Elizabeth Stuart: the treasonous portrait that touted Charles I's sister for the throne
A painting of Elizabeth Stuart, sister of Charles I, could have sent its owner to the Tower. Nadine Akkerman investigates this potentially treasonous work, and the woman who inspired it
While I was working on an exhibition in the Netherlands a decade ago, curator Jan Peeters showed me a painting of Elizabeth Stuart – but, at the time, I didn’t grasp its deadly significance. It shows Elizabeth, daughter of King James VI and I and elder sister to Charles I, wearing an ermine robe and crown. Peeters believed that the crown – added to an earlier painting by a second artist – was the same one that had been lost by Charles I during the Civil Wars, broken up and sold for scrap by parliament. This crown, the so-called Tudor Crown, was the crown of England.
I only got an idea of how potentially explosive this portrait may have been when my research revealed that Elizabeth had been seen as a serious contender for England’s throne. To commission or own a painting of the Stuart princess wearing this crown would be to risk an accusation of treason.
The scope of what could be considered treason was intentionally broad. When Edward III introduced the Treason Act in 1351, he defined the act as one that included the mere imagining of the king’s death, as well as the occasioning of actual physical harm. When Henry VIII amended the Act in the 1530s, he added writing or speaking of harming the king, depriving him of his title, slandering his marriage or even cuckolding him to the behaviours now considered as treason.
This allowed evidence to take many forms, so that when Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, was put on trial in 1572 for plotting to usurp Elizabeth I with Mary, Queen of Scots, her gift to him of an embroidered cushion was exhibit one. The needlepoint image of a blade cutting a barren tree branch to allow new roots to spring was enough to lose him his head. Mary, of course, damned herself in writing, but in a society that accorded such importance to visual rhetoric, it is hard to believe that the portrait of Elizabeth Stuart that comprised no mere emblem, but a contender blatantly wearing the crown, could not be taken as evidence of treason. Add a few overheard conversations and some coincidental political manoeuvring, and that prize portrait might have resulted in the owner’s execution.
Listen | Nadine Akkerman discusses Elizabeth Stuart, a beloved – but now widely forgotten – Stuart princess, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
Touted for the throne
Who was Elizabeth, a woman who inspired such devotion that her supporters took this risk? The granddaughter of Mary, Queen of Scots, she is one of the 17th century’s most underestimated figures. She was first seriously considered as a potential successor to the crowns of England, Scotland and Ireland when her beloved elder brother Henry died of typhoid in 1612. The younger Charles was still fragile and sickly.
While her subsequent marriage to the Calvinist Frederick V, Elector Palatine, one of the most powerful princes of the Holy Roman Empire, took her to Heidelberg, the capital of the Lower Palatinate in Germany, it also made them European Protestantism’s new power couple. By 1621, they had challenged the emperor, been crowned king and queen of Bohemia, deposed, stripped of their German lands and titles, and exiled to the Dutch Republic. Nevertheless, English and Scots alike found it hard to believe that she would not one day return as their queen. If the sturdy Henry could die, Charles most certainly would.
A perilous journey
Matters almost came to a head in the 1620s when the Stuart kingdoms divided over the “Spanish Match”, the plan for Charles to marry the Catholic Infanta Maria Anna of Spain. It was no secret that Elizabeth hated the Spanish, whom she called “the scurvie Dons”, and that she abhorred the match, allegedly greeting the death of King Philip III in 1621 with the hope that “all his race suffer the same fate, especially the female [part of it]”. (It was largely the Spanish who had besieged her husband’s ancestral lands and castles in Germany.)
In 1623, Charles and his court favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, made the perilous – and ultimately fruitless – journey to Madrid to seal the deal. As they did so, the Venetian ambassador in England, Alvise Vallaresso, advised his superiors that if Charles were to die en route, Elizabeth would become heir. He added that, when compared to the prince, she was “physically nearer this people and certainly much nearer their hearts”.
Elizabeth’s popularity resulted from her militant Protestantism and her fearlessness. She was skilled with bow and arquebus (a type of long gun), she hunted regularly, spearing boars from horseback even when pregnant. Such was her charisma that even Scottish Catholics were drawn to her cause.
This made Elizabeth dangerous. More belligerent than her father or brother, she repeatedly advocated war over diplomacy, exhorting Buckingham to “pray tell the king [her father] that the enemie will more regard his blowes than his words”. Her connection to Elizabeth I, her godmother, also played a part, as many saw her as the late queen’s natural heir or even reincarnation. The princess bought into the mythos, wearing the Virgin Queen’s jewellery and copying her curling signature.
Mistress in England?
It was an open secret that much of England wanted Elizabeth as queen. In Florence, a Venetian diplomat reported that Charles’s purported match was causing such disaffection within the Stuart kingdoms that if Elizabeth “should go there from Holland, the king [James VI & I] would to Scotland and she would be left mistress in England”. If the correspondence of her friends is to be believed, Elizabeth clearly considered this option. “For God’s sake,” Lady Bedford begged Sir Dudley Carleton, ambassador to the Dutch Republic in The Hague, “preach more warines to the Queen whom she uses freedom to, else she will undo her selfe.” In reporting Elizabeth’s designs, Vallaresso noted (in cipher) that if she “had the courage and wisdom to do so in a fitting manner it would probably be the best course she could pursue, though bold”.
However, Elizabeth never did move to take the throne. Widowed in 1632, she found herself at the epicentre of the Thirty Years’ War, the conflict that rocked Europe from 1618–48, and which was partially ignited by her husband’s support of Protestant rebels, his acceptance of the Bohemian crown and his later refusal to abdicate. Free from her brother’s stifling influence in her voluntary exile, Elizabeth was a major belligerent in the conflict, and she waged a fierce epistolary campaign to persuade her supporters to retake her lands by force.
As her brother’s kingdoms later became embroiled in civil war, Elizabeth’s court in The Hague would attract hundreds of royalist refugees. That the popularity of the so-called “Queen of Hearts” never faded perhaps explains why Charles II did not invite his aunt to his coronation in 1661.
Listen | Peter Wilson responds to your questions on the Thirty Years' War, a brutal conflict that convulsed central Europe in the 17th century, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
Children and monkeys
The popularity Elizabeth enjoyed in the 17th century has not been passed down through the centuries. She is now known in historiography as “The Winter Queen”, a pejorative derived from Catholic propaganda denigrating the brevity of their reign in Bohemia, which actually lasted for a full year rather than the assumed single season. She also stands accused of being a bad mother who preferred the company of her monkeys (of which she had several in her menagerie) to her children, and a spendthrift obsessed with the theatre who showed little interest in politics. None of these commonplaces bear scrutiny.
She was fiercely loyal to her subjects and those she loved, writing of her husband: “I am resolved never to leave him, for if he perishes I too will perish with him.” She had to be dragged out of Prague following defeat at the battle of White Mountain, and undertook her flight across Bohemia and Germany while eight months pregnant and cradling her son Rupert (she did not almost leave him behind, as Catholic pamphlets suggest). Her supporters repaid her with their own loyalty: “Misery with her sacred Majestie,” wrote one soldier, “[is] a thinge farr exceeding any blisse els... I am ever [what] the Queene will commaund me to be.”
She did not live to see her greatest triumph: Her grandson George’s elevation to king of Great Britain
As for her being a spendthrift, Elizabeth kept accounts from the age of seven, and in 1660 she refused to leave The Hague until her debts had all been settled. While she struggled to run her court within her means, she rarely received the pensions promised by the Stuart crown, and spent not for her own pleasure, but to keep up appearances. If she wanted support in retaking Frederick’s ancestral lands, it was important that she looked like royalty.
Her interest in plays, and especially masques, was born from their importance as political tools as she continued to explore every avenue in her efforts to regain the Palatinate for her children and find them suitable partners in marriage or military positions. Before her death in 1662, she would see one of her five daughters, Elisabeth, influence the development of René Descartes’ philosophy; two of her eight sons, Rupert and Maurice, earn fame on the battlefield; and the partial restoration of the Palatinate. She would not live to see perhaps her greatest triumph, her grandson George’s elevation to king of Great Britain in 1714.
Painted almost a century before George’s coronation, the portrait of Elizabeth wearing the Tudor Crown was indeed potentially treasonous. Though it was most likely meant not to be widely viewed, it made concrete a long-standing feeling that Elizabeth was the warrior queen that England, Scotland and Europe’s Protestants truly craved during the century’s darkest times.
When Charles I did marry a Catholic bride, the French Henrietta Maria, and she bore him a male heir in 1630, voices of discontent were raised once more. The Stuart succession was secure, but many continued to wish Elizabeth as their queen, and were not backward about showing “their sorrow at the birth of the prince because of her”. It was not long after that Elizabeth sat for the portrait that would later be manipulated to display her as Elizabeth II.
Nadine Akkerman is a reader in early modern English literature at Leiden University. Her latest book is Elizabeth Stuart: Queen of Hearts (OUP, 2021)
This article first appeared in the Christmas 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine