The Coronation of Mary Beatrice of Modena, Queen of England

Queen Mary Beatrice in her coronation robes

There were few precedents for the joint coronation of a king and a queen, notably Richard III and Anne Neville in 1483 and Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon in 1509. Mary’s mother-in-law, Henrietta Maria, who died in 1669, had refused to be crowned, the service being a Protestant one and she being Catholic. Both James II and Mary Beatrice were Catholic, but the king got around this technicality by informing the Archbishop of Canterbury that their majesties would not receive the Sacrament, and they should employ the Anglican rites completely unchanged for their coronation ceremony. 

The king was highly involved in the planning of the entire day. James eliminated the tradition of the procession from the Tower of London to Westminster Abbey, considering it an unnecessary expense. Despite this, James ordered the queen be lavishly dressed for the ceremony, negating any savings from dropping the procession. One witness of the day commented the jewels she wore were reckoned worth a million and made her shine like an angel. Mary Beatrice herself would say later in life, “My dress and royal mantle were covered with precious stones, and it took all the jewels of all the goldsmiths of London could procure to decorate my crown.”

They set the coronation date for April 23, 1685, in Westminster Abbey. The king and queen took part in a private crowning and anointment the evening before the ceremony in the Abbey by a Franciscan friar, Father Mansuete. Mary spent the night before the coronation in her favorite abode of St. James’ Palace. In the morning, she made her private devotions and then her ladies assisted her in dressing for the occasion. Taken privately in her chair, she made her way to Whitehall, through the privy gardens and across New Palace-yard to Westminster Hall where she waited as the ceremonial procession came together and the coronation regalia brought into the Hall and placed on tables in front of their majesties. 

Queen Mary had ordered the payment of all liabilities of small debtors in the kingdom. She paid the debts for those who were imprisoned for sums under five pounds. They had released eighty detainees from Newgate alone the very morning of the coronation. From Whitehall most of her household accompanied to Westminster Abbey, including her Lord Chamberlain, Vice-Chamberlain, her Master of the Horse, the Groom of the Stole, and the women of the bedchamber. 

The king commissioned the production of a book, now in the British Museum, to illustrate and record the coronation. There were one thousand two hundred and twenty yards of blue carpet spread from Westminster Hall to the Abbey choir. The ancient post of hereditary herb-woman was restored and Mrs. Mary Dowle, assisted by six maidens, carried baskets containing two bushels of flowers and sweet herbs. Pictures of these women show they wore costumes of hoods, stay-bodices, looped robes, long gloves and deep ruffles. The Modenese agent in London, Abbé Gaspard Rizzini, wrote home saying great acclaim greeted the Queen, even louder than the king, and many people had tears streaming down their faces.

As the king and queen entered the west door of Westminster Abbey, the drums were beating, the trumpets sounded and the choir sang. Sixteen Barons of the Cinque Ports carried a canopy of cloth of gold over Mary’s head. Her purple velvet train, bordered with gold lace and lined with ermine and white silk, was seven yards long and borne by her first Lady of the Bedchamber, the Duchess of Norfolk and four eldest daughters of earls. They made her dress of white and sliver richly embroidered brocade with pearls and every seam covered in diamonds. Her slippers were made of embroidered gold. Seven other Duchesses followed her in the procession, including the Duchess of Monmouth.

Once Queen Mary reached the choir entrance, she left the canopy. Preceded by her vice-chamberlain and regalia bearers and followed by her ladies, she ascended the steps of the raised platform between her two bishops and stood beside her chair of state to await the king. Scholars of Westminster shouted Vivat regina Maria! until the king arrived and then proclaimed Vivat rex! The crowd then shouted God Save the King! Following the offer of the pall of cloth of gold by the King, they brought the queen from her chair to the altar with the regalia being brought before her. 

Because the Parliamentarians during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell plundered the Crown Jewels, there were three newly made crowns for the queen for the ceremony. She arrived at the Abbey wearing a circlet. The Imperial Crown was large, but not heavy and employed for the actual coronation. The third, which she wore for the banquet and the rest of the day, was considered the most beautiful. It was so encrusted with precious stones that no gold could be seen. Two new scepters given to the queen included the Queen’s Scepter with the Cross and the Ivory Rod, both of which now reside in the Tower of London. Her coronation ring was a large ruby set in gold and surrounded by sixteen more rubies. The jewels and robes cost £100,658 (over £11 million in today’s money).

Crown of Queen Mary of Modena

Everyone believed the robes were too heavy for the Queen, but these fears were groundless. Mary knew this was her husband’s great day, and she persevered through the entire ceremony with no difficulty. Her behavior was impeccable, acting with great grace and composure. She showed sincere devotion and piety during the prayers as she followed the service from the book given to her by the Bishop of London. They crowned the king first, and he took an oath to defend the Church of England as the queen looked on from her seat. During Queen Mary’s ceremony, it was noted the motion of her body and hands was very becoming throughout the anointing and the crowning.

The Duchess of Norfolk removed the queen’s cap of state. Mary kneeled before Archbishop Sancroft as he recited a prayer and poured the oil on her head in the form of a cross. Her ladies opened the chest of her majesty’s dress and the archbishop anointed her on her breast. The Duchess of Norfolk dried the oil with fine cotton and placed a linen coif on her head. Then the archbishop placed the coronation ring on her fourth finger. Mary would wear this ring until her dying day. When the crown was placed on her head, there were cries of “Long live the queen!” throughout the Abbey. 

The Dean of Peterborough commented:

“I observed a vast difference between the King’s behaviour and the Queen’s. At the reading of the Litany they both came to kneel before the altar; she answered at all the responses, but he never moved his lips. She expressed great devotion, but he little or none, often looking about as if unconcerned. When she was anointed and crowned, I never saw greater devotion in any countenance. She answered ‘amen’ to every prayer with much humility…”

The choir sang an anthem, and the peeresses placed their own coronets on their heads. During the anthem, the queen rose and was conducted to her throne, placed at the king’s left, a few steps lower. She made a low reverence to the king, took her seat, and the peeresses gave her marks of homage. After the prayers ended, the king and queen ascended from their thrones and proceeded in state to St. Edward’s chapel, where they delivered their crowns and scepters to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who placed the regalia on the altar. The couple rested in separate retiring rooms while James dressed in his imperial robes of purple velvet. They both came forth and stood before the altar where the archbishop placed crowns on their heads with caps of purple velvet. Mary departed from the solemn royal etiquette and went in her state crown into the private box where James’ daughter Princess Anne and her husband Prince George of Denmark sat incognito to view the ceremony, and chatted with them for some time.

Diadem of Queen Mary of Modena

During the entire ceremony, there had only been two hitches. The Barons of the Cinque Ports dropped the canopy on the king’s head. And the crown which had been made for the king’s brother, King Charles II, would not stay steady on James’ periwig and had to be affixed by Henry Sidney. Even then, in perhaps what was a portent of his reign, it appeared always on the point of falling off.

Queen Mary left Westminster Hall under her canopy, followed by the king who was preceded by the sword of state. As they left the Abbey and processed to Westminster Hall, the drums and trumpets sounded and the spectators cried, “Long live the king and queen!”. They rested while the company arrived and took their places at the seven tables laid for the privileged, invited guests. The king entered wearing his crown and holding his scepter and orb, seating himself at the head of the royal table. The queen followed him with her crown and regalia, and seated on his left.

At the coronation banquet, peers and peeresses wearing their coronets waited on the king and queen. One thousand, four hundred and forty-five dishes were presented as music by Purcell and Locke was performed. They based the food on the dishes eaten during the coronation celebrations of the Norman and Plantagenet reigns. They ate Batalia pie, soused carps, dillegrout, pickled oysters and periwinkles, trotter pie and cold bamboo puddings. At 9:30 pm, fireworks were set off from the river. There were thousands of craft on the Thames. The court watched from a garden on the leads outside the Queen-Dowager Catherine of Braganza’s privy chamber at Whitehall. The architect Sir Christopher Wren had ordered the leads be covered with a roof and provided with tiers of seats.

In the streets, fountains spouted wine, and bonfires were lit. Bells rang from every steeple. The Queen had been before the public for twelve hours and from all the jewelry on her costume, she only lost one small diamond. They had crowned no Queen in England for eighty years and an Italian queen was unique. She was only twenty-six and because of the reception of the people during the coronation, the diarist John Evelyn considered her ‘universally loved’.

Further reading: “Mary of Modena” by Carola Oman, “The Queen Over the Water” by Mary Hopkirk, “Lives of the Queens of England: From the Norman Conquest, Volume 6, Mary of Modena” by Agnes Strickland

5 thoughts on “The Coronation of Mary Beatrice of Modena, Queen of England

    • Hmm. The author of this post says the doctoral candidate apparently found the information in a manuscript in the British Library. That is a legitimate source for this kind of information so it is entirely possible it is true. I wouldn’t put anything past James II and he was close to his cousin Louis XIV.

      Liked by 1 person

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