Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Mary of Modena, Duchess of York c1673

Studio of Sir Peter Lely (1618-80)

Portrait of Mary of Modena, Duchess of York, Studio of Sir Peter Lely
Oil on canvas
17th Century
75 x 63.5 cm, 29 ½ x 25 inches
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When Mary of Modena first learnt that she was to be married to James, Duke of York – the future James II – she burst into tears. Her original wish was to enter a convent, and she tried repeatedly to persuade James’ emissary, the Earl of Peterborough, that she was unwilling to marry, least of all a man she had never met. However, James, heir to Charles II, and by then openly Catholic, was in desperate need of a suitable Catholic wife, and the match was viewed by her family as a good one. Mary was prevailed upon to marry James by proxy, and left for London in late 1673.

As a future Catholic Queen, whose main purpose was to produce James’ longed for Catholic male heir, Mary endured a hostile reception in Protestant England. She was lampooned in the press, and forced to practice mass in private. Nonetheless, she and James swiftly proceeded with the matter at hand, and the couple announced their first pregnancy in early 1674. Unfortunately, Mary suffered numerous miscarriages and rarely saw her children survive beyond a few days. When in 1685 she became Queen, therefore, she came to the throne without a child, and the succession seemed destined to pass to James two Protestant daughters by his first marriage to Anne Hyde, Mary and Anne.

When the Queen finally gave birth to a son (James) in 1688, the prospect of a secured Catholic succession alarmed the political class. Rumours were quickly spread to undermine the birth, and the baby was alleged to have been smuggled into the Queen’s bed in a warming pan. The many Protestant witnesses who were forced to be present at the child’s birth stood with their backs to the bed, in order to avoid being called as witnesses to the Prince’s legitimacy. The ensuing chaos served as the perfect excuse for William of Orange, husband of James’ elder daughter, Mary, to launch an invasion, and by the end of the year James II had been forced to flee to France. Mary herself had had to escape from St James’ Palace disguised as a washerwoman. From then, until her death in 1718, Mary’s life was spent in exile at the Chateau de Saint-Germain-en-Laye near Paris, where she ceaselessly promoted the cause of her husband and, from 1701, her son, in their fruitless attempts to regain the throne.

This painting is one of the best known likenesses of Mary, and is based on Lely’s original work of c.1673 [Private Collection, formerly with Philip Mould Ltd], painted shortly after Mary’s marriage. Of all the portraits of Mary of Modena, Lely’s early examples are among the most engaging, not least because they present a human view of a young girl who only a couple of years previously had been expecting to follow her religious vocation as a nun.
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