Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Birth of the Prince of Wales

On 10 June Mary of Modena gave birth (very publicly and a month earlier than expected) to a son, christened James Francis Edward, opening up the prospect of a Catholic dynasty. Mary and Anne were displaced, as was Mary’s husband, William. Mary and Anne were both firmly convinced that the pregnancy was false and the child spurious. James was thought to be unhealthy and the queen’s medical history seemed to make pregnancy unlikely. Anne, who was in Bath and therefore did not witness the birth, believed she had been duped over the dates. Mary was therefore very ready to believe that she had been cheated of her inheritance and that the Church of England was in grave danger. Her belief was reinforced a series of scurrilous Dutch pamphlets.

The story that an infant had been smuggled into the queen's bed in a warming pan is, of course, without foundation. The interesting question is why so many people believed - or, more accurately, needed to believe - such an absurd fabrication!

On 29 June the seven bishops were brought from the Tower to Westminster Hall to be tried in front of a large and partisan crowd, who hissed Sunderland (who had just become a Catholic) when he gave evidence. Two of the four judges condemned the dispensing power: ‘If this once be allowed of, there will need no Parliament’ all the legislature will be in the King’. On 30 June the jury acquitted them of seditious libel. When informed, James said, ‘So much the worse for them’. ‘In fact he had written his own epitaph.’ That night there were bonfires in London.

On 30 June seven leading Protestants representing Whig and Tory opinion (Edward Russell, Henry Sidney, Lord Lumley, Bishop Compton and the earls of Shrewsbury, Devonshire and Danby) wrote to William of Orange pledging their support if he brought a force to England against James. They told William that he had been wrong to compliment James on the birth of his son and that ‘nineteen parts of twenty of the people … are desirous of a change.’ But William’s decision had already been made. The letter from the ‘Immortal Seven’ had come as no surprise.