The girl pretenders

Ungrateful Daughters: the Stuart princesses who stole their father's crown

Maureen Waller <em>Hodd

Maureen Waller's new book opens with a dramatic scene in a Kent tavern, on a wintry December night in 1688. James II, fleeing his son-in-law William of Orange, has been discovered on a customs boat in the Channel. Swathed in a long black cloak and clutching Edward the Confessor's gold cross (the coronation ring and a cache of diamonds were still secreted in his breeches), the sailors took him at first for an escaping priest: everyone knew the Catholics' days in England were now numbered. Back at the candlelit inn, one of the seamen recognised the king and flung himself at his feet to ask for his blessing.

As Waller observes, James's late brother, Charles II, would have turned this scene into a triumph. "The most charming and accessible of kings, he would have allowed them all to kiss his hand, he would have called for a round of drinks and told them stories, and asked about their lives and women. Before long they would have been carrying him back to Whitehall and throwing out the Dutch invader." But James thrust the man aside, called for paper and ink, and sat distant and desperate by the fire, brooding on what and who had brought him to this fate - especially, imagines Waller, his ungrateful daughters, Mary and Anne.

The Glorious Revolution now seems curiously unrevolutionary: more a reversion to how things ought to have been had James II, and his un-British Catholicism, simply not existed. Historical revisionism has not challenged the view that William and Mary's bloodless, measured assumption of the throne, and the unshakeably Protestant, Whiggish monarchy they accepted, was as inevitable as it seems in retrospect.

In this engrossing book, Waller vividly describes the events leading up to that dark night by the sea in 1688: how James's Catholicism became his defining political characteristic; how his experiences as a child, watching his father, Charles I, lose both his kingdom and his life, determined his own inflexibility as ruler; how his daughters came to believe (or pretended to believe) that the baby their father and stepmother saw as a miracle, after 14 childless years of marriage, was in fact a pretender, and not the rightful heir to the English throne.

As the title suggests, Waller looks at the Stuart court and the political events of the late 17th century through the eyes of its women. There is nothing new in that. But what is new is her placement of these women, and their concerns, at the heart of those events.

Governesses, betrothals, weddings, pregnancies, childbirth, infants dying young, and intense female relationships are the usual backdrop of history. This time, they take centre-stage. The Glorious Revolution was not just a matter of a group of dissatisfied Protestant lords asking William to intervene in English affairs: equally, as Waller explains, it was about a woman whom everyone thought could not bear a healthy child suddenly giving birth to a son, and her stepdaughter not being there to witness it, and thus being able to cast doubt on its legitimacy to her sister, across the Channel in Holland. Had Mary (in Holland) and Anne (away in Bath, rather than watching her stepmother's lying-in) not been active participants in and approvers of the Protestant conspiracy against their father, James II, it might never have happened.

Waller's voice is appealing, and her opinions as spirited as they are intelligent. Her light style and sense of drama are so compelling that you hardly notice her scholarship. Ungrateful Daughters is a wonderful book.

Lucy Moore's most recent book is Amphibious Thing (Penguin)