Key Facts & Summary
- Mary II Stuart (London, 30 April 1662 – London, 28 December 1694) was the Protestant Queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 13 February 1689 until her death.
- She ascended the throne at the end of the Glorious Revolution, during which her father, the Catholic James II, was deposed.
- Mary reigned jointly with her husband William III, who became the sole ruler after her death.
- Although she was the queen, Mary did not exert power during most of her reign.
- However, she ruled while her husband was fighting against the army of Louis XIV.
Mary, who was born in London in 1662, was the eldest daughter of the Duke of York, the future James II of England and his first wife, Lady Anne Hyde. Mary’s uncle was King Charles II; her maternal grandfather, Edward Hyde, first Earl of Clarendon, served for a long time as King Charles’ first counsellor. Mary was baptised according to the Anglican rite and was named after one of her ancestors, Mary of Scotland.
Her father, the Duke of York, converted to Roman Catholicism in 1668 or 1669, whereas Mary and Anne were educated as Anglicans, in accordance with the dictates of Charles II. When Mary’s mother died in 1671, her father married again two years later, taking as his second wife the Catholic Mary Beatrice d’Este, who was just four years older than Mary. Mary spent her childhood at Richmond Palace, where she was raised with her sister by the housekeeper Lady Frances Villiers, with only occasional visits to her parents at the palace of Saint James or to her maternal grandfather, Lord Clarendon, in Twickenham. Mary was educated by private tutors, and her studies comprised music, dance, drawing, the French language, and religion.
Her unhappy Marriage
From the age of about nine and up to her marriage, Mary had a close correspondence with an older girl, Frances Apsley, daughter of courtier Sir Allen Apsley. At the age of fifteen, Princess Mary was betrothed to the Stadtholder of Holland, the Prince of Orange, William. William was the son of her paternal aunt, Mary Stuart, and of Prince William II of Orange-Nassau. Initially, Charles II opposed an alliance with the Dutch ruler; he would have preferred Mary to marry the heir to the French throne, Louis. However, he subsequently approved, since Holland was becoming politically favorable. Pressured by Parliament, by the king, and by Lord Danby, the Duke of York consented to the wedding, falsely stating that he wanted to gain popularity with the Protestants. When James told his daughter that she should marry her cousin, she cried all afternoon and the following day.
William and Mary were married in the chapel of St James’s Palace by Bishop Henry Compton on November 4, 1677. Mary, as established by the marriage contract, should have followed her husband to the Netherlands, but the departure for Holland had to be delayed by almost a month because of the bad weather that raged on the sea. When the couple reached the Dutch coast, they realised that, given the season, Rotterdam was inaccessible because of the completely frozen water around the port. As a consequence, the ship was forced to dock in the small village of Ter Heijde, and then from there, they were forced to continue on foot through the snow until they reached a carriage that transported them to Huis Honselaarsdijk.
Mary’s lively personality and nature immediately made her popular with the Dutch people, and her marriage to a Protestant prince immediately increased her family’s popularity in Britain. While remaining devoutly faithful to her husband, William did not demonstrate his affection to her and often appeared cold towards his wife. The month of their marriage, Mary became pregnant. However, during a visit with her husband to the fortified city of Breda, she suffered a meltdown and an haemorrhage that compromised her pregnancy. Similar phenomena occurred again in the middle of 1678, at the beginning of 1679, and at the beginning of 1680, with pregnancies that ended in abortions or deaths at birth.
From May 1684, the king’s illegitimate son, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, moved to live in the Netherlands, where he was welcomed by William and Mary. Monmouth was seen at the English court as a rival of the Duke of York. William of Orange, on the other hand, decided to welcome him positively, believing that he had insufficient pretensions to the throne and that all in all he was a valid Protestant ally.
The reign of James II
When Charles II died without legitimate heirs in February 1685, the Duke of York became king with the name of James II (in England and Ireland), and as James VII (in Scotland). Mary was playing cards with her husband when she was informed of her father’s succession. When the illegitimate son of Charles, the Duke of Monmouth, assembled in Amsterdam troops intending to conduct an invasion of Great Britain, William of Orange promptly informed his father-in-law of his intentions and ordered the British regiments in the Netherlands to return home. Thanks to William’s readiness, the Duke of Monmouth was defeated, captured and then executed. However, both the king and Mary publicly deplored these actions.
James, who grew increasingly unpopular in England, also held a controversial religious policy: his attempt to guarantee religious freedom even to non-Anglicans by suspending parliamentary laws by royal decree was not well received. Mary believed that her father’s actions and choices were absolutely illegal. Once again, she opposed her father’s policy when he refused to help the Netherlands when the Catholic king of France, Louis XIV, decided to invade Holland to persecute the Huguenots. In an attempt to damage the figure of his son-in-law, James II encouraged his daughter’s staff to inform her that William had a love affair with Elizabeth Villiers, the princess’ maid of honour. Having received such information, Mary waited outside Villiers’ room and caught her husband leaving her room in the middle of the night. William denied any amorous affair or adultery, and Mary either believed him or decided to forgive him. Recent studies have suggested that Villiers and William probably weren’t lovers at the time: rather, it is stated that the two met secretly in order to discuss diplomatic intelligence, in which perhaps she herself was involved at the level of espionage. Nonetheless, Mary decided to send all her staff back to the UK and only later discovered that Villiers had entertained a relationship with her husband.
The Glorious Revolution
Following the political and social policy entertained by James II in England, several Protestant politicians and nobles came into contact with Mary’s husband as early as 1686. After James had forced the Anglican clergy to read the Declaration of Indulgence – the proclamation guaranteeing religious freedom to dissidents – his unpopularity grew exponentially. Public alarm increased in June 1688, when Queen Mary of Modena gave birth to James Francis Edward Stuart. Contrarily to Mary and Anne, he was raised as a Roman Catholic. Some accused the king of secretly replacing his son who died at birth with another baby. Although there is no evidence to support this hypothesis, Mary publicly challenged the child’s legitimacy, coming to a break with her father.
On June 30, William of Orange – who was still in the Netherlands with Mary – was invited to travel to England with an army and to dethrone his father-in-law, James II. William was initially reluctant to this proposal. Indeed, he was jealous of his wife’s position as heir to the English crown and feared that she would become more powerful than him. Mary, however, convinced her husband that she did not care about political power. William, therefore, agreed to proceed with the invasion. His intentions became public in September 1688. The English people made no attempt to save their king.
On December 11, the defeated king tried to escape but was intercepted. However, he managed to escape on December 23. William, wishing not to rage against his father-in-law, deliberately allowed James to flee to France, where he lived in exile until his death.
The English Succession
In 1689, William of Orange convened the parliament in order to discuss who should succeed to the throne of England. A party led by Lord Danby believed that Mary should reign since she was James II’s legitimate heir. However, William and his opponents believed that the Prince of Orange could not be subjected to his wife. In fact, he felt insecure in his position and wished to rule as king rather than act merely as the queen’s husband. England had already witnessed a joint monarchy in the XVI century when Mary I married the Spanish Prince Philip. At that time, it was agreed that Philip would take the title of king only until the death of his wife. On the other hand, William requested to remain king even after Mary’s death. Although some proposed that she should be the only ruler, Mary remained faithful to her husband and refused to be queen.
The Parliament did not offer the crown to James Francis Edward Stuart, James’ eldest son (who would have been the legitimate heir in normal circumstances). Instead, the throne was offered to William and Mary as joint kings. The Bill of Right later excluded not only James II and his heirs (with the exception of Anne) from the throne, but all Catholic sovereigns.
[1.] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2019). Mary II Queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Britannica. Available from: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mary-II
[2.] Waller, M. (2006). Sovereign Ladies: The Six Reigning Queens of England. London: John Murray.