On Monday we briefly discussed the rise of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, who made his start as “favorite” of James I and then sought to ingratiate himself with the Prince of Wales in the King’s twilight years via a seven-month jaunt to Madrid. Today we’re going to take a closer look at his last years in the dawn of Charles I’s reign.
For all that Charles I led England into a civil war and then lost his crown and, well, head, he was at least one half of a happy marriage. For an institution once upon a time comprised mainly of foreign alliances and quiet desperation, that’s something, no? After a rocky start, Charles and Henrietta Maria of France settled into the kind of complacent domesticity to which political matchmaking aspired, and from this came nine children. Two of those sons – Charles II and James II – would end up kings. A daughter, Mary, would become the mother of another – William III. And another daughter, Henrietta Anne, would marry into the French Royal Family and end up a dazzling fixture at Versailles.
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.
The Stuarts’ relationship with Catholicism is fascinating, but not wholly surprising. The founder of the royal House in England was James I, who succeeded the last Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I, in 1603. He originated in Scotland, the great-great-grandson of Henry VII and son of Elizabeth’s bested rival, Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary’s Catholicism – alongside her poor marital choices, gender and foreignness – lost her her crown and James’s Protestantism, even if sincere, was hardly a choice.
His faith ensured his place in the English succession, a point he reinforced by marrying the Protestant princess, Anne of Denmark, thus ensuring a Protestant heir. It spoke to anti-Catholic feeling in England – and Scotland, for that matter – but it’s worth noting the larger power balance in Europe. France and Spain, England’s true peers on the continental stage, remained Catholic. England was continually in and out of war with Spain, wounds which were very much wrapped up in the Reformation, from Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, to the earnest desire of their daughter, Mary I, to marry King Philip II and deliver England back to Rome. Elizabeth I began her reign with tolerance, but as the decades wore on, she moved further and further away from appeasement, religion the source of nearly every plot and rebellion against her.
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.
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.
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.