On a frosty, winter night, there is nothing more comforting than climbing into a warm cosy bed heated by an electric blanket, or even a hot water bottle. These conveniences were not available in drafty 17th century palaces. Instead, the Royals had long-handled, copper bed-warming pans filled with hot coals or embers, placed between the sheets by a servant to remove the chill. Extremely welcome in the winter, but hardly called for in the heat of summer.
Which causes one to wonder why Queen Mary Beatrice, wife to King James II, insisted on having one brought to her royal bed whilst she was in labour on a sweltering day in June 1688. In plain view of the courtiers who were there to observe the royal birth, the Queen insisted the heavy bed curtains be closed and called for a warming pan. The only eyewitnesses to the alleged birth of a male heir were the midwives, and much speculation arose from the secrets behind those bed curtains. Had an infant been smuggled in?
Lucina’s Destiny (Book Two of The Midwife Chronicles series)
When I was writing Lucina’s Destiny, about a highly skilled Huguenot midwife and her daughter who had recently fled from Normandy to England, I tried to imagine how they might have been involved in the scandal surrounding the birth of the purported Royal heir, which gave rise to the Glorious Revolution. The following excerpt from Chapter 22 introduces Mr. Rupert Walker, optician to the Lady Anne, who overheard his royal patient gossip about the Queen’s “fake” pregnancy. He willingly relates that conversation to the guests at a garden tea party.
Chapter 22 (excerpt)
All eyes were upon the widower when he arrived at Barton Park. A tall thin man, Mr. Walker wore a chestnut brown periwig and despite the warm weather he was properly attired in breeches, velvet waistcoat, and embroidered skirted coat. His manner was pleasing, and he willingly shared information he had gleaned during his visits to the Lady Anne’s chambers. The princess was miffed she had missed viewing the royal birth in June. Suspected her stepmother, Queen Mary Beatrice, had purposely lied to her—said her confinement would take not take place until July and insisted the Princess spend June in Bath for the sake of her health.
“I’m grieved to hear the Royal Princess was ill. I hope it was not serious,” said Lady Barton, interrupting him.
“I went to adjust a loose screw in Lady Anne’s spectacles before she left for Bath, and she did not appear unwell to me. I overheard her complain to her ladies-in-waiting that when she reached for the Queen’s belly to feel the child quicken, the Queen slapped her hand away. After the child was born, Lady Anne was convinced the pregnancy was a sham. A pillow stuffed beneath the Queen’s petticoats, she claimed, to give the appearance of being with child.”
“Weren’t there witnesses present?”
“Yes, Lady Barton. According to protocol, there were forty courtiers crowded together in the stifling hot birthing chamber to observe the royal birth. I heard a most unusual thing occurred. Queen Mary Beatrice insisted the bedcurtains be drawn tight for privacy and soon a maidservant scurried in, carrying a long-handled bed warming pan. Imagine, during the heat of summer! An hour later, a tiny squalling infant was presented to the courtiers as the new male heir to the English throne. Some of those witnesses now claim a live babe, an imposter, must have been smuggled inside that warming pan.”
“Oh, juicy gossip indeed!” Lady Barton looked across the lawn where she spotted Clare conversing with Samuel under the spreading chestnut tree. “Mr. Walker let me introduce you to Madame Dupres. She is an experienced midwife and would know if such a scandalous suggestion was possible.” The matriarch beckoned Clare and Samuel to join them.
* * *
Clare was delighted to be introduced to the optician, especially when she learned his daughter was governess to the Montjardin girls. Although Clare was anxious for news about her cherished friend Lady Louise, Lady Barton would not be interrupted until she extracted every detail from Mr. Walker about the royal birth scandal. Clare felt particularly uncomfortable about the subject under discussion, having been secretly involved with Madame Cellier during the Queen’s confinement, a matter she did not feel free to reveal. Instead, she studied her hands and simply listened to the rumours.
“It’s obvious to me the pregnancy was a fabrication,” scoffed Samuel, even though he had not observed the birth. “Things have not been going well for King James, especially since the seven Bishops he arrested for refusing to read his deceptive Declaration of Indulgence were acquitted in May. He probably arranged this cunning artifice, to save his throne.”
~ ~ ~
Mr. Walker, who insisted on being called Rupert, said, “I tend to agree our King is in trouble. I’ve heard his son-in-law, William of Orange, has been invited to invade England and take over the throne,”
“Nothing would please me more than to see William’s wife Mary ascend the English throne,” said Samuel. “She is the rightful heir, as daughter to Charles II and a staunch Protestant to boot. I’m not thrilled her husband is a foreigner, but at least he is not a Papist. Do you think James will try to quell the invasion?”
“I imagine so, although loyalties do shift at times like this. Events of the past show many men, even a King’s closest allies, are quick to change sides in times of turmoil. Now with a purported male Papist heir to the throne, I fear outbreak of war in England.”
Clare shivered involuntarily at the thought of soldiers fighting in her new country. Memories of the Dragonnades were still raw in her mind. She dreaded the thought that battles could break out in England, in Kent, perhaps even in Tunbridge, and wondered whether she would once more be forced to flee her home to keep her children safe. Suddenly she felt Lucina tugging on her arm and realised Lady Barton was asking Clare’s opinion on something.
“I’m sorry, Lady Barton. Could you repeat your question please? I was momentarily distracted by the thought of war.”
“We were discussing the royal birth—perchance the Queen was not really carrying a child and an imposter infant was smuggled into the birthing chamber.”
Clare knew for certain the pregnancy was real—she hoped Lucina would be discreet, and not blurt out any hint of her Maman’s involvement in saving the Queen from miscarrying. It was safer to focus attention on the impossibility of fitting a child in a bed warming pan.
“Lady Barton,” she said, “please be so kind as to send a servant to fetch one from your kitchen so your guests may examine the size.” When the pan was carried out and set on the table for all to inspect, Clare declared her opinion that no child could fit inside. Nonetheless, those who wished to believe the new prince was a changeling continued to insist if not in a warming pan, a substitute baby must have been smuggled in another way before the bedcurtains had been reopened. “James Francis Edward Stuart is a pretender to the English throne,” they chimed in self-righteous consternation. “Another Papist plot!”
Lucina ran her finger around the opening of the copper warming pan, absolutely convinced no human infant could fit inside. Her thoughts drifted back to the time Maman spent in London immediately before and after the royal birth. Had a live child been substituted for a dead prince in the days following the birth? Returning home, Clare had rushed directly to her bedchamber, carrying her birthing bag. “Ask me no questions,” she had cautioned Lucina, who was taken aback by Maman’s mysterious, nervous demeanor. Later, she heard Maman scribbling in her journal and saw her place a folded scarlet cape into her locking box. “If Maman is writing about treachery at the palace, the truth of the royal birth will be recorded for all time in her journal,” she thought. “I hope it never falls into the wrong hands.”
* * *
About Carole Penfield
I am a retired attorney, turned novelist. I live in Northern Arizona with my husband Perry Krowne and two overly friendly cats. The Midwife Chronicles series was released last month (December 2021); all three books are available on Amazon in paperback and eBook format. https://www.amazon.com/dp/https://www.amazon.com/dp/1737807926
Book One, Midwife of Normandy ASIN B09MRDS212 is an exciting, past faced adventure about Clare Dupres, a Huguenot midwife. The novel is filled with historic details meshed with memorable characters.
Book Two, Lucina’s Destiny ASINB09MV6BVTL is the sequel; Clare and her daughter Lucina are befriended by the Austen family in Tonbridge, Kent.
The close friendship between Lucina Dupres and Jane Austens’ great-grandmother Eliza forms the subject of Book Three, Austens of Broadford ASIN B09KW3NNKD.
To learn more about The Midwife Chronicles series, please visit my website https://www.carolepenfield.com