When Henrietta Maria married Charles the First, England’s vicious anti-Catholicism made her a hate figure. She was a child-bride of fifteen when she married the 25 year old Charles. Her brother, Louis XIII, agreed marriage articles with Charles, which were intended to protect her religious rights and soften England’s anti-Catholic laws. Her golden period was the 1630s when the Queen’s Chapel became a centre for promoting Catholicism. The horrors of the civil wars from 1641-9 included unprecedented religious vilification, which brought out her unbelievable strength of character. She showed intelligence and devotion to Charles, supporting him in his doomed effort to remain king. His execution plunged her into despair for the last twenty years of her life.
Henrietta Maria at the time of her marriage in 1625
Diplomatic marriages involve dowries, which Charles absolutely needed.1 Henrietta Maria’s dowry entitled her to freedom of religion and an additional clause softened anti-Catholic laws. In 1626 Henrietta Maria prayed, in public, at the site of the martyrdom of Catholics at Tyburn gallows.2 This ostentatious avowal of faith exploited the marriage articles and Charles retaliated by reducing her entourage from 300 to three by this action. A new Queen’s Chapel at Somerset House was a lavish building which replaced the first chapel as her place of worship.3 It was supposed to be solely for her use but she used it to promote English Catholicism. “In consequence the queen’s household became a public place of worship, a refuge for metropolitan Catholics.4 Louis hoped to use Henrietta Maria as a Catholic Trojan Horse and by the late 1630s the plan appeared to be working.5
Twenty years prior to Henrietta Maria’s marriage the Gunpowder Plot attempted to slaughter MPs and King James in parliament. This appeared to demonstrate that Catholics were traitors. More substantive was the belief that Henrietta Maria was perverting the court of Charles. Charles was the Head of the Church of England and there were worries that he’d use his power to Catholicise England just as Queen Mary had done in 1553. The General Directory of Worship was written to replace the Common Prayer Book, which denigrated Henrietta Maria. One prayer asked
For the conversion of the Queen, the religious education of the Prince, and the rest of the Royal seed.6
The Uxbridge Treaty, 1646, demanded that the royal children be educated by people nominated by parliament to counter Henrietta Maria’s malign influence.7 In truth they had a point, as Henrietta Maria was of critical importance to Charles. The Civil War saw Henrietta Maria raising money in Europe for Charles’s cause. She went abroad in 1641 to discover how easy it was to sell her jewels, “the proposed visit foreshadowed far more serious attempts by Henrietta Maria, in 1642 and 1644, to sell jewels and other valuables to raise funds in support of the Royalists’ pressing need for such resources.” 8 Henrietta Maria quickly found out that prospective buyers couldn’t pay in cash and they worried that,
Because of the enormous sums involved, the possibility of the reclamation of the items by Parliament at a later date and doubts about the queen’s claims to ownership and therefore her right to sell, the most valuable items remained unsold.9
Henrietta Maria promptly sold all the jewels which were indisputably hers to fund Charles’s campaigns. It’s undoubtedly the case she either sold or pawned Crown Jewels which were definitely not hers. (As a side issue this provided the Dutch with a motive to broker peace so that they could get their money back.) She worked tirelessly to raise money but the only substantive revenue stream was taxation and the rebels controlled London, the greatest source of tax in England. Returning to England, as an enemy, was fraught with challenges once she
evaded the Parliamentarian navy to land at Bridlington in Yorkshire with troops and arms. The pursuing naval vessels then bombarded the town, forcing the royal party to take cover in neighbouring fields; Henrietta Maria returned under fire, however, to recover her pet dog Mitte.10
Henrietta Maria escaped the siege of Oxford, 1644, and despite being heavily pregnant with her ninth child made her way to Exeter. On the 16th June she gave birth and a month later fled England from Falmouth.11 She never saw Charles again.
Henrietta Maria retained her faith against every attack. Charles himself believed her to be a heretic and therefore doomed to go to hell when she died. The political pressures on her were unbelievable and it shows her strength of character that she was steadfast. And she was also an evangelical Catholic never giving up her pious hope that her children would join her faith. Notwithstanding all of this she was an exemplary wife, giving unstinting support to Charles in his futile efforts to remain King of England.
1 Conrad Russell Parliaments and English Politics 1621-9 1979 p209 The dowry was £120,000 paid in two tranches. One came with the Henrietta Maria the other was withheld dependent on the performance of Charles in relation to the marriage articles. The initial negotiations had been held with James I who said that the religious clauses were pointless and might be destructive, “the laws were sleeping so well it was a shame to wake them by a declaration of suspending them. This was typical Jacobean advice: lazy, cynical, shrewd, and ultimately correct.” p210
2 In the period 1585-1649 164 Catholics were martyred with only two in the fifteen years 1625-40. The civil war period saw religious bigotry accelerating and persecution brought 87 executions. For a discussion of this point http://www.ewtn.com/library/chistory/penalaws.htm It’s about a mile between St James Palace, where her first Queen’s chapel was situated, and Tyburn, which would have been a comfortable walk through countryside for Henrietta Maria. This could have done with her huge entourage after Catholic services at St James’s Palace.
3 See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen%27s_Chapel and https://www.somersethouse.org.uk/history for Henrietta Maria’s two Queen’s chapels.
For the use of the Queen’s chapel to create Catholic population. “Upon this understanding lay the actions of the Capuchins appointed to the Queen? s Household in a purpose-built Chapel at Somerset House, whose mission from 1630, brainchild of Fr. Joseph de Tremblay, laboured to convert the chief courtiers. Ironically it was their very success that became their downfall before they could reach the threshold of influence which they sought.” http://www.monlib.org.uk/papers/ebch/1998baldwin.pdf p5
4 Kevin Sharpe The Personal Rule of Charles the first 1992 p304
5 ibid p305ff
5 C H Firth and R S Riat Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum (collected and edited) 1911 pp588-9
7 S R Gardiner The Constitutional Documents of the Puritan Revolution 1625-60 (selected and edited) 3rd edition 1906 p284
8 https://journals.openedition.org/erea/3715 para 6
9 ibid para 9
11 http://bcw-project.org/biography/henrietta-maria see also https://archive.org/details/lettersofqueenhe00henr which are her letters to Charles. The letter from Exeter details her ill-health, faith in God and her expectation that she’d die (probably in child-birth). pp244-5