Henrietta Maria has undoubtedly had a bad press in English History – in the past she has either been fitted into the pattern of she-wolf or interfering wife. And yet prior to arrival in England in 1625 and in the weeks afterwards she was praised for her youth and her beauty. Her arrival was, after all, the beginning of an Anglo-French partnership. Not that every was wildly happy about a French Catholic becoming queen.
The power of a consort was very indirect so far as most Stuart kings of England are concerned. Henrietta is the best known of the Stuart wives and she undoubtedly arrived with an agenda. Pope Urban VIII had made her a member of the order of the Golden Rose prior to her departure for England. She wrote to her brother, Louis XIII, saying that she would improve the lot of Catholics in England. She made no secret of the fact that she was a good Catholic princess. Her pilgrimage to Marble Arch and Tyburn where Catholics had been executed caused consternation amongst her Protestant subjects. Yet, she was also supposed to engineer a firm Anglo-French alliance. She was fifteen and it was a very tall order.
Griffey explains that her presence in England quickly became a political liability so far as Buckingham was concerned. In the first instance she was French and Catholic so did nothing to enhance Buckingham’s popularity at home given that he brokered the match and secondly Charles was predisposed to love his bride. In terms of the first Buckingham broke the escrit secret that he had agreed promising to suspend the recusancy laws, declaring it was nothing but a trick to get the French to agree to the marriage and in the second he sought to impose his various female relations upon Henrietta not to mention the female relatives of men who owed their ascent at court to him so that he could control who had access to her. The effect of both was to leave her feeling embattled and isolated – which in turn made her more determinedly Catholic in her outlook. She refused to be crowned because it was a Protestant ceremony. The same applied to Garter events and other events. It did nothing for the royal marriage either as Charles became ever more resentful of her lack of obedience to his husbandly requests – though apparently the fact that her sixteenth birthday passed unremarked was neither here nor there as indeed was the fact that he was flagrantly breaking the promises that he made prior to their marriage.
Charles came to believe that her household was keeping her too French and too intransigent. In part her relationship with her confessors did have that effect and whilst there were few English women in her household she had no need to speak the language – indeed I imagine that girls around the country were being tutored in French in the hopes that they might get a place in her household. Charles came most of all, it would appear, to blame Jeanne St George. Madame St George or Mamie as she was known had been with Henrietta since the princess was a child. She had unintentionally caused a diplomatic incident when Charles and Buckingham insisted on travelling in Henrietta’s coach to Canterbury from Dover along with Buckingham’s mother and wife. There had been no space for Mamie which was a serious breach of French etiquette. The whole affair was repeated when the royal couple fled the plague that summer. Buckingham was offended at the suggestion that his family should not travel with the queen.
Gradually the household of four hundred was eroded. Henrietta took up the lute. Her lutist was arrested as a spy and packed off to the Tower, some other household members were arrested under the recusancy laws which were very much in force. Matters came to a head for Henrietta when her entire household was sent back to France in 1626 – Charles having forcibly separated his wife from their company. It was a total breach of the marriage treaty. It left her hysterical and a virtual prisoner. She was unable to write any letters unless an English lady-in-waiting supervised its content.
Henrietta who still did not speak English now found herself surrounded by the Duke of Buckingham’s female relatives including his niece Susan who slept in her bedchamber. Lucy Hay, Countess of Carlisle was imposed on her. Lucy was beautiful and witty and Buckingham’s sometime mistress. There is evidence to suggest that Buckingham was planning to set Lucy up as Charles I’s mistress but the king was a loyal husband – not that Henrietta would have initially known that. Instead she might have thought of her own father with his more than forty mistresses as well as the court of her brother. No wonder she was hostile to Lucy – and her rather colourful reputation.
Ultimately the two women became friends and allies whilst it suited them both. Lucy was older than Henrietta and she was able to fulfil a role as mentor – which was as alarming to most Puritans as the thought of Mamie St George. Their relationship sums up the informal nature of female Stuart politics. It was based on personal relationships and favour. Interestingly Lady Carlisle only fell from favour when her husband became Pro-Spanish in sympathy.
The reorganisation of Henrietta’s household structure in 1627 at Charles’ behest meant that access to the bedchamber and personal spaces of the queen were more limited than they had been under previous monarch and consorts. A distinction was drawn between the bedchamber and the privy chamber in a way that it hadn’t been before. The extended hierarchy was Charles I’s preference. He disliked the free and easy way that Henrietta associated with her French ladies and wanted to impose more regulation upon the whole proceeding so that it mirrored his own household.
She was angered that he had imposed his will on her independence. She pointed out, quite reasonably, that his mother had ordered her own affairs but Charles said that was a different matter entirely. At which point Henrietta lost her temper and proclaimed that she was a daughter of France whilst Charles’ mother was only from Denmark. It wasn’t tactful but it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for Henrietta at this point.
The limiting of access with its heightened powers of influence initially seemed to work to Buckingham’s advantage as the key jobs were given to his people but after his death in 1629 it meant that access to Henrietta was still limited. The difference was that Henrietta who had rushed to console her husband on Buckingham’s death had much more influence than anyone could have anticipated. The lack of range of voices and opinions surrounding Henrietta and Charles would be one of the factors that led husband and wife down a dangerous path.
Men have always blamed evil councillors when they revolt against their monarchs. The death of Buckingham removed a hated advisor so it was perhaps only to be expected that Parliament began blaming Henrietta Maria for Charles’ actions – she was after all a foreigner ( a French one at that), a Catholic…and a woman!
Erin Griffey (ed) Henrietta Maria: Piety, Politics and Patronage
Wolfson, Sara J. The Female Bedchamber of Queen Henrietta Maria: Politics, Familial Networks and Policy, 1626–40 in The Politics of Female Households: Ladies-in-waiting across Early Modern Europe