On 30 April 1661 at one in the morning, the Duchess of York gave birth to a daughter, the future Queen Mary II. Samuel Pepys noted the birth of a royal daughter “at which I find nobody pleased.”1 Mary’s elder brother Charles had died the year before at the age of seven months. At the time of Mary’s birth, her uncle King Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland was newly restored to the throne and her father James, Duke of York, was the King’s younger brother and heir. Several more siblings would follow, but only Mary and her younger sister Anne survived to adulthood.
Young Mary spent her early years at St James’s Palace and a house at Twickenham that had been a wedding present to her parents from her maternal grandfather Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon. Her parents’ marriage was anything but happy and her more delicate sister Anne spent time in France in order to find a cure for the trouble with her eyes. The fact that her parents turned to Catholicism alienated them, but Mary and Anne were raised as Anglicans. In 1671, Mary’s mother died of breast cancer in excruciating pain. Neither Mary nor her father attended the funeral – Mary had seen little of her mother.
Although Mary’s uncle had married Catherine of Braganza in 1662, they had remained childless, and so Mary and Anne grew in importance as possible successors to the throne although many feared their father’s Catholic influence on them. The two girls were declared children of the State and an establishment was made for them at Richmond House under the leadership of a governess, Lady Frances Villiers and two Anglican chaplains. In 1673, Mary’s father remarried to the 15-year-old Catholic Mary of Modena, telling his daughters, “I have provided you with a playfellow.”2 Mary of Modena proved to be as unlucky as her predecessor, and she suffered several stillbirths, miscarriages and had short-lived children. Mary became the godmother of her eldest short-lived sister, Catherine Laura, but the girl lived for just ten months. The two Marys became surprisingly close, despite the difference in religion.
Mary grew up somewhat isolated and starved of affection. Nevertheless, she fell in love with Frances Apsley – the daughter of Sir Allen Apsley, to whom she wrote many passionate letters. She wrote, “All the paper books in the world would not hold half the love I have for you, my dearest, dearest, dear Aurelia.”3 They wrote letters back and forth, which were delivered by the dwarf drawing-master Mr Gibstone. Frances was initially flattered by Mary’s attention but later became embarrassed and began to discourage her. Mary was still brooding over Frances when her future husband and first cousin William III, Prince of Orange, arrived at court in the autumn of 1677.
Mary was introduced to her elder cousin and was informed that he would become her husband. Mary broke down immediately and cried for a day and a half. Mary’s father was less pleased with the match but her uncle the King was ready to consent to the match. Despite Mary’s tearful reaction, plans for the wedding went full steam ahead. Mary did not want to leave her stepmother and friend – who was also in the final days of yet another pregnancy – and she was utterly miserable. On 4 November 1677, Mary married William in her bedchamber at 8 in the evening. At 11, the newlyweds withdrew to bed as their uncle quipped, “Now nephew to your work! Hey! St George for England.”4 The following morning, William presented Mary with a small diamond and ruby ring, which she would always treasure.
On 7 November, Mary’s stepmother gave birth to a son named Charles and William was made godfather. Young Charles lived for just two months, but for a moment, he superseded Mary in the line of succession. Cold and blustery weather forced the newlyweds to stay in England longer than William had planned. An outbreak of smallpox did not make this easier either. They finally left England on 19 November as they boarded a barge at Whitehall. Mary continued her weeping, and her sister Anne was unable to say goodbye as she was ill with smallpox – perhaps they would never see each other again. Mary was comforted by Queen Catherine, who had also been sent to a foreign country, but Mary told her, “Madam, you come into England; but I am going out of England.”5
Mary’s uncle and father accompanied her until Erith when the party boarded the yacht Mary. Unfortunately, they were forced to land at Sheerness when they encountered bad weather. A separate ship was sent so they could travel separately and eventually, both arrived at the small village of Ter Heyde, where they were rowed ashore. Later that evening, a coach brought the new Princess of Orange to Honselaarsdijk, which had been made ready for her arrival. Mary’s new life as Princess of Orange was about to begin.