There have been two people in my life whom I have loved beyond all others, and it has always weighed heavily upon me that I was called upon to decide between them and, in choosing one, I betrayed the other. I did what my heart, my faith, my sense of duty dictated and ever since I have suffered from the torment of knowing of the pain I inflicted and from which I myself will suffer to the end of my days.
I want to go right back to the beginning, to project myself into the past, to see it more clearly than I could when it was happening. I want to ask myself: what should I have done?
I was born in St. James’s Palace at a time when my birth was of little interest to any except my parents, for a most significant event was taking place. My uncle, King Charles, recently restored to his throne after more than ten years’ exile, was about to marry the Infanta of Portugal—an event which generated great excitement and expectation throughout the country. In any case, I was only a girl, and fifteen months after my birth, a boy was born to my parents, a fact which robbed my birth of any importance it might have had.
In the beginning the world was a wonderful place; the days were full of sunshine; I was surrounded by people who loved me and, being cherished by all, I was led to believe that the world had been created for my pleasure.
The best times of all were when my parents visited us. Everyone was so respectful to them that I quickly realized how important they were. My mother would take me up into her arms. She was like a big soft cushion into which I could sink with a feeling of cozy security. She would caress me, murmur words of love to me and pop a sweetmeat into my mouth and show me in a hundred ways how much she loved me. But the most important of all was my father. When he came into the nursery crying: “Where is my little daughter? Where is the Lady Mary?” I would stagger or toddle and later run to him, and he would pick me up and set me on his shoulder so that I could look down on everything from my lofty perch. I loved all those around me but no one so much as I loved my father.
Once I heard someone say: “The Duke loves the little Mary beyond all others.”
I never forgot that and I used to say it to myself when I was in my bed alone. I would listen for his coming; and often in later years, when I was haunted by memories of the fate which had overtaken him, I would recall those days and, sickened with doubts and self- reproaches, I would contemplate the part I had played in his tragedy.
How often then did I sigh for those days of my youthful innocence, when I thought the world a beautiful place in which I should be happy forever.
When he visited us he would not let me out of his sight. I remember an occasion when he even received some of his officers to discuss some naval matter and he kept me there with him. He was Lord High Admiral of England then and I remember his seating me on the table while he talked to them; and, to please him, I know now, the men commented on the extraordinary intelligence, vitality and charm of his daughter—and how delighted he was.
Sometimes it is difficult to know whether I really remember certain incidents from those days or whether they were talked of so frequently that I convince myself I do.
There is a miniature of me painted by Nechscher, a Flemish artist of whom my father thought highly. I am holding a black rabbit. They told me how my father used to join us at the sittings and watch me fondly while the artist was working. In my mind’s eye I can see him clearly, but was I really aware of him at the time?
There are some days which I do remember and I can be certain of this. I was nearly three years old. It was cold, for it was the month of February. I knew something important was taking place. Snatches of overheard conversations came to me.
“I hope the Duke and Duchess will get what they want this time.”
“Well, I don’t know. The boys are sickly and I reckon he wouldn’t change the Lady Mary for all the boys in Christendom.”
When my father came to see me, after the usual rapturous greeting, he said: “You will be happy to hear, my daughter, that you have a little sister.”
I remember my bewilderment. A little sister? I already had a little brother. There were always nurses around him and he did not mean a great deal to me.
“She will join you here,” went on my father, “and you will love her dearly.”
“You love her?” I asked.
I must have shown my father that I feared she might supplant me in his affections, for he gave me a smile of immediate understanding.
“I love her,” he said. “But whoever came, it would always be the Lady Mary who had first place in my heart.”
Excitement followed. Young as I was, I was to stand as sponsor for my sister; and Anne Scot, the Duchess of Buccleugh, was to be the other. Later I learned that this honor had been bestowed on her because she had recently married my cousin Jemmy, who had become the Duke of Monmouth.
I certainly remember that occasion well. It was presided over by Gilbert Sheldon, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, a very stern and formidable man of whom I should have been very much in awe but for the presence of my powerful father who would never be stern with me, or allow anyone else to be.
The new baby was christened Anne, after our mother, and in due course she joined the nursery at Twickenham.
The house in Twickenham belonged to my grandfather—my mother’s father, the Earl of Clarendon. He was a very important man, I realized, though I saw him rarely. There was another grandfather, whose name was always spoken in hushed whispers, because he was dead, and when I was very young indeed, I knew there had been something very shocking about his death.
Some people called him The Martyr. Later I learned that he had been king and that wicked men had cut off his head. I shivered every time I rode past that spot in Whitehall where they had performed this dreadful deed.
I was growing very fond of the new baby. My sister Anne was a placid child. She rarely cried and smiled readily. She was always eager for her food and everyone was delighted because of this. I was with her a great deal, and thought of her as my baby. She seemed to like me to sit near her cradle. She gripped my finger in her dimpled hand so tightly when I held it out to her and I found that endearing.
And then suddenly the peace of Twickenham was shattered. There was commotion everywhere; people were running back and forth, all talking at once. I had to find out what was wrong.
Then I heard that one of the maids had been found dead in her bed. There was no mystery as to how this had happened. It seemed they had thought we were safe at Twickenham, but the dreaded plague which had been sweeping through London had reached us here.
“The Plague!” Those words were on everybody’s lips.
My parents arrived. I was caught up in my father’s arms. Anne and my brother were examined by our mother. My father did the same to me.
“Praise be to God!” he cried. “Mary is well. And Anne and the boy?”
“All is well,” said my mother.
“There is no time to be lost. We must leave at once.”
The next thing I remember is riding away from Twickenham and on to York.
I was happy in York. The time sped by. We saw our parents more often there, although my father was absent now and then for long spells which seemed intolerable. The Fleet was at that time stationed on the East Coast and he was often with it.
There was war as well as plague. We knew little of that in York until we heard of the glorious victories not only off the coast of Lowestoft but also at Solebay.
These names sent a glow of pride in me for years after because my father was always mentioned in connection with them. He had been in charge of the Fleet which had beaten our wicked enemies, the Dutch. I loved to hear of his successes. I only regretted that he had to go so far away from us to do these wonderful deeds.
I heard one of the attendants say: “These victories will bring a little comfort, and the Lord knows, we need it in these terrible times.”
I had heard only a little of the scourge which was sweeping through the country and devastating the capital. All it meant to me was that we had had to leave in a hurry for York, where I saw more of my parents than I had in Twickenham. It was only after that I heard accounts of the red crosses on the doors with the words “God have Mercy on us,” which meant that there was plague in the house. I did not hear until much later of the macabre death carts which roamed the streets, and the dismal cry of “Bring out your dead,” and how the bodies which were piled into those carts were taken to pits outside the city walls where they were hastily buried.
It was much later when I heard of the terrible tragedy which had followed the plague year, when London faced another monumental catastrophe and was almost completely destroyed by fire.
And when I did hear in lurid detail of the horrors of those burning buildings, of weeping, homeless people, of the crafts on the river into which they crowded with as many of their belongings as they could hope to save, my thoughts were dominated by two men, the brothers who had gone out unceremoniously into the streets, wigless, short sleeves rolled up, sweat streaming from their faces while they gave instructions and supervised the blowing up of buildings to make gaps and so stop the fire spreading further. For those two men were the King and my father, his brother, the Duke of York.
He was a hero, my clever, wonderful father. He had saved the country from the Dutch at Lowestoft and Solebay as he had helped to save London from that all-consuming fire.
Of course, I learned all this later. In the meantime I was kept in my cocoon of safety.
The memories of York were of days of great happiness, broken only by occasional clouds when my father disappeared for a while. Then I heard that his absences would be even longer, because the King had summoned him to attend Parliament, which was now held in Oxford, because of the state of the capital.
Then my dismay was great, but he consoled me by saying he would come to see me whenever he could.
“When you are older, I will tell you all about it,” he said. “Now all you have to do is wait and as soon as I am free I shall be here to see my little Lady Mary.”
“I will come with you to Oxford,” I said hopefully.
“Ah! What a pleasure that would be!” he replied, smiling. “But, alas, there is no place for little girls in the King’s Parliament. But one day . . . soon . . . we shall all be together . . . your little brother, your little sister, your mother . . . the whole family of York.”
It was a long time before we were.
And so I was growing up. There were times when I was vaguely aware of trouble. My grandfather Clarendon suddenly disappeared from the scene. We had never seen a great deal of him, but it seemed strange when his name ceased to be mentioned. I knew he had been very important and Lord Chancellor and a friend of the King and my father, having been with them when they were in exile. He was my mother’s father, so it seemed strange that we should stop speaking of him.
I did hear someone say that he was lucky to have escaped to exile before he lost his head. There was enough against him to bring about his downfall, and his continual carping at the King’s way of life meant that even that long-suffering monarch was eager to be rid of him.
I was bemused by these scraps of gossip which I tried hard to understand. I had one grandfather who had lost his head; and here was another who, it appeared, had escaped in time before being deprived of his.
I knew my mother was deeply affected by his departure and I believed my father was, too.
But when they were with us, they were always their affectionate selves. I think my sister, Anne, was my mother’s favorite, though Anne did not resemble her at all except in looks. I had heard it said: “The Lady Mary is Stuart from head to toe. The Lady Anne is a Hyde.” I was tall and at that age slender, dark-haired with rather long almond-shaped eyes. Anne was always plump; her hair was light brown with a reddish tinge in it. I was pale; she was rosy. She would have been very pretty but for a slight deformity of the eyes. Her lids were contracted a little which gave her a rather vague look. It had affected her sight in some way.
Anne was very good-natured, rarely cross and fundamentally lazy. She did not like trouble of any sort and, in her sunny, good-natured way, she made a very good job of avoiding it. When she was tired of doing something, and as we grew older that particularly meant lessons, she made the excuse that her eyes hurt.
We were very happy together in those days. She laughed at me for wanting to learn about everything.
“You do it, sister,” she would say, “and then you can tell me all about it.”
I quickly realized that my mother was reckoned to be clever. It was true that she often decided what was to be done. My father used to say: “You are right, of course, my dear.” She was very friendly with a great number of the serious people at court. I had heard the King refer to her as “my serious-minded, clever sister-in-law.” I was rather surprised that she should have doted so fondly on Anne, who had little to say and refused to learn. Their only common interest seemed to be their love of sweet foods. Many times I had seen them sitting close, a dish of sweetmeats between them, and they would be eating all the time.
There was an occasion when the physicians pointed out that my sister was growing unhealthily fat and could damage her health if she did not give up the habit of consuming sweetmeats at every opportunity.
My mother was frightened. Perhaps she blamed herself for allowing her daughter to share her own weakness. In any case, Anne was sent away for a while with one of my mother’s ladies. She was to be watchful of what Anne ate and my mother could trust her friends to keep a sharper eye on my sister in a different house than in her own, for there she suspected that her friends would give way to her pleadings for more of the sweetmeats she loved so much.
I was very sad to lose my sister. Life was not the same without her good-natured smiles. I pictured her on a strict diet, deprived of her sweetmeats. Perhaps she was taking it all in her good-tempered manner.
It was a happy day when she returned, good-natured as ever and, if not exactly thin, less rotund than she had been.
Everyone declared that the cure had been a miraculous one, but it soon became clear that the temptation presented by a dish of sweetmeats was still irresistible. However, we were all so delighted to have her back that we could only smile at her indulgences.
During Anne’s absence I missed her so much that my parents decided I must have a companion to compensate me for the loss of my sister and, to my great joy, Anne Trelawny joined the household. She was a few years older than I and we were firm friends from the beginning. It was wonderful to have someone to confide in; and Anne was sympathetic, understanding and all that I could ask for in a friend.
My sister Anne must always have what I had and when she came home and saw that I had a friend, she must have one too.
She made this desire known to our mother who immediately set about looking for someone suitable.
She had been particularly interested in one of the maids of honor, a certain Frances Jennings who came from a family of somewhat obscure origins. It was something of a mystery that she should be received at court, but Frances herself was very engaging—not exactly beautiful, but attractive and quick-witted. My mother, herself of a lively mind, liked to have people of her own sort about her, and she was more attracted to intelligence than ancient lineage. Hence she took a special interest in Frances and when a connection of the noble house of Hamilton was attracted by her, my mother helped to advance the match.
Frances had a younger sister, Sarah, whom she was anxious to bring to court and when the young girl was introduced to my mother, she found her very bright indeed. She was about five years older than my sister Anne, which seemed no drawback, and she would, my mother was sure, be a lively, entertaining companion for our somewhat lethargic Anne.
A position in our household was naturally accepted with alacrity by the ambitious Frances for her sister, and I am sure now that from the moment Sarah entered our household, she was fully aware of the advantages which had opened up for her.
She knew exactly how to behave with Anne and, almost from the day of her arrival, they were the closest friends. We were a happy quartet: Anne Trelawny and myself, my sister Anne and Sarah Jennings.
Then a certain anxiety crept into my mind. I felt something was not quite right. My mother had changed. She seemed a little absent-minded at times. She would smile and nod but her thoughts seemed elsewhere. In spite of her plumpness, there was a drawn look about her face. I noticed that its color had changed. Her skin had a strange yellowish tinge and now and then she would put her hand to her breast and wince.
I thought at first that she was anxious because her father had gone away, and when I thought of what I should feel if I lost mine, I could understand her sorrow. But there was only one Duke of York and Lady Mary; and no father and daughter loved each other as we did. My mother had lost her father, who had run away to save his head. But there was something else. Once I saw her walking in the gardens with Father Hunt, a Franciscan; and they were talking earnestly together.
I knew that Father Hunt was a Catholic and I was sure that Gilbert Sheldon, Archbishop of Canterbury, would not be very pleased to see my mother in close conversation with him. Then I saw my father join them and the three of them walked off talking closely together.
I did not think very much about that at the time, until I heard that the people did not like my uncle’s marriage to Catherine of Braganza, because she was a Catholic, and the English did not like Catholics.
This and the change in my mother’s looks were like vague shadows, but so slight that they did not linger long in the warm sunshine of those happy days.
My mother was going to have a baby. That was the reason for her being ill, I supposed. She was so plump and her figure so round that her pregnancy was scarcely noticeable.
Anne and I eagerly waited to hear whether we should have a little brother or sister. We hoped for a sister. Brothers were a disappointment. They were always ill.
To our delight it was a little girl. They named her Catherine, in honor of the Queen.
We talked a great deal about her—or rather, I talked and Anne listened. Anne preferred to listen. Sometimes I thought she was getting more and more lazy.
My father came to see us. It was a cold day in March and the year was 1671. I was at that time nearly nine years old and Anne already six. I was greatly alarmed because I saw the pain and suffering in my father’s face.
He sat down and, putting an arm round each of us, drew us to him and held us closely. Sobs shook his body. I was filled with horror as well as sadness to see my invincible hero so broken with grief.
“My dearest daughters,” he said. “The most terrible of calamities has befallen us. How can I tell you? Your mother . . . your mother . . .”
I kissed him tenderly, which only made him weep the more.
He said: “Children, you have no mother now.”
“Where has she gone?” asked Anne.
“To heaven, my child.”
“Dead . . . ?” I whispered.
“But she was here . . .”
“She was so brave. She knew it could not be long. She was very ill indeed. There was nothing that could be done to save her. My children, you have only your father now.”
I clung to him; so did Anne.
He told us that he had been with her at the end. She had died in his arms. She had died happy . . . in the way she wished. We must try not to grieve. We must think of her happy with the angels in the true faith of the Lord.
We were bewildered. We could not believe that we should never see our mother again. Neither of us could visualize what our lives would be like without her. There would be changes.
We were soon to discover that.
We had lost her, yes. But there was something more than that. What we did not know then was that, on her deathbed, she had received the viaticum of the Church of Rome and that my father was also wavering towards the Catholic faith.
Unfortunately, my father was not keeping this a secret. He was too honest. He believed he would be false to his faith if he tried to disguise it. I was to learn that he was a man of very little judgment. Already he had taken the first step which was to lead to disaster. And we children, because he was after all his brother’s heir, were not without importance to the State.
So there were changes. In view of his religious leanings, which were becoming public knowledge, the Duke of York could no longer be allowed to supervise his children’s upbringing, and because of their position in the country, it was necessary for the King to take the matter in hand.
Excerpted from The Queen's Devotion by Jean Plaidy. Copyright © 2008 by Jean Plaidy. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.