The baby who provoked a revolution

The birth of a male heir to James II of England made possible a permanent Catholic dynasty. Several Protestants echoed Mary and Anne’s doubts that the baby had been smuggled into the bedchamber in the warming pan in front of over forty witnesses — not all of whom were ‘papists’. In order to prevent a Catholic succession, seven Protestant nobles invited William, Prince of Orange to invade the country. Mary backed her husband against her father.

When William invaded, James had the larger army, but though he had much military experience — in 1650 he had served in the French army with General Turenne — he lost his nerve. On 11 December, he threw the Great Seal of the Realm into the Thames and attempted to flee to France but was captured in Kent. William had no intention of executing his father-in-law and allowed him to escape to Paris, where Louis XIV offered him a palace and a pension.

James II with his wife Anne Hyde and their daughters, Mary and Anne

Despite her eighteen questions 1, Mary was upset by the circumstances surrounding the deposition of her father and was torn between concern for him and duty to her husband, but she was convinced that William was working to ‘save the Church and State’. She travelled to England and wrote of her ‘secret joy’ at returning to her homeland, ‘but that was soon checked with the consideration of my father’s misfortunes’. William noted her conflicted state and instructed her to look cheerful when they arrived in London. As a result, she was criticised for appearing cold to her father’s plight. James felt betrayed and savaged Mary in a diatribe, criticising her disloyalty. For her part, she was deeply hurt by his attack.

William and Mary took the throne jointly in 1689 and agreed to a political compromise, which was the final resolution of the Civil War. The Bill of Rights laid out basic rights for all Englishmen and there would be no royal interference with the law; the William and Mary took the throne jointly in 1689 and agreed to a political compromise, which was the final resolution of the Civil War. The Bill of Rights laid out basic rights for all Englishmen and there would be no royal interference with the law; the sovereign remained the fount of justice but could not unilaterally establish new courts or act as a judge. Parliament had to agree to any new taxes. Any sublet.’ tonic’ petition the monarch without fear of retribution and there was to be no standing army unless Parliament agreed. The monarch would not interfere in the election of Members of Parliament. Freedom of speech in Parliament was also guaranteed.

The Bill of Rights barred Roman Catholics from the throne as `it hath been found by experience that it is inconsistent with the safety and welfare of this Protestant kingdom to be governed by a papist Prince’. Now the monarch would have to swear a Coronation oath to uphold the Protestant religion. British democracy slowly evolved from the Bill of Rights to the system we now have. Almost miraculously, Anne now gave birth to a boy, who managed to outlive her previous children. William, Duke of Gloucester was born on 24 July 1689 at Hampton Court. Much of what we know about him comes from a memoir written by a royal servant — Jenkin Lewis — who spent seven years with him.

Prince William, Duke of Gloucester

When William was born, he seemed to be ‘a very weakly child’ and few believed that he would live long. His wet nurse had too large a nipple so a new nurse was found and, for the next six weeks, the baby thrived. All people now began to conceive hopes of the Duke living,’ Lewis wrote, ‘when Lo he was taken with convulsion fits.’ In despair, Anne summoned physicians from London, who recommended an age-old remedy: change the wet nurse. This decision led to a comic parade as mothers of young babies flocked to Hampton Court, hoping to be chosen as the breast fit for royalty; the infant Duke was then passed from breast to breast, testing each potential wet nurse.

The final choice was pure accident. The baby’s father was passing through the room where the would-be wet nurses were lined up, their breasts on display, and spotted a Mrs Pack. The wife of a respectable Quaker from Kingston, one can only imagine her breasts inspired confidence. Prince George at once ordered Mrs Pack into bed with his ailing son, ‘who sucked well and mended that night’.

Mrs Pack was according to Lewis, however, an unpleasant woman who traded on her sudden fame and was ‘fitter to go to a pigsty than to a Prince’s bed’. There was some mystery as to the nature of the illness that William had been suffering from, which caused ‘an issue from his pole’, according to Lewis. Some historians of medicine have assumed this to mean some kind of fluid coming out of his head.

Queen Anne and William, Duke of Gloucester by studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller

After that, William seems to have grown up fairly normally. He began to walk and talk, though his walking was never perfectly normal. In some ways, he was a very active boy, although he could not go tip or down steps without help. Lewis was not sure whether this was a real infirmity or due to ‘the overcare of the ladies about him’. The issue came to a head one day when William’s father believed the boy was shamming and, for the first time in his life, beat him with a birch rod. Following this, the child conceded he might go downstairs just leaning on one person’s arm. ‘He was whipped again and went ever well after,’ Lewis noted.

As pious Protestants, William’s parents felt the boy needed a tutor who would concentrate on religion. Dr Pratt was aptly named, as he did not think the boy should have much fun or play games. For his part, William liked games, especially military ones, and the memoir records him studying the Norman Conquest and planning an invasion of France. A smart tactician, William told Lewis: ‘I go to conquer France but I will burn my shipping so that my men may not desert me by coming back.’ Instead of discussing famous battles, Dr Pratt larded on conventional morality. He asked the boy how he could be a Prince and not be tempted by ‘the pomps and vanities of this world’. `I will walk in God’s commandments and keep his ways,’ William replied smartly. (I like to imagine he sniggered the moment he was out of Pratt’s way.) In 1695, William asked Lewis to help him compose a battle song for his troops. At this, Lewis dashed off eight rhyming couplets starting:

In 1695, William asked Lewis to help him compose a battle song for his troops. At this, Lewis dashed off eight rhyming couplets starting:

Hark Hark the hostile drum alarms

Let ours too beat a call to arms

After Mary died in 1694, William of Orange ruled alone and visited the boy every month. The Prince once made Lewis prepare complex toy fortifications so that he could impress his uncle. William now read the reports in The London Gazette and worked out that they had implications for his own position. When he saw that both Houses had issued a declaration of loyalty, he decided to compose one of his own. It ran: ‘I Your Majesty’s most dutiful subject had rather lose my life in Your Majesty’s cause than in any man else’s and I hope it will not be long ere you conquer France.’

William had no more intention of invading France than going to visit the Pope but his soldier-mad nephew was obviously itching for action. The note continued: ‘We Your Majesty’s dutiful subjects will stand by you as long as we have a drop of blood.’ The boy Prince needed courage as he pluckily endured a succession of illnesses. In the spring of 1696, his eyes swelled and became bloodshot. The Queen sent for Dr John Radcliffe, who prescribed a horrid medicine, which William promptly spat out. Radcliffe then applied blisters to the boy’s back, which made him scream out in pain. The most serious problem, however, was that William seems to have had a bizarrely large head. Some medical historians, like Jack Dewhurst, claim he suffered a mild form of hydrocephalus (water on the brain), but that condition is usually associated with low intelligence. William was certainly not backward, though. Lewis’s memoir makes it clear that he was quick-witted and could learn about the great generals of the past, their tactics and technologies. Fortifications particularly fascinated the boy.

Prince William died close to 1 a.m. on 30 July 1700, with his parents beside him. In the end, the physicians decided the cause of death was “a malignant fever”. An autopsy revealed severe swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck and an abnormal amount of fluid in the ventricles of his brain: “four and a half ounces of a limpid humour were taken out.” A modern diagnosis is that Gloucester died of acute bacterial pharyngitis, with associated pneumonia. Had he lived, though, it is almost certain the prince would have succumbed to complications of his hydrocephalus.

Gloucester’s death destabilised the succession, as his mother was the only person remaining in the Protestant line to the throne established by the Bill of Rights 1689. Although Anne had ten other pregnancies after the birth of Gloucester, all her subsequent children died, either in the womb or immediately after birth.  The English parliament did not want the throne to revert to a Catholic,  so it passed the Act of Settlement 1701, which settled the throne of England on a cousin of King James, Sophia, Electress of Hanover, and her Protestant heirs. Anne succeeded King William in 1702, and reigned until her death on 1 August 1714. Sophia predeceased her by a few weeks, and so Sophia’s son George ascended the throne as the first British monarch of the House of Hanover.


  1. On 12 June 1688, King James II wrote to tell Mary that she now had a brother. Of course, the unhappy sister did not share their father’s joy: they could only see their baby half-brother as a religious and political threat. It would have been polite to congratulate their father and his wife. Instead, Mary sent an extraordinary missive to her sister, days after the birth. In an obsessive inquisition, she set out eighteen questions about the birth, numbering them as Q1 to Q18. The letter reeks of suspicion and malice; it also feels like a daughter’s cry for help after her relationship with her father had forever soured.