highly educated – she was fluent in French as well as Italian and had a good knowledge of Latin – Maria Beatrice was sought after as a bride for James, Duke of York, heir to Charles II.

She was picked as a suitable prospective bride for his Catholic master by Lord Peterborough, one of the Duke’s closest aides, who communicated with the d’Este family through French diplomatic channels.

James was a widower following the death of his first wife, Anne Hyde. He was no great catch, 25 years older than Maria Beatrice, scarred by smallpox and venereal disease and afflicted with a stutter.

Her mother was more interested in holding out for a possible match with Charles II of Spain, then only 11 years old, and it is said that her daughter was reluctant to marry a man so much older than her. 

Maria Beatrice with her only surviving son, James Francis Edward Stuart, who later be known as the Old Pretender
Maria Beatrice with her only surviving son, James Francis
Edward Stuart, who later be known as the Old Pretender
She was persuaded to accept after Pope Clement X had written directly to her mother, who had been Maria Beatrice’s regent since the death of Alfonso IV.  They were married by proxy in September 1973, a few days before her 15th birthday, and she arrived in England in the November.

The English public and the Protestant parliament were deeply suspicious, fearful of a Papist plot, and she was soon branded “the Pope’s daughter”. Parliament had to be suspended after some members tried to have the marriage annulled.

For her own part, the young princess, noted for her fair complexion and dazzling eyes, was said to have been so shocked at the appearance of her new husband when they first met that she burst into tears.  James already had two children, to whom he introduced his bride as “a new play-fellow”.

Between 1675 and 1682, Maria Beatrice gave birth to five children, none of whom survived.  In the meantime, the unpopularity of the marriage was such that for a number of years they lived in self-imposed exile in Brussels.

James II of England, whose appearance was said to have shocked the young Maria Beatrice
James II of England, whose appearance was said
to have shocked the young Maria Beatrice
When Charles II became gravely ill, however, James returned to England, fearful that if he was out of the country when his father died his illegitimate half-brother, James Scott, Duke of Montague, might attempt to seize power.

In the event, Charles recovered and the Duke of Montague’s public popularity waned following the discovery of a plot to have both the Duke of York and his father assassinated.

Charles eventually passed away in February 1685 and James II was crowned King in April of the same year. Public unrest grew again, however, and when it was announced in 1688 that Maria Beatrice had given birth to a second son, named James Francis Edward Stuart, a rumour quickly spread that he was a “changeling” - another new-born baby sneaked into the birth chamber inside a warming pan to replace her real child, which was stillborn.

A Privy Council investigation later dismissed the allegation as false but, coinciding with a stand-off between James II and leaders of the Protestant church over his attempts to introduce religious liberty for English Catholics, it was enough to prompt his Protestant son-in-law, William of Orange, whose wife, Mary, would have inherited the English throne had James II and Maria Beatrice not had a son, to launch an invasion.

James was deposed in December 1688 in what became known as the Glorious Revolution. Maria Beatrice fled to France, soon to be followed by her husband, whose attempt to regain power after assembling an army in Ireland famously failed at the Battle of the Boyne.

He was allowed to return to France where he and Maria Beatrice spent the remainder of their lives in the Château de Saint-Germaine-en-Laye, a royal palace just outside Paris, where Maria Beatrice died in 1718.

An 18th century print of the Palazzo Ducale (Ducal Palace)
An 18th century print of the Palazzo Ducale (Ducal Palace)
Travel tip:

Modena’s Ducal Palace was the seat of the Este court from the 17th to 19th centuries, occupying land which was the site of the former Este Castle, which was located on the northern periphery of the city at a key position in a network of canals that once linked the city to the Panaro river and the Po. Nowadays, the palace is a military academy, training Army officers and Carabinieri.  The building also houses a military museum and a library. There is limited visiting but bookings must be made in advance.

The Fontana dei Due Fiumi
The Fontana dei Due Fiumi
Travel tip:

More recently, the city of Modena has become famous for being the home of several iconic Italian sports car manufacturers, including De Tomaso, Lamborghini, Pagani, Maserati and, most famously, Ferrari.  The company founder, Enzo Ferrari, had his first workshop in the centre of the city, just a short distance from the ornate Fontana dei Due Fiumi. Modena was also the home of the operatic tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, and of Mirella Freni, the soprano. The Teatro Comunale, built in 1841, was dedicated to Pavarotti after his death in 2007.

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