Stuart & Sobieska

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Saturday 26 September to Saturday 12 December, 2009

This exhibition tells the story of Princess Maria Clementina Sobieska, mother of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, and her Polish heritage.

This particular aspect of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’s’ background is little known in Scotland and it is intended to illuminate the period of Scottish history defined by the Prince by illustrating it from a new perspective, as well as strengthening the Scottish-Polish connection.

Early Married Life

Prince James Francis Edward Stuart (1688 – 1766), Jacobite claimant to the English, Scottish and Irish thrones, had reached the age of thirty without a wife or an heir,  much to the alarm of his Jacobite supporters. Finding a bride would be a delicate task, partly because he was a king without a throne, but also because the government in London was expected to put every obstacle in the way of a Stuart marriage for fear of the production of an heir. James ordered Charles Wogan, a passionately loyal Irish adventurer, to scour the courts of central Europe in search of a suitable bride. Wogan found the Sobieski princesses at Ohlau in South West Poland and was immediately enchanted by the youngest, sixteen-year old Maria Clementine. She was an attractive young princess to which many had been drawn. Slight of frame with blonde hair and dark eyes, the young Maria Clementine was reputedly clever and cheerful and certainly well educated. Pope Clement XI was her godfather and she would bring an enormous dowry of 25 million francs and the Sobieski jewels, including the famously magnificent rubies. In many ways, she seemed the perfect companion for James, who was naturally more serious and taciturn and four teen years her elder.  James proposed at once and was accepted.

King George I, in an effort to prohibit the marriage of James to Maria Clementine, prevailed upon the Holy Roman emperor to arrest Clementine as she travelled through Austria on her way to Italy to be married. The young princess was kidnapped and detained in Ambras Castle in Innsbruck during the winter of 1718. In a dramatic rescue, Charles Wogan spirited MariaClementine out of the castle dressed as a maid, and after a treacherous journey over the snowbound Brenner Pass, Maria Clementine reached Bologna in April 1719.

No bridegroom awaited her;  James had departed for Spain to lead what would become another ill-fated Jacobite rising, but had left instructions for a proxy marriage ceremony to be performed as soon as his bride arrived. Following this ceremony on 9th May, Clementine continued her journey to Rome where she was feted as the British Queen. Four months later, after the failure of the 1719 rising, Clementine met her husband for the first time on 2nd September at Montefiascone, and on the same day a second marriage ceremony took place in the cathedral there.

Clementine and James settled in the Palazzo Muti, a small palace in Rome which was made over to them by Pope Clement XI, who acknowledged them as the rightful, and more importantly, Catholic King and Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland. It was here at the Palazzo Muti, to the great joy of the Jacobite world, that their first child, Charles Edward Stuart, was born on the last day of the year 1720.  A second son, Henry Benedict, followed five years later on 6 March 1725.


Maria Clementine’s happiness was short-lived; even before the birth of Charles it was becoming evident that the marraige was not the success she or Jacobite followers had hoped for.  Profound personal and moral differences between the royal spouses soon bubbled to the surface. James was fourteen years older than his wife, and his reputedly dour, stoical, and pragmatic approach to life failed to strike a chord in her romantic soul. The drab Palazzo Muti offered none of the fun of her father’s court at Ohlau, while her husband closeted himself away, writing endless letters and plotting to regain his crown. The frequent quarrels led to tantrums on the part of Maria Clementine and cold withdrawal by James. It soon became evident to Clementine that while she might be called Queen of Britain in Rome, she would never reign in that country. The young Charles Edward’s development towards boyhood introduced more serious causes for dissent. Both parents were utterly devoted to him, but for different reasons: Maria Clementine to compensate for her husband’s neglect, and James because the child was heir to his royal line. Protestant nurses were appointed to care for the child, but it was Mrs. Sheldon, a Roman Catholic, who was proposed as governess. Maria Clementine, now lonely and miserable, fell under the
influence of this domineering woman, who inflamed new quarrels over Charles Edward’s education.

As the young prince grew up, he became more aware of his father’s cold withdrawals from family life and his mother’s tantrums. As early as the age of three, he could be wilful and disobedient, mortifying the court once by refusing to kneel when presented to Pope Benedict XIII. In November 1725, James decided the boy needed a firmer hand, so he took him away from Mrs. Sheldon and the female nurses and handed him over to male governors, first Michael Ramsay and later James Murray of Stormont. Their appointment coicided with the birth of the couple’s second son, Henry Benedict.  Abetted by Mrs. Sheldon, Maria Clementine may have seen this thrusting of her first-born into the charge of so many men as an attempt to cut her off from her beloved Charles.

Piety and Illness

Changes in the young Maria Clementine’s nature became even more apparent after the birth of her second son, Henry Benedict, when she suffered postpartum complications. In November 1725, Maria Clementine drove out of the palace with Sheldon and her other ladies and sought sanctuary in the convent of St. Cecilia where she remained separated from her husband and children for two long years. The Pope, fearing the Stuarts might abandon the Roman Catholic faith in order to regain the throne, took the side of Maria Clementine and reduced James’ allowance.  James visited her at the convent, but no reconciliation resulted. In June 1727, when King George I died,  James set out for France to seek help from Louis XV to mount an invasion of Britain. With tragic mistiming, Clementine chose that moment to leave the convent and join her sons in Bologna. She had been separated from her husband and children for two years, but now poured out her love to her boys, only to abandon them again for long periods to go on long pilgrimages. She refused to join James at Avignon, nor would she be reconciled on his return to Italy early in 1728, and she continued to keep Mrs. Sheldon at her side.

Following lengthy deliberations, the royal couple separated. Maria Clementine subsequently became prone to increasing religious piety. She spent her time fasting and kneeling in cold, damp churches for such a long time that her health became permanently damaged. She became bone-thin, lost all her beauty and began showing symptoms of malnutrition.  Wandering in spirit, she spent the final four years of her life visiting hospitals, caring for the sick and giving alms to the impoverished.

By the end of 1734, when Prince Charles attained his fourteenth birthday, it became evident that his mother was dying. On 12 January 1735, Maria Clementine received the last rites of the church, but remained perfectly lucid and asked to see her sons to plead with them never to abandon their Roman Catholicism. On 18th January 1735, she finally died amid an aura of saintliness at the Palzzo Muti and was interred with full honours in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, becoming the first woman to receive this great privilege. The funeral was a magnificent event, and one of the most brilliant spectacles ever witnessed by Romans. Pope Benedict XIV commissioned Pietro Bracchi (1700-1773) to sculpt a monument to her memory to be erected in the Basilica.

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