The Birth of Mary of Modena

Mary of Modena, second wife of James, Duke of York, and his Queen consort upon his becoming King James II, was born on this day the 5th of October, 1658, in the Ducal Palace in Modena.

Mary of Modena, by Pietersz.

She was a beautiful woman, with black hair and dark eyes – what we’d call an Italian beauty now. As you can see from the photo above, she was a bit of a knockout.

Maria Beatrice Anna Margherita Isabella d’Este was born into a wealthy, powerful ancient family of Italy, with close connections to the mighty power of the Catholic church. As such, she was brought up to be a deeply devout Catholic woman, so much so that she even seems to have expected to live her life as a nun. This would not be the case for her; for James, having been widowed by his first wife Anne Hyde, was on the lookout for a new bride and having heard of her beauty he chose the then fifteen year old to be his wife.

Mary of Modena was horrified when she learned of her intended match, and cried when she met him. In time, however, she fell in love with her much older husband, James, and became close with his eldest daughter, Mary, though she had a less amicable relationship with his youngest daughter, Anne. James’s blatant infidelities with Arabella Churchill (sister of John Churchill) and Catherine Sedley aroused both jealousy and great pain for his young wife.

Mary of Modena had the pain of losing several of her children, either through miscarriage or the children dying in infancy. Eventually, the couple had a son, though his very healthy condition and the timing of his birth gave way to great doubt, which was one of the factors which resulted in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. There were rumours that the baby, born in 1688, James Francis Edward Stuart had been a changeling, a so-called “warming-pan baby,” who was smuggled into the birthing chamber and switched with Mary’s dead baby. It doesn’t seem likely, but it was enough to cast serious doubt on his legitimacy, especially in a climate already teeming with suspicion. Read about the Glorious Revolution here.

After her husband was ousted from power by her step-daughter and her husband, Mary, James and their children fled to France, where they lived in exile, under King Louis XIV. As her husband grew older, his mind, according to some historians, declined due to dementia. When he died in 1701, his son declared himself James III, and those who had supported his father, the Jacobites, then supported the son.

Mary is one of the main characters in my novel of “William and Mary,” which is about her step-daughter Mary and her husband, William III of Orange. In order to avoid confusion in my readers between this Mary and Mary Stuart, I’ve given Mary her original name of Maria. That’s the trouble with some parts of the Early Modern era, there can be many Mary’s, Anne’s, Elizabeth’s, etc! She is an interesting character because her life took so many turns which she could never have foreseen – from a girl who thought she’d be a nun, to Queen consort, to exiled queen, ultimately dying of cancer, Mary of Modena’s story is fascinating.

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