Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Dolce Paola

Queen Paola of Belgium, consort of King Albert II of Belgium was born as Paola Margherita Giuseppina Maria Consiglia Ruffo di Calabria, the youngest child of Prince Fulco Ruffo di Calabria (an aviator during World War I) and Countess Luisa Maria Gazelli di Rossana e di Sebastiano.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Queen Over the Water

Mary Beatrice of Modena,
Queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

Mary Beatrice of Modena is the only Italian ever to become Queen of England. During her tenure as queen, she was unpopular with the people because of her being a Catholic in a staunchly Protestant country. The people never forgave her for her religion, and although she was a lesser-known figure in history, she was one of those queens whose character was one of the best. She was known as "the Queen over the water" because of her being exiled in France after the Glorious Revolution.

She was born on 25 September 1658 in Modena, a small duchy lying in fertile plain south of the Alps. Her father, the Duke of Modena, died in the prime of his life when Mary was only two. Her mother Laura ruled as a regent for Mary's two-year-old brother, Francesco. Strictly brought up by their imposing mother, they were given a stern religious and moral education. Mary learned how to speak and write in Italian, French, English, and Latin. She was a constant travelling companion of her mother, and became a frequent visitor in Paris, where she became a favorite of King Louis XIV. However, court life held little charm for the deeply religious and reflective Mary. She was sent to a convent for Carmelite nuns to finish her education, and by the time she was nine, Mary conceived an idea to become a nun. That was her ultimate goal in life, and throughout her lifetime, she would remain a devout and pious Roman Catholic. Her future, however, lay elsewhere.

In England, James, Duke of York, the younger brother of Charles II, had been a widow for two years. His wife, Anne Hyde, had died of breast cancer, leaving him with two adolescent daughters, Mary and Anne. Left to himself, James would have probably remained a widower or married another non-royal English lady, but he was now heir to the throne. His brother, Charles II, had no legitimate child to succeed him, and so Charles persuaded James to stop making a fool of himself and marry a suitable princess.

"The good and pious Queen of England... She
kept nothing to herself, and gave all she
had to the poor..."
Envoys were sent throughout Europe, but there was a specific agreement that James's future bride must be beautiful in order to placate him to an arranged marriage, and also to prevent the temptation of extramarital affairs. He also wanted a Catholic bride because he was a Catholic himself, although a secret one. When the Earl of Petersborough arrived in Modena and saw the Mary Beatrice, he was enchanted. The fourteen-year-old Mary was beautiful, tall and well-shaped, with a dazzling fair complexion in perfect contrast to her jet-black hair and lustrous dark eyes. When she was told of the Earl's mission, she vehemently protested against the marriage. She told him that she had vowed to become a nun. And although Mary was exceptionally well-educated, she had a very sheltered life that she did not know where England was and had never heard of the Duke of York. When she learnt that he was 40 years old, she screamed and wept for two days, and entreated that her youngest aunt might marry him instead. The marriage negotiations were conducted with much difficulty, with Mary being adamant, until the Pope finally intervened and sent a letter written in Latin to Mary, 'commanding' her to marry the Duke of York. She finally acquiesced, and the marriage agreement was signed. She was married by proxy - a Catholic ceremony - in Modena, and then set off  for England, accompanied by her mother. James met them at Dover and there Mary and James had a second wedding, but this time a Protestant one. He was delighted with his very young and beautiful wife. But Mary had a different opinion. She was shocked by his ugly features, and for weeks, she cried every time she saw him. But James was very kind towards her, and with time, she gradually soften and finally accepted her husband.

The first five years of Mary's married life were the happiest she had ever known. As the new Duchess of York, she tried her innocent best to adjust to King Charles II's licentious court, and in response, the King showed great kindness to her. She also gained the friendship of Queen Catherine, but tried to be civil to the King's numerous mistresses. She was a kind and loving stepmother to Mary and Anne. Only a few years older than them, she was introduced to them by James with the words: “I have brought you a new play-fellow.” The elder one, Mary, responded well and would maintain a close and warm relationship with her stepmother, but Anne disliked her stepmother. Mary also became deeply attached to her husband, and was a loyal and supportive wife to him. His infidelities greatly offended her, however, and Charles II once said that "She is much better than my brother deserves."

"Her mien was the noblest, the most majestic
and imposing in the world, but it was also
sweet and modest."
James's marriage to a Catholic princess caused great alarm to the English people. From the moment she arrived to Britain, she was viewed with suspicion. Mary was branded as "the Pope's daughter", and it was feared that she would help restore Catholicism in the country. After five years of blissful marriage, religious controversies were now overshadowing her life. Protestant statesmen wanted to remove James from the succession and the Popish Plot of 1648 heighten anti-Catholic feelings. Amidst this controversies, Charles II sent James and Mary to live in Edinburgh. However, they were called back to London when the news arrived that Charles II had died. James ascended to the throne as King James II and Mary of Modena became Queen. They were crowned in Westminster Abbey in April 1685.

As a Catholic Queen, Mary did her best to reassure her husband's mostly-Protestant subject that she bore no ill will towards their religion or culture. It deeply hurt her that she could not win the hearts of her people, but this was nothing compared to another controversy that she would be subjected to. Mary had already given birth to five children, all had died in their infancy, when she became pregnant once again. This time, she delivered a healthy baby boy James, who would be known to posterity as "The Old Pretender". Now there was a rumor regarding baby James's birth. It was said that he was not actually the son of the King and Queen but that he was a changeling, smuggled into the Queen's bed with a warming-pan. People readily believed the rumors, but when witnesses denied them, James was accepted as the heir apparent.

James's birth imposed another problem to Parliament. Since the prince's parents were staunch Catholics, it surely means that he would be reared in the same faith. James and Mary's relationship with Princesses Mary and Anne soon deteriorated, and members of the Parliament and Church leaders secretly sent an invitation to the Protestant Princess Mary and her husband, William, Prince of Orange (also a Protestant), to accept the crown and lead an invasion to England in order to dethrone James and Mary. This invasion was henceforth known as the "Glorious Revolution".

Without the support of the army, the King would not stand a chance against William, and so he and Mary escaped to France. With the king away from England, he was now considered deposed, and William and Mary were crowned as the new monarchs. James and Mary lost their status and title as King and Queen of Britain.

"She was the model of what a queen should be,
and she bore her misfortunes heroically."
-Demertius C. Boulger
The exiled couple and their infant son went to live in Chateau de Saint-Germain-en-Laye where they were very much provided for by King Louis XIV of France and were to set up a court in exile. The French people loved and continued to honor Mary. She was admired for her intelligence, wit, amiability, gentle manners, and generosity. Her husband, however, was disliked.

The rest of Mary's life was spent in protecting and trying to make her son the rightful King of Great Britain. However, he would always remain as a pretender to the throne and living out his days as an exile. James II died in 1701, but Mary continued to give her money in support to the Jacobite cause. When Louis XIV died, her financial support was brought to a halt, and she lived out the rest of her life in sadness and poverty. She died from cancer in 1718, seventeen years after her husband, and and she was buried in the Convent of Visitation.

It is fascinating to think how religious bigotry could dramatically alter the fate of a country, and turn its people against their rulers. Mary's unyielding Catholic faith practically prevented her son from gaining the throne, and caused her and her husband's downfall. It was a personal tragedy; for someone who conducted herself with much dignity throughout her life and was widely considered a "saint", it was a poignant end.

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