What Did the Old Pretender Pretend?

Prince James Francis Edward Stuart studio of Alexis Simon Belle. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery. (NPG348)

The story of England’s Glorious Revolution is generally summarized as follows:

In 1688, the Protestant nobility of England, outraged by attacks on their constitution, rose up against the man usually described as the last Stuart king, James II, and offered his throne to his daughter and son-in-law, William and Mary of Orange.* James fled to France with his wife and infant son, James. For the rest of their lives, James Francis Edward Stuart and his son Charles Edward Stuart, known as the Old Pretender and the New Pretender**, attempted to regain the British throne. I’ve always assumed that the title Pretender referred simply to their efforts to reclaim the throne. It turns out the story is a little more complicated, as is so often the case.

The first thing you need to remember about James II is that he converted to Catholicism before he became the king of England. Today that would be a matter of personal choice, but in seventeenth century England it was a red flag. Popery and absolute monarchy were linked in the public’s imagination and neither were popular.   Got it?

In 1673, James, then the Duke of York and heir presumptive to the British throne, married the (Catholic) Italian princess Mary Beatrice d’Este. She was his second wife and, at fifteen, only four years older than his oldest daughter, Mary. *** In 1676, she gave birth to a son who lived only a few days. For the next twelve years, the couple remained childless****–a fact that reconciled English Protestants to his succession to the throne in 1685. After all, Catholic James would be succeeded by the devoutly Anglican Mary and her Calvinist husband William.

In 1687, Mary Beatrice visited the spa city of Bath, not yet the popular resort it would become in the Georgian period, and took the waters. Late that year, the royal couple joyfully announced the Queen was pregnant. The popular reception was mixed. English Catholics were elated. English Protestants were not; if the Queen gave birth to a healthy son it would mean a new Catholic dynasty on the throne. Bath’s PR people credited the waters with restoring her fertility. English Protestants began to comment on Bath’s then reputation for licentious behavior and began to murmur about the “suppositious baby”. Rumors spread that James was not the father. Others said the Queen was not even pregnant. In Holland, James’ daughter Mary was convinced that it was a plot to trick her out of her inheritance.

After the Prince of Wales was born, an even wilder rumor took hold. James’ opponents claimed that a male baby was smuggled into the Queen’s chamber in a warming pan to replace her stillborn child. Witnesses to the birth testified before a Privy Council meeting, but the rumors continued. As far as Protestant England was concerned, the “warming pan baby” was a pretender to the throne.

In order to avoid such questions in the future, the Home Secretary attended all subsequent royal births until that of the current Prince of Wales.

* Technically, William and Mary were Stuart rulers and so was their successor, Queen Anne, but these little details are often lost in the synopsis version of history.

** Aka Bonnie Prince Charlie

***James introduced his daughters to their new step-mother saying, “I have provided you with a playfellow.”

**** Not for want of trying. Between the death of her first child in 1676 and the birth of the Old Pretender, Mary suffered miscarriages, still-births and the death of four additional infants.


  1. Jessica @ Quirky Bookworm on March 11, 2013 at 10:57 pm

    Your third footnote just made me spit out water. Hahahaha.

    • pamela on March 12, 2013 at 12:56 am

      Sounds like my work here is done. 🙂

  2. History A’la Carte 3-14-13 | Maria Grace on March 14, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    […] What Did the Old Pretender Pretend? […]

    • Crystal Bruce on November 2, 2016 at 6:15 pm

      Nothing. It was just the Protestant English that did NOT want him on the throne.

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