Sixteen warships hunted Henrietta Maria through a stormy North Sea. In February 1643, 40 years after Elizabeth I’s golden age, England was at war with itself. Charles I was fighting the forces of parliament and their navy wanted to capture his queen as she returned to England from a diplomatic mission in Holland. The bad weather cloaked her disembarkment on the Yorkshire coast – but Henrietta Maria was not yet safe.
At 5am, parliament’s navy entered Bridlington Bay and fired on the cottage where Henrietta slept. “The balls were whistling upon me,” she told Charles. She grabbed her clothes, and dashed with her ladies to the shelter of a ditch, clutching her dog, Mitte. The shot, “singing around us in fine style”, killed a sergeant 20 paces away. His body lay “torn and mangled with their great shot” as they lay in the ditch, “the balls passing over our heads and sometimes covering us with dust”. It was two hours before the tide turned and parliament’s ships were forced back out to sea.
No other princess of Europe had to face such dangers. But Henrietta Maria was every inch a daughter of the warrior, Henri IV of France – and not just in courage. She also “had infinite wit and a brilliant mind”, a French courtier recalled. Yet this is not how history remembers her. Henrietta Maria’s reputation is lost in the eye of a storm of sexist tropes.
In the 17th century, women were judged creatures of emotion, not reason, and it often seems Henrietta Maria has never been allowed to grow up from her childhood to the mature political operator she became. But the voice of a very different character emerges in never before published letters, previously hidden in the closed archives of Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire and quoted here for the first time. It is the voice of a living woman, as she grows from a distressed child bride to a warrior queen.
Child of the enemy
When Henrietta Maria arrived in England in 1625 she was the first French princess to marry an English king since Margaret of Anjou wed Henry VI in 1445. Like Margaret, Henrietta was only 15. And she was similar to Margaret in another key respect: she was regarded 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.
England’s new Catholic queen was described as a “lovely creature”, with “large, black eyes”, her “teeth pretty” and “big mouth… nicely made”. But tensions between England and France were reflected in quarrels with her young husband. Charles’s mentor, 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 reputed to be Buckingham’s mistress: Lucy, Countess of Carlisle. It was said that Buckingham wanted to place Lucy as Charles’s mistress too.
In a letter from the closed Belvoir archive, written to a former leading member of her household, Henrietta Maria expresses herself with all the drama a teenager can muster. She complains she has had to hide to write to him, “like a prisoner who cannot talk to anyone, neither to describe my misfortunes, nor to call upon God to pity a poor, tyrannised princess to do something to alleviate her suffering”. Miserably, she announces: “I am the most afflicted person on earth.” She begs him to talk to her mother “and reveal to her my woes”.
“I say adieu to you,” she continues, “and to my friend St George, to the Countess of Tillieres, and all the women and girls who [I know] have not forgotten me. I have not forgotten them either.” She fears her heart will break. “Is there any remedy for my suffering, which is killing me? Goodbye bitterness. Goodbye to those from whose actions I will die if God does not have pity on me.”
Henrietta Maria told Charles she would have nothing to do with Lucy Carlisle. But within a few months, Lucy had become the queen’s great favourite. Even at 16, Henrietta Maria was a political animal and so she made Charles’s would-be royal mistress an ally, with the aim of employing her in a pro-French diplomatic strategy. Although the story of Charles’s reign has traditionally been given a masculine focus, the women around him were as powerful and fascinating as any at the Tudor courts.
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. Letters to Marie de Medici about gardens, pictures, clothes and matters of diplomacy now turned to her personal account of the fatal attack. Buckingham was “killed with a knife”, she told her mother, his only words were “I am dead”.
The shaky mother
With Buckingham gone, the king and queen grew still closer, and in 1630 their son, the future Charles II, was born. Charles’s letter to his mother-in-law reveals him sitting with his wife, who is telling him she wants to add a few words, to show her mother she is recovering well. He passes her his note, and what follows is the very shaky handwriting of the exhausted queen: “Your most humble and most obedient daughter and servant, Henriette Marie.”
Puritans came to see the royal couple’s deep love for one another 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. “Ordinary women can, in the night time, persuade their husbands to give them new gowns,” so might not the queen, they asked, “by her night discourses, incline the king to popery?” This was quite untrue. Charles was a passionate Protestant. But it served to tarnish him.
In ancient Greek and Christian myth, it was women who brought evil into the world. Ugliness is symbolic of sin and, even when young, Henrietta Maria is still described as if she were already a sick woman in middle age, while being cast as a seductive Eve to Charles’s Adam, leading the king astray.
When Charles’s religious reforms, which included the introduction of a new prayer book, triggered rebellion in Presbyterian Scotland, the rebels’ allies in England used Henrietta Maria’s Catholic faith as a means of further tarring the king. She was vilified from the pulpits as a “popish brat of France” and, as hatred against Catholics was fanned to new heights, mobs were sent to attack her house.
In February 1641, she wrote a letter to the French secretary of state for foreign affairs, terrified that she faced her “ruin on earth”. Buckingham had warned her years before that, “there had been queens in England who had lost their heads”. Now her letter prepared the ground for her possible flight to Paris.
The following October a Catholic rebellion broke out in Ireland. Charles’s enemies used the massacres of Protestant settlers to attract new recruits to their cause, with fake news spinning further atrocity stories and pointing the finger of blame at the queen. In February 1642, on the eve of the Civil War, Henrietta Maria left for Holland with her daughter Mary, the new bride of William of Orange.
Defending the ‘White King’
Charles I was said to have been the only English monarch ever crowned in white. To his supporters, the white robes would become a symbol of his innocence. To his enemies, he was instead the ‘White King’ of ancient prophecy, a doomed tyrant.
Today the popular image of Charles is just as extreme. It is of a weak and failed king. However, the real Charles was resilient and courageous. He would prove a tough enemy to beat in the conflict ahead – thanks, in great part, to Henrietta Maria’s help.
The queen had not travelled to Holland simply to save her own skin, but to act as Charles’s chief diplomat and party leader in Europe, as well as his arms buyer. It was a formidable task, and in the Dutch republic she faced anti-royalist prejudice. When she tried to sell royal jewels, obstacles were put in her way. In one letter she warned Charles:
“Dear Heart… can you send me a warrant under your hand, which gives me full power to deal with my jewellery, since the merchants say a woman cannot sell jewellery during the lifetime of her husband.” Once they were sold, she was confident she could “buy gunpowder, arms and cannon here”.
Charles responded quickly and, as Henrietta Maria began using the money to buy arms, she also deployed her political skills to undermine parliament’s efforts to gain European support for their cause. In a further letter, she informed the French foreign minister that: “The English rebels, under the name of parliament” had sent an agent to Holland, claiming that “the king and I” wanted to re-establish Catholicism in England. “I hear they have also sent an agent to France on the same pretext of religion. Whoever he is, I hope he will not be heard nor received, since he comes from rebels against God and against their king.”
In a later letter to the French minister, Henrietta Maria thanked him for “the services you give me”. What kind of services is indicated months later when she expresses her gratitude for his stopping a shipment of “arms prepared for the rebels”.
Opening the king’s cabinet
The queen returned to England in February 1643 with men, money and arms. After her 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 Charles, the ‘generalissima’ (as she jokingly called herself) captured Burton upon 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 (probably with tuberculosis), 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 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 Kings Cabinet Opened’, along with a commentary depicting 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 defence of her husband 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”.
After Charles’s kingdoms were lost, and he was executed, he too was judged a saint (though the title Charles the Martyr is largely forgotten). Yet Henrietta Maria – who lived to see her son’s restoration to the English throne, and died in France in 1669 – remains the caricature of parliamentary propaganda: the victim of our continued and unacknowledged sexual prejudices. Her real fault, as Charles I acknowledged, was merely “that she is my wife”.
Leanda de Lisle is a historian, journalist and author. Her books include Tudor: The Family Story (Vintage, 2014) and White King: Charles I – Traitor, Murderer, Martyr (Chatto & Windus, 2018)