Frances Quinn’s novel The Smallest Man is inspired by the life of Jeffrey Hudson, the ‘court dwarf’ of Henrietta Maria, Charles I’s French wife. But who was this spirited woman who was both dearly loved and deeply unpopular? Frances looks at the friendship between a courtier and a queen who has been all but forgotten by most people.
Ask the average person to name some past queens of England, and you could stake your life on the names they’d come up with: Elizabeth and Victoria, for sure, probably some or all of Henry VIII’s wives. Maybe Anne, if they saw The Favourite or possess a certain style of armchair. But – unless it’s historians or Civil War fans you’re questioning – I doubt that anyone would mention Henrietta Maria. She was right there, at the heart of England’s most turbulent years, wife of the king we executed, and yet now, she’s just a great answer on Pointless.
Confession: until I started researching my novel, The Smallest Man, I couldn’t have told you who she was either. I must have known Charles I had a wife, but I didn’t know her name or anything about her, until I stumbled across the Wikipedia entry for Jeffrey Hudson, Henrietta Maria’s ‘court dwarf’, who became the inspiration for my main character, Nat Davy.
Jeffrey was given to Henrietta Maria as a present in the early days of her marriage to Charles I, and was still with her 17 years later when the Civil War broke out, and for some years after that. So it was to biographies of her that I turned to find out about his life – and what a story she turned out to have.
A French Catholic princess, she was married off at the age of 15, to be sent to a country that didn’t like Catholics and was even less keen on the French, and whose language she couldn’t speak. Charles was ten years older, and they’d only met once (and that only because he was on his way to woo a different princess).
The marriage started surprisingly well, considering, but before long, it had deteriorated to a level that makes the last years of our own Charles and Diana’s marriage look like a Mills & Boon novel. There were public spats – including one about whether it was raining or not – and after one particularly bitter falling out he wrote to let her know that, although he planned to continue visiting her bed, it was only to do his duty and not because he wanted to.
Of course it wasn’t unusual for a 17th-century dynastic marriage to be unhappy, if not always so publicly – but the twist with these two is that, after a brutal couple of years, they fell completely in love, and become one of the most devoted couples in English Royal history. I was curious about how and why that might have happened, and having found no real explanation in the history books, I wove my own into the story of The Smallest Man (no spoilers here, you’ll have to read it to find out).
It was that devotion, though, that would play a key role in their downfall. Historians debate the causes of the English Civil Wars endlessly, but in a country where the Catholic-led Gunpowder Plot was still within living memory, concerns that the Queen was scheming to convert the King to Catholicism contributed hugely to his unpopularity.
And when the rift between Charles and Parliament started drifting towards war, she became a target, threatened with impeachment; at one point, the two of them fully believed, not without cause, that an army was gathering to seize her from the ramshackle and very difficult-to-defend Palace of Westminster.
Faced with that, you either run or dig your heels in; by then, the browbeaten young girl had become a grown woman who was very much of the dig-your-heels-in persuasion, and she was also furious.
She headed off to Holland to drum up men, arms and ammunition for the fight to come, badgering anyone she could think of for loans, shamelessly trying to sell off the Crown Jewels to raise funds, and educating herself about cannons and muskets and pikes, so that it came to making the necessary purchases, she knew what she was talking about and couldn’t be fleeced.
Then comes the episode that I think made me love her the most. Munitions gathered, they sailed home, landing in Bridlington, but during the night, the harbour came under bombardment from Parliamentarian ships.
In the middle of the night, with snow on the ground, she and her companions – including Jeffrey Hudson – were forced to flee. But when she realised she’d left her dog behind, she braved a hail of cannonballs to run back for it. If that isn’t a gift to a novelist, I don’t know what is.
She then led the whole wagon train down to the King’s headquarters in Oxford, gathering more men and arms along the way, spending the evenings eating round the campfire with ‘her’ soldiers and laughingly calling herself a ‘she-generalissima’.
And even when she was finally forced to flee to France, knowing that if Parliamentary troops captured her they’d be able to make the King agree to anything, she was still the one telling him to keep up the fight, sending irate letters when it looked like he might try and negotiate with the other side. It all ended badly, of course, but what a woman to have on your side.
Threading through all those years was this unlikely friendship with Jeffrey Hudson, who was given to her as a sort of human pet (at that time she had other dwarves too, and a ‘giant’), but who must have become much more than that, not only travelling with her to Holland for the great arms drive, but still by her side, and one of only a handful who were when she finally fled.
It’s another intriguing facet to the character of this astonishing woman, and I hope that readers of The Smallest Man, which has my fictional version of that friendship at its heart, will come to know and like our forgotten queen as much as I did.
You may also be interested in Leanda de Lisle’s feature, Henrietta Maria: queen, warrior, politician, woman.
Portrait of Henrietta Maria by Anthony van Dyck: Wikimedia
Henrietta Maria and Sir Jeffrey Hudson by Anthony van Dyck, 1633: Wikimedia
Charles I and Henrietta Maria by Daniel Mytens, c1630–32: Wikimedia
Jeffrey Hudson (and a dog), engraving by James Stow after George Perfect Harding after a painting by Daniel Mytens: Wellcome Collection via Wikimedia