The Warming-Pan Scandal: How Fake News set off the Glorious Revolution
Benjamin Rome Clarke | University of Edinburgh
The birth of a healthy Prince of Wales on 10 June 1688 should have been a proud moment for the elderly King James II of England and Scotland and his second wife Maria Beatrice d’Este (often known in English as Mary of Modena). Instead, it was the first in a chain of events that would lead to mother, father and child being driven out of England to spend the rest of their lives in exile. This Glorious Revolution, as Whiggish historians have termed it, is often seen to mark a grand historical turning point: an occasion in which the English parliament overthrew one king in favour of another, initiating the age of constitutional monarchy that we fortunate moderns now enjoy.
Nowadays, that view has largely been questioned. However, one fact I’m sure we all learnt in school remains clear: That the Glorious Revolution occurred because James II and his wife were Catholic, their heir would continue a Catholic dynasty, and for the Protestant Whig-controlled parliament, this could not be allowed to happen. The more the Catholic succession seemed assured, the more the Whigs cast around desperately for a solution, and the better the prospective usurper – William of Orange, soon to be King William III – was able to provide one.
Before the announcement of the queen’s pregnancy in late 1687, the Anglo-Scottish throne was set to pass to William of Orange, Stadholder of the Dutch Republic. Not only was he a devout Protestant with an impressive military résumé – winning victories against the likes of Louis XIV – but William had a double claim to the throne as both the husband of James II’s eldest child Princess Mary, and as the maternal grandson of Charles I.
James II may have been a Catholic with authoritarian tendencies, but the Protestant elite would have been assured that, in his old age, James would not last long enough to cause too much damage to the Anglican regime. The king had been married to Princess Mary’s stepmother, Maria Beatrice, for fifteen years, and the couple’s fertility record had been spotty, with their longest-living child, Isabella, having died seven years ago, aged four. The birth of a healthy, male, and Catholic heir in James Francis Edward Stuart, Prince of Wales, was, therefore, a most unwelcome turn of events. According to Britain’s succession rules, a son trumped a daughter and certainly a cousin, and these rules had been set firmly in stone.
In desperation, the Protestants of England turned to slander, rumour and propaganda to undermine the Catholic future that seemed otherwise ensured. Stories abounded during the queen’s pregnancy that it was all a ruse, that she bore a “false belly”, and that she would try to smuggle a changeling – a fake prince – into the birthing chamber. In response to these whispers, James II saw to it that the birth of his child would be one of the most well-attended and -witnessed events of his entire reign. Perhaps to the chagrin of Queen Maria Beatrice and many other female royals throughout history, the court witnessing of an important birth was nothing new. Maria Beatrice’s birthing chamber, however, was crowded to an unprecedented scale, and the testimony of every man and woman present was recorded in an enquiry that the king commissioned into his own son’s legitimacy and presented to the privy council on 22 October 1688. What seemed like an airtight collection of testimonies, however, backfired in so spectacular a way that it would spark the chain of events that deprived James II, the queen, and all their descendants of both crown and country.
It was an unassuming passage of testimony in the October enquiry that the Williamites (as we shall call the Protestant pro-William, anti-James faction) seized upon to corroborate their claim of the queen’s deception. This was a passing mention from a midwife, one Margaret Dawson, that during the labour a warming pan had been brought into the room and placed within the folds of the queen’s mattress for her comfort. “Aha!” went the Williamites. Pointing to this passage, they concocted a story asserting that a miller’s baby had been smuggled into the childbed, secreted in the pan. The whole affair has thus been dubbed the Warming-Pan Scandal. This rumour was seized upon by William himself, who cited the prince’s illegitimacy as his reason for invading England in November. But ships and soldiers were not the only weapons that William deployed from Amsterdam in late 1688. This invasion could not go down in history as a conquest. After all, these were supposedly less brutal and more enlightened days than those of William’s namesake, the Norman Conqueror. Rather, the republican William was determined to govern with the consent of the British people (or at least the elite movers and shakers). Already winning over hearts and minds was one of the Dutch Republic’s greatest assets as a nation: a free press.
Pictured is a Dutch print dated from late 1688, widely distributed in London during the Glorious Revolution. It was a depraved parody of the prints that announced the royal baby to the British public in June, in which the queen lovingly rocked the cradle of her new son, both of them trussed up in royal finery. Not only does this Dutch satire cheekily place a toy windmill in the baby’s cradle (an allusion to the rumour that he was, in fact, a miller’s boy), but it also adds an entirely new figure. By his distinctive nose and biretta hat, he would have been immediately recognised by the London public as a particularly hated figure within the king’s inner circle: a Jesuit Catholic priest named Edward Petre. The print fed into baseless rumours that the queen not only carried on an affair with Petre, but that Petre machinated the fake pregnancy, or – if the child was proven to be the queen’s – that Petre was, in fact, the father. The print cleverly alludes to both interpretations, with the queen yielding to Petre’s unseemly embrace.
The worst victim of these lies was the queen herself, Maria Beatrice, who by all accounts lived a quiet and honest life, devoted to her husband despite his own numerous affairs. Now her body, which had finally succeeded after numerous failed attempts at bearing children, had become a political and religious battleground. The worst of the emotional strife she suffered in this period came when her younger stepdaughter Princess Anne (later Queen Anne), to whom she had always acted as a friend, turned against her and lent her political weight to the rumours.
Over in Holland, Princess Mary, who to the end was a deeply reluctant collaborator in her father’s deposition, received a letter from her sister attesting to the queen’s false belly, and with a heavy heart was convinced to support William’s invasion. As were the people of London. The moment that Anne snuck out of court to join the rebels, by most accounts, was the moment James II gave up the ghost and fled the kingdom, lamenting that his “ungrateful daughters” had broken the Biblical commandment to honour their father. By 1689, the king, queen and prince were in France, William and Mary were in England, and parliament was busy jumping through legal loopholes to ratify their accession. This huge upheaval had been sparked by a lie, the twisting of a midwife’s throwaway reference to a warming pan.
The Warming Pan Scandal did not cause the Glorious Revolution, by any means. As early as 1687 (no doubt realising that Maria Beatrice might yet produce an heir to supplant him), William was already building ships, amassing troops and plotting with the English Williamites to overthrow his father-in-law/uncle. It is safe to guess that he would have taken any excuse to do so. What is remarkable about this particular story is the credulousness of the English people; their willingness to believe – or at least pay lip-service to – what we, in retrospect, cannot doubt to be outright slander.
While Maria Beatrice lived her sorrowful remaining years in a French abbey, her son, who would have been James III, was instead to grow up with no memories of England and with slim prospects of obtaining his birthright. Derided as the Old Pretender, he would be the figurehead of the failed Jacobite Risings of the eighteenth century, led by his son Bonnie Prince Charlie (the Young Pretender). And yet, he was undisputedly the legitimate king by every standard that had existed in England (with the exception of the Cromwellian Commonwealth) until his father’s deposition. Retroactively, the Whig-led parliament would change these standards with the Act of Settlement of 1701, barring all Catholics from the line of succession – a rule that stands to this day.
What the Whigs could not write away was the lie of the warming pan that started it all: the outlandish conspiracy theory, the manipulation of religious bigotry and the destruction of an innocent queen’s reputation, all used to justify a king’s overthrow and a rewrite of the royal rulebook. In a world where conspiracy theories are once again taking centre stage in our supposedly modern, liberal political landscape, it is worth it to take another look at 1688 and to ask ourselves just how glorious it really was.
Harris, Tim. Revolution: the great crisis of the British monarchy, 1685-1720. London: Penguin, 2006.
Hartley, Craig and Catherine MacLeod. “Supposititious Prints.” Print Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 1989), 49-54.
McTague, John J. “Anti-Catholicism, Incorrigibility and Credulity in the Warming-Pan Scandal of 1688-9.” Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 36, No. 3 (December 2012), 433-448.
Waller, Maureen. Ungrateful Daughters: The Stuart Princesses Who Stole Their Father’s Crown. London: St Martin’s Press, 2004.
Weil, Rachel J. “The Politics of Legitimacy: Women and the Warming-Pan Scandal.” The Revolution of 1688-1689: Changing Perspectives. Ed. Lois G. Schwoerer. New York: Cambridge UP, 1992.
Born and raised in Sydney, Australia, Benjamin Rome Clarke is now a postgraduate history student at the University of Edinburgh. Primarily interested in the elite culture and dynastic politics of Early Modern Britain and France, Benjamin also has a background in art history. His other great joys include coffee, dogs and anything gay, and he soon hopes to start a podcast about the kings of France.