Queen Mary II of England was born on 30 April 1662, at St James’ Palace, London, the first-born daughter of James, Duke of York, and his first wife, Anne Hyde.
Mary’s uncle was King Charles II, and her maternal grandfather, Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, had been the architect of the restoration of Charles, returning her family to the throne she would one day inherit.
As heir to the throne, and later queen as one half of Britain’s first joint monarchy, Mary’s life was full of drama and challenge.
1. She was an avid learner
As a young girl, Mary learned the languages of English, Dutch and French and was described by her tutor as ‘an absolute mistress’ of the French language. She loved playing the lute and harpsichord, and she was a keen dancer, taking leading roles in ballet performances at court.
She maintained a love of reading for her whole life, and in 1693 established the College of William and Mary in Virginia. She also enjoyed gardening and played a key role in the design of the gardens at Hampton Court Palace and at Honselaarsdijk Palace in the Netherlands.
2. She married her first cousin, William of Orange
Mary was the daughter of James, Duke of York, son of Charles I. William of Orange was the only son of William II, Prince of Orange, and Mary, Princess Royal, daughter of King Charles I. The future King and Queen William and Mary were, therefore, first cousins.
3. She wept when she was told William would be her husband
Although King Charles II was keen on the marriage, Mary was not. Her sister, Anne, called William ‘Caliban’ as his physical appearance (blackened teeth, a hooked nose and short stature) resembled the monster in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It didn’t help that, at 5 feet 11 inches Mary towered over him by 5 inches, and she wept when the betrothal was announced. Nevertheless, William and Mary were wed on 4 November 1677, and on 19 November they set sail to William’s kingdom in the Netherlands. Mary was 15 years old.
4. Her father became king but was overthrown by her husband
Charles II died in 1685 and Mary’s father became King James II. However, in a country that had become largely Protestant, James’ religious policies were unpopular. He attempted to give equality to Roman Catholics and Protestant dissenters, and when parliament objected he prorogued it and ruled alone, promoting Catholics to key military, political and academic posts.
In 1688, James and his wife had a baby boy, generating fears that a Catholic succession was certain. A group of Protestant nobles appealed to William of Orange to invade. William landed in November 1688, and James’ military deserted him, causing him to flee abroad. Parliament declared that his flight constituted an abdication. The throne of England needed a new monarch.
5. William and Mary’s coronation required new furniture
On 11 April 1689, the coronation of William and Mary took place in Westminster Abbey. But as a joint coronation had never taken place before, there was only one ancient coronation chair commissioned by King Edward I in 1300-1301. So, a second coronation chair was made for Mary, which is today on display in the Abbey.
William and Mary also took a new form of coronation oath. Rather than swearing to confirm the laws and customs granted to the English people by former monarchs, William and Mary pledged to govern according to the statutes agreed in parliament. This was a recognition of limits on monarchical power to prevent the types of abuses which James II and Charles I were infamous for.
6. Her father placed a curse on her
At the time of her coronation, James II wrote to Mary telling her that being crowned was a choice, and to do so whilst he was living was wrong. Worse still, James said, “the curse of an outraged father would light upon her, as well as of that God who has commanded duty to parents”. Mary was reportedly devastated.
7. Mary led a moral revolution
Mary wanted to set an example of piety and devotion. Services in royal chapels became frequent, and sermons were shared with the public (King Charles II shared an average of three sermons a year, whilst Mary shared 17).
Some men in the army and navy had earned reputations for gambling and using women for sex. Mary tried to crack down on these vices. Mary also tried to stamp out drunkenness, swearing and abuse of the Lord’s Day (Sundays). Magistrates were ordered to monitor for rule-breakers, with one contemporary historian noting Mary even had magistrates stop people for driving their carriages or eating pies and puddings in the street on a Sunday.
8. Mary played an important role in government
William was often away fighting and a great deal of business was conducted by letter. Whilst many of these letters have been lost, the ones that survive plus others referred to in letters between secretaries of state, reveal that orders were passed directly to the Queen from the King, which she then communicated to the council. For example, the King sent her his battle plans in 1692, which she then explained to the ministers.
9. She had a long relationship with another woman
As dramatised in the film The Favourite, Mary’s sister Anne had intimate relations with women. But so did Mary. Mary’s first relationship began when she was 13 with the young female courtier, Frances Aspley, whose father was in James II’s household. Mary played the role of the young, loving wife, writing letters expressing devotion to her ‘dearest, dearest, dear husband’. Mary continued the relationship even after her marriage to William, telling Frances “I love you of all things in the world”.
10. Her funeral was one of the largest in British royal history
Mary fell ill in December 1694 with smallpox and died three days after Christmas. She was 32. Bells tolled at the Tower of London every minute that day to announce her death. After being embalmed, Mary’s body was placed in an open casket in February 1695 and publicly mourned at Banqueting House on Whitehall. For a fee, the public could pay their respects, and huge crowds gathered each day.
On 5 March 1695, the funeral procession began (in a snow storm) from White Hall to Westminster Abbey. Sir Christopher Wren designed a railed walk for the mourners, and for the first time in English history, the coffin of a monarch was accompanied by both houses of parliament.
Heartbroken, William III did not attend, having proclaimed, “If I lose her, I shall be done with the world”. Over the years, he and Mary had grown to love one another dearly. Mary lies buried in a vault in the south aisle of Henry VII’s chapel, not far from her mother Anne. Only a small stone marks her grave.