She was daughter, sister, wife or mother to five kings and two queens. On her wedding day, her pale blue velvet train was ostensibly held by three princesses of the blood, but so heavily encrusted was it with golden embroidery that a man had to walk concealed beneath it to carry the weight. Such a start in life might seem to presage a pleasant existence of leisure and luxury, but the career of Henrietta Maria, a Bourbon princess by birth and a Stuart queen by marriage, was as full of trouble and strife as the most harrowing of hard-luck case histories.
When she was six months old, her father, King Henri IV of France, was murdered. When she was seven, her eldest brother, who believed himself to be God’s representative on earth, had her mother arrested and banished from court. At fifteen, she was married to King Charles I, a man she had never met, and sent to live in England, a country where practitioners of her kind of Christianity (Roman Catholicism) were legally persecuted and socially outcast. The following year, her husband locked her in her room while he expelled the friends and servants who had come with her from France. In her thirties, she lived through a civil war that split Charles’s three kingdoms. She went abroad to raise arms and money, leaving her husband and their children behind. Returning, she invaded England at the head of an expeditionary force. On campaign, she endured bombardment and near-starvation. By the end of the war she was unrecognisable – emaciated and with teeth described variously as resembling boars’ tusks and ‘protruding from her mouth like guns from a fort’. Her children were imprisoned. When she was thirty-nine, her husband was publicly decapitated.
It’s a story that’s often been told, but seldom from Henrietta Maria’s point of view. To her enemies she was the alien temptress who led Charles I away from the ‘true religion’ of Protestantism and towards royal absolutism. Leanda de Lisle, staunchly revisionist, sets out to demonstrate how unfairly she has been treated by a posterity too heavily influenced by Parliamentarian myth-making, by xenophobia and by a misogynist distaste for women who played an active part in politics and warfare.
De Lisle’s last book was a life of Charles I. In this one she nicely complements it by focusing on his wife. Around Henrietta Maria orbited other women ready to seize power or use influence. Her formidable mother, Marie de’ Medici, was Henri IV’s active partner in government. Within two hours of his assassination, Marie had had herself recognised as regent to their son, the child king Louis XIII, laying claim to the role in a commanding speech to the Parlement of Paris punctuated by sympathy-soliciting sobs. Henrietta Maria’s wedding coincided with the unveiling of the stupendous cycle of paintings Marie had commissioned from Peter Paul Rubens for her new Palais de Luxembourg – swirling compositions celebrating the glory not of God or of France but of Marie herself.
Henrietta Maria’s sister-in-law, Anne of Austria, would in turn also become regent to a child-king son, Louis XIV. Anne’s friend and ally was the Duchess of Chevreuse, scandalous for her love life and her political manipulations. Madame de Chevreuse went with Henrietta Maria to England and, after her enforced departure from that country, was her associate in intrigues, one of which saw the duchess crossing the Pyrenees into Spain disguised as a young nobleman, riding astride and sleeping on straw. Meanwhile, in England, Henrietta Maria had frequent dealings with Lucy Hay, Countess of Carlisle, a secret agent and double agent, who gave her lessons in how to use make-up and mimicked her cruelly but was also, de Lisle believes, Henrietta Maria’s eyes and ears in the Parliamentary camp. These were audacious women, of the kind that moved Cardinal Richelieu to lament the troubles caused him by ‘the impertinence of the [female] sex’.
De Lisle’s narrative is brisk and colourful. Her research is thorough and scholarly, but she tells her story at a spanking pace and peppers it with modern idioms: Marie de’ Medici’s permanent wearing of widow’s weeds after Henri IV’s assassination was a form of ‘power dressing’. She deploys quotations elegantly, and uses material things to great effect – there are plentiful details here of bejewelled gowns and balustraded beds.
She is better on intimate relationships than on big-picture developments. Her exposition of the train of events that led the country to civil war is too sketchy to make sense of it – though that process was baffling even to the participants. She is more interested in religion than she is in constitutional politics. The story, as she tells it, is about sectarian intolerance rather than about democracy and absolutism.
In 1645, after the Royalist defeat at Naseby, letters between Charles and Henrietta Maria were found among the captured baggage. They were published, with a sneering commentary, as evidence that ‘the King’s Counsels are wholly managed by the Queen, though she be of the weaker sex, born an alien [and] brought up in a contrary religion’. De Lisle suggests that what they show instead is that the couple loved one another, that the queen’s advice to Charles was often shrewd, and that she was a brave and energetic operator. ‘You see’, wrote the Parliamentary commentator, ‘she marcheth at the head of an army and calls herself the Generalissima!’ She had returned to France ‘to raise foreign forces … and in this she is restless to the neglect to her own health. She vows to die by famine rather than fail the king.’ All shocking to Calvinist Parliamentary ‘patriots’. All – argues de Lisle in this lively, partisan but persuasive book – grounds for seeing Henrietta Maria as a far more interesting person than the ‘popish brat’ of hostile propaganda.