This is the riveting story of how Jane Stuart, an illegitimate daughter of King James 11 the last Roman Catholic to rein over Britain, came to live in a cellar in Wisbech, selling thread on the market place. It would surely make a best seller for Hilary Mantel or Philippa Gregory.
I learnt about it during a visit to the town’s Friends’ Meeting House, home of the Quakers, during the weekend’s fabulous Heritage Open Days – a wonderful opportunity to delve deep into our wonderful local history, its people and buildings.
This is Jane’s fascinating story, courtesy of Fenland Museum:
Jane is believed to have been born in Paris, the daughter of James, Duke of York, then in exile. He had escaped England in 1648 when confined to St James’s Palace by Parliamentary Leaders. Jane became a maid of honour to Queen Henrietta Maria and remained at the English Court from the Restoration (1685) to the Glorious Revolution (1688), but she has never been officially recognised. After the Glorious Revolution, Jane escaped the Court and finally found refuge in Wisbech, living a life of simplicity and piety.
Before this, however, there was a further intriguing twist to her story which lead to her being named Queen of the Reapers. Although the Court of James II was Catholic, it is understood that Jane Stuart became influenced by the principles of the Quakers. Like many of similar radical belief, she was imprisoned because of her association with the movement. It was during this period of her life that she became engaged to be married. Tragically a coach in which she and her future husband were travelling overturned and he was killed.
Following this tragedy, Jane remained in London for some time before eventually setting-off on foot towards the Isle of Ely . Presumably penniless, she sought after work and enquired at several houses about employment. When asked what she could do, she answered that she was prepared to set her hand at anything. To which the response was, “Canst thou reap?” She replied that she didn’t know but was willing to try. So she was sent into the field, and before evening she was discovered to be so proficient at reaping as to be called Queen of the reapers.
In Wisbech she lived in a basement room in a white house at the far end of the Old Market looking towards the Town Bridge . Today it is more familiar as Granny’s Cupboard. There she supported herself by earning her living reaping in the fields in the summer and spinning wool and flax in the winter. Though she led a humble existence she remained an enigma.
It is a very touching tale, and what a hard life Jane must have had, though one senses she was at peace with her life of piety. I guess she chose to remain an enigma due to her illegitimacy, herlinks with the court and Roman Catholic father.