Mary was born at St. James’s Palace on 30 April 1662 as the daughter of James, Duke of York, later James II and Anne Hyde. Her father was a brother of Charles II, who had fathered many illegitimate children but had no heir. Her parents had a total of eight children, but only Mary and her sister Anne would live to adulthood. Her mother died in 1671 of breast cancer. Her father converted to Roman Catholicism in 1668 or 1669, but Mary and Anne were raised as Anglicans on the command of their uncle, Charles II. They had a separate household at Richmond Palace and were only occasionally visited by their parents.
James remarried in 1673 to the Catholic Mary of Modena, who was only four years older than Mary. Mary herself was betrothed at the age of 15 to her first cousin William of Orange, who was the son of Charles and James’ sister Mary. Thus, he too was in line for the succession. James was unhappy with the match, but he eventually agreed to it under pressure. Mary reportedly wept all through the afternoon and the following day after being told of the plans. They were married at St. James’s Palace on 4 November 1677 and they left for the Netherlands later that month. They were forced to land in a small village due to ice and had to walk through the countryside until they were met by coaches who took them to Huis Honselaarsdijk, which unfortunately no longer exists. On 14 December they made a grand entrance into The Hague.
Mary was popular with the Dutch people, and despite their rocky start, she became devoted to William. Within months of their marriage, Mary was pregnant, but she had a miscarriage which most likely impaired her ability to have more children. She considered it to be the greatest source of unhappiness in her life.
Her uncle died in 1685, and her father succeeded as James II of England and Ireland and James VII of Scots. Charles’ illegitimate son, James, Duke of Monmouth sailed to England with an invasion force, as a Protestant champion. He was subsequently defeated, captured and executed.
By 1686 disgruntled Protestant politicians and noblemen were in contact with William of Orange as James’ religious policies spiralled out of control and his popularity plummeted. The birth of his and Mary’s son, James Francis Stuart, seemed to secure a Catholic succession, though there were some rumours surrounding his birth. In June 1688 the “Immortal Seven” secretly requested William of Orange to come to England to depose James. He was reluctant at first as his wife was the next heiress and he feared she would be more powerful. Mary convinced him that she did not care for political power and that “she would be no more but his wife, and that she would do all that lay in her power to make him King for life”. William agreed to invade.
He landed with an army on 5 November 1688 and the disaffected English Army and Navy went over to him. By 11 December James was defeated and he attempted to flee. He succeeded on 23 December and was probably deliberately allowed to escape by William. Mary was torn between feeling sympathetic for her father’s plight and loyalty to her husband. On 13 February 1689 Parliament passed the Declaration of Right, deeming that James had abdicated the government of the realm by fleeing and that the throne had thereby become vacant. The throne was offered to William and Mary as joint sovereigns, as Mary did not wish to be Queen regnant, believing that women should defer to their husbands and “knowing my heart is not made for a kingdom, and my inclination leads me to a retired, quiet life”. They were crowned together at Westminster Abbey on 11 April 1689. A brief uprising was quickly crushed. Following the death of either William or Mary, the other was to continue to reign. The line of succession then included the children they may have, followed by Mary’s sister Anne and her children and lastly it included any children William might have from a subsequent marriage.
William was often away on campaign, forcing Mary to assume power, though she did not like it. If William was in England, she completely refrained from interfering in political affairs. She did order the arrest of her uncle, Henry Hyde, for plotting to restore her father to the throne. Mary was extremely pious and attended prayers at least twice a day. She didn’t have much compassion for her sister as she once took the opportunity to berate her sister for her friendship with Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough after she had just given birth and lost the baby. The sisters never saw each other again after that.
In 1694 Mary contracted smallpox. She sent away everyone who had not previously had the disease, but she would soon succumb to the disease. She died shortly after midnight on 28 December. She was still only 32 years old. William was devastated by her death, and she was widely mourned. On 5 March 1695, she was buried at Westminster Abbey.
William continued to rule solo after her death until his own death in 1702. The House of Stuart came to an end with Mary’s sister Anne, who despite many pregnancies, had no surviving children.
- Van der Kiste, John (2003) William and Mary. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing. ISBN 0-7509-3048-9. (US & UK)
- Waller, Maureen (2006). Sovereign Ladies: The Six Reigning Queens of England. London: John Murray. ISBN 978-0-7195-6628-8. (US & UK)
- Princess and Queen of England, life of Mary II
- The First Churchills (1969) (US & UK)
- Orlando (1992) (US & UK)
- England, My England (1995) (US & UK)
- The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse (2005) (US & UK)