A few weeks ago we covered the 1644 flight of Henrietta Maria of France from England to France in the middle of the Civil War. Her departure came on the heels of giving birth to her ninth and final child, a daughter she named Henrietta Anne (“Minette”). The Princess remained in England under the care of guardians for two years until she was spirited out of the country in the summer of 1646 to join her mother in France.
Her escape was like something from an adventure novel – the trusted noblewoman put in charge of her, Lady Dalkeith, disguised herself as a hunchbacked French peasant and passed off Minette as a boy named Pierre. Aided by servants who waited three days to sound the alarm that they were gone, the two managed to leave the country unscathed despite Minette’s insistence on telling everyone they encountered that her name wasn’t Pierre, but “Princess,” and her real clothes were much nicer. A girl after my own heart.
Minette’s upbringing was in stark contrast to that of her siblings. Unlike them, she was essentially raised in France and her link to her British heritage was much fainter. Her father, Charles I, was executed in January 1649 – though they met when she was an infant, she would have had no memory of him. While her childhood was absolutely shaped by the Civil War, its trauma was a thing of the past to her and she knew only exile.
Perhaps even more significantly, she was raised Catholic. Henrietta Maria had defiantly maintained her faith throughout her marriage to the English king, despite being forced to raise her children as Protestant and her religion driving significant and threatening criticism before and during the war. She was wholly French in her attitudes and identity and she took pains, on the knowledge that her late husband told her she could raise her youngest child as she wished, to finally mold the Catholic, French daughter she always wanted.
It was a politically dicey situation for Henrietta Maria’s older children, particularly her eldest, Charles Stuart. With his father dead he was nominally King Charles II, but England had abolished its monarchy and he remained in exile, flitting about the continent trying to drum up support and funds. He had to be Protestant if he had a fighting chance of regaining his throne and the optics of now having a Catholic sister in addition to an unpopular Catholic mother did nothing to help his cause.
Even so, Minette was raised in the heart of French court. Henrietta Maria’s brother, Louis XIII, died in 1643, leaving behind his four-year-old son, Louis XIV. His government was maintained by his mother, Anne of Austria, the daughter of King Philip III of Spain. She effectively managed France until her son was declared “of age” in 1651 (he was 13). Understandably, she continued to hold powerful sway over him until her death on January 20, 1666.
In the meantime, Minette became a popular fixture at Louis’s court – she and her mother lived in apartments in the Louvre. She made her first public appearance in 1656 when her elder sister, Mary, Princess of Orange, visited from Holland – it was the first time the two siblings had ever met. She took part in a court performance, charming the audience with her poise and youth – though not the beauty of the family that Mary was, she was nevertheless considered attractive and charismatic. Rumors began to swirl around the same time that her unmarried cousin, Louis, might take her as his bride, but he found her too young to be interesting and at one point publicly snubbed her by refusing to join her in a dance.
Remarkably, despite a considerable age difference (14 years) and time apart, Minette became the favorite sibling of her brother, Charles. He visited her frequently and they stayed in close contact when he was out of the country by letter. She was genuinely overjoyed when, in 1660, the Restoration brought Charles back to the throne – indeed, a firm belief that the Stuarts belonged on the English throne was the very fabric of their family.
The Restoration also cast away any shadow as to Minette’s status on the European stage. She joined her mother in London in November 1660, but before she did, she became unofficially betrothed to Louis’s younger brother, Philippe, Duke of Orleans.
Henrietta Maria tried to secure the loftier match with Louis, but Anne of Austria nixed the idea and instead married him to one of her own blood – Maria Theresa of Spain. The next best bachelor at court, then, was Philippe – Louis’s heir. The formal proposal came through on November 22, while Minette was in London. Charles eagerly granted his approval – yes, it was a Catholic match, but it was still with France.
We don’t know what Minette thought of her intended, but it was a marriage that kept her within what was familiar. The French court was her home and its royal family her family. Philippe, her first cousin, was a known entity and she knew that marriage to him would keep her close to her mother, who intended to spend her twilight years in France. It’s also a pretty safe bet that she didn’t fully understand the situation into which she was marrying, despite the fact she must have heard some of the gossip about her future husband.
Philippe was homosexual, though he was rumored to carry on affairs with women as well as men. He enjoyed dressing in women’s clothing from a young age – an act encouraged by his mother who thought it an amusing game. Anne referred to him often as her “daughter,” and his critics often took to disparaging him by referring to him as a woman.
Two years before his engagement to Minette, he took as his lover Philippe of Lorraine, known as the “Chevalier of Lorraine.” It was a genuine love affair and due to Lorraine’s presence in Philippe’s household, it was easy for the two of them to essentially live openly with at least a veneer of respectability, particularly once Minette entered the picture.
The visit to England ended on a tragic note. Though Minette was well received by London and enjoyed what was less a homecoming than a holiday, her sister, Mary, died of smallpox that December and the French beckoned Henrietta Maria to return with her youngest daughter as swiftly as possible to ensure they both maintained their health. The wedding between Philippe and Minette went forward on March 30, 1661 in Henrietta Maria’s private chapel at the Palais Royal in Paris.
The marriage began on a positive note – Philippe loved beautiful things and Minette was a pretty and popular member of the court. Not yet 17 when she married, Philippe 21 and the country ruled by a 23-year-old Louis just beginning to flex his muscle, court – which would later become synonymous with the Palace of Versailles to which Louis moved it – was the epicenter of excess and pleasure. Minette was decked out in finery, jewels and her entire life was about luxury and enjoyment. Taking part in masques, ballets, hunts and parties, she might not have been queen, but she was the social belle of the ball.
She was also a flirt and rumors began to circulate through court that she was spending too much time with Louis and not enough with Philippe. Louis, a womanizer married to a woman he found boring, had no problem blatantly favoring his sister-in-law until his mother intervened. He then struck up an affair with one of Minette’s ladies-in-waiting, while Minette’s eye was caught by the Comte de Guiche. Whether the flirtation extended to an actual affair is unlikely, but she became pregnant around the same time. When she delivered a daughter, Marie Louise, on March 26, 1662, the gossip was that she was her bastard child by Guiche.
By now, the Orleans marriage was in trouble. Though Philippe continued to have affairs of his own, he was less than pleased by a wife who seemed to be doing the same. When Minette heard that Guiche was bragging about his love for her, she refused to see him, but was eventually won over by letters and then visits. It wasn’t until she physically retired for her confinement that she broke things off with him, though her state of mind can perhaps best be captured by her response at learning she had given birth to a daughter instead of a son – “Then throw her into the river.”
After suffering a miscarriage in 1663, her next confinement in the summer of 1664 didn’t go much smoother. She became involved in yet another love triangle, this time with the Marquis de Varde who brought with him a jealous mistress that led to a falling out between him and Minette. Guiche, jealous, left court for awhile only to return. Both men then threw themselves at Minette’s feet, but, heavily pregnant, she left court and produced a son and heir for her husband, Philippe Charles of Orleans, born on July 16.
What followed was yet more drama, stolen letters, intrigue and blackmail – the result of which led to her husband’s anger, a formal appeal to Louis and a dent in her reputation. Fallout from these years would continue to haunt her for the rest of her life. But as she came out of her second confinement, adolescence behind her, Minette appeared to be growing up. Her focus was less on the frivolity of court and more the ceremonial role that she played as a Stuart and a member of the Royal Family.
Minette gave birth to a stillborn daughter in the summer of 1665, a tragedy that was only intensified by the death of her son, Philippe Charles, in December 1666. Stillborn twins came in 1667, followed by another miscarriage in 1668. Finally, a second healthy daughter, Anne Marie, was born on August 27, 1669.
Throughout this, Minette began to take a keen interest in diplomacy, particularly France’s relationship with its allies abroad, including England. In 1667, France invaded Flanders, an event which took Philippe to the front lines. His performance was successful enough to garner his brother’s jealousy and Louis soon ordered him home on the pretense that he needed to look after Minette following her stillbirth.
But the military campaign in Flanders had other repercussions. Louis’s success gave him an appetite for war and eye towards the Spanish Netherlands. With Spain’s government vulnerable and Louis’s power and aggression on the incline, Minette’s brother faced the very real possibility of France consolidating an empire that would have it unstoppable. England was in no position financially or martially to combat the situation, so Charles chose the diplomatic route: In January 1668, England spearheaded the Triple Alliance to check France’s reach.
Charles might not have shared his machinations against France with his sister, but she was very much in the loop months later as the two countries began to build towards the Treaty of Dover. A tenet of it was that Charles would secretly convert to Catholicism and announce it as soon as he was able. For Louis, the idea of bringing the English monarch back into the folds of the Church was quite the coup, however the extent to which it was sincere on Charles’s part is debatable – an issue discussed in more detail here. Regardless, it was Minette’s most politically and historically significant moment – the only three parties involved in the first wave of negotiations were Charles, Louis and her.
Minette’s health, exacerbated by her pregnancies, started to fail in the late 1660s. None of it was helped by the fact that Philippe and the Chevalier of Lorraine were public in their affection and preference for one another, while Lorraine made clear his contempt and disregard for Minette. The situation came to a head in 1669 thanks to Minette putting pressure on Charles, who in turn put pressure on Louis to address the situation. Lorraine was eventually arrested after making offensive comments about Louis who refused to be moved, even when Philippe appealed to him directly, distraught.
Enraged and heartbroken, Philippe retired from Versailles in disgust, taking Minette with him. Angry with his wife, he attempted to ban her from making a formal visit home to England, but thanks to the diplomatic wheels in motion, Louis intervened, forcing Philippe to not only give way but accompany her. The journey there was marred bad weather – at one point the party was forced to wait out a storm by sleeping in a barn. Philippe took the opportunity to remind everyone that an astrologer told him he would be married many times, a clear allusion to his wife’s health.
Minette and her husband landed in England on May 26th. The trip was for both business and pleasure as Minette had been secretly deputized with finalizing negotiations for the Treaty of Dover, tasked with ensuring Charles was on board for supporting France’s planned war with Holland and a public conversion. The treaty was signed on June 1, after which point Minette enjoyed an extend family reunion that included her remaining siblings, her mother and her sister-in-law, Katherine of Braganza. Indeed, this trip marked Minette’s first meeting with the Portuguese Queen of England and the two reportedly got along well.
Knowing that his sister’s health was weak, Charles took an emotional parting from her, turning back three times after saying goodbye. She received a rapturous welcome back in France, particularly by Louis who thanked her with money and lavish gifts.
Within days, however, Minette was dying. Surrounded by her husband, Louis, Queen Maria Theresa and her ladies-in-waiting, she finally passed away on June 30, which may very well have been spurred by poison based on what reports are left of her symptoms and medical care. Her husband, chastened by her pitiable death and her protestations of loyalty, was deeply affected by the scene, as was Louis.
She was buried at Royal Basilica of Saint Denis on July 4, 1670.
Philippe remarried on November 16, 1671 to Elizabeth Charlotte of Palatine. The marriage produced three children, including a son and heir, however after the birth of their youngest child in 1676, the couple mutually agreed to stop live apart thanks to Philippe’s continued preference for his male lovers. Elizabeth Charlotte focused the rest of her life on her children and stepdaughters.
Minette’s eldest daughter, Marie Louise, married King Charles II of Spain in 1679, a childless marriage that ended with her death in 1689 at the age of 26 – the same age Minette was when she died.
Her younger daughter, Anne Marie, married Victor Amadeus II of Savoy, King of Sardinia in 1684. She had nine children, including Marie Adelaide of Savoy, who would become the mother of Louis XV of France, and Maria Luisa Gabriella, who would marry Philip V of Spain.