So much of Mary, Queen of Scots’ later life was operatic that it’s easy to gloss over her formative years. Her violent death, her rivalry with Elizabeth I, her disastrous second and third marriages, the possibility she was involved in a murder – all of this tends to drown out the rest. But much like Eleanor of Aquitaine, the “less” dramatic early years actually involved being the queen of France and Mary’s long-term residency at the French court uniquely positioned her as both a Stuart and Scottish monarch.
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.
If you’re not familiar with the story of Arabella Stuart (or “Arbella Stewart,” if you are so inclined) that’s quite alright. During the majority of her lifetime, few outside of royal circles were even aware of her existence and, in my opinion, her status as a true rival claimant to the throne have been a bit overblown. Nevertheless, her relatively brief life played out just as England was passing from Tudor to Stuart hands and it draws on the dynastic sensitivities that came from a childless queen and a foreign-born king.
Charles II was a bit of a man-whore – there’s not really another way to put it. He kept dozens of mistresses over the course of his life and ended up siring 20 bastard children. He was also married, so let’s take a moment to pity his poor wife, Catherine of Braganza, a convent-reared princess from Portugal who spent her life in England humiliated by her husband’s infidelities and forced to watch them give birth to his children when she could not.
James II’s first two daughters are rightfully famous and they grew up to be queen regnants of Great Britain who collectively reigned from 1688 to 1714 as the last Stuart monarchs. They are perhaps best known, however, for benefiting from their father’s dethronement during the Glorious Revolution which saw him forced into exile while his daughter, Mary, and son-in-law, William of Orange, were asked to rule instead. His problem was one of faith, for James had converted to Catholicism as an adult. Had his second marriage to yet another Catholic remained infertile it’s possible he could have kept his crown, but the 1688 birth of a son made his rule intolerable to the Protestant English.
He and his wife, Mary of Modena, ended up in France at Louis XIV’s court at Versailles. The French king gave his royal guests use of the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, not too far outside of Paris. It was there, on the 28th of June 1692 that Mary gave birth to a daughter, Louisa Maria Stuart.
We know that the Glorious Revolution concluded with the accession of William III and Mary II, and we know that the Dutch couple was called upon because Mary was the deposed king’s Protestant daughter. But a lesser-known truth is that William was half-English himself, his mother having been Mary Stuart, the Princess Royal and daughter of Charles I. Because of that, William was closely tied to the royal House of Stuart as a grandson of one of Britain’s kings.
Of the two Mary Stuarts who became Princesses of Orange, certainly the second would become the more famous, ruling Britain for six years as queen regnant, but her aunt and mother-in-law was an interesting character, too. The eldest daughter of Charles I and Henrietta Maria of France, she was old enough to comprehend the significance of the civil war that broke out in England in the 1640s, and yet was long-married and removed from the conflict as the war came to a close and her father was executed. She, in many ways, had a birds-eye view of the monarchy’s temporary abolishment, but was protected from its effects in a way her younger siblings were not.
Queen Anne is Britain’s forgotten queen regnant, her reign and influence dwarfed by the influence and gains of her predecessor, Elizabeth I, and her successor, Queen Victoria. But it was her queenship that was most closely used as a model when Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, not necessarily as a template to follow, but certainly in terms of precedents laid out for how a female monarch could rule. Unlike the Virgin Queen or the morbid tenure of Mary I, Anne was the first queen regnant to rule with a husband who was not given equal footing to his wife. She also marked the end of the Stuart line, her 18 pregnancies failing to provide a single child that lived until adulthood.
She followed closely on the heels of her sister, Mary II, who ruled jointly with her husband, the Dutch William III, following the deposition of their father, James II, in the Glorious Revolution. Her rule, and the succession that followed her of the German George I, solidified Britain as a Protestant nation, one that still held a deep suspicion of Catholics, particularly in the ranks of its government. Indeed, for the entirety of her reign, her stepmother and half-siblings lived in exile in France, still claiming that by bloodline Britain was theirs. And in that they were technically correct, but Britain’s aversion to papacy had deep-seated roots stemming back to the Tudors and suspicion of foreign involvement, from Rome to France to Spain, and it was through Queen Anne and her sister before her, that Britain declared its religion unchangeable.
Anne of Denmark is one of the forgotten queens of England. And, to a certain extent, it makes sense. The reign of her husband, James I, is sandwiched between the more eventful and historically significant reigns of Elizabeth I and Charles I – he is perhaps best remembered now for the edition of the bible that bears his name, overlapping with Shakespeare and almost being blown up by Guy Fawkes. Or, perhaps, you have heard rumors that he might have been gay.
On January 27, the trial of Charles I, King of England concluded and the following verdict was read out:
“That the king, for the crimes contained in the charge, should be carried back to the place from whence he came, and thence to the place of execution, where his head should be severed from his body.”
Three days later, Charles walked out to a scaffold erected outside of Banqueting House in Whitehall for his execution. The scaffold was built up to a second-story window of the House, allowing for the assembled crowd to view the King’s death.
To his people he said:
“[As for the people,] truly I desire their liberty and freedom as much as anybody whomsoever; but I must tell you that their liberty and freedom consist in having of government, those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own.
“It is not for having share in government, sirs; that is nothing pertaining to them; a subject and a sovereign are clear different things. And therefore until they do that, I mean that you do put the people in that liberty, as I say, certainly they will never enjoy themselves.
“Sirs, it was for this that now I am come here. If I would have given way to an arbitrary way, for to have all laws changed according to the power of the sword, I needed not to have come here; and therefore I tell you (and I pray God it be not laid to your charge) that I am the martyr of the people.”
After speaking briefly with the executioner and saying a few words to himself, Charles knelt and gave the sign. His head was severed in one strike, held up to the crowds to confirm his death, and then placed with his body in a waiting black velvet-lined coffin. Eye witnesses claim that people began to try and capture his blood where it pooled as souvenir.