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Rooms that make history: Mary II and The Queen’s Bed Chamber at Kensington Palace

One of English history’s ‘forgotten’ queens, is actually one who was arguably among the most loved. This was Mary II, the joint monarch – not queen consort of William III. Forgiven by posterity for deposing her father, contemporary history seems to have accepted this as being something of a regrettable necessity to safeguard England as a Protestant nation. Known for her love of oriental ceramics and gardens, she was also young and gracefully beautiful, as her surviving portraits testify. She died at the tragically early age of thirty-two from smallpox, in the Queen’s Bed Chamber on 28 December 1694, at Kensington Palace. Mary II extended the Queen’s Apartments at Kensington Palace to include a new Bed Chamber. Today the room contains the fabulous ‘Ferrari’ of royal beds, the so-called ‘Mary of Modena bed’, which was where Mary’s stepmother Mary of Modena gave birth of Prince James Francis Edward Stuart, the ‘Old Pretender’, an event of astonishing significance for subsequent British history.

We might naturally be surprised when we cannot find a memorial to a person of historical and national importance much in evidence; it can lead us to (wrongly) assume that perhaps their significance has been overestimated. This is in fact, bad hindsight – often, it is more appropriate to judge how a person was commemorated in their own time, by the century and people that actually knew them, and only then perhaps, posthumously redress the balance. Otherwise, we could just assume that history no longer cared about them – particularly, if they are not particularly visible to us now, in either painting or sculpture and, if many places associated with them either no longer exist or have been much altered. For this reason, posterity often does not provide us with a proper picture – and we have to seek out the truth.

Mary II – England’s second Queen Mary – after Mary I, Henry VIII’s daughter by his first queen, Catherine of Aragon, is little remembered today. More often than not, she is historically eclipsed by her husband, William III, following correctly after his name in the line of English Kings and Queens, as ‘William AND Mary’, words which perhaps initially conjure up for us, images of delftware plates and furniture design. Mary was, however, not Queen Mary the royal consort, but reigned jointly as Mary II with William III and was England’s third queen regnant, following the death of Elizabeth I over half a century earlier. All this is to view Mary in modern memory terms – for in her own age, she was widely loved and correspondingly, deeply mourned by Protestant England – inspiring Henry Purcell to compose his Funeral Music for Queen Mary, a royal setting of sentences contained within the Anglican Burial Service and first performed for the funeral of Mary II at Westminster Abbey in 1695.

William III was himself, descended from Mary, Princess of Orange, daughter of Charles I and sister of Charles II and James II, the latter being the father of the future Mary II, through his first marriage to Anne Hyde, when Duke of York. He did not become James II until 1685. Mary was the elder daughter of the Duke and Duchess of York and raised a firm Protestant, as was her younger sister Anne, the future Queen Anne and last of the Stuarts. Mary’s claim to the English throne would only be threatened if her Catholic father, the future James II, had a son and heir, who was in fact, born: Prince James Francis Edward Stuart, better known to history as the ‘Old Pretender’ and the baby of the famous ‘warming-pan incident’ at St. James’s Palace, when his second wife, Mary of Modena, gave birth to a healthy, baby boy in 1688.

This, in turn, paved the way for the establishment of an alternative claim to the English throne through the Catholic Stuart line, whose supporters embraced what become known as Jacobitism. The Catholic James II had not been popular, and this was exacerbated by the Declaration of Indulgence of May 1688, issued first in Scotland and secondly in England, to promote freedom of religion but as many suspected, a tolerance towards his own religion. Mary tearfully married Prince William of Orange at St James’s Palace in 1677 – the palace of her birth in 1662 – and subsequently lived with William for some years in Holland.

She would later suffer a crisis of conscience, torn between support for her husband and loyalty to her father, but eventually agreed to support the overthrow of James II, in what became known as the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, when they were invited by the English authorities to help protect Protestant England against the Catholicism of James II, further strengthened by the birth of his son. The Declaration of Rights was duly passed in 1689, detailing not only James II’s ‘infractions’ but also the thirteen clauses limiting the power of the Crown. William and Mary were formally offered the Crown on 6 February 1689 and crowned as joint sovereigns at Westminster Abbey on 11 April 1689. The last, similar precedent for this had been in the sixteenth century, when Queen Mary I married the future King Philip II of Spain at Winchester in 1554, with the difference that William and Mary were already married at the time of their 1689 coronation and became joint monarchs same. Under the terms of Queen Mary’s Marriage Act (1554), Philip II could be ‘formally’ seen to reign jointly with Mary I, but only be styled as ‘King of England’ during Queen Mary I’s lifetime, as he did not become King of Spain until 1556. Perhaps presaging homesickness, Princess Mary remarked to Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese-born Queen of England and consort of Charles II, as she prepared to leave England, for Holland: “But Madam, you came into England! I am going out of it….”

Mary and William – to turn their historical shared name around, as this is her story and not his – acquired the house of Earl of Nottingham as a London residence in addition to Hampton Court Palace, later to become Kensington Palace as a retreat away from the bustle of Whitehall, following Christopher Wren’s renovations. The upper portion of the so-called ‘Queen Mary’s Steps’ at Whitehall, may be seen today, thanks to 1930s excavations. Kensington was favoured because of its open situation and above all, its famously ‘clean’ air. It is the Queen’s Staircase, constructed in 1690 and little changed from Mary’s day, which visitors have to climb in order to reach the Queen’s State Apartments. The Queen’s Gallery, completed the year before Mary’s death in 1693, was where Mary engaged in ‘accomplished pastimes’, such as reading or needlework, or walked for indoor exercise. Mary also filled the Queen’s Drawing Room with examples of Japanese and Chinese porcelain. This interest was alluded to when Kensington Palace hosted a past installation, symbolising Mary’s love of oriental ceramics in the form of blue and white birds in flight across the Queen’s Gallery.

There is no proper statue of Queen Mary II in London; the one that does exist is scarcely noticed in the modern busyness of Bloomsbury, alongside three other queens, Elizabeth I, her Stuart sister, Queen Anne, and Queen Victoria. A large, bronze statue of her husband and co-regent, William III, stands outside Kensington Palace, arguably the residence most associated with William and Mary; it was a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm II to his uncle, King Edward VII and sculpted by Heinrich Bauke: ”William III of Orange, King of Great Britain and Ireland presented by William II, German Emperor and King of Prussia to King Edward VII for the British Nation, 1907′.

Mary’s famous ‘Old Water Gallery’ at Hampton Court no longer exists; Queen Mary’s Closet in the south end of the east range of Hampton Court Palace, perhaps the most personal memorial space dedicated to Mary II, is no longer open to the public. Formerly, this was hung with eight, sumptuous wall hangings after Daniel Marot, when it was re-conceived as a place to commemorate her. It was thought that these wall hangings hung at Hampton Court Palace throughout the eighteenth century; they hung at the Palace of Holyrood House in Edinburgh in the early twentieth century and were returned later. Touching traces of Mary II’s interest in the collection of blue and white Delftware and oriental porcelain were also placed in this room, now closed – proof of an enduring, royal enthusiasm.

Mary II also adored gardens – just under a century before another botanising Queen consort, George III’s wife, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz – just as George III’s mother, Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales had enlarged and helped develop Kew, a generation earlier. Mary herself took a close interest in the developments of the gardens at both Kensington Palace and Hampton Court, keenly involving herself in the enlargements of the palaces themselves and also commissioning portraits of her ladies-in-waiting, popularly known today as the ‘Hampton Court Beauties’ – a conscious pendant perhaps, to the ‘Windsor Beauties’, of the Restoration court of Charles II.

Glimpses of Mary II do remain – several surviving portraits remain on the walls of the publicly accessible rooms of former and current royal residences, such as the ‘State Portrait’ by Sir Godfrey Kneller, on display in St George’s Hall at Windsor Castle, the beautiful study of Mary II when Princess of Orange by Willem Wissing, or the magnificent portrait of her in the year of her marriage by Sir Peter Lely, today fittingly, at Hampton Court Palace. Lely painted her as Princess Mary, in a charming study not dissimilar to Lely’s Windsor Beauties, with a greyhound and wearing a crescent moon. While no portrait of Mary II hangs in the Queen’s Bed Chamber at Kensington Palace, it is arguably in this room where a real sense of historical connection with Mary II is at its most possible, in the palace which she did so much to enlarge and whose gardens she loved.

Mary II awoke on the morning of 21 December 1694 in the Queen’s Bed Chamber at Kensington Palace with a rash on her arm, which she recognised as an early symptom of smallpox. For Mary, this was particularly tragic, given the fact this disease can totally disfigure female beauty, leaving hideous scars or ‘pocks’, if survived. Marie Antoinette’s elder sister Archduchess Marie Elisabeth did recover from the disease but was subsequently so marked by its effects, that she was ruthlessly struck out from the list of ‘marriageable’ Habsburg archduchesses. Mary II, however, did not recover. She died in this room exactly a week later on 28 December 1694. However, there is an alternative theory that has it that she was moved just before her death to a small, adjoining room, today containing a small office: BBC Four, Majesty and Mortar, 2014. William was devastated; his affection for Kensington Palace was said to have increased as a result of its association with his queen. He would die at the palace in 1702 where bracelets containing Mary II’s hair were reputedly found on his body. Kensington Palace was also the royal residence where his sister-in-law, Queen Anne died in 1714; King George II also died there in 1760.

Images were made of the Queen’s lying-in-state in the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace, as well as Dutch prints made of her burial. Replicas of the silver sconces that attended the lying-in-state are today in William’s Great Bed Chamber at Hampton Court Palace. Mary’s £50,000 funeral took place at Westminster Abbey on 5 March 1695. William III did not attend. Her wax effigy – tall, as Mary was in her lifetime – has been preserved. Mary’s grave is close to that of her mother, Anne Hyde, Duchess of York – in the vault of Mary, Queen of Scots – and is in the south aisle of Henry VII’s Chapel at Westminster Abbey. No tomb was ever erected over it, although designs were made; today it is marked by a simple slab.

Mary’s effigy will go on display at Westminster Abbey’s new Jubilee Galleries in mid-2018, together with the chair made for her coronation, because William III sat in the ancient Coronation Chair. This will serve as a permanent reminder of her place in English history, rightly recognised as important, through this genuine symbol of her queenship.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

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About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.