‘Such a concert of voices and instruments has not been heard before’: Celebrating and Contesting Royal Births Abroad

As the simultaneous publication of Prince Harry’s memoir Spare in fifteen languages last year demonstrated, royal affairs remain a subject of international as much as domestic fascination. Yet in the seventeenth century, when Europe was dominated by dynastic monarchies whose survival or extinction could upend domestic policy and redraw the diplomatic map, they were pored over by international audiences with a fervour that we find hard to comprehend today.

It proved no different with the birth of James II and Mary of Modena’s son, James Francis Edward, the future ‘old Pretender’, in June 1688. The infant’s birth had momentous political and religious implications. When he came to the throne in 1685, James II was the first Catholic ruler of England and Scotland in over a century. Yet having acceded at the then elderly age of fifty-one, it seemed that James’ rule would be a brief Catholic interlude before the throne passed to his firmly Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange. James-Francis’ birth completely upended this picture, opening up the prospect of a perpetually Catholic dynasty on the Stuart thrones.

English diplomats celebrated James-Francis’ birth on a lavish scale across Europe, but none more so than the ambassador to the Dutch Republic, Ignatius White, the Marquis d’Albeville. The Dutch Republic had been a thorn in James’ side since his accession. Two rebel expeditions had set out from there to depose James in the summer of 1685, with generous support from the Dutch. They had continued to shelter the rebels after their defeat, whilst the Dutch press printed critical tracts and commentaries on James. Albeville reckoned that it was necessary to make the celebrations for James-Francis’ birth more splendid in the Dutch Republic than anywhere else because ‘many of the States and sober men in most of the provinces, besides the ignorant vulgar sort’ had been ‘prepossessed [against James II] most falsely by so many infamous pamphlets and libels’.[i] Moreover, staging lavish celebrations in the Republic would create a platform for William and Mary, the Prince and Princess of Orange and de facto leaders of the Republic, to broadcast their support for the new heir.

Food and drink were often used by diplomats to encourage large turnouts at their celebrations. Albeville was no different, and began by distributing bread and wine to hundreds of commoners, ‘who flocked from all parts, without distinction of country or religion’.[ii] A spectacular high mass followed, advertising the Catholic triumph in England. It opened with a volley from fifty cannons Albeville had had brought over from Rotterdam and was followed with music and chants, producing, he boasted, ‘such a concert of voices and instruments has not been heard before at The Hague’.[iii]

Mass was followed by a lavish dinner at the ambassador’s house, to which Albeville had invited a hundred courtiers, lords and foreign diplomats. As Albeville entertained his guests, a lavish public feast was laid out, drawing a ‘great concourse of people from diverse towns and provinces’ and filling ‘the streets of The Hague with young men drunk with the wine’ who cried out cheers to the new Prince of Wales.[iv]

Romeyn de Hooghe, L’Epiphane du Nouveau Antischrist. Produced a year after James-Francis’ birth, de Hooghe’s engraving reflected Protestant anxieties that James-Francis’ birth would spell disaster for their faith.

Albeville capped his celebrations off with an awesome fireworks display. This took place against a screen painted on both sides with clear political and religious symbolism. One side depicted St George battling with a dragon, whose two heads represented the test and penal laws used to repress Catholicism in Britain. On the other side, James-Francis was depicted seated atop the globe on a velvet cushion, with allegorical figures of religion and liberty shaking hands over the infant’s head. Above the whole scene, an inscription proclaimed that: ‘justice and truth are the supporters of my father’s throne, and shall be of mine’.[v] There could be no doubt that James-Francis’ birth and the revival of Catholicism went hand in hand.

Albeville was self-evidently pleased with the performance he had put on. He rapidly closed his letter claiming that: ‘all acknowledged that such a fireworks [display], such a liberality to the poor upon a public feast, such music, such a dinner and such a supper so great … have not been seen before in The Hague’.[vi]

But Albeville’s letter was also shot through with indications that the celebrations were not as successful as he had hoped. Attendance at diplomatic celebrations were a public indication of a regime’s support and Albeville was thus frustrated that the Spanish and Imperial envoys, as well as many Dutch nobles, did not attend. Moreover, Albeville felt that the Dutch nobility had done all they could to ‘obscure’ the feast, even going so far as to deny Albeville use of the Prince of Orange’s trumpeter![vii]

Yet Albeville’s woes were as nothing compared to those of the English Consul in Amsterdam, Daniel Petit, whose celebrations had descended into a riot. The Consul had been publicly insulted by English rebels, and chaos ensued when a crowd rushed to get sweetmeats thrown from the Consul’s window. Petit was punished by the magistrates for the trouble he had caused, whilst the damage to his house cost him 220 guilders. To avoid such trouble, Albeville had deployed a company of footsoldiers to oversee his own celebrations.

Matters quickly deteriorated further, though. Rumours that James-Francis was not in fact the child of the royal couple but had been smuggled into the Queen’s chamber in a warming pan began to circulate in England and it was not long before Albeville reported that such rumours had reached The Hague. More importantly, the birth of Prince James accelerated plans William of Orange was already making to invade England. Within five months of his birth, William’s army occupied London and James-Francis, along with both of his parents, had fled for exile in France. 

Whether they were greeted with cheers or insults, royal festivities were not the exclusive preserve of courtiers. Rather, they were public and international affairs, as much in the seventeenth century as they are today.

By Basil Bowdler, University of St Andrews, UK.

Basil is a second-year PhD candidate at St Andrews. His thesis, research for which informed this blog, is entitled ‘Politics and Information in the Anglo-Dutch Public Sphere, 1685-1713’. Basil also works for the Universal Short Title Catalogue, co-edits the Northern Early Modern Network’s blog and co-convenes the St Andrews Early Modern Workshop. 

[i] London, British Library, Add. MS 41816, f. 106.

[ii] Ibid, f. 107.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid, ff. 108-9.

[v] Ibid, f. 110.

[vi] Ibid, f. 109.

[vii] Ibid, f. 108.

Cite this blog post
courtstudies (2023, November 15). ‘Such a concert of voices and instruments has not been heard before’: Celebrating and Contesting Royal Births Abroad. The Court Observer. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/n6uy

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