Like her father’s, HM Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday is marked officially in early June to allow, it’s said, for British summertime ceremony. Yet an actual birthday on 10 June 1688 made all the difference in the eventual rise of the House of Windsor.
By Mark Dawson
In the late spring of 1688, London households welcomed children who would grow up to become everything from poets (Alexander Pope) to scientific instrument-makers (Francis Hauksbee), siding with either the Ancients or the Moderns. For many more boys born into humbler families, the prospects were not so bright. They were probably destined, like one James Cooper, the son of a brick-maker, to follow in their fathers’ footsteps – if, that is, they were lucky enough to survive infancy.
Yet in the first weeks of his life, young James proved uniquely fortunate. When he came into the world on June 10, James had been very weak. Rather than blushing pink skin, his was dark and morbid. He was thought premature and all but stillborn. Yet he was revived. An experienced midwife dosed him with a tonic, made from cherry brandy and umbilical blood. After his mother had convalesced, and on the advice of leading physicians, James was taken from the smoke-filled metropolis to the sunny fields of Richmond and a wet-nurse. Here he thrived, and again defied expectations. Indeed, to those closest to him, James had done nothing less than ensure the future of Britain’s ruling house of Stuart, as its new prince of Wales. Or, more precisely, his baptism heralded the continuation of James II’s Catholic monarchy.
The princely triumph (1688) from the Pepys Library (2.251), English Broadside Ballad Archive
Therein lay the rub. The husband of the royal babe’s half-sister, William of Orange, would soon declare a parliamentary convention necessary both to secure Protestant liberties and to conduct an inquiry into the prince’s legitimacy. Talk of an inquiry was empty – like much else that William promised on the eve of his armed intervention from the Netherlands, or what would become known as the Glorious Revolution. James II’s privy council itself deposed dozens of witnesses to corroborate the neonate’s pedigree. Yet the very existence of such testimony played directly into the hands of the Dutch stadtholder and his rebellious English supporters. From it, the would-be revolutionaries extracted both doubt that the prince of Wales was of royal parentage, and proof that James II, hell-bent on perpetuating his absolutist rule, had been willing to pass off someone else’s son as his own. Without this distillation, there would have been no catalyst for the revolution or, depending on one’s point of view, the palace coup. If it were not for baby James’s arrival complicating the succession, William would eventually have come to England as Queen Mary’s princely consort; merely her ‘gentleman usher’, as he put it before Parliament recognized him as their new King in early 1689.
The birthday of 10 June 1688 has as much significance for socio-cultural as political historians. Despite (or perhaps because) explanations of the day’s events being conflicted and contested, we can gain considerable insight into contemporary understandings of human reproduction and biological inheritance. Until mid-1688, the experience of James II’s wife, Mary (Beatrice) of Modena, as mother had not been at all kind. Married at sixteen to the then duke of York, a philandering and possibly venereal forty-year-old widower, she had suffered multiple miscarriages and grieved for four deceased children. Devout and dutiful, she followed certain religious rites and prescribed medical regimens in order to bear a prince. Notwithstanding close (self)-monitoring, Mary Beatrice remained unsure about when she had conceived and perhaps read bodily changes as signs she was carrying a girl, who would not therefore supersede her Protestant half-sisters, Mary and Anne, in the line of succession. After labour began quite suddenly at St. James’ Palace, rather than at Windsor as hoped, Mary Beatrice evidently thought herself still in the eighth month of pregnancy. The eighth month was believed to be a particularly precarious point in gestation (so much so that infants delivered in the seventh month were said to have better chances of survival).
Mary Beatrice’s distress may have prompted the next twist in the evolving narrative of how June 10’s birthday boy came to be. Some had assumed since late 1687 that the King was insufficiently virile to sire any more children, much less a son. It remained very easy to question fatherhood. Riddled with cuckolds, popular humour gave vent to the persistent anxiety accompanying people’s inability to verify paternity. So, as far as James II’s opponents were concerned, his queen had birthed a bastard. But, bruited by pamphlets, broadside ballads, satirical engravings issued in the Netherlands, and even playing cards, the story of the infant prince’s begetting quickly became both cruder and more elaborate. The possibility that June 10 had witnessed the arrival of the natural son of a queen was also denied. Mary Beatrice’s baby had been stillborn, perhaps literally fathered by one of her Catholic priests or a silhouette fashioned, at her confessor’s devilish suggestion, from progressively larger cushions. (Though exactly why the conspiratorial swaddling could not have continued for a few more weeks is anyone’s guess).
Two of diamonds (1688/9) from the Schreiber Bequest (# 1896,0501.920), British Museum
By ten o’clock on the morning of June 10, these circumstances meant that the baby hailed as their prince by the male courtiers waiting on the other side of the bedchamber was entirely suppositious. With the aid of an ingenious device, most probably a warming pan, a second baby, a new prince James, had been inveigled into the room and the royal bloodline. Primogeniture, and with it a papist tyranny, had been salvaged – almost. By the late seventeenth century, bitter experience had taught people to be wary of relying on wet-nurses. If a mother were really too ill to nourish her newborn, the best alternative was a surrogate whose constitution closely approximated that of the mother when healthy. The prince’s wet–nurse was no noble. Mrs Cooper was the wife of a lowly brick-maker from Surrey, yet still the prince flourished. Common sense led to just one conclusion – poor Jemmy had finally been reunited with his real mum, while Mary Stuart was (again) heir apparent.
Of course, the fraught maternity of the last Stuart queens, Mary and then Anne, and the failed attempts of James II’s ‘pretend’ son and grandson to reclaim their British inheritance, now mean that we celebrate royal birthdays for a different line: Hanoverian>Saxe-Coburg and Gotha>Windsor.
Mark Dawson teaches early modern history at ANU. He is completing a study of notions of human difference in seventeenth-century English culture, and therefore has a particular interest in contemporary assumptions concerning heredity.