Saturday, 20 April 2013

‘A Royal Passion’: The Love History of Queen Henrietta Maria and Charles I

‘Tis the seasons for royal talks here in London and I have booked tickets for a whole bunch of events on the history of the monarchy over the next few months. The most prolific royal events organizer is Historic Royal Palaces, the organization that looks after Hampton Court, the Tower of London and other former royal residences in London. I attended the first talk I booked with them last week at the Banqueting Hall, the 17th century building in Whitehall outside which Charles I was beheaded. The subject suitably was the passionate, romantic relationship between Charles and his queen, Henrietta Maria of France.

The talk was given by an expert on the matter, Katie Whitaker, author of A Royal Passion: The Turbulent Marriage of Charles I and Henrietta Maria. It was a straight talk, unfortunately marred occasionally by the bad acoustics of the undercroft, the space beneath the Hall where the event was being held (incidentally this undercroft was originally built as a drinking den for King James I.) Katie’s talk was pre-written but she also took off-the-cuff questions from the audience afterwards, including yours truly. Guests were also allowed to wander up the Hall upstairs before the event and I took some nice pictures:

The Banqueting Hall, once the site of Charles and Henrietta’s lavish celebrations.

When Katie began talking about Charles I and Henrietta Maria sharing ‘one of the great love stories of royal history’ I must confess I furrowed my brows deeply. Love is not the first thing that comes to my mind when I think about those two, particularly with regards to Henrietta Maria who I usually refer to as ‘The Ruin of England’—that’s for pushing Charles onto the brink of Civil War and for injecting Catholicism into the Stuart line. Katie however was very good in showing that when you delve into the many private letters between the two a very different picture emerges of them as human beings, and the one who benefits the most from this second look is Henrietta Maria.

17th Century Wooing

Charles and Henrietta were first paired together for reasons that had nothing to do with love. As all 17th century royal marriages, their pairing was first and foremost political. The original plan had been for Charles to marry a Spanish princess to ally Britain with the powerful Hapsburgs, but when that fell through a typical diplomatically inverted plan was hatched to instead seek an alliance with France, the Hapsburgs’ main foe. As it happens, there was only one available princess left in the French Royal Family, Henrietta Maria, the 14-year old youngest daughter of King Henri IV Bourbon.

On paper the two seemed completely mismatched. Charles was stiff, ceremonial, shy, and scarred by a traumatic childhood when he had been bullied by his older brother Henry. Henrietta was instead passionate, vivacious, fun-loving, and had grown up in a large, close-knit family. On top of that, Charles was deeply committed to the Anglican faith (it would be the main cause of his undoing) while Henrietta was passionately and obstinately Catholic, and remained so all her life.

Charles and Henrietta by Daniel Mytens. It took a while before
 the two overcame their differences.
Things got even more complicated because their courtship was carried out by ambassadors who tried selling the two young people to each other. Henrietta was told that by marrying Charles she would become queen of three kingdoms (England, Scotland and Ireland), while Charles heard praises about her singing. The wedding was actually conducted by proxy in Paris in May 1625 with a distant French relative standing in for Charles, and the result was that Henrietta found herself at the age of 15 married to a man she had never met, about to move to a country she did not know, where they spoke a language she did not understand.  

Royal Newlyweds Kept Apart

Katie described in great detail an incident that took place at the time of Charles and Henrietta’s first meeting in Canterbury in June 1625, a meeting which set the tone for their entire first year of marriage. As Charles and Henrietta got into a coach to drive away there was a quarrel about the fact that one of Henrietta’s ladies in waiting, a close friend she had brought from France, was not allowed to board the coach with her. Many accounts say that it was Henrietta that threw a strop, setting a prickly pattern that continued throughout their first years of marriage. During that time the couple experienced disastrous quarrels and disagreements, resulting in very little intimacy between them demonstrated by a lack of pregnancies. This was the time that Henrietta acquired her reputation as a spoiled, temperamental foreign Queen.

However Katie told us that her research revealed a different picture of Henrietta from the one we have become accustomed to, starting from that faithful incident at Canterbury in the beginning. Slaving away at the British Library and the National Archives, Katie found evidence that it was not Henrietta who had thrown a tantrum about the lady in waiting and coach business, but instead the French and English ambassadors. Previously unexplored letters show that Henrietta on that first occasion had actually shown herself completely submissive to Charles’ will. So what had happened?

Katie revealed that the familiar picture of a spoiled Henrietta Maria causing her marriage to almost collapse  was doctored, and that the people truly responsible for Charles and Henrietta’s newlywed troubles were their respective courts. Henrietta had arrived in England with a huge coterie of French courtiers who pressured her to remain loyal to them and to France—she even refused to learn English—while Charles was being manipulated by his favorite George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, who had previously manipulated his father, King James I. In very simple terms, there were too many people involved in this relationship, almost all of them determined to drive a wedge between the young married couple, who were in fact struggling very hard to reach out to one another.

George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham,
the annoying third wheel in the royal marriage.
Things began to improve in 1626 when an exasperated Charles dismissed Henrietta’s French courtiers back to France—some who refused to leave had to be physically ejected by guards—but what really saved the marriage was the sudden murder of the manipulator-in-chief, the Duke in Buckingham, in 1628. His death was a tragic loss to Charles, Katie said, who was a very needy person and had relied very heavily on Buckingham for emotional closeness. With him gone Henrietta stepped into the void, almost immediately in fact by rushing to Charles to console him about his grief. The two bonded and the emotional seal they forged during that occasion transformed their marriage from a farce into a love story, or as Katie called it, contemporary Europe’s most famous marital bliss. Their first child was born soon after their rapprochement.

War and Death

Their bond increased during the Civil War when Henrietta Maria exerted a huge psychological influence on Charles’ course of action. Katie reminded the audience that Henrietta, even after she left England for the safety of France, wrote to Charles emphatically to ‘continue in your resolution’ and not give in to compromise (Charles was naturally inclined to waffling and wavering). But it was interesting to hear that in some respects Henrietta was far more practical than Charles on what the end result of their struggle should be. After Charles allied himself with the Scots he was faced with the dilemma of having to convert to Presbyterianism in order to retain Scottish support against Parliament. Henrietta saw no dilemma at all: “Do you want to be a Presbyterian king or no king at all?” she wrote to him. In her Catholic mind there was no difference between one silly Protestant sect or another, and she believed that Charles should do anything necessary to regain unfettered control of his throne—absolutism seemed in fact to have been her true religion in life.

The end of Charles I, a shock for the nation and for Henrietta Maria.

Katie said their love story continued until the end, which came in January 1649 when Charles was beheaded right outside the walls of the Banqueting House where the talk was taking place. Their correspondence had ceased long before during Charles’ Parliamentary captivity but Henrietta had hoped against hope that her husband could be rescued. When the news of his death was given to her while in exile in Paris she rose from her chair in shock, unable to speak or to move. She remained that way, ‘deaf and insensible’ for over an hour while priests and ladies tried to rouse her, and looked far more traumatized by the loss of Charles the man rather than Charles the king. The man who had brought the dreadful news to Henrietta had been Sir Henry Jermyn, one of her favourite courtiers, and Katie did take the time during the Q&A session to dispel some rumours that Henrietta had secretly married Jermyn afterwards.

The Real Henrietta Maria

My question to Katie during Q&As was about Henrietta’s most basic aspect and also one of the most elusive: what did she look like? Van Dyke’s portraits of her are all infamously hairbrushed to make her look more beautiful than she was. Katie admitted that her true appearance is still a mystery but by all accounts she was far less flattering than her portraits show. She certainly had protruding teeth—some of which had even been pulled out!—and narrow features, all of which became more pronounced after the stress of going through nine pregnancies and experiencing the hardships of war and exile. Henrietta herself once said poignantly that no woman could look good after her 20s.

Katie said however that it was not looks that attracted people to Henrietta Maria, but her personality. Henrietta was charming, vivacious, and had an unparalleled ability to make people fall in love with her. Katie told the story of how a teenage Sophia of Hanover, Charles’ niece (and mother of the future George I), was shocked when she first met her because Henrietta looked nothing like her portraits and her teeth were “coming out of her mouth like tusks.” Once she got to know her however she was charmed and became absolutely devoted to her.

One of Anthony Van Dyck’s portraits of Henrietta Maria, c.1636-1638:
A masterpiece of illusion.

I had a further chance to speak to Katie at the end of the talk and asked her what she thought of Henrietta Maria after learning so much about her. She confessed that at first she was reluctant to write her book given Henrietta’s reputation but after learning about her directly through her letters she had become fascinated by the portrait that came out, even quietly linking her. “They were like chalk and cheese”, she said of the royal couple, and in a way perfectly suited for each other since each had what the other lacked. Once they were finally left alone without interferences their differences meshed into a life of marital bliss. We also agreed that, though Henrietta was a definite contributing factor to the Civil War, given Charles’ personality and beliefs (and Parliament’s make-up) war would have come even without her in the mix.

Henrietta Maria of France caused trouble to the English monarchy, both during the Civil War and through the obstinate Catholicism she passed to her children. Katie Whitaker however seems to have done a good job in her book of humanizing the woman behind the myth, the lover behind the demonized English Queen. Henrietta was passionate, charming, captivating, and completely committed to her husband and to the Crown—perhaps too much committed to the latter which turned out to be her undoing. There is certainly a lot more to discover about her, and Katie’s book about her marriage is a good starting point. In any case, it was a great talk by Historic Royal Palaces to start my royal talks season this year. Who knows what else I’ll find out in the coming weeks…

Get Katie Whitaker’s book at Amazon,
and read a review of it in the Daily Telegraph.

Read more about Henrietta Maria at Wikipedia.

Discover more events at London’s Historic Royal Palaces
 this Spring and Summer.


Charles and Henrietta with their first two children,
the future Charles II and James II, by Van Dyck, 1633.
The family closeness depicted here was not an illusion.

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