This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
In January 1640, the English court assembled in a vast temporary room beside the Banqueting House in Whitehall to watch a dream unfold. At a safe distance from Rubens’s newly painted ceiling, candlelight flickered on the silver breeches and plumed helmet of Charles I as he climbed the craggy rocks of discord to reach a golden throne.
His French queen, Henrietta Maria — dressed by Inigo Jones in carnation red-pink and silver, a helmet on her head and sword at her side — then appeared from a heavenly cloud bursting through rays of light to be enthroned at his side and bring harmony to his fractious kingdom. Three years later the same queen was on the run from Parliament’s forces, one night forced to lie in a ditch clutching her dog for two hours as bullets whistled over her head.
Six years after that, it was the king’s turn to face the music at the Banqueting House — not now the exquisite notes of William Davenant’s masque but the swish of the executioner’s axe and groans of the crowd.
This is the thrilling story narrated by Leanda de Lisle in her new book Henrietta Maria, in which the queen she describes as “a warrior and a wit” plays the starring role. But this is much more than an adventure story: it is a revisionist life of one of the most compelling and controversial women in British history: a queen who has been loathed or, perhaps worse, written out of the tumultuous decades of the mid-17th century.
Demonised for her perceived part in the Civil Wars, Henrietta Maria, dubbed the “Popish brat of France”, has suffered much misogyny and bigotry over the centuries. But in Leanda de Lisle she has found a skilled champion determined to tell “the story of her life from her point of view”.
That story begins in the French court, where the six-month-old princess Henrietta Maria lost her father, the great Bourbon king Henry IV, to an assassin’s knife and was raised by her formidable mother, Queen Marie de’ Medici. Henrietta Maria’s upbringing within a great dynasty ruling over a country riven by religious violence is crucial to understanding her outlook; de Lisle grounds her firmly in Europe’s “society of princes”.
Her mission for marriage was as impossible as it was ambitious
Membership of this international elite was open to both sexes. Marie raised her daughter to believe women could and should wield power on earth, exercising a civilising influence over men’s aggression, in reflection of the Virgin Mary’s power in heaven.
The mission Marie set for Henrietta Maria when she married Charles I was as impossible as it was ambitious. She was to dedicate herself wholly to her new country and forget her old one (though also cementing the ties between the two nations despite their contrasting interests); obey her husband in all things (except in the paramount area of religion, as he was a Protestant); and protect the persecuted Catholics of England who shared her faith (but not forget the Protestant majority of her new subjects). This mission would shape Henrietta Maria’s life, and her attempts to fulfil it cement her place as one of the most reviled queen consorts in British history.
Hers was an uphill task from the start. Married life was challenging, particularly in the early years, as Henrietta Maria had to compete with the powerful Duke of Buckingham for Charles’s attention and affections. There were clashes over her large French retinue, how and where she could worship and the king’s treatment of Catholics — all of which hardened many of the queen’s new subjects against her.
Still, there was some joy in these “halcyon days” once the royal couple established a deep love and trust for one another. While Charles ruled without Parliament, the charming and witty Henrietta Maria enjoyed becoming a mother and living a gilded life of high fashion and culture, architecture and gardening, masques and merriment.
The subsequent slide into civil war is well known, but the reality of Henrietta Maria’s part in it is not. Far from driving her husband towards Catholicism and egging him on in his conflict with Parliament, Henrietta Maria led the anti-Spanish faction at court — bringing her into alliance with the Protestant cause abroad and the supporters of the parliamentary cause at home.
Though she supported Charles vigorously once the conflict began, hers was a pragmatic and conciliatory voice, often urging the king to reach accommodation with his opponents in the coming years. The daughter of Henry IV, who had converted to Catholicism to win his crown declaring “Paris is worth a mass”, was a more flexible and intuitive politician than her husband.
Henrietta Maria breaks through centuries of misogynist myth
She was also his staunchest lieutenant in the field, braving the bounty effectively placed on her head by Parliament to cross in and out of England, enduring hardship and danger to raise money and troops for the king. De Lisle reinserts Henrietta Maria fully into this military role, recreating the self-styled warrior queen “she-majesty Generalissima”, who rode at the head of the “Queen’s Army”, issued her own battle commands (sometimes in express contradiction to those of her husband) and endured the doubly dangerous experience of giving birth while fleeing from enemy troops.
Even after the royalist cause was lost and the king executed, Henrietta Maria retained her remarkable clear-sightedness and energy, overcoming the loss of her great love to campaign for the future of their children and continue to fulfil the mission her mother set her. The “phoenix queen” lived to see her eldest son Charles II restored to his father’s throne in 1660, though the deaths of two of her other surviving children that same year tempered any triumph.
In a satisfying imitation of life, Leanda de Lisle’s Henrietta Maria is a fine companion to her 2018 biography of Charles I, White King. In her hands, Henrietta Maria breaks through centuries of misogynist myth as she once did through the painted clouds of Inigo Jones’s stage-set. This queen consort is not the pantomime villain of popular memory but instead more moderate, compassionate, complex and human; and therefore far more comprehensible and relatable than ever before.
De Lisle achieves this through a compelling presentation of Henrietta Maria’s personal qualities and achievements; though her approach might have benefited from a fuller expression of the queen’s flaws and acknowledgement of her opponents’ viewpoints. However impressive this remarkable queen undoubtedly was, it will always be hard to cast her as a heroine of British history in the uncomfortable knowledge that the people against whom she fought and plotted with such brave determination were her own subjects.
Ultimately though, a book, like a life, should be measured against its own mission. And in this — to tell the story of Henrietta Maria’s extraordinary life from her own perspective — Leanda de Lisle triumphs where her subject could not.
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