A few weeks ago we covered the bizarre six-year period during which the Princess of Wales (Caroline of Brunswick) left England for Italy, living a life of excess and scandal, while her husband, the future George IV, tried to launch a case for divorce against her. Part of what made that so notable is how relatively rare it is for senior members of the British Royal Family to live abroad – save foreign marriages and official positions, historically, those instances are almost always driven by political necessity.
We’ve talked about Charles I and Henrietta Maria of France before, but we focused on their first five years of marriage when the two were at odds and in the middle of petty power plays. By the dawn of the 1630s, their home life was a happy one, and over the subsequent decade they produced seven children, settled into domesticity and were seemingly besotted with one another. The same can’t be said for Charles’s public life, which is to say his rule.
The Stuarts, unlike their Tudor predecessors, were not as effective at managing Parliament. And that’s quite the understatement, because less than half a century after England’s most famous monarch, Elizabeth I, died, a civil war brought about the one and only legal execution of an anointed sovereign. Charles’s death in 1649 was predicated by nearly a decade of civil war – a literal battle royale between the crown and Parliament that came to define all subsequent reigns.
From that came the exile of the Stuarts, a situation familiar to anyone who knows their World War I history, but which was decidedly more dramatic in the 17th century. In a few ways, Henrietta Maria’s trajectory isn’t dissimilar to that of Marguerite of Anjou 200 years before. Both queens were consorts to ineffective kings, both followed their husbands to satellite courts set up outside the capitol and both spent years exiled in France, their homeland. For Henrietta Maria, the story had a happier ending – she saw the restoration of her son on the throne – but even so, her dramatic flight from France was a unique moment in royal history.
If Charles is defined by his battle of wills against Parliament, Henrietta Maria is known for her Catholicism. More specifically, she is known to have kept a vice-like grip on her faith, obstinately insisting on her right to not only practice but flouting the restrictions put in place at the time of her marriage. Her children, first and foremost, were to be raised as Protestants. Their faith was not hers to mold and if that sounds unfair, consider then how deeply-rooted papist fear was in the 17th century. The last Catholic monarch England had seen was Mary I, the last Scotland had seen was Mary, Queen of Scots – neither figures to inspire much sympathy or trust.
Nevertheless, Henrietta Maria took it upon herself to insert her faith at her husband’s court, making it very much a part of the Stuart’s private life. She defined herself by her Catholicism and she was – and is – publicly defined by it, a simple fact that garnered her considerable unpopularity during her lifetime. By the outbreak of the Civil War, she was widely reviled, most people genuinely believing she meant to inspire a rebellion in Ireland to support her husband and still others hoping Parliament would take legal action against her – denouncing her a “subject” like any other. In short, they argued, a queen consort wasn’t above the law; and as would become clear by the end of the decade, neither was a king. And lest we think that an empty threat, bear in mind that Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard had both been executed only a century before.
With the threat of violence mounting, Henrietta Maria’s first departure from England came in the form of a “break,” if you will. In early 1642, Charles decided she would accompany their eldest daughter, Mary, to The Hague where she was due to marry Prince William of Orange. Alongside her maternal duties she spent her time in Holland nagging her husband to meet threats with force and fundraising. A few weeks into her stay, she was escorted to Amsterdam to barter goods for cash and arms with the city’s Jewish population, empowered by Charles to do so.
Part of the reason for the Queen leaving England was that it left the King free and clear to go to war without fear his wife would be harmed. Despite this, it took months for outright fighting to begin – the siege of Hull that July was the War’s first major action and the Battle of Edgehill in October the first staged battle. All throughout, Henrietta Maria sought investors, putting out feelers in France and Denmark, as well as with the Dutch East India Company with varying success. Even so, her activity was considered alarming enough by the rebels that they sent an envoy to Holland to undermine her.
She returned to England in February 1643 after a turbulent ship crossing and was then met with enough danger on the shore that she was forced to seek shelter at inns and in the elements as she made her way to Yorkshire. Charles was headquartered in Oxford, in the middle of negotiating a peace treaty after he heard the demands from delegates of the Long Parliament. His mood is perhaps best summed up from his words in a letter sent the previous December:
“I have set up my rest upon the goodness of my cause, being resolved that no extremity or misfortune shall make me yield; for I will be either a glorious king or a patient martyr.”
Quite. The talks fell apart and were abandoned in the spring, but because of them Henrietta Maria was unable to leave Yorkshire until June. Finally, after over a year apart, she was reunited with Charles and her two eldest sons that. By Christmas, she was pregnant.
The problem was, Henrietta’s Maria presence was infuriating to her husband’s opponents and she wasn’t a wholly apolitical figure, thinking nothing of weighing in on policy and foreign affairs when it suited her. Her health already uneven, now complicated by pregnancy, she was a physical liability and a target for attacks, including kidnapping. For the safety of her husband and sons, they separated once more in April 1644.
Two months later, the Queen gave birth to her last child, a daughter she named Henrietta Anne for herself and her sister-in-law, the queen of France. After a difficult pregnancy and a dangerous labor, Henrietta Maria’s health remained a problem and, emotionally and physically exhausted, it was then that she decided it was time to go home. She left her newborn daughter in the care of a friend and left for France.
She wrote to Charles:
“I shall show you by this last action that nothing is so much in my thoughts as what concerns your preservation […] for as your affairs stand, they would be in danger if you come to help me, and I know that your affection would make you risk everything for that.”
Days later, as she prepared to depart, she wrote again:
“I am giving you my the strongest proof of love that I can give; I am hazarding my life, that I may not incommode your affairs. Adieu, my dear heart. If I die, believer that you will lose a person who has never been other than entirely yours.”
Henrietta Maria didn’t die, but she and Charles never saw one another again. Nor were her words all histrionics or driven by illness – a characteristic to the Queen’s credit was her staunch bravery in the face of physical danger. Aboard the ship to France she ordered the captain to sink the vessel via its powder magazine before he let her be taken as a prisoner. As it was, she successfully landed and made her way to the royal court, welcome by her brother’s widow, Anne of Austria, who was serving as regent for her young son, King Louis XIV.
As for the baby back home, she met her father for the first time on July 26th and he arranged for her care at Oatlands Palace. She lived there with her own household until she was secretly ferreted out of the country in the summer of 1646 and reunited with her mother in France.
With the exception of Princess Mary, safely married in Holland, Henrietta Maria’s other children were scattered. Her eldest son, the future Charles II, participated in military campaigns until the Royalists began to lose the war and then he also joined his mother in France in 1646. He stayed for two years before moving to The Hague to live with his sister and begin a nomadic lifestyle that would last for the next 12 years, ended only by the Restoration. James, Duke of York, was held as a prisoner by the opposition until 1648 when he managed to escape, also going to Holland.
The younger children were not so lucky: Princess Elizabeth and Prince Henry were held as prisoners, the only of Charles I’s offspring still in England when he was executed in 1649. He was allowed to meet with them shortly before his death and his passing was followed by that of Elizabeth the following year. Henry was held by Oliver Cromwell’s men until 1652, at which point he was finally allowed to meet his family on the continent.
While Henrietta Maria’s departure to France was by no means the most dramatic or significant event of the Civil War, it did spell the end of the Royal Family’s harmony and it laid out a path of survival for her children. Her French familial connections – and the Catholicism that came with it – helped safeguard their lives, ensuring they were there when the opportunity presented itself and England called them home.