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Queen Henrietta Maria’s narrow escape from Cromwell’s men

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty on Wednesday, 30 January 2013

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This edited article about Queen Henrietta Maria originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 112 published on 7 March 1964.

Charles I and Henrietta Maria, picture, image, illustration

Charles I and Henrietta Maria by Pat Nicolle

Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers walked up and down outside their new camp in the wood three miles from the gateway to the city of Exeter. Despite the discomforts of a soldier’s life under canvas they were all in high spirits.

“We’ll carry the head of Henrietta to London,” shouted one to another. “And Parliament will give us a reward of fifty thousand pounds for it. Then, in God’s name, we’ll be rich!”

The soldiers all laughed. They knew that Henrietta, Queen of England and consort of King Charles I, was confined by illness to the city of Exeter, because she had already written to their commander, the Earl of Essex, asking for a free passage out of it.

They knew, too, that the earl had sent back a curt reply, “that it is my intention to escort your majesty to London to answer to Parliament for having levied war in England.”

Indeed, those roundhead soldiers of Oliver Cromwell were so sure that Queen Henrietta was still in Exeter that they didn’t look any farther – or nearer. If they had done so they may have seen that at that moment Henrietta was right under their noses.

Right by the soldiers’ camp was an old hut, a woodman’s hut. Inside it was a heap of smelly litter. And under that heap of litter was the Queen – famished because she had not eaten for two days, and well able to hear the soldiers talking and shouting about her outside the hut.

This amazing incident in the amazing life of Henrietta took place towards the end of June, 1644. After the Earl of Essex had refused her free passage out of Exeter, Henrietta had risen from her sick bed (she was stricken with rheumatism, and had given birth only fourteen days previously to a Princess), escaped from the city in disguise and arrived at the woodman’s hut just before the roundhead soldiers pitched their camp there.

Not until the soldiers had gone did she move out. Then, escorted by a few faithful servants who had also escaped from Exeter and who rejoined her on the road to the coast, Henrietta sailed from England to her native France. Behind her she left an England in the terrible throes of civil war, and a husband fighting valiantly for his crown.

Henriette Marie, to give her French name, was the youngest daughter of King Henry IV of France and Marie de Medicis. She was only sixteen when she married Charles, who had first seen her when he was travelling across the Continent to woo the daughter of the King of Spain.

The Spanish engagement fell through, but the image of Henrietta stayed in Charles’s mind. Unlike the Tudors, who reigned before him, Charles believed in marrying for love, and there are many delightful memories of the courtship of the royal couple, who carried each other’s pictures with them after their engagement and eagerly looked forward to their meetings.

But few royal marriages before those days had been blessed with happiness, and this was not to be among the few. The Pope held up his hands in horror at the marriage, as well he might. “A Catholic bride for the Protestant King of England!” he exclaimed. And his mind ranged gloomily over all the things that he had recently heard the Protestants were doing to the Catholics in early-seventeenth-century England.

Henrietta, indeed, was a devout Catholic, and in England an emerging Protestant Parliament was testing its muscles and trying its strength. But Charles was a well-loved leader; on the strength of his great popularity, then, he had somehow to unite the two factions.

At once there were difficulties. They were, of course, religious difficulties, although more mature people would have solved them with less fuss. Henrietta, remember, was still in her mid-teens, and lacked the experience that a Queen needs. She refused to be crowned in a Protestant church, and so she was not crowned at all. Arguments with Charles resulted in him expelling all her French servants, and still more arguments resulted in the arrival from France of an ambassador named Bassompierre, who was sent by her relatives to right her grievances.

Bassompierre seems to have been the first sensible Frenchman whom Henrietta had ever seen. Instead of pandering to her, he listened to her list of grievances, then sharply reproved her for her childishness.

“Behave yourself in England, or I will let it be known in France that your troubles are of your own doing,” said the stern Bassompierre. And at once Henrietta seems to have grown some sense, for thereafter her marriage with Charles was a love story that has no equal either for loyalty, or tragedy, in royal history.

Historians still argue about exactly how important was the role that Henrietta played in the downfall of Charles, the man she loved, and who loved her with passionate tenderness. Before the Civil War Henrietta was certainly young and impetuous; she felt the strings of power and she liked the feeling, but she had no malice in her. But whenever Henrietta tugged those strings a prickly Protestant Parliament, already prejudiced against her by reason of her religion, felt the pull and gritted its teeth in opposition.

When Strafford, one of Charles’s ministers, obtained funds from Ireland to enable the King to raise his own private army, Parliament was furious, and ordered the minister’s execution. Henrietta, who was very fond of Strafford, took his side in the dispute – a fact which did not endear her to the M.P.s.

Then there was the question of the royal children. When Charles was absent from the country, in which religion would the Catholic Queen instruct them, asked the vexed M.P.s.

“Catholicism!” shouted Henrietta’s enemies, and Parliament was put in a fresh dither.

In fact Henrietta was quite prepared to bring them up in the Protestant religion of the country.

The memorable incident that finally triggered off the Civil War was Charles’s vain attempt to arrest five Members of Parliament in the Commons.

The King, believing the five members were in league with rebels in Scotland, was urged, it is said, by Henrietta’s ill-timed taunts and reproaches, to set out and arrest them himself. Before he went to the Commons the only person in the royal household he told that he was going was his Queen.

Now Henrietta’s greatest undoing was that she was by nature a gossip. She used often to say so herself. No sooner had Charles set out on his foolish errand than Henrietta began to talk about it to her friend Lady Carlisle. Unknown to the Queen, Lady Carlisle was a spy in the royal household, and quickly she sent out a man to warn the sitting Parliament. Before the King reached the Commons the five members, apprised of his coming, had made a clean getaway.

There was the King, thwarted and frustrated, and confronted by his furiously angry Parliament. When the Londoners heard of his intentions they mutinied, and England stood at the edge of her disastrous Civil War.

Henrietta, realizing her folly, threw herself into the arms of her husband, begging forgiveness. Never once did he reproach her.

“I had ruined him,” she said afterwards. “But never for a moment did he treat me with less kindness than before it happened.”

The King and Queen went to Hampton Court to withdraw from the fury of the mutineers. There, to their surprise, Parliament decided to restrain the King’s movements. Charles, now becoming anxious for the safety of his family, asked the M.P.s if his wife could be allowed to return to France and again, to their surprise, the M.P.s agreed.

In France the Queen set about raising money for Charles’s aid. When she returned with it England was in a state of Civil War.

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