When Catherine Elizabeth Middleton walks down the aisle at Westminster Abbey and marries Prince William tomorrow, she will be the first non-aristocratic commoner to marry an heir to the British throne since Anne Hyde married James, Duke of York (the future James II). While Lady Diana Spencer and the Queen Mother were commoners, they were both aristocrats. Diana was the daughter of Earl Spencer while the Queen Mother was the daughter of the Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne. What’s that you say, what about Camilla? Well, she is descended from George Keppel, brother of the Earl of Albemarle, so she doesn’t count either.
In 1656, Anne accompanied the Princess Royal on her visit to Paris to visit the Queen Mother. It was there that she met the Duke of York. Although their acquaintance was brief, she must have made quite the impression on him, because when they met 3 years later not only did James seduce Anne but he also allegedly entered into a secret engagement with her. Although Anna was plump and considered plain by some, she was also witty, gay and well-educated, qualities that James himself decidedly lacked. James himself later wrote of his future wife that ‘besides her person, she possessed all the qualities proper to inflame a heart less susceptible than his, with the fire of love.’ In 1659, marrying Anne probably didn’t seem like such a big deal, the Restoration seemed like a pipe dream not a reality. Apparently, it was also the only way that James could get Anne into bed.
At this point, his friends helped out by claiming that all five of them could be the father of Anne’s child. Harry Killigrew said that, ‘he had found the critical minute in a certain closet built over water for a purpose very different from that of giving ease to the pains of love.’ Um, TMI! Another alleged lover Sir Charles Berkeley offered to marry Anne to save the Prince from a wife who was “so wholly unworthy of him.” Although the marriage wouldn’t be announced officially until the end of December in 1660, word soon went around the court, setting tongues awag at the juicy news. The idea of a royal prince marrying a commoner was absurd, especially one as dumpy as Anne. Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary a remark made by the Earl of Sandwich when he heard the news, “that he doth get a wench with child and marries her afterward, it is as if a man should shit in his hat and then wear it.”
In October 1660, Anne gave birth to son, who later died in infancy, insisting even during labor that not only was the Duke of York the father of her child but he was also her lawful husband. Finally Charles decided to step in. He informed his brother that ‘He must drink as he had brewed and live with her whom he had made his wife.’ Subsequently Berkeley and the others withdrew their claims. Three days after the official announcement, the Princess Royal died of smallpox lamenting the horrible things she had said about her former maid of honor. Only the Queen Mother was a hold-out but finally even she grudgingly agreed to receive Anne, claiming that she ‘always liked her from the beginning.’ Hypocrite much?
But in the end, it would be Anne’s daughters, first Mary and then Anne who sat on the throne of England.
John Miller: James II (Yale English Monarchs), Yale University Press, New Haven 1978
Jock Haswell: James II, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1972
Anne Somerset: Ladies in Waiting, From the Tudors to the Present Day, Phoenix 1984