Anne Hyde was a most unlikely wife for James Stuart, heir to his brother Charles II, King of England. Her marriage was a scandal for the Stuart family at the time due to her being born a commoner. But it turned out to be a love match and her two daughters ruled as queens.
Anne was born on March 12, 1637 at Cranbourne Lodge, Windsor Park. She was the eldest daughter of Sir Edward Hyde, a Wiltshire lawyer who entered politics and was later created Earl of Clarendon and his second wife Frances, daughter of Sir Thomas Aylesbury. We don’t know a lot about her early life but she would have been given an education worthy of her status. She grew up in a strict Protestant household but she appreciated the visual and ritual elements of Catholic worship and when she was twelve, she began making secret confession.
When Oliver Cromwell declared the Republic in England and King Charles I lost his head, Clarendon went into exile with Charles II’s court in Paris. Anne, her mother and her siblings went to live in the Low Countries. They first lived in Antwerp and later moved to Breda where Charles II’s sister Mary, Princess of Orange offered them a home. The Princess appointed Anne as one of her maids-of-honor in 1655.
Anne became a popular favorite in The Hague and in the princess’ country house at Teylingen. She was attractive and drew the interest of many men. In 1656, the Princess of Orange went to visit her mother, Dowager Queen Henrietta Maria in Paris. It was during this visit that Anne first met James, Duke of York. In 1659, James and his brothers lived in Brussels and made regular visits to Mary, Princess of Orange. We don’t know a lot about their early relationship. James declared from the first time he saw Anne, he resolved to marry her. He would later admit he fell in love with her due to her witty conversation.
Anne was not beautiful but handsome and voluptuous, witty, clever, intelligent and loved wearing jewels. She had a commanding presence and stately demeanor. She was friendly, generous and good fun. She had charmed and encaptivated James, Duke of York to the point where he wanted to marry her. She knew how to fan the flame. James may not have had entirely honorable intentions. However, in either August or November, shortly before the Restoration of Charles II to the throne of England, they exchanged vows before the appropriate witnesses and consummated the marriage, all without the king’s permission at Breda.
This was a marriage in the eyes of the church and for royalty to marry a commoner was a great mismatch. If James had waited just a few months, he could have married any princess in Europe. News of the marriage began to leak. Anne was pregnant and began to show in the fall of 1660. Once it was known they were married, the wrath of his mother and sister came down upon him for marrying below his rank. James dithered on whether he was actually married to Anne or not. All of this was extremely embarrassing to the royal family.
Clarendon recalled his daughter to England and James was forced to confess to his brother. Charles and Clarendon discussed the matter. He knew people would accuse him of wanting his grandchild to become king. Clarendon protested to the King he preferred Anne to be James’ whore rather than his wife and encouraged the king to lock Anne up in the Tower of London and should even have her executed. He said “that as soon as he came home, he would turn her out of his house as a strumpet to shift for herself, and would never see her again”. There was no resolution to the matter. Clarendon went home and asked his wife to keep Anne a prisoner. However, James was allowed to visit her at night. Clarendon was worried the marriage would cause his expulsion from the government.
Charles was sympathetic. James was between a rock and hard place. The circumstances of the marriage were investigated and proof of the Breda wedding was obtained. Eventually, Charles relented, and James and Anne had a second official but private wedding ceremony on September 3 in her father’s home at Worcester House in the Strand in London. The marriage was made according to the rites of the English church. Charles made a point of visiting Anne during her confinement and other courtiers followed his example. On October 22, Anne gave birth to a son. She was interrogated over and over again during her labor and she was adamant James was the father of her child and that she was married to him. James was wavering again and was nowhere to be found during the delivery.
Henrietta Maria hated Clarendon and was angry Charles had appointed him lord chancellor and chief minister. She traveled from France to try to stop James’ marriage. Clarendon was completely embarrassed and dismayed. Because James had repudiated the marriage before, he was under considerable pressure from his friends to repudiate the marriage and say it ever took place. But Charles was firm. He had made the decision the marriage was legal and stood by it. He would not allow the marriage to be annulled by decree as he didn’t want Parliament to interfere with the succession. Henrietta Maria was finally convinced to accept the situation with the best grace. In December, James and Anne appeared publicly as husband and wife and on January 1, 1661, Henrietta Maria dined with her family and gave everyone her blessing.
Anne officially took up her duties as Duchess of York. James was very pleased with Anne as a wife. Courtiers began to pay homage to Anne and she won them over with her engaging personality. She is described as having a grand and majestic air. A French envoy wrote that she was witty and sociable and spoke very good French. Another French ambassador said Anne had “courage, cleverness, and energy almost worthy of a King’s blood”. Charles Burnett said “she had great knowledge and a lively sense of things”. Samuel Pepys said she was a plain woman and proud. He noted in his diary Anne and James were seen “kissing hands and leaning upon one another” which scandalized him. Anne and James seemed well suited for each other. She definitely ruled the roost. Pepys says in his diary “the Duke of York, in all things but his codpiece, is led by the nose of his wife”.
Anne ran James’ enormous household with the same firmness although she did love to acquire jewels and the expenses often outran the income. She kept a select and extravagant court and was known for her wonderful parties and entertainments. She once quarreled with her father over money as she believed James’ income was insufficient.
Anne was not the kind of woman who was satisfied with spending all her time in domesticity and pleasure. Because of her rank at court and her father’s position in the government, she did wield some authority in politics. The French believed her influence worthwhile and gave her a generous gift for her support of the sale of Dunkirk.
James was not a man who could stay faithful to one woman and had many mistresses and illegitimate children. She reproached him for his behavior. Her husband’s affairs caused her deep humiliation and created intense jealousy. She compensated for the embarrassment by overeating and gaining a lot of weight and as she neared the age of thirty, her personal attractions waned.
Anne gave birth to eight children between 1660 and 1671. These children were weak and sickly, possibly due to venereal disease from her husband. Six of the children died after a few months or in infancy. Her daughter Mary was born on April 30, 1662 and her daughter Anne on February 6, 1665. Both were brought up to be Protestants at King Charles’ request and they would both survive to rule as queens. The constant pregnancies took a toll on Anne’s health and her body.
In 1665, during the plague, the York’s went north to stay in York to avoid the pestilence. After a few years, her entourage suffered from the overall lax morality of the Restoration court and some scandal crept in. Anne embarked on an innocent flirtation with Henry Sidney, Earl of Romney and son of the Earl of Leicester who was a groom of the bedchamber for the Duke and master of the horse for Anne. James was furious with Anne over this and there was tension in the marriage. James had Sidney banished from court.
Clarendon fell from power and went into exile in late 1667, leaving Anne and James in a vulnerable position, mostly due to their inclination to Catholicism. Charles’ Catholic queen, Catherine of Braganza had several pregnancies but they all had ended in miscarriage. Some of the nobility who were enemies of Clarendon, were determined that he not be brought back from exile. James and Anne were Clarendon’s most conspicuous supporters. The nobles tried to sow discord between James and Charles in an effort to force the king to bypass James as his heir.
The idea was put forth for Charles to name his eldest Protestant natural born son, James Duke of Monmouth as his heir. Charles was totally against this idea because of Monmouth’s illegitimacy. He stated three times publicly he had never married Monmouth’s mother, his mistress Lucy Walter. Another idea was floated that Charles divorce Queen Catherine and free himself to marry a Protestant princess. But Charles adamantly refused to agree to this. All of this maneuvering made James and Anne appear to be in a perilous position politically.
In May of 1668, Lady Chaworth noted that Anne’s face had broken out and she had trouble with one of her legs. She was blooded and retired to her bed as a result. A year later, Lady Chaworth said Anne was still unwell. Her face and body had broken out again and she was so sick, she had taken to her bed and was not seen.
It was during this uncertain time Anne and James began ostensibly worshiping as Roman Catholics. She had always declared herself a Protestant but in her later years she showed signs of wavering. Anne and James made a public show of attending Protestant services but had their own private Catholic chapel which they frequently attended. James would attend Anglican services up until 1676.
Anne’s time spent in her chapel at devotions was noticed by some at court. In December 1670, King Charles remarked Anne had not taken communion for some time and that her Anglican chaplains had not said prayers for her throughout her latest illness. James was compelled to admit Anne had decided to be received in the Catholic church and shortly thereafter she was officially accepted by the Franciscan Father Hunt. Charles asked James to keep her conversion a secret. James resented this and so did Anne. She even wrote a paper explaining her reasons for the decision.
In November of 1670, William of Orange visited England and made a courtesy call on Anne, the former lady-in-waiting of his mother. He would eventually marry Anne’s daughter Mary. Anne had been very ill for many months. In late 1670, her condition was made more serious by the fact that she was pregnant again. When she gave birth to a daughter on February 9, 1671, her illness was in an advanced stage. It is surmised she had breast cancer but her health improved for a while after the birth.
On the evening of March 30, she dined at her brother-in-law Lord Burlington’s house in Piccadilly. That night she became violently ill (perhaps an appendicitis?) and promptly collapsed. Queen Catherine was called to her side. Anne’s chaplain was sent to pray with her and the next morning, Dr. Blandford, Bishop of Worcester came to perform the last rites. But Blandford saw Queen Catherine, a staunch and loyal Catholic by her side and demurred. James tried to protect Anne from interfering Anglican clergy. Anne told James she no longer wanted to keep her conversion to Catholicism a secret.
Did she receive all the Sacraments of the Catholic Church? James says she did in his memoirs but we will never really know exactly what happened. Anne died the next day. Her body was embalmed but had deteriorated so badly, it could not lay in state or receive public honors. The following Sunday she was buried in King Henry VII’s Lady Chapel in Westminster in the vault of Mary Queen of Scots. Two years later, James married a Catholic princess Mary Beatrice d’Este, the second but eldest surviving child of Alfonso IV, Duke of Modena and his wife, Laura Martinozzi. The marriage was not well liked by the people of England. Mary of Modena had a son, known as the “warming pan” baby, that led to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the accession of Anne’s daughter Mary to the throne.
Further Reading: “King Charles II” by Antonia Fraser, “Ungrateful Daughters: The Stuart Princesses Who Stole Their Father’s Crown” by Maureen Waller, “James II and his wives” by Allan Fea, entry on Anne Hyde, Duchess of York in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by John Miller