Pettiness & Politics: The Early Years of Charles I & Henrietta Maria

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For all that Charles I’s reign ended with his execution and his wife, Henrietta Maria of France, spent the next decade plus in exile, their relationship stands as one of the happiest examples of an arranged marriage in royal history. It did not, however, start out that way.

When the couple married in 1625 Charles was 24 and had only been sitting on the throne for a little over a month. Henrietta Maria was just 15, the younger sister of King Louis XIII of France and the pet of the Bourbon family. The most striking difference between them from the get-go was not age, but religion. England was not only avidly Protestant, but deeply suspicious of both Catholics and foreigners. The last time the English had had a Catholic consort was King Philip II of Spain during the reign of Mary I, a period of time marked by the burning of 300 Protestants and a campaign to return England into the folds of Rome. Needless to say, there was little interest in history repeating itself.

Historically, the English have never warmed to the idea of their queens showing up with large entourages of foreigners. They preferred them to step foot on English soil, embrace their adopted culture and surround themselves with their new countrymen. And while that may seem sensible, consider the reality of it for the queens, many of whom were adolescents and had just left their homes and families for the first time. Too often, these “foreigners” were the only comfort they had, plunged head first into an unfamiliar court mired in political and cultural landmines.

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Charles c. 1623

Such was the case for Henrietta Maria. Not only was she French and Catholic, but she didn’t speak the language. In order to interact with English courtiers she relied on a translator, which made interactions awkward and exhausting. More often than not, she preferred to hole herself away in the comfort of her private apartments where she could act freely, leading to the perception she was remote and disinterested. While Charles spoke French, it wasn’t his first language, limiting their ability to communicate effectively or get to know one another comfortably.

Physically, they didn’t appear to take to one another, particularly Henrietta Maria. While the couple met before their wedding and greeted one another warmly when she arrived in England, whatever happened on their wedding night did nothing to bring them closer together. Henrietta Maria was described as withdrawn and sad the next morning and in the first year or so marriage, she avoided her husband as often as possible. Reportedly, a consistent cause of complaint from Charles was his wife’s refusal of his “conjugal rights.”

Likely this was due to Charles’s penchant for only communicating with his wife when he had found fault and he found many. While Henrietta Maria had been raised with the expectation of making a lofty marriage abroad and understood her responsibilities to some extent, she was also a teenager. She and her ladies-in-waiting were criticized for frivolity, for playing games and making too much noise, for failing to take seriously certain public duties. It was fair criticism of a queen, but made a bit more understandable when you consider how young she was, and likely how homesick.

By all accounts, she simply didn’t care much for England, and the English, after initial fawning reports over her physical appearance and style, quickly turned on her. She didn’t appear to make an effort to make herself beloved and her displeasure with what she considered scant accommodations and comfort caused considerable insult wherever she went. In fairness, her first night in England was spent in a dingy Medieval castle without modern conveniences, and her first summer saw an outbreak of the plague that sent her household dashing about the suburbs of London to find a safe landing place. It was hardly England at its best.

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Buckingham in 1625, the year of Charles and Henrietta Maria’s wedding

The marriage was further complicated, however, by a third individual. While not a mistress, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham might as well have been for all that he inserted himself in the domestic drama. A favorite of Charles’s, he was quick to take up the role of mediator, which meant expressing to Henrietta Maria all the ways she was disappointing her a husband, efforts which were unsurprisingly unappreciated. He urged her to take his female relations into her household, an idea that the Queen quickly punted to the French ambassador and was swiftly rejected by the French clergy who had no desire to see their princess surrounded by Huguenots.

It did nothing to warm relations between Buckingham and Henrietta Maria and it brings us back to the first issue – religion. Henrietta Maria had not been forced to convert when she married Charles – had she been, the marriage would likely have been rejected by her brother. Instead, she was allowed to continue practicing her faith in private, so long as her children were raised in the Church of England. And while that may seem like a practical compromise, it quickly grew complicated thanks to the fact that the Reformation was so new and religion remained a matter over which too many English had died in recent memory.

The petty ways in which this break appeared masked very real, simmering tension between the two factions and, more importantly, severely damaged relations between England and France, which should have been strengthened by a recent marriage alliance. A few months after the royal wedding, one of Buckingham’s sister hosted a Protestant minister to preach a sermon at court without the Queen’s leave. She reacted by stationing herself with her ladies and their pet dogs in a gallery outside the door, walking, talking and laughing loudly and, at a few points, making mock hunting calls. The French viewed the minister’s presence in the Queen’s household as a deliberately aggressive action, as did the English see the French reaction.

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More serious was news that Henrietta Maria took a pilgrimage to Tyburn, the sight of numerous executions of “heretics,” or Catholics. Considering they were put to death on counts of treason, the English were understandably offended by the insinuations innocents had been executed by their government. The French were forced to deny any such trip had taken place.

Then there was the issue of the crown matrimonial and the couple’s coronation. Custom dictated that a new king, if he was married, was crowned alongside his wife. Unfortunately for this couple, the coronation is a Protestant ceremony. Negotiations were undertaken to find a compromise, but the English wouldn’t tolerate any diversion from the traditional ceremony and the French wouldn’t allow Henrietta Maria to play a part in any sort of Protestantism. She was offered a space within Westminster Abbey to watch Charles’s crowning, but instead picked a spot along the procession route where she could watch the coming and going of his entourage. Even that fell flat when onlookers spotted her ladies frolicking behind her and failing to take seriously the events of the day.

To be clear, however, Henrietta Maria was not at the negotiating table, nor did she opine on whether or not she wanted to be crowned or play a part in the ceremony. Only 16 she obediently followed the wishes of her advisers, and it was they who decreed she remained outside the Abbey. The ramifications of it ensured her popularity dipped even further with the English and, more significantly, she remained an uncrowned queen, a nebulous place to be – and one which became even more dangerous in later years when civil war broke out.

While religion continued to be hashed out publicly, privately the wars were made of softer stuff, bordering on ridiculous. A few days after the coronation, Charles rode in state to open Parliament and arrangements were made for Henrietta Maria to watch from a gallery at Whitehall. Buckingham intervened, always eager to insert his family into the mix, to suggest that she would have a better view from one of his relation’s house. The last-minute move would have meant walking across muddy ground in the rain, the Queen already dressed in silk and her hair done for the occasion. She refused and while Charles didn’t seem to care much initially, was then told by Buckingham that her insubordination made him look weak.

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She was promptly ordered to cross the garden and when she resisted the French ambassador had to persuade her to give way. She did, only for Charles to grow angry that she had obeyed the ambassador and not him. He ordered her back to her apartments via Buckingham, forcing her to once again cross the garden.

While this sounds asinine – and it was – bear in mind that this all unfolded in front of a small crowd of courtiers. This was a public squabble and one that involved English and French officials in the minutes leading up to the opening of a contentious parliamentary session. This was not only about a husband and wife fighting over logistics, but Charles’s authority as king, and his ability, or lack thereof, to dictate to the French.

Or, as Charles described the dynamic:

“One night, when I was in bed, [my wife] put a paper in my hand, telling me it was a list of those that she desired be of her revenue. I took it, and said I would read it the next morning; but withal told her that, by agreement in France, I had the naming of them. She said there were both French and English in the note. I replied, that those English I thought fit to serve her I would confirm; but for the French it was impossible for them to serve her in that nature.

“Then she said, all those in the paper had breviates from her mother and herself, and that she could admit no other. Then I said, it was neither in her mother’s power nor hers to admit any without my leave; and that, if she stood upon that, whomsoever she recommended, should not come in. Then she bade me plainly take my lands to myself; for, if she had no power to put in whom she would in those places, she would have neither lands nor houses of me; but bade me give her what I  thought fit in pension.

“I bade her to then remember to whom she spoke; and told her she ought not to use me so. Then she fell into a passionate discourse, how miserable she was, in having no power to place servants, and that business succeeded the worse for her recommendations; which, when I offered to answer, she would not so much as hear me. Then she went on saying, she was not of that base quality to be used so ill. Then made her both hear me, and end that discourse.”

The matter came to a head a few weeks later when Charles dismissed Henrietta Maria’s French attendants. While her displeasure could hardly have been a surprise, the extent of it apparently was. She sobbed, screamed and begged, causing such a commotion that not only was everyone on the interior of the palace aware of the discord, but crowds gathered outside trying to figure out what was going on. In the height of her distress, the Queen broke a window, shattering the glass in an attempt to express her displeasure to the people outside and Charles only removed her from view by pulling her back by her hair.

She spent the next few weeks sobbing, refusing food or dink and writing plaintive letters to her family and her brother’s ministers pleading for help. She described herself as a prisoner and noted that Charles followed her everywhere, including the “stool closet.”

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For all that Charles and Henrietta Maria eventually made peace and had a loving marriage, it’s worth noting the extent to which these early years have a distinct ring of abuse to them. While some exception can be made for the Queen’s youth and her inclination towards hyperbole, the fact remains there are a number of signs that point to Charles having a few hallmark signs of an abuser. His first priority was to control his wife; his second was to isolate her from anyone that made the first task harder. Her aversion to sleeping with him and her reaction the morning after their wedding night points to more than just awkwardness and, indeed, he physically yanked her back by her hair, which is violence, pure and simple.

Which is not to say Charles didn’t have legitimate grievances against the French. Too often they used their teenage charge as political leverage, making Charles’s home life miserable to help further their own agenda. They had nothing to gain from ensuring there was domestic harmony and Henrietta Maria was often set forth as a lamb to slaughter to fight for a symbolic autonomy that helped no one. They absolutely did come between husband and wife, unfortunately it was only the 16-year-old wife who had little say in what unfolded.

As for Buckingham, he was one issue on which the English and the Queen were in agreement. Twice Parliament tried to impeach him and twice Charles dissolved it – a nice precursor to the Civil War. Buckingham’s incompetence and corruption ensured he was a widely hated figure and when, in August 1628, he was assassinated via a stabbing from an army officer in Portsmouth, the killer was proclaimed a public hero.

His removal was cheered by Henrietta Maria as well, whose personal enmity hadn’t lessened over the course of three years. His death, combined with the reduction of Frenchmen in her household, almost immediately brought about domestic peace. No longer there to whisper in Charles’s ear her every flaw, spread gossip or cast her actions in a negative light. Soon, the two were able to forge a strong marriage and, by the time the ’30s dawned, they were deeply in love.

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Henrietta Maria’s five eldest children

Henrietta Maria’s popularity hadn’t been helped by the fact that her marriage proved barren in its first years, a situation nearly always blamed on the woman. Within months of Buckingham’s death, the Queen became pregnant and a summer due date was announced in March 1629. Unfortunately, she went into premature labor that May and delivered a stillborn son, styled Charles James Stuart, Duke of Cornwall.

While court gossiped that the delay in producing an heir was a bad omen and perhaps the Queen shouldn’t exercise so vigorously (she frequently took walks), Henrietta Maria took it in stride.

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By that summer she was pregnant again and on May 29, 1630, a healthy son, christened Charles for his father, was born at St. James’s Palace in London. He would go on to become Charles II and, all told, Henrietta Maria would deliver seven more children over the course of her marriage.

A marriage that started off shakily (to say the least) and ended in tragedy, did contain a solid decade full of what can only be described as domestic bliss. Charles and Henrietta Maria were devoted to one another, the nursery remained full and the family was remarkably close given the standards for royal families of the time. Charles’s behavior during this early period, however, does offer a strong foreshadowing for what would eventually sour his reign.

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