Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Babies, warming pans, and wars.

by Tim Vicary

This is the story of a baby who wasn't born at all - or at least, not when his mother said he was. (And she wasn't his mother anyway, so what did she know?) That, amazingly, seems to have been the view of many people in England at the time - perhaps the majority view.

Or to put it another way, it's the story of sixty people - adult men and women - many of whom refused to believe their own eyes.

And so, to prove that this baby hadn't been born - even though it had happened right in front of their own eyes - they raised an army, invaded a country, and deposed a king.
King James II
So what was it all about? 

Well, here's the story. In 1685, Charles II died, and his brother James became king. Unfortunately, King James II was a Roman Catholic.  This made him hugely unpopular with most of the English ruling class, who hated and feared Catholicism -  just as many people fear Islam today - so the idea of a Catholic king was anathema to them. 

In Charles II's reign, there had been a determined attempt to exclude his brother James from the succession. As soon as James was crowned his Protestant nephew, the Duke of Monmouth, led a rebellion against him.

When Monmouth was executed, James seemed secure. His opponents consoled themselves with the thought that James' heirs - his two daughters, Mary and Anne - were both loyal Anglicans with staunch Protestant husbands. So all they had to do was wait a few years for James to die and everything would be all right again.

Mary of Modena
But then - oh dear - James' second wife, Mary of Modena, became pregnant. At first this wasn't too much of a worry because Mary was well into her forties and had suffered a number of miscarriages and still-births already. 

But while her husband proceeded with his plans to reintroduce Catholic officers to his army and Catholic clergy into the universities, the baby in Mary's womb grew steadily bigger. The bigger her belly, the more the public worried. What if she gave birth to a Catholic prince? That would change everything. In their minds people saw a long line of Catholic kings stretching into the future.

Some of their fears were real, others imaginary. The real fears were that England could be plunged into religious war, like those which had convulsed Europe for the past century. Millions on both sides had been massacred. The English Civil War had been partly about religion. And just over the Channel, French Protestants - Huguenots - were being forcibly converted, imprisoned and tortured by the agents of King Louis XIV. Many fled to England with genuine tales of terror.

But there were imaginary terrors too. The reign of Charles II had been disfigured by fantasists like Titus Oates, whose lies about non-existent Catholic plots had sent many innocent men to the scaffold. Many believed the Great Fire of London, even the Plague, were spread by Catholics. To the London mob, Catholics were monsters, like Jews in Nazi Germany.

And here was the Queen about to give birth to one! It was such an awful thought that many people refused to believe it.  After all, the last Catholic queen - Bloody Mary - had claimed she was pregnant too. And it had all turned out to be a fantasy, a dropsy, a joke. Surely this would be the same.

Plans were laid to ensure that 'unbiased' witnesses - respectable Protestants - would be on hand to witness the birth. The Archbishop of Canterbury, for instance, and King James' second daughter, Princess Anne.

But the Queen went into labour a month early, while Princess Anne was still in Bath, taking the waters. On the evening of 9th June 1688, Queen Mary was playing cards in Whitehall until midnight. Then, as her labour started, an ambulance (a sedan chair!) was hurriedly called to carry her to St James' Palace and messengers were sent running hither and thither to summon help and witnesses. Lots of them. A really enormous number of people.

Poor lady - she gave birth in front of no less than sixty people!!

She had two midwives, Mrs De Labadie and Mrs Wilkins, who each received 500 guineas. There were doctors too, and priests, and Lords of the Privy Council, and Ladies of the Bedchamber. Presumably the King was there too (a new man!) and a few servants to light the fire and change the sheets. If it had been possible to invite a TV crew they would have done that too, no doubt.

Or perhaps not. Because even though the Queen gave birth in as public a way as it is possible to imagine, many people still refused to believe it. Princess Anne said it must be a conspiracy to pretend the birth had come early while she was in Bath and couldn't witness it. The Archbishop of Canterbury had been arrested the day before (about something quite different) so he wasn't present either. And the royal obstetrician, Dr Hugh Chamberlen, missed the birth too because no-one could find him - he was attending another birth in Chatham.

Weapon of mass deception
So there you are, people cried. It's obviously not true - it's a conspiracy, a fraud! (Dan Brown would have had a field day.) Gilbert Burnet, a prominent churchman, said the Queen had deliberately sent Dr Chamberlen away so that she could deceive everyone by smuggling in a changeling. 

And why were so many of the witnesses Catholics? Why hadn't the King invited the Dutch ambassador, for instance? No, only a fool would believe the Queen had actually given birth as she claimed. The baby wasn't hers at all.  They'd smuggled one into the bed in a warming pan.

Dr Burnet, who was in Holland at the time, was quite certain of this.

And so the evidence of sixty eye-witnesses counted for nothing. Not even the evidence of the vociferously Protestant midwife, Mrs Wilkins, who surely ought to know what had happened if anyone did. She protested to Dr Chamberlen:  'Alas, will they not let the poor infant alone! I am certain no such thing as the bringing of a strange child in a warming-pan could be practised without my seeing it; attending constantly in and about all the avenues of the chamber.'

Crazy, isn't it? People just believed what they wanted to believe. Nothing like that could happen today, surely? We're far more rational now. Ah, but bear with me. Here's a thought. Far-fetched, I admit, but still ...

Ten years ago, British and American soldiers invaded Iraq. (I told you my idea was far-fetched - a giant leap across centuries!) Why? Because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Almost everyone believed that; even the protesters. I certainly believed it, and so did George Bush and Tony Blair.  I don't think they lied; they deceived themselves. They believed what they wanted to believe, because they were afraid of another, bigger 9/11.

Oh dear, I'm in seriously hot water now. Let's jump swiftly back to 1688. What happened as a result of this earlier bout of mass self-deception, this refusal to believe a baby prince had been born? Well, a large force gathered in Holland, sailed across the Channel and landed in Torbay, England. King James II fled, and was replaced, at Parliament's invitation, by his daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange--the throne, with strings attached. This was the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689.
James III - 

So there you have it: the invasion of a foreign country, regime change, and a change in the balance of power between monarch and Parliament. Coincidence, or what? All because of a bout of self-deception.

Amazing what a warming pan can do. Especially when it wasn't there at all.


You read about Tim Vicary's books on his website and his blog 


  1. What happened to the baby Tim? Who was he? And what a fantastic post. Thanks, about to tweet.

    1. He was James III, the bonny lad in the last picture. He grew up to be the Old Pretender, father of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

  2. Great post - Even the baby's half sister, Queen Anne refused to acknowledge him and wouldn't name him as her heir, due to the English aversion to Catholics even though all her babies [17 of them] had died - thus the Hanoverians were brought in - and what a strange bunch some of them were. Poor Mary of Modena's only way to disprove the doubters was to have a daughter, and she died at 19.

  3. Yes. If you were that way inclined, you could almost think Anne was being punished by a particularly vindictive deity.

  4. I thought Mary of Modena was only about 30 when she had James III? She was about 25 years younger than her husband.

  5. Well done! Thank you for the enlightening post.

  6. Which James was it who was nicknamed James the Shit (Seumas an Chaca)? Anyway, an interesting article about the beginnings of a source of great music.

  7. One could argue that the Glorious Revolution occurred because the Protestant Powers did believe in the birth of the Catholic Prince and wanted to stop him becoming a Catholic King. However, they would have been more secure of the people's support if they believed the child was bogus. One can also argue that the Bush Administration did know that there were no weapons of mass destruction, but knew it would be easier to get the people's support if they believed there were.

  8. Just discovered this fantastic post (only 3 years late).Where can I find out more about Mrs, de Labadie and Mrs, Wilkins, the midwives who attended the Queen.

  9. Just discovered this fantastic post (only 3 years late).Where can I find out more about Mrs, de Labadie and Mrs, Wilkins, the midwives who attended the Queen.


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