Monday, March 14, 2011

A Royal Passion - Katie Whitaker

Why is it that we’re attracted to doomed relationships & lost causes? My head agrees wholeheartedly with Sellars & Yeatman in 1066 and All That, the Cavaliers were Wrong but Wromantic & the Roundheads were Right but Repulsive.

My heart, however, fell in love with Prince Rupert when I was just a girl & I’ve been a Royalist ever since. Charles I was stubborn, weak, vacillating & devious. His wife, Henrietta Maria, was equally stubborn, bigoted & completely single-minded. Both were extravagant & very conscious of their position as monarchs.

Katie Whitaker’s new book, A Royal Passion focuses on the relationship between Charles & Henrietta. Charles was the second son of James VI & I & was never intended to be King. His adored elder brother, Henry, died young & Charles, a sickly, stammering boy, was suddenly destined for the throne. King James was easy prey for the pretty young men at Court & his last & greatest favourite, George Villers, Duke of Buckingham, soon came to influence Charles as well. Charles initially tolerated Buckingham as a means of getting closer to his father but he ended up loving Steenie (as they called him) almost as much as his father. Buckingham boosted Charles’s confidence, deferred to his judgement & treated him with the deference an absolute monarch expected.

The question of Charles’s marriage had been central to King James’s foreign policy for some years. An alliance with Spain was desired so negotiations were underway for Charles to marry the Spanish Infanta.  The negotiations were stuck on the matter of religion. Just twenty years after the Gunpowder Plot, the English people would not consider a Catholic Queen.

When King James died in 1625, the Spanish marriage negotiations had almost come to a halt. The focus had turned to France, equally Catholic but necessary as a partner in war against the Spanish. Charles became determined to marry the sister of Louis XIII, 15 year old Henrietta Maria.

The experiment of a mixed marriage began badly. The Pope saw the marriage as a way of converting the English back to Catholicism & bringing England back to the True Faith. The French negotiators had ensured that Henrietta would be able to practice her religion & she came to the marriage with a train of priests & everything necessary to fit out a chapel big enough not just for herself & her attendants but for any English Catholics who wished to attend services. Charles & Henrietta quarrelled over this & over her large suite of attendants. She refused to have any of the Protestant ladies of the Court in her household & refused to send any of her French attendants home. She was particularly antagonistic towards the Duke of Buckingham’s wife & mother. Buckingham was still as much in favour with Charles as ever & he was determined that his family would be well-placed. Charles & Henrietta had been very pleased with each other when they met & their honeymoon was idyllic. But soon, their religious differences & their immaturity, led to one quarrel after another, each more childish than the last,

One night, when the couple were in bed together, Henrietta gave Charles a list of officials she had chosen to manage the lands that he was giving her... Charles bridled: he was the one who should name her jointure officials and he refused to allow any French... An exchange of insults followed, with Henrietta claiming pre-eminence as a ‘daughter of France’... while Charles dismissed her status as ‘nothing very great’.... Enraged now, Henrietta launched into one of her great tirades – ‘a passionate discourse’ on ‘how miserable she was’... Eventually Henrietta ran out of breath, or perhaps Charles could stand no more. In any case, the King ended the matter in no uncertain terms. The French household were behind it all, he declared, but ‘I shall put them to rights’. On that note, he went to sleep.

It was only after the first difficult year, when Buckingham was assassinated & Charles had sent most of Henrietta’s French attendants home, that they fell in love. Their marriage was spectacularly successful on a personal level. Until the Civil War broke out, they were almost never apart. They had a large, healthy family & they were devoted to their children. Charles was indulgent to Henrietta & allowed her to practice her religion openly. They were both passionate collectors & builders & they spent enormous amounts of money on art, furniture, jewellery & clothing. The idyll ended when Charles, who had ruled without Parliament for years, suddenly needed funds for a war against the rebellious Scots. This was the beginning of the road to civil war.

The story of Charles & Henrietta reminds me of other royal couples who lived extravagantly in their hermetically sealed worlds while their people demanded a greater say in their own futures. Charles couldn’t survive without Parliament but once Parliament was called, they refused to dance to his tune. He couldn’t control his MPs & was forced into several humiliating backdowns on issues of conscience, including signing the warrant for the execution of the Earl of Strafford, who he had promised to support at all cost. Henrietta’s Catholicism became a major issue. She was accused of treason & of plotting with the French against the English people. Eventually, she had to leave the country to avoid arrest & also to raise money for Charles’s army against the Parliamentarians, those Right but Repulsive Roundheads,

As the moment of parting approached, both he and Henrietta suffered greatly. Her husband, Henrietta recalled, was ‘touched by a lively sadness to see himself in the state he was in, devoured by his own subjects and constrained to separate from his wife whom he loved dearly, without knowing what their fate would be’. She too grieved at their misfortunes, which ‘forced me to leave the King and my children’. She would be the most ‘wretched creature in this world... separated far from the king my lord, from my children, out of my country, and without hope of returning there, except at imminent peril – abandoned by all the world, unless God assist me.’

The end of the story is well-known. Charles was executed in January 1649. Henrietta lived on until 1669. She lived to see her son restored to the throne as Charles II but she ended her days in seclusion in France at a convent she had founded.  

A Royal Passion is an interesting look at the relationship that was central to the political turmoil of the time. In the Foreward, Katie Whitaker describes how moved & surprised she was when she read Charles & Henrietta’s letters to each other. I would have loved to read more of the letters in the book, more of their actual words but there are actually very few quotes. That’s my only quibble though. It’s often hard to like this self-centred, wrong-headed, stubborn couple but their love for each other was all-consuming & I have to admire their devotion.


  1. I vacillate between favouring the Royalists or the Roundheads depending on what I've been studying at any particular point. However, at the moment I am in one of my feeling sorry for Charles periods after attending a seminar a couple of weeks ago where the speaker had documentary evidence of the fact that when Henry died the first thing James I did was let Frederick of Bohemia (soon to marry the Princess Elizabeth and destined to become the Elector Palatine) know and said that if he could he would he would have made him his heir rather than Charles. It can't have been easy growing up with a father who felt that way about you.

  2. It has been awhile since my bookmark was this far back in history but oh, such a fascinating story. When you're in London you come across plaques and items belonging to either one on display fairly often. The needlework involved in the clothing is something to behold!

  3. Annie, I didn't know that about James & Frederick. James had such a dreadful upbringing himself that I'm sure that was at the heart of his failure to really love & understand Charles. I think Charles's stubborn insistence on the Divine Right of kings was to do with not letting his father down. Darlene, I love the Van Dyck portraits, so beautiful &, as you say, the clothing is gorgeous.