Mary II married William, Prince of Orange, in 1677 – eleven years before the 1688 Revolution. She was the eldest daughter of James II and his first wife Anne Hyde, the daughter of Edward Hyde, the 1st Earl of Clarendon. Contemporary accounts write of Mary as being tall and beautiful. They never had children – Mary miscarried twice in 1678 and she was incapable of having children after this.
While her father increasingly showed his zeal towards the Catholic faith, Mary made it clear that her Protestant credentials were impeccable. Her marriage to a stalwart of Protestantism emphasised this. When her younger brother, James Edward, was born in James 1688, Mary shared with many in England the concern that the Stuart dynasty would continue under a Catholic monarch. Before the birth of James Edward, Mary was next in line to the throne on the death of her father. However, there was little doubt that the young boy would be brought up in the Catholic faith with all the issues this brought with it for Britain.
When William received his ‘Invitation’ to save Britain from Catholicism, Mary was highly supportive of her husband responding to it. There were those in England who viewed Mary as the sole legitimate heir to the throne but William brought with him a military reputation that for many meant that England would not be thrown into a bloody civil war again nor any form of political anarchy or religious extremism. William represented the type of strength and stability that Mary could not offer but they were both crowned together on February 13th 1689. In fact, it is almost certain that Mary would not have accepted the throne by herself. While her husband may have appeared to be somewhat tyrannical and rude towards her in public, her sense of devotion and loyalty were such that Mary saw William as the more important partner in the marriage. When in 1686, Mary was told that legally, if her father left the throne, she would be the true and legitimate heir to the throne, she immediately summoned William (then of Orange) and promised him
“He should always bear rule; and she asked only that he would obey the command of ‘Husbands love your wives’, as she would do that, “Wives, be obedient to your husbands in all things.”
Mary’s approach meant that Parliament could only offer the Crown to both. William had made it clear that he would return to the Netherlands if he was made a Regent or Prince Consul or the like. On February 13th 1689, Mary became Mary II and her husband William III.
Shortly after the coronation, Mary received a letter from her father, which stated bluntly that he disowned her and placed a father’s curse on both his daughters.
Mary and her younger sister Anne fell out after 1688. Anne believed that William had come between her and the throne – which was not true. But Anne made her resentment of William plain for all to see. Mary resented Anne’s friendship with the overbearing Sarah Churchill, wife of Marlborough, and she was also jealous that at the time Anne had a healthy son, William, Duke of Gloucester. In 1692, Anne was made to withdraw from the Royal Court as a result of her friendship with the Churchill’s – Marlborough had been incorrectly caught up in a supposed Jacobite plot. Anne withdrew to Sion House and more in spite than anything else, Mary ordered the removal of her royal bodyguards in a blatant gesture of her fall from social and royal grace. Both sisters were never reconciled.
Rather than live in the dank and damp Whitehall – that was to shortly burn down – William and Mary purchased a mansion in Hyde Park and rebuilt what is now Kensington Palace.
The reign of William was dominated by his desire to defeat Louis XIV. Society at the time was dominated by men and even though Mary was queen she stayed out of politics and remained in the background. Few doubt that her husband was devoted to affairs of state and as a result they were rarely together. This clearly had a major impact on Mary and her final portraits show her to be an old lady before she actually was. In one of her letters to William, Mary wrote:
“(I have) a passion (for you) that cannot end but with my life.”
William was equal in his love for Mary. Just before she died he publicly stated that in their years of marriage:
“He had never known a one single fault in her; there was a worth nobody knew but himself.”
Though Mary may have kept in the background with regards to politics and affairs of state, the simple fact that she was on the throne was very important to William. As a Stuart she gave the joint reign legitimacy that swayed the likes of the Earls of Nottingham and Rochester to give it their allegiance. Also as a devote Anglican, she helped the Church through a very difficult period.
“Her sweetness and graciousness served to mask the chilling reserve that made her husband one of the least popular kings in English history.” (J P Kenyon)
Mary died of smallpox on December 28th 1694. William kept a lock of Mary’s hair and her wedding ring with him until the day he died.