Mary of Modena or Maria Beatrice d’Este was born on 5 October 1658 as the daughter of Alfonso IV, Duke of Modena, and his wife, Laura Martinozzi. Her younger brother succeeded to the duchy upon their father’s death in 1662. He was just two, Mary just four. She received an excellent education and spoke French and Italian fluently. She also knew some Latin and learned English later in life.
Mary was sought as a bride for James, Duke of York, the heir to his brother King Charles II. James was not only 25 years older; he was also a widower with two daughters, who were around Mary’s age. Her mother was more interested in a match with the 11-year-old King Charles II of Spain, but she finally accepted James’s proposal on behalf of Mary. The proxy marriage took place on 30 September 1673. En route to England, Mary stopped in France, where she was given a brooch by King Louis XIV.
Mary’s arrival was met with criticism. The predominantly Protestant English branded the new Duchess of York, “the Pope’s daughter” and parliament threatened to annul the marriage. Charles was forced to suspend parliament to ensure that the marriage would take place. Years later, Mary confessed that she had not at first loved her husband and had cried every time she saw him. James simply noted of their meeting at Dover that the Princess had arrived and had been wedded and bedded that same night. She suffered a miscarriage March 1674. She was soon pregnant again and gave birth to a daughter, named Catherine Laura on 10 January 1675. James wrote to his nephew, William of Orange, “I believe you will not be sorry to hear of the Duchess being safely delivered. It is but a daughter, but God be praised, they are both well.” Little Catherine Laura died suddenly of convulsions on 3 October 1675. Mary was already pregnant again, but tragically miscarried the day after her daughter’s death.
A second daughter, named Isabella was born 28 August 1676, and the labour happened so quickly that King Charles and Queen Catherine were not in time to witness it. Isabella had her father’s dark blue eyes and golden hair. She was a sickly child and was not expected to live. Mary was soon pregnant for the fifth time. She began to pray for a boy who would live. She gave birth to a son on 7 November 1677, named Charles, Duke of Cambridge. The young Duke died of smallpox on 12 December of the same year. Mary wrote to her brother, “With tears in my eyes, I write to tell you the terrible news of the loss of my dear son, whom it has pleased God to take to Himself at midday yesterday.”
Mary travelled to the Netherlands in 1678 with her stepdaughter, Anne, to comfort her other stepdaughter Mary, who had recently married the Prince of Orange and had miscarried. By the time they left, the Princess of Orange had miscarried another child. Mary herself had also given birth to a daughter, who died shortly after birth sometime in 1678.
Any hint of pregnancy was closely watched by all those around her, but she would not fall pregnant for another two years. On 2 March 1681, her only surviving child Isabella, died after an illness of several months. Mary was heartbroken. “It comforts me to think that I have more angels to pray for me, and I should feel favoured that whereas other women bear children for this world, I have given all mine to God, in whose mercy I still hope that He will some day comfort me by giving me a male child who shall live.” A month before Isabella’s death, she had given birth to a stillborn child.
Mary fell pregnant again and was due in August 1682. Charlotte Mary was born on 15 August 1682, but she died on 6 October that same year. In October 1683, Mary gave birth to a stillborn child. She suffered another miscarriage in May 1684.
On 6 February 1685, King Charles II died, and Mary’s husband succeeded him as King. Mary had begun to lose hope that she would bear James an heir. On Christmas Eve 1687, another pregnancy was announced. Mary had a difficult time with the pregnancy, reportedly nearly miscarrying three times. On 10 June 1688 Mary gave birth to a son who lived, but his birth is perhaps the most discussed of any royal birth in history. Was the child stillborn and perhaps swapped with a living child in a warming pan? The rumours must have hurt Mary.
By the time Mary gave birth to her last child, a daughter Louisa Maria, she and her husband had been deposed in the Glorious Revolution by her step son-in-law and stepdaughter, William of Orange and Mary. James died on 16 September 1701 in France and Mary followed him on 7 May 1718. At the time of her death, only her son James was still alive. 1