Queen Henrietta Maria, 1609-69
Loyal, courageous and devoted to King Charles I, but her influence added to the atmosphere of mistrust that surrounded the King.
Henrietta Maria was born in Paris on 26 November 1609 (NS), the youngest daughter of King Henri IV of France and Marie de Medici. She was taught riding, dancing and singing and received religious instruction from the Carmelite nuns. Her marriage to Charles, Prince of Wales, required a special dispensation from the Pope because it was the first time that a Catholic princess had married a Protestant prince. Politically, it was a move towards an alliance between France and England against Spain.
The marriage took place in May 1625 when Henrietta was 15 and Charles was 24. Her Catholicism alarmed the English Parliament, and she was not allowed to be crowned alongside her husband when he succeeded to the throne of the Three Kingdoms as King Charles I in February 1626.
Catholic Queen Consort
Apart from their religious differences, the royal couple were opposites in character and temperament: Charles was sober and aloof, Henrietta was stylish and vivacious. During the first three years of their marriage, Charles was influenced by his overbearing favourite the Duke of Buckingham, and neglected Henrietta Maria almost to the point of estrangement. But when Buckingham was assassinated in 1628, Charles transferred his affections to the Queen, and they quickly became devoted to one another.
During the 1630s, the court of King Charles and Queen Henrietta Maria was admired throughout Europe. The King's impeccable taste in art and the formality of court ritual gave an appearance of sophistication; the Queen's encouragement of dancing, music and theatre added warmth and polite gaiety. Elaborate masques were staged by Inigo Jones and Ben Jonson to dramatise the ideals of the Stuart monarchy. To the horror of many Puritans, the Queen herself sometimes took part in the performances.
Increasingly, King Charles discussed affairs of state with Henrietta Maria. He valued her opinions and advice, but because she remained a practising Roman Catholic, her influence was viewed with extreme suspicion, particularly as several prominent courtiers converted to Catholicism and a papal representative was received in England for the first time since the Reformation. When the King needed money to finance the Bishops' Wars (1639-40), the Queen raised funds by appealing to English Catholics. Her further appeals to the Vatican itself fuelled Protestant fears of a Popish conspiracy against England. She was even suspected of inciting the Irish Uprising of 1641. Rumours that members of the Long Parliament were planning to impeach the Queen prompted King Charles to make his disastrous attempt to arrest the Five Members in January 1642.
In February 1642, when civil war looked inevitable, Henrietta Maria left England for the Netherlands—the King galloping along the cliff tops to keep her ship in sight until the last sail had vanished below the horizon. She spent almost a year in The Hague, raising loans, buying weapons and recruiting troops for the Royalist cause. By selling or pawning jewels, she raised a large fortune which financed several convoys of weapons and ammunition and a company of veteran professional soldiers to fight for the King. Braving storms and attack by Parliament's warships, she returned to England in February 1643, landing at Bridlington in Yorkshire.
Henrietta stayed with the Earl (later Marquis) of Newcastle at York. She participated in Newcastle's secret negotiations with the Parliamentarian commanders Sir Hugh Cholmley at Scarborough and Sir John Hotham at Hull. Persuaded by the Queen, Cholmley defected and delivered Scarborough Castle to the Royalists. By the summer of 1643, Royalist victories in the Midlands made it relatively safe for Henrietta to move south at the head of her army, styling herself "Her She-Majesty, Generalissima". On 13 July 1643, she was reunited with the King, who had chosen the site of the battlefield of Edgehill as a suitably dramatic rendezvous. They made a triumphal entry into Oxford the following day.
The Queen remained at Oxford until 1644. She attempted to arrange a marriage between the Prince of Wales and the daughter of the Prince of Orange in the hope that the Dutch would intervene in the war against Parliament. When she became pregnant with her ninth child, she decided to withdraw to Bath for her confinement and parted from King Charles at Abingdon on 17 April 1644—the last time they would see one another. The Earl of Essex was marching into the West Country and forced the Queen to withdraw further west to Exeter, where she gave birth to a daughter on 16 June. Fearing that Essex intended to take her hostage, she took ship from Falmouth on 14 July 1644 and escaped to France.
Granted a small allowance by the French government, Henrietta Maria established households at the palace of St Germain and the Louvre. She kept up an intimate correspondence with King Charles in England, doing her best to persuade him to be more flexible in negotiations after his military defeat in 1645, and tirelessly engaging in schemes and intrigues to gain foreign help for the Royalist cause.
Dowager Queen Mother
Henrietta Maria never fully recovered from the shock of the execution of King Charles in January 1649 and wore mourning clothes for the rest of her life. After a period of retirement at a Carmelite convent, she resumed her active involvement in the Royalist cause. She advised her son Charles II to look to Ireland and Scotland for military help in regaining the throne of England and she continued to plot schemes to gain help from sympathetic European powers.
A Royalist faction known as the "Louvre Group" formed around her which included Lords Wilmot, Digby and Percy, though its leading member was Lord Jermyn, who had been the Queen's close adviser and confidante since the 1630s. The Louvre Group's willingness to negotiate with Catholics and Presbyterians was opposed by the Anglican "Old Royalist" faction associated with Sir Edward Hyde, the Marquis of Ormond and Sir Edward Nicholas.
The Louvre Group supported the alliance between Charles II and the Scots that resulted in the Third Civil War, but after the defeat of the Royalists at the battle of Worcester in 1651, Henrietta Maria's influence over Charles declined. She lost contact with both Charles and his brother James, Duke of York, when the English princes were obliged to leave France as a condition of Cardinal Mazarin's negotiations with Cromwell's Protectorate. Her unsuccessful attempt to convert her youngest son, Henry, Duke of Gloucester, to Catholicism resulted in further alienation from Charles and his counsellors.
As her involvement in politics declined, Henrietta Maria was drawn to an aristocratic order of nuns, the Sisters of the Visitation. She founded a convent for the order at Chaillot on the outskirts of Paris, using money donated by Anne of Austria and other devout members of the nobility, and spent much of the 1650s in retreat there.
After the Restoration in 1660, Henrietta Maria returned to England at the invitation of Charles II, where she tried unsuccessfully to prevent the Duke of York's scandalous marriage to Anne Hyde. She lived comfortably at Somerset House until 1665 then, in failing health, she returned to France and retired to Colombes, near Paris. She died on 21 August 1669 and was buried at the cathedral of St Denis.
Henrietta Maria was the mother of nine children, including two kings of England: Charles II and James II, and Henrietta Anne, who married Philippe, Duc d'Orléans, brother of Louis XIV of France. She was generally known as Queen Mary in England. The colony of Maryland, originally founded by Lord Baltimore as a potential haven for Catholics in north America, was named after her.
S.R. Gardiner, Henrietta Maria, DNB, 1891
Caroline M. Hibbard, Henrietta Maria, Oxford DNB, 2004
C.V. Wedgwood, The King's War (London 1958)