Tales From The Royal Bedchamber – A Revolution Is Born

Living in a world where privacy is only ever relative and your every move is considered to be something that the public or your advisers should be kept abreast of may not sound that unusual in modern society. After all, it is something that the British monarchy and today’s quasi-celebrities have had to grow very much accustomed to.

Charles II of England (1648)Even prior to 24 hour news channels and persistent paparazzi, for those in the public eye a moment of peace was something of a rarity. As far back as the reign of King Charles II (pictured) and for many years previous, monarchs had to go to great lengths to achieve total privacy – and their abode of choice was the private royal bedchamber.

A new exhibition at Hampton Court Palace for the 2013 tourist season – Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber – reveals some of the fascinating rituals and deepest, darkest secrets of the privileged courtiers and monarchs who gained access to one of the Palace’s most iconic corridors of power. Also unearthed by the Historic Royal Palaces staff while researching the exhibition were some fascinating stories; not least that of a baby whose birth in private quarters became more of a public scandal than could ever have been imagined.

Mary of Modena’s Bed

Mary of ModenaOne of the seemingly most fanciful and certainly most dramatic tales recalled from the bedchamber is that of Mary of Modena’s bed.  On 10 June 1688, King James II’s Catholic Queen Mary (pictured) went into labour and so began a revolution and decades of Jacobite rebellion.

In the years leading up to Queen Mary’s pregnancy, support had grown for William III. In a battle for the thrown, borne out of a religious divide, he was keen to oust the Catholic King James II in favour of his own Protestant daughter, Mary.

As such, the last moments of Queen Mary’s pregnancy were the cause of great interest, and she was forced to give birth in her luxurious velvet bed in front of an audience of at least 200 witnesses.  Despite the large crowd and an apparently healthy birth, there was a general insistence among the group of witnesses that the baby had been stillborn and that a ‘changeling’ child had been snuck into the bed as a replacement. When later questioned, many of the witnesses cruelly claimed that they had not seen baby James being born and maintained that the healthy child must have been smuggled into the bed in a warming pan or old-fashioned hot water bottle.

This spread of propaganda – which was scandalously supported by James II’s daughter Anne – was borne out of an increasingly widespread desire to avoid the heir to the throne being Catholic. With James II’s reign having been built on polices of religious equality, which had been met with increasing political opposition, this development caused yet more tension and intolerance towards the presence of Catholics in Great Britain.

William IIIThe result, just five months later, was the Glorious Revolution; during which William III (pictured) and Mary II successfully ascended the English throne. Out went James II, Queen Mary and their young baby, along with an acceptance of Catholicism in Britain – a development that was to have a disastrous social and political impact on Britons of that particular religious leaning for more than a century afterwards.

In the decades that followed, leading Catholic supporters incessantly lobbied for baby James and his claim to the English throne but to no avail as frequent Jacobite uprisings were quelled.

As it became, the ‘Ferrari’ of royal beds – adorned with rich and luxurious Italian velvet – which had witnessed the birth of baby James Francis Edward Stuart, became a key component in one of the most significant religious revolutions in the history of Great Britain.

This article was commissioned by Historic Royal Palaces in conjunction with the Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber exhibition at Hampton Court Palace, due to run until 3 November 2013.

One thought on “Tales From The Royal Bedchamber – A Revolution Is Born

  1. I cannot imagine such a crowd during the birth, no wonder most of them couldn’t see what was happening … what a dreadful experience for the poor mother. But that was indicative of the era,; nothing was sacred. Very interesting piece.

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