One of the most stunning paintings on display at Hampton Court Palace is the Embarkation at Margate of the Elector Palatine and Princess Elizabeth by Adam Willaerts (1623). It depicts a resplendent crowd of courtiers bidding farewell in 1613 to James VI and I’s daughter Elizabeth and her new husband, Frederick V, Elector Palatine, as they sail to Flushing on the first leg of a journey to married life. But beyond this, Elizabeth is little known outside the realms of Stuart dynasty scholars, even if some will have encountered her romanticised sobriquet, the ‘Winter Queen’.
Given the familiarity of Elizabeth’s brother Charles I to even the non-historically minded, this is particularly odd, since she had a lasting impact on the British monarchy thanks to the succession of her grandson George, Elector of Hanover, to the British throne in 1714. Perhaps it is because after 1613 Elizabeth spent almost all her life in continental Europe. Yet she was equally notable for her involvement in the seismic conflict between the princes of the Counter-Reformation and their Protestant enemies. Although trouble had long been brewing, it was Frederick’s disastrous acceptance, in 1619, of the crown of Bohemia that triggered the horrific warfare that engulfed Europe for the next thirty years. Elizabeth, whose husband lost both the Palatinate and Bohemia during the course of the war, devoted her life in exile in the Netherlands to the restoration of the fortunes of her husband’s family and subsequently those of her Stuart relatives too.
This period is particularly difficult for British historians to get their heads around because of the complexity of the shifting alliances and enmities of the multiple smaller states of Germany and the Low Countries, and the big beasts of the Holy Roman Empire, France and Spain. Our language