From Commoner to Royalty: The Story of Anne Hyde, Duchess of York

When Catherine Elizabeth Middleton walks down the aisle at Westminster Abbey and marries Prince William tomorrow, she will be the first non-aristocratic commoner to marry an heir to the British throne since Anne Hyde married James, Duke of York (the future James II). While Lady Diana Spencer and the Queen Mother were commoners, they were both aristocrats. Diana was the daughter of Earl Spencer while the Queen Mother was the daughter of the Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne. What’s that you say, what about Camilla? Well, she is descended from George Keppel, brother of the Earl of Albemarle, so she doesn’t count either.

Our story begins in 1638, when Anne was born at Cranbourne Manor in Windsor Park, owned by her grandfather Sir Thomas Aylesbury, then Master of Request. Her father Edward Hyde was Charles II’s principal advisor while he was in exile so Anne didn’t see much of her father while growing up. At the age of 15, she was appointed a maid of honor to Mary, Princess Royal who was the widow of the Prince of Orange much to the annoyance of the Queen Mother Henrietta Maria, who despised Hyde and his influence over her eldest son. Anne was a big hit at court; she was a particular favorite of the Princess Royal’s aunt, Elizabeth, the Queen of Bohemia for her gaiety.

In 1656, Anne accompanied the Princess Royal on her visit to Paris to visit the Queen Mother. It was there that she met the Duke of York. Although their acquaintance was brief, she must have made quite the impression on him, because when they met 3 years later not only did James seduce Anne but he also allegedly entered into a secret engagement with her. Although Anna was plump and considered plain by some, she was also witty, gay and well-educated, qualities that James himself decidedly lacked. James himself later wrote of his future wife that ‘besides her person, she possessed all the qualities proper to inflame a heart less susceptible than his, with the fire of love.’ In 1659, marrying Anne probably didn’t seem like such a big deal, the Restoration seemed like a pipe dream not a reality. Apparently, it was also the only way that James could get Anne into bed.

When Charles II was restored to the throne in May 1660, Anne returned to England with her family. Of course the inevitable happened, she soon became pregnant. At first James stood loyally by her, telling the King that he had promised to marry her, and he planned on keeping his word. If Charles didn’t give his permission; James would leave England, and live abroad. Charles wasn’t too keen on the match; it would mean that Hyde would now be a member of his family not just one of his ministers. It also killed any chance of James helping to shore up the monarchy by marrying a foreign princess who might bring prestige not to mention money to the union. James was also the heir presumptive to the throne until Charles himself married and sired a legitimate son. On the other hand, Charles genuinely liked Anne, and thought she might be the making of his brother. He reasoned that he was thirty, plenty of time for him to get married. After much debate, Charles gave his consent.

There was no engagement announcement, no speculation about what the bride might wear as she waddled up the aisle. Instead, the shot-gun wedding took place in secret on September 3, 1660 at Worcester House, on the Strand, sometime between 11 at night and 2 in the morning. The ceremony was performed by the Duke’s chaplain and only witnessed by two people, including Anne’s maid. When Anne’s father found out, instead of rushing to offer congratulation, he was more worried that enemies might think that he had encouraged the match to further his own ambitions. He actually told the King that Anne should be thrown in the Tower of London to await execution. Hyde wasn't the only person the newlyweds had to worry about, Jame's mother and sisters were not too happy either when they heard the happy news. Both women raced across the channel hell bent on preventing ‘so great a stain and dishonor on the Crown.’ Princess Mary declared that she would not accept as her sister-in-law someone who had once ‘stood as a servant behind her chair.’ Faced with the wrath of his female relatives, James began to have buyer’s remorse. It didn’t help that the heavily pregnant Anne wasn’t quite as attractive once compared to the other beauties at court.

At this point, his friends helped out by claiming that all five of them could be the father of Anne’s child. Harry Killigrew said that, ‘he had found the critical minute in a certain closet built over water for a purpose very different from that of giving ease to the pains of love.’ Um, TMI! Another alleged lover Sir Charles Berkeley offered to marry Anne to save the Prince from a wife who was “so wholly unworthy of him.” Although the marriage wouldn’t be announced officially until the end of December in 1660, word soon went around the court, setting tongues awag at the juicy news. The idea of a royal prince marrying a commoner was absurd, especially one as dumpy as Anne. Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary a remark made by the Earl of Sandwich when he heard the news, “that he doth get a wench with child and marries her afterward, it is as if a man should shit in his hat and then wear it.”

In October 1660, Anne gave birth to son, who later died in infancy, insisting even during labor that not only was the Duke of York the father of her child but he was also her lawful husband. Finally Charles decided to step in. He informed his brother that ‘He must drink as he had brewed and live with her whom he had made his wife.’ Subsequently Berkeley and the others withdrew their claims. Three days after the official announcement, the Princess Royal died of smallpox lamenting the horrible things she had said about her former maid of honor. Only the Queen Mother was a hold-out but finally even she grudgingly agreed to receive Anne, claiming that she ‘always liked her from the beginning.’ Hypocrite much?

Although the marriage could be said to have been a love match, the relationship soon withered as The Duke of York chased after everything in a skirt. Unhappy, Anne consoled herself with food, growing incredibly obese. However she did manage the Duke’s money for him, and advised him on patronages in the arts and in political affairs. In fact it was Pepys' opinion that "the Duke, in all things but his amours, was led by the nose by his wife.” Anne naturally resented James' numerous affairs, but received little sympathy at Court. Whether out of insecurity or because she’d had to fight so hard for her position, Anne became more royal than the royal family which made her unpopular. In 1670, Anne secretly converted to Catholicism. Of her eight children, Mary and Anne alone survived her. She died in 1671, a few weeks after giving birth to her final child. Of course, when the Duke of York remarried, Charles II made sure this time that his brother married someone more appropriate.

But in the end, it would be Anne’s daughters, first Mary and then Anne who sat on the throne of England.


John Miller: James II (Yale English Monarchs), Yale University Press, New Haven 1978
Jock Haswell: James II, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1972
Anne Somerset: Ladies in Waiting, From the Tudors to the Present Day, Phoenix 1984


I have a soft spot for Anne.
Me too, Susan! I also find it ironic that Mary of Modena was considered more suitable than Anne Hyde, when her marriage to the Duke of York (James II) was one of the causes of the Glorious Revolution.
Anne by all accounts was a good wife to James, and a steadying influence apart from his philandering. Mary was much younger than him, probably didn't speak English when she arrived, and wasn't able to advise him the way that Anne could. Even though she converted to Catholicism, I have a feeling that Anne would have tempered James more stubborn characteristics.

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