The Old Pretender was born amidst controversy as the Warming-pan Baby, and survived against all odds.

James II had produced two daughters, Mary and Anne, from his first marriage to Anne Hyde. They became increasingly important when their uncle Charles II failed to produce a legitimate heir.

Anne died in 1671 but she had supported her husband’s decision to convert to Catholicism causing major problems during James’s reign.

Mary of Modena with her son, James Francis Edward, by Benedetto Gennari the Younger.
Mary of Modena with her son, James Francis Edward, by Benedetto Gennari the Younger.

Mary of Modena

Two years later, James married the fifteen-year-old Mary Beatrice of Modena who was not happy at the prospect of marrying a much older man. She arrived in tears at Dover, and the marriage proved unhappy and unpopular.

Mary Beatrice’s previous pregnancies included miscarriages, stillborns and five children who died in infancy until 1682. Most assumed Mary Beatrice, now in her thirties and in extremely poor health, was unable to produce any more children.

James was over fifty (middle age) and he suffered from venereal disease (the pox) so his chances of fatherhood were even slimmer.

So he took a pilgrimage to St Winifred’s holy well in North Wales in 1687 to plead for an heir, before he accompanied Mary Beatrice, now Queen, to Bath in November where she “took the waters”.

The royal family’s doctor, Lord Ailesbury, officially confirmed the Queen’s pregnancy in December.

Mary Beatrice had conceived early in September 1687, but she waited until she was absolutely sure before announcing the good news. Mary’s English doctors assumed the baby wasn’t due until July 1688 due to her reluctance to discuss such personal information.

The English Protestants refused to believe the pregnancy was genuine as they assumed it was another Catholic plot to subvert the laws and religion, so a huge black propaganda campaign began.

Portrait of Queen Anne of Great Britain, 1687 by William Wissing
Portrait of Queen Anne of Great Britain, 1687 by William Wissing

Anne included vicious comments denying the Queen’s pregnancy in her letters to Mary Princess of Orange.

Mary Beatrice’s pregnancy appeared suspiciously trouble-free despite her previous gynaecological history. James also appeared too confident as Jesuit monks prophesied the birth of a boy and the continuation of a Catholic dynasty—causing greater alarm for James’s Protestant subjects.

A thanksgiving service was held in St James’s Piccadilly to celebrate the Queen’s quickening.

James heard the vicious rumours and regarded them as a bad joke. He even mentioned them to Anne, completely unaware she was spreading them or inventing others.

Prince of Wales

The Queen’s pains began around 10.00 am, throwing the court into confusion, so a small room in St James’s Palace was quickly chosen as the birthing chamber, as the royal apartments at Whitehall (undergoing renovations) were unavailable to use. The Privy Council were quickly summoned, but Anne was taking the waters in Bath and unable to attend.

Mary Beatrice endured extreme labour pains and uncomfortable due to lack of air, as the room was very stuffy. The windows were closed for “health reasons” and a fire burned for an hour whilst 29 witnesses jostled to witness the birth.

Queen Mary II by Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680)
Queen Mary II by Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680)

The prince was born before midday on 10 June 1688, with a mass of pimples covering his tiny face, and he was christened James Francis Edward according to Catholic rites.

James was so overjoyed that he hugged the Modenese agent, Gaspard Rizzini, standing nearby as the child was immediately washed and robed.

The baby suffered from colic—thanks to the doctors’ extreme stupidity by feeding him a disgusting gruel of barley flower and oatmeal past, sugared currants and canary wine.

James intervened when he realised the baby needed ordinary breast milk and quickly arranged a wet-nurse to feed the child, and saved his son’s life.

The Prince of Wales’ birth was usually a cause for celebration but James Francis Edward’s birth had the opposite effect as it reopened the succession issue. James Francis Edward took precedence over Mary.

Main gate of St James's Palace, London. Image by ChrisO
Main gate of St James’s Palace, London. Image by ChrisO

William of Orange was not happy about his wife’s dispossession and regarded the new Prince of Wales’ birth as an act of aggression.

The King’s joy was short-lived when his opponents refused to tolerate his government any longer, and launched a scathing attack on the prince’s legitimacy as heir—claiming the prince was a changeling smuggled into the birthing chamber in a warming-pan.

Some said no one heard the baby crying loudly—regarded as a sign of deception.

James responded by calling an urgent Privy Council meeting to end to these rumours. The chief midwife, Mrs Dawson, and the other witnesses were called to give evidence, including the woman who saw the child attached to the umbilical cord.

Exile in France

James was deposed during the Glorious Revolution when William of Orange was invited to invade. Parliament declared James’s abdication in December.

Mary Beatrice and her infant son were forced to flee from St James’s Palace in the pouring rain as they were driven to Gravesend, where they set sail during a terrible storm to France. It was a miracle the six-month-old baby survived such a journey.

King James II of England and VII of Scotland. Portrait by Nicolas de Largillière, c 1686.
King James II of England and VII of Scotland. Portrait by Nicolas de Largillière, c 1686.


Callow, John, James II: The Triumph and the Tragedy, The National Archives, Kew, 2005

Crofton, Ian, The Kings and Queens of England, Quercus, London, 2006

Erickson, Carolly, Royal Panoply, St Martin’s Press, New York, 2003

Lees-Milne, James, The Last Stuarts, Chatto & Windus (The Hogarth Press), London, 1983

Schama, Simon, A History of Britain: The British Wars 1603-1776, Volume 2, BBC Worldwide Ltd, London, 2001

Starkey, David, Monarchy: From the Middle Ages To Modernity, HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2006

Weir, Alison, Britain’s Royal Families: The Complete Genealogy, Vintage Books, London, 2008

© 2010 Carolyn M Cash

This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 29 May 2010.

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