On April 30th, 1662 a girl is born to James Stuart, Duke of York and his wife Anne Hyde. She would be christened Mary and would resemble her Stuart relatives. She grew tall with dark curly hair and was intelligent and kind. At age three, she was joined by a sister Anne, and these two sisters would make history.
While Mary was still quite young, her parents converted to Roman Catholicism. But at the command of her uncle King Charles II, both Mary and Anne were raised in the Anglican faith. Tragedy struck for the girls in 1671 when their mother Anne died at age 34, most likely from cancer. Two years later, Mary would have a new stepmother when her father married the Catholic Italian princess Mary of Modena who was only four years Mary’s senior.
Mary’s own marriage came into play in 1677, when at the age fifteen she was betrothed and wed to her first cousin William, Prince of Orange and Stadtholder of the Netherlands. She cried when she was told she had to marry and cried during the wedding. However, she resigned herself to her situation, becoming devoted to William and earning the respect of the Dutch people.
Things began to change, though, when in 1685 King Charles II died and Mary’s father became King James VII of Scotland and II of Great Britain. Unless her father had a son with his young wife, Mary would be Queen after his death. King James grew to be unpopular due to his pro-Catholic policies and in 1688, a boy was born in England to the King and Queen. Rumors flew that it was not the child of the King. The story was a baby boy was brought into Queen Mary of Modena’s birthing chamber in a bed-warming pan. The nobles of the realm were aghast with the thought of another Catholic monarch. A group of nobles convened to secretly invite Mary’s husband William to invade from the Netherlands on behalf of the Protestant cause. William himself had a claim to the throne behind Mary and Anne as their cousin. Mary stayed behind while her husband landed in her homeland and her father fled for France. Parliament declared James had abandoned the throne and it was offered to William and Mary as co-rulers.
Under the joint rule of the couple, in late 1689, Parliament enacted a Bill of Rights which outlined some clear boundaries of royal power and the rights of the people. Mary usually deferred to William in matters of state, since she saw him as the ruler. But while William was gone on military campaigns, Mary stepped up to the plate proving herself to be an effective ruler and growing to be immensely popular with the people.
In the meantime, her relationship with her sister Anne had soured. They clashed over Anne’s friendship with Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. Mary did not approve of Churchill’s husband who was suspected of conspiring with the Jacobites to restore Mary and Anne’s father to the throne. The sisters would never speak again after April 1692 when Mary visited Anne after a difficult labor and the death of her child. Mary herself had suffered two miscarriages throughout her marriage and her continued childlessness was a source of deep sadness for her.
Sadly in 1694, tragedy struck when Mary contracted smallpox. She sent away any attendants of hers who had never previously had the disease. Her sister Anne offered to attend her in an attempt to repair the rift between them. Anne’s offer was refused and on December 28th, Mary died at age 32. William was crushed and she was profoundly mourned in London. The Jacobites saw her death as retribution for the overthrow of her father. When William died in 1702, Mary’s sister Anne became Queen Regent.
Regardless if you sympathize with Mary or side with her father, it’s hard to deny Mary’s charm and fascinating life. She was a remarkable woman from a unique family who had a front row seat throughout unprecedented change in European politics.
Further reading: “Sovereign Ladies” by Maureen Waller, “Royal Panoply” by Carolly Erickson, The Seventeenth Century Lady website