Maria Clementina Sobieska was born on 18 July 1702 as the daughter of James Louis Sobieski, the son of King John III of Poland and Marie Casimire Louise de La Grange d’Arquien, and Countess Palatine Hedwig Elisabeth of Neuburg. She was one of their three surviving children out of seven.
At the age of 16, Clementina was betrothed to James Francis Edward Stuart, the son of King James II and VII of England, Scotland and Ireland, and Jacobite pretender since his father’s death in 1701. At that time, she was described as a “petite, piquant-faced, high-spirited creature; fittingly devout, impressively well-connected and gratifyingly rich.”1 King George I, who had succeeded James’s elder half-sister Anne in 1714, was not amused and James feared he would “move heaven and earth” to prevent the marriage. The Sobieskis were not only closely allied to the ruling houses of Austria, Spain and Bavaria, but Clementina might also produce yet another generation of Stuarts to continue the rivalry.
When Clementina and her entourage claimed to be setting off on a pilgrimage, King George asked Emperor Charles VI to prevent them from leaving the Holy Roman Empire. Charles was torn and delayed answering George, perhaps hoping to give them enough time to get out. However, Clementina’s mother remained in Augsburg to get her jewellery reset and missed the window to get out. Charles now had no choice, and they were arrested at Innsbruck and taken to Schloss Ambras. They were held there from October 1718 until Clementina was rescued by an Irish captain called Charles Wogan in April 1719. In the meantime, George had offered to increase Clementina’s already substantial dowry by another £10,000 if someone else would marry her. Clementina switched places with a maid named Jeanneton and was whisked away. The rescue party had to quickly make the 200-mile journey to the border of the Papal States. The switcheroo at the Schloss was discovered, and her mother feigned surprise at the rescue, waving around a farewell letter that Clementina had written. During the confusion of her escape, the maid managed to get away.
On 30 April 1719, Clementina finally made her way across the border, but her groom was not there to await her. He was in Spain, making yet another attempt at winning the crown that would make them King and Queen of Great Britain. James had realised he needed a foreign ally and Spain was one of the options left to him. He was once more defeated. On 9 May, the proxy wedding between Clementina and James took place in Bologna. She wore a plain white dress, a white coiffe and pearls as she became the Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland in the eyes of their supporters. She arrived in Rome a week later where an apartment had been prepared for her in the Ursuline Convent on the Via Vittoria. She was treated like a monarch by the Pope and even granted a pension equal to that of James. She was finally summoned by James to meet him at Montefiascone and arrived there on 2 September to meet him for the very first time. They were married in person that very same day by the Bishop of Montefiascone.
Within six months, Clementina was pregnant with her first child. On 31 December 1720, Clementina gave birth to Charles Edward Stuart, who became known as Bonnie Prince Charlies or The Young Pretender. He was baptised with an hour of his birth by the same bishop who had married his parents. The birth of an heir was widely celebrated by the Jacobite supporters, and James named his son Prince of Wales. A second son named Henry Benedict Stuart was born on 6 March 1725, and he was made Duke of York. By then, James and Clementina had grown apart. A member of their household reported, “Their tempers are so very different that though in the greatest trifles they are never of the same opinion, the one won’t yield an inch to the other.”2
James paid Clementina little attention, and Clementina was expected to entertain herself. She cared little for her children and reportedly jealous of the attention that James paid them. They also quarrelled over the education of their sons. Eventually, she had enough, and at the end of 1725, she packed her bags and took up residence in the convent of St Cecilia in the Trastevere – leaving her young sons behind. For two years, she dragged herself from church to church before eventually returning to James in early 1728. She had turned into a recluse and was only interested in religion. She shut herself up in her rooms – all dark – in the Palazzo Muti. She hardly ever dressed and had only her maids as companions. If she did leave her rooms – only to go to mass – she wore black and carried a prayerbook. She began to fast and often suffered from malnutrition. While her relationship with James and her sons calmed down, she took little interest in them and only sometimes did they come together for music.
The frequent fasts were soon taking a toll on her body, and she died on 18 January 1735 (N.S 29 January 17353). She was still only 32 years old. She was given a full state funeral in St. Peter’s Basilica. She was dressed in gold, velvet and ermine with a crown on her head and a sceptre in her hand and she was carried in a procession through the streets of Rome. After the Requiem Mass, she was redressed in the habit of a Dominican nun, and her body was encased in three coffins before being interred in the crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica.4 Her heart was removed and enshrined in a green marble urn at the Santi Apostoli, also in Rome.5
- Kings over the water: the saga of the Stuart pretenders by Theo Aronson p.104
- Kings over the water: the saga of the Stuart pretenders by Theo Aronson p.117
- As noted on her tomb
- Kings over the water: the saga of the Stuart pretenders by Theo Aronson p.124
- Bonnie Prince Charlie: the life and times of Charles Edward Stuart by David Daiches p.8-9