Mary of Modena and her Changeling Child: the 1677 ‘Missale Romanum’

Despite fervent opposition from traditionalists who defend the paper book, the rise of the eBook has been rapid and unstoppable in the past decade. I, for one, am happy to embrace the changes that digital publishing will bring to the book industry; I can’t see the problem with a new technology that makes sharing ideas and stories cheaper, easier and more environmentally friendly. However, every so often a book comes along that really drives home one of the core arguments for traditional printing.

title page

Missale Romanum (1677). Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral UK).

For me, that book was a copy of the Missale Romanum  (Roman Missals), published in Antwerp in 1677, which can be found on the open shelves of Worcester Cathedral library. Truth be told, seventeenth-century liturgical books are not my reading matter of choice. I was drawn to this book not because of its content, but because of the hands that had touched its pages before mine.

When you open the Missale Romanum, the first writing you come across is a handwritten note on the flyleaf. It states that the book was donated to the library of Worcester Cathedral by Joseph Miryll, who was Canon of the Third Stall between 1690 and 1700. A different but contemporary hand notes next to it that this missal was used daily in the chapel of King James II.

fly leaf inscription

Flyleaf of the Missale Romanum (1677). Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Ever since the English Reformation brought about by Henry VIII in 1534, religion in Britain had been a fiercely contested issue. The country swung from Catholic to Protestant and back again over the next century, depending largely on the beliefs of the monarch in charge at that time. Although James II had been baptised by the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury at birth, his time spent in exile in France had exposed him to Catholicism and he secretly became a Roman Catholic in 1668 or 1669. It wasn’t until James refused to receive the Anglican Eucharist and swear an oath denouncing Catholicism at the behest of Parliament in 1673 that his conversion was made public.

Later that year he married Princess Mary of Modena, who was fifteen years old and a devout Catholic. This union struck fear in many English people, a fear that was only exacerbated when James ascended the throne in 1685: not only was the king a practising Catholic, but the queen was seen as ‘the Pope’s daughter’, no doubt planning a Papist plot against the country.

From the inscription on the flyleaf we can assume that our copy of the Missale Romanum was used regularly in the Roman Catholic chapel at Whitehall, a place where “the forbidden rites of the Latin Mass were regularly and openly celebrated” according to Robert Beddard. A similar copy of the Missale Romanum, also thought to have come from James II’s chapel, is held in the Bodleian library. Both books contain something even more remarkable which has attracted attention from scholars and librarians for centuries.

Two sheets of paper have been pasted into the back of each royal Missale Romanum, on which a number of supplementary prayers are written in different hands.

prayer 2The lower sheet of paper, which was pasted in first in our copy, contains three prayers for the then-pregnant Queen Mary: the Collect, the Secret and Post-Communion. Because Mary is described as ‘praegnanti’, we know that the prayers must have been written before June 1688 when she gave birth to the male heir to the throne, James Francis Edward Stuart.

Often the birth of a legitimate male heir could be seen to have a stabilising effect on an unsteady regime. In the case of James and Mary, however, the birth of their first living son was the catalyst that led to their removal from the throne. Before James Francis Edward, Mary had lost ten children either prenatally or shortly after birth. Protestant enemies of James II had hoped that she would never be able to provide a healthy male heir, which meant that the Protestant Princess Mary, James’s daughter from his first marriage, and her husband, William of Orange, would take the throne upon James’s death.

Queen Mary & her entourage

Engraving of Mary (labelled A) and her entourage, from ‘Coronation of James II’ (1687). Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

The birth of James Francis Edward in 1688 and his subsequent Catholic baptism put an end to any earlier hopes of a Protestant succession. Immediately there were rumours that James Francis Edward was not the royal issue at all, but a “Changeling” child brought into Mary’s bed in a warming pan to replace the stillborn baby she really delivered. Although this conspiracy theory is almost certainly false, it was one of the contributing factors in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ which followed, deposing James II and putting William and Mary on the throne.

The upper sheet of paper, pasted partly over the top of the prayers for Mary, is written in a different hand initially thought to be that of James II himself, although this has since been disproved. A scrapbook kept in the library shows that Thomas Baxter, a librarian at Worcester Cathedral, submitted a photograph of the prayers in the Chronicle newspaper in 1870, along with a plea to the public for any information about them. An answer came from a W. Waterworth, who says:

The prayer heading the photograph is substantially the same as is daily used after the last post-communion prayer. It is offered up for the Pope, the Sovereign, and for the faithful generally. In the present instance the Pope prayed for is Innocent XI; the king, James II; the queen, Mary of Modena, James’s wife; the ex-queen, Catherine, the widow of Charles II; and the prince, James Francis Edward, commonly known as the Pretender.

Because of the mention of ‘Principem nostrum’, this page must have been pasted into the back of the book after the birth of James Francis Edward, but before the royal family were forced to flee from England in December 1688.  After they had fled, the Protestant mob raided many Catholic homes and properties; somehow, whether it was taken unlawfully or sold off by the following regime, the Missale Romanum eventually ended up in the hands of a Canon of Worcester Cathedral a couple of years later.

Why, you may ask, would the prayers have been added to these missals? Robert Beddard suggests that it was a deliberate attempt to adapt a continental Catholic service book to specifically fit the English situation during James II’s reign. What I find particularly heartrending about this copy of the Missale Romanum is the hope that it emanates. Mary, having suffered so much heartache over her inability to give birth to or raise a child, may well have felt that her prayers had been answered when she delivered a healthy baby boy in June 1688. However, the birth of a Catholic heir turned out to be the touch paper that the Protestant forces needed to light their spark of revolution.

Mary at the Court

Engraving of Mary (labelled L) at her coronation, from ‘Coronation of James II’ (1687). Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

The handwritten notes, prayers and scribbles in the Missale Romanum provide an incredible link with a period in British history which was hugely turbulent, both in politics and religion. The pages of the book I am holding in my hands could well have been turned by King James II himself; the cover was grasped as it was seized from the Whitehall chapel; somehow it found its way into the possession of Joseph Miryll at Worcester, and it has sat on these shelves for over 300 years. Those fingerprints – in the literal sense – cannot be retraced on an eBook.


Rosie Pugh



Robert Beddard, ‘A Relic of Stuart Popery: Prayers for Queen Mary Beatrice, Anno 1688’, Offprint from The Bodleian Library Record, Vol. VIII, No. 5 (June 1971), pp. 266-278.

Newspaper clippings from the Chronicle on 1st of February and 4th of February 1870.

Letter from anonymous to John Stephen(?), 17th May 1882.

Letter from H. H. E. Craster (Bodley Librarian) to Canon Wilson, 12th February 1920.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s