Queen Mary II working at home – ‘an Enemy to Idleness’

While here in the UK some aspects of life are beginning to return a new kind of normal thanks to gradually easing pandemic restrictions, for many of us working mainly from home looks set to remain for a while yet. With this in mind, now seems a good time to look back on one of Britain’s less well-known monarchs, who for months on end successfully ran the country largely from home, more than three centuries ago. Deputy Chief Curator and Head of Collections Sebastian Edwards reveals more.

We often run the name ‘William-and-Mary’ off the tongue as if they were one person, which I have always felt is a raw deal for our second Queen Mary (reigned 1689-94). True they were – uniquely – joint sovereigns who ruled in their own right, and were also first cousins who marriedHowever, King William III (reigned 16891702) was not a power-obsessed wife-killer idealised in many works of fiction and film so there really is no excuse in overlooking Mary’s individual contribution to history!  

Queen Mary II in her “everyday dress”. Mezzotint after Jan van der Vaart, about 1689-94. © National Portrait Gallery (NPG D31057)

A reluctant monarch 

Yet when the pair were invited to step into power by the Government fearful of another civil war following the flight and abdication of Mary’s father, James II, in 1688, it is fair to say that Mary was the more reluctant monarch of the two.  Many felt William should rule alone – including William himself – but handing over everything to a foreign-born prince would be a step too far for Britain, as it felt its way towards a new form of constitutional monarchy. To begin with Mary professed much the same view and took some cajoling to rule in her own right, rather than act as a regent, during the King’s many absences abroad fighting the European allies of his uncle, King James. In her 1690 memoirs Mary wrote:  

‘And my opinion having ever been that women should not medle in government, I have never given my self to be inquisitive into those kind of matters.’ 

This was despite the real possibility of William dying suddenly as he defied musket balls, assassination plots and constant ill-health. Fortunately, in the end, Queen Mary agreed to take the reins 

The north side of Kensington Palace with the new wing added by Christopher Wren for Queen Mary on the right. © Historic Royal Palaces

Mary’s Royal Residences 

Like many couples faced with a sudden move, one of the first tasks was to settle on a new home. Embarrassed by unexpected riches in comparison to their previous life in the Netherlands they settled on twoHampton Court would become their summer palace, after substantial alterations. In town, Whitehall Palace where Mary spent much of her childhood, was deemed too old and crowded. Instead they decided to buy a modest villa in Hyde Park called Nottingham House, which they then transformed into Kensington PalaceFollowing the customs of the day, whilst William went off to work defending his two countries, Mary took over their household projects. By royal standards, the house was cramped and decrepit, but she decided to live-in whilst the builders extended the old house, starting with her own apartments. 

Like much homebuilding not everything went to plan. At both Hampton Court and Kensington there were major building collapses as labourers were hurried to complete work over very cold winters. Mary rushed to see the disasters which had caused casualties and privately berated herself for the folly of rushing along such vanities 

At Hampton Court the royal couple’s ambitions were so great that Mary decided to set herself up very comfortably in the old Tudor water gate to oversee work. This glorified site hut, as a colleague once called it, included her lavishly decorated and ultra-modern Water Gallery, as the remodelled water gate was called, which contained a gallery. Mary also had her own ornamental dairy at the palace, long before Marie Antoinette’s, and bathroom finished with a daybed and hot running water. Meanwhile at Kensington she soon outgrew her first small apartment and began extending it on a grander scale than the King’s. 

Engraving of Whitehall Palace where Mary spent much of her childhood. After Jan Kip (1652/3-1722). © Historic Royal Palaces

The Queen’s Rooms 

The most striking of her new rooms was her gallery, the likes of which no one had seen before in England. Mary stuffed this long room with all manner of decorative objects rather than the more-usual picturesThe effect – alas long gone – must have been kaleidoscopic. Although essentially a private space, we should not imagine for a moment that Mary was a spendthrift. Her apartments were where a queen would play out her powerful role, particularly amongst her circle of influential aristocratic women; it was also somewhere to express her own taste and social refinementIn this one room were 144 pieces of highly-prized porcelain from China and Japan, bought in trading port of Amsterdam, much of it arranged on shimmering, Japanese lacquer cabinets. 

Owning such beautiful but essentially useless objects revealed Mary as leader in fashion, wealth and education – ‘virtues’ that were expected of herHowever, ithe little corner closet were more practical wares including tea things and shelves of books, although her eyesight was poor and she had to rely on readers at timesThese titled women were too discreet to give away what went on in Mary’s rooms in their private papers, but such objects reveal how she would have spent her day with her high-ranking servants. Typically for a queen she always had company. Mary lamented in her memoirs: ‘From 6 in the morning till night I was never alone’.    

This design for a chimneypiece in a china closet, published about 1700, by royal architect Daniel Marot the elder, gives a good idea of the richness of Mary’s former gallery at Kensington. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Public Domain)

Ladies of Leisure?  

If the Queen did not want her business overheard by the ‘below stairs’ servants she could prepare the tea herself. Over conversations her circle of female companions would occupy themselves at ‘women’s work’, which was the contemporary term for fine needleworkThis would often be exchanged as gifts or used to decorate their own homes if they were skilled enoughThe author Daniel Defoe noted a bed at Hampton Court that was ‘of her own work, while in Holland, very magnificent’although professionals supplied the large amounts of embroidery at Kensington: probably the new Queen had to dedicate more time to state businessThe royal cabinetmaker made Mary special frame for her needlework and fine marquetry tables with an ‘engine to create fringe upon: a small loom for another popular pastime 

Mary was also an enthusiastic card player and on occasion enjoyed dancing in publicAlthough her ladies’ duties were to serve the Queen and keep her company, they too wielded influence and even political power through their husbands, as well as the marriage alliances of their children. Their significant personal patronage was played out from rooms like these, as much as in the formal rooms of state which the Queen shared with the King. However, despite an awareness of the political importance of courtly entertainments, Mary also had strong religious beliefs which caused her to question her practices. Much of her time was given to private prayer, and on at least one occasion she took a fire at the palace as a message from God:  

‘But of how litle [sic] continuance are all worldly contentments. I confess I had to much in the convenience of my house and neatness of my furniture, and I was taught a second time the vanity of all such things by a fire the 9th of November which burnt one side of the House at Kensington. …This has truly, I hope, weaned me from the vanities I was most fond of, that is ease and good lodgings’ [Queen Mary, October 1692] 

The Business of Queenship 

Important as pastimes were to Queen Mary and the political realm, when William was away overseas she had to take on the full burden of state business from privy council meetings to closet meetings with ministers. Her luxurious surviving desk reminds us how with William away she would personally sign appointments and warrants and was in constant touch writing to her family using an international network of messengers, the internet of the day. 

This richly-inlaid desk, uniquely bearing Mary’s own monogram, reminds us of the duties that filled much of the queen’s day.  Attributed to Gerrit Jensen, about 1690-4. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021 (RCT 39212)

A Tragic End 

Tragically Mary’s domestic life encompassed by her homes was brought to a sudden end by smallpox, the deadliest virus of the day, which made no distinction between a princess or a pauper. At the age of only 34 she was taken suddenly ill with a fever and within a week she lay dying in her bed at Kensington, with William tending her in a low pallet bed at her side.  Her devoted husband was devastated by her loss and had her rooms shut up and left untouched for several years, rather like Dickens’ Miss Havisham. However, during her short reign, Queen Mary had quietly contributed much to the revival in popularity of the monarchy in Britain as it made its wobbly way towards the successes of the following century. 

Sebastian Edwards, Deputy Chief Curator and Head of Collections 

A Dutch popular print imagining the scene of Queen Mary’s death from smallpox at Kensington on 28th December 1694. Her passing was widely mourned. Contemporary etching by Romeyn de Hooghe. © Historic Royal Palaces

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