Henrietta Maria – mother of two monarchs, grandmother of three

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

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This edited article about Queen Henrietta Maria originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 113 published on 14 March 1964.

Charles I at Oxford, picture, image, illustration

Charles I greeting Henrietta Maria in Oxford after her return to England

A year after she had said good-bye to her husband King Charles I and departed for France, Queen Henrietta returned again to England. The date was February, 1643; the circumstances very much changed from that day when, as a young French princess, she had crossed the Channel to marry Charles, then Prince of Wales.

For England was now plunged in Civil War, and Henrietta, who had spent her year in exile pawning her wealth to buy stores for her husband’s fight against Oliver Cromwell, was now practically penniless.

In the Channel the Queen’s ship was hit by a violent storm. After a fortnight at sea she landed in Bridlington Bay, Yorkshire, and spent the night in a seafront house.

At five o’clock the next morning five Parliamentary warships, whose captains had heard of the Queen’s landing, slipped into the bay and set up a furious bombardment of her house. The Queen, courageous as ever, left the place by the side door and took shelter in a ditch. One of the cannon balls, she said afterwards, killed one of her servants who was sheltering fifty yards away from her.

Henrietta had come to England to be reunited with her husband, and this she was now determined to achieve. While her stores were being unloaded she moved into another, safer house near Bridlington. The owner, unfortunately for him, had gone off to fight for Cromwell – a point which Henrietta countered by “commandeering” her absent host’s silver and plate, and pawning it for the royalist cause. Then the indefatigable Queen marched westwards with her supporters to the Vale of Keynton, near Edgehill in Warwickshire, where, for the last time, she was reunited with King Charles.

That year of 1644 was a year of rapid and disastrous change, and on April 3, as the Parliamentary forces closed towards the King and Queen in the Midlands, Henrietta was again forced to leave her husband. Her agonizing path now lay towards Exeter, a royalist city, where she gave birth to the last of her children, a Princess whom she called Henrietta. Not long afterwards the Parliamentary army followed her westwards, and in July Henrietta fled from Exeter and from England, never again to see her husband the King.

Ironically, only 10 days after she had gone, fortune changed sides again and Charles entered Exeter at the head of his army.

The minor triumphs that the King had achieved against Cromwell’s Roundheads on his march to Exeter were offset at once by the news that his wife had been forced to flee England again. Charles, a man of fine taste who wrote a great deal, set down his feelings.

“Her sympathy with my afflictions makes her virtues shine with greater lustre, as stars in the darkest night,” he wrote. “Thus may the envious world be assured that she loves me, not my fortunes.”

The envious world! The expression has a hollow ring about it. There was little that the world had to envy now in the fallen fortunes of the King and Queen of England.

Back in France Henrietta rejoined her relatives in the royal palace of the Louvre in Paris, and at once began selling what little else of value that she possessed. The money she sent to Charles fighting in England, and there is no doubt that Henrietta’s selfless action kept the royalist army in food, clothing and arms very much longer than might have been.

But it seemed that she never would mend her habit of meddling in politics – a habit which had caused at least some of the troubles which she and her husband and all England were suffering. At one stage in the Civil War Charles could have accepted terms for a peace with Cromwell. But on all important issues the King would listen attentively to the views of his imperious wife. This time she wrote to him:

“I understand that the propositions for peace must begin by disbanding your army. If you consent to this you are lost; they having the whole power of the militia, they have and will do whatsoever they will. . . .”

And, of course, there was no peace.

Then events moved swiftly. News came to Henrietta in Paris that the King was to be put on trial. After that there was no news. Gradually the other English exiles in France heard of the King’s inevitable fate – but who was to tell the Queen? For days they delayed, and then Henrietta’s loyal friend Lord Jermyn decided to tell her the sad tidings. The King had been publicly executed, his head severed with one stroke of the axe.

“The Queen stood,” a French historian of the time wrote, “motionless as a statue, without words and without tears. We were awed by her appalling grief.”

More grief was to come. On September 8, 1650, the young Princess Elizabeth, daughter of Charles and Henrietta, died a prisoner of the Roundheads in Carisbrooke Castle in the Isle of Wight, at the age of 15. Today you can still see her apartments in the castle – another sad memorial to England’s sad Stuarts.

Impoverished in France and by her poverty an easy victim of scorn at the high and mighty court of the great King Louis XIV, Henrietta threw herself into her religion. Even the consequences of this were unhappy, for the petulant Queen, well knowing that her young son, the Duke of Gloucester, who was with her, had given an undertaking to his father and his eldest brother, now Charles II, to observe the Protestant faith, begged him to become a Roman Catholic.

When Gloucester refused the Queen had him ejected from her house, with orders that he was never to see her again.

Poor Gloucester! He was a bewildered 14 years old! Not long afterwards he died of smallpox – the first of two of Henrietta’s children (the other was the Princess of Orange) to die of that disease.

And poor Henrietta! At the time perhaps of her greatest triumph, the death of Cromwell, the man who had so easily despised her and who had caused her so much suffering, and the restoration of her son Charles to the throne, she was almost too weary to care.

Nevertheless she returned to London in triumph and set up her home in the palace of Somerset House. Wherever she went she wore mourning, for she declared that the sight of all those places in London where she and the dead King had spent so many happy times tore at her heart.

When the London fogs proved too much for her she paid an intended short visit to France and by doing so avoided the Great Plague. But from France she sent large sums of money from the new wealth that the English Parliament had voted her, to relieve the sufferings of the Plague-ridden Londoners. Henrietta, indeed, was always generous, even to the end.

The end came in France in 1669. The Queen who was mother to two English Kings and grandmother to three, who had lived such a turbulent life of suffering, died mercifully quietly, and without pain, at the age of 61.

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