Henrietta Maria, the wife of Charles I, has aroused strong feelings of loyalty and hatred not unlike those attached to two other French queens of England during times of civil war, Isabella of France and Margaret of Anjou. Yet while those two ‘she-wolves’ have been re-assessed in the 21st century, she has not. Now, 350 years after her death on 10 September, 1669, it’s time to reconsider this strong-willed queen, argues historian Leanda de Lisle.
In popular memory the leading figures of Charles I’s reign are male soldiers, male MPs and male clerics. Oliver Cromwell and John Pym, Prince Rupert and William Laud dominated the narrative. Meanwhile the reputation of the most prominent woman, Henrietta Maria, still lies in the eye of a storm of sexist tropes. The victors write history; and they were neither royalist nor Catholic. The real queen lies is obscured by centuries of prejudice and propaganda.
Henrietta Maria has been depicted as if she was a hysterical child, the embodiment of the belief that women are creatures of emotion, not reason. Conversely, in appearance, even the teenage bride is described as the crone, teeth protruding like javelins from a fortress: with quotation taken out of time and context, the lovely face of her youth is only a witch’s spell that masks the hag. And like a witch, she is, of course, a servant of evil, another Eve, spiritually weak yet seductive, who corrupts the king into wicked Popery and brings civil war to a Protestant Eden.
In France, Henrietta Maria was remembered very differently, as the daughter most like her father, the warrior king, Henri IV – known as Henry the Great.
When Henrietta Maria arrived in England in 1625 she was the first French princess to marry an English king since Margaret of Anjou in 1445.
Like Margaret, she was only 15. Like Margaret, she was also seen as a child of the enemy. In 1445 England was losing the Hundred Years War with France; in 1625 England’s Protestant co-religionists were being defeated in Europe by Counter-Reformation forces.
This new Catholic queen had a “lovely and lasting complexion, a dark brown: she has eyes that sparkle like stars; and for her physiognomy, she may be said to be a mirror of perfection”.1
But tensions between England and France were reflected in quarrels with her young husband, while Charles’s mentor – his father’s favourite, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham – exacerbated their differences.
In 1626 Charles replaced many of Henrietta Maria’s closest friends and ladies in waiting with Buckingham’s female relations and a woman assumed to be Charles’s mistress, Lucy, Countess of Carlisle. Bereft of her friends, and surrounded by people she couldn’t trust, Henrietta Maria sent a stream of desperate letters to France describing herself as “a poor oppressed princess” and wailing miserably, “Goodbye bitterness. Goodbye those who will make me die if God does not have pity on me”.2 But within a few months, Lucy Carlisle had become the queen’s great favourite.
Henrietta Maria’s mother, Marie de Medici, had ruled France as regent, and, even at 16, Henrietta Maria was a political animal. She had made Charles’s would-be royal mistress an ally, and was using the influential Lucy in a pro-French diplomatic strategy.
As Henrietta Maria matured into a young woman, so her relationship with Charles also improved. Then, in the summer of 1628, came the assassination of the widely-hated Buckingham. The king and queen grew closer, and in 1630 their son, the future Charles II, was born.
Puritans came to see the deep love of the royal couple as a threat. They disliked the ceremonial style of Protestantism that Charles preferred over their stripped-down Calvinism, and they blamed the influence of the Queen. Yet this was quite untrue; for Charles, the Protestant Church of England was “the best in the world”.
When Charles’s religious reforms triggered rebellion in Presbyterian Scotland, the Scots’ allies in England used Henrietta Maria’s Catholic faith as a means of attacking the King. She was trolled from the pulpits as a “Popish brat of France” and, as hatred against Catholics fanned to new heights, so mobs were sent to attack her house.
The following October, a Catholic rebellion broke out in Ireland. News of massacres of Protestant settlers were used by Charles’s enemies to recruit to their cause, and the finger of blame was pointed at the innocent Queen. In February 1642, on the eve of the English Civil War, Henrietta Maria left for Holland. This was not to save her own skin, however, but to act as Charles’s chief diplomat and party leader in Europe, as well as his arms buyer.
She returned to England in February 1643 with men, money and arms. After a dangerous landing in Yorkshire, she spent months raising royalist morale in the north, eating in sight of the soldiers and recruiting men.
The royalists had gained superiority in Yorkshire by late June, when Charles called for her to join him in his wartime capital at Oxford. Parliament sent cavalry to intercept the Queen and her men, but she escaped again and, still en route to meet her husband, the “generalissima” (as she called herself) captured Burton-on-Trent in a “bloody” and “desperate” battle.
After the war turned against Charles in 1644, Henrietta Maria returned to France and, despite being seriously ill, she continued to raise money and arms. The defeat of the King at Naseby in Northamptonshire in 1645, proved, however, to be a decisive propaganda, as well as military, victory for his enemies.
His correspondence was captured and 37 letters between Charles and the Queen were carefully chosen and edited to ‘prove’ that he was the mere vassal of a foreign, Catholic, wife. These letters were published under the title The King’s Cabinet Opened. A commentary depicted Henrietta Maria as a transgender perversion of nature. It pointed to shocking examples of her mannishness, such as when “you see she marcheth at the head of an army and calls herself the generalissima”. “This,” one parliamentary journalist wrote, “is the Dear Heart which hath cost him almost three Kingdoms”, and the true “wearer of the breeches”.
The maxim cherchez la femme (seek out the woman) already held true in England when looking for where to cast the blame for failures in male leadership. Margaret of Anjou had ridden with armies in defense of her ill husband, Henry VI, during the Wars of the Roses. After he died he was judged a saint, while she was blamed for the wars and condemned by Shakespeare as a ‘she-wolf of France’.
When Charles’s kingdoms were lost, and he was executed, he too was judged a saint. The title of Charles the Martyr is largely forgotten. Yet Henrietta Maria remains the caricature of parliamentary propaganda; the victim of our continued and unacknowledged prejudices. It is time we brought her back as the warrior, politician, and woman that she was really was.
She is currently writing a biography of Henrietta Maria.
Historia interviewed Leanda shortly after she won the HWA Non-fiction Crown.
Read her feature, Killing a king: the execution of Charles I.
Henrietta Maria by Sir Anthony van Dyck, 1632: via Wikimedia
Henrietta Maria when a princess of France by Frans Pourbus: via Wikimedia
The Great Piece (Charles I and Henrietta Maria with their two eldest children, Charles and Mary) by van Dyck: via Wikimedia
The Kings Cabinet Opened: via archive.org