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The match that sparked the Civil War

There are turbulent marriages.

18 September 2010

12:00 AM

18 September 2010

12:00 AM

A Royal Passion: The Turbulent Marriage of Charles I and Henrietta Maria Katie Whitaker

Weidenfeld, pp.363, 20

There are turbulent marriages. And then there are turbulent marriages in which the husband ends up getting beheaded on a stage. This book describes the latter. One doesn’t normally need to encourage publishers to hyperbole, but in the case of Katie Whitaker’s subtitle, there might have been a case for giving it a bit more welly.

The story begins with a prissy 15-year-old French princess being taken to England, to a husband whom she’d never seen. It ends with that husband losing his crown and his head to Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian taleban. The sad coda is the princess living out her days back in France, estranged from most of her children: older, wiser, but not much happier.

The princess was Henrietta Maria, the youngest daughter of Henry IV of France and Marie de’Medici. She was rather pretty in her youth, although at 4’10” blessed more with sweetness than stature. She married Charles I by proxy in the doorway of Nôtre Dame in May 1625.

She was a Catholic. He was a Protestant, in the slightly muddled-up fashion favoured by most Tudor and Stuart monarchs. Their marriage, struck across the bloody breach of post-Reformation Europe, seemed politically expedient in the mid-1620s. It sealed an Anglo-French alliance that could be trained squarely towards making a popular war against Catholic Spain. But it turned out, like many marriages that sounded good at the time, more trouble than it was worth.


At first the trouble was domestic. Personalities clashed within the royal entourages. There were silly misunderstandings over protocol: who should ride in whose carriage, for instance. The French were used to opulence and luxury, and couldn’t kick the feeling that the English were shabby savages. Most vexing of all, the pious queen wouldn’t sleep with the king on Catholic feast days.

But soon the political problems of a mixed marriage became evident. Henrietta caused extreme offence in 1626 when she refused to take part in a Protestant coronation. Her large and esteemed company of Catholic clergy ran her quarters at Somerset House like a monastery: they paraded around London on foot on holy days, performing religious rites that seemed perfectly ordinary to them, but which scandalised English public opinion. The Queen and her courtiers prayed on bended knee before Tyburn gallows where Catholic priests had shed their blood.

Before long, the Queen’s ostentatious mackerel-snapping became a serious political problem. She became a stick with which his vigorously anti- Catholic critics could beat Charles — and did. Not that she helped herself: her attempts to raise papal cash or foreign Catholic armies were used to characterise her as Charles’ falsest friend of all.

Yet, as the political difficulty increased, so the bond between husband and wife strengthened. The catalyst was the murder of the Duke of Buckingham, who was stabbed to death in Portsmouth in 1628. Buckingham’s death deprived Charles of his greatest favourite and ally, and opened a gap in his affections which the Queen eagerly filled.

From then on, they waxed doting and companionable, producing a large brood of children and sharing the delights of court life: the masques and plays in palace halls; the tennis courts and deer parks of the royal outdoors; the lavish patronage of artists like van Dyck.

Yet as Charles and Henrietta grew more loving and close, so the Queen became a more obvious threat to the radicals, who suspected Charles not merely of absolutism and tyranny, but of plotting a full-scale English counter-reformation. Domestic politics morphed into the politics of revolution.

We all know how it ended. Katie Whitaker uses Charles and Henrietta’s correspondence during the Civil War to pull the story along. She has a keen eye for the small signs of love that make a happy family. And she uses the lens of the royal marriage to clarify with exceptional crispness the difficult story of the English Civil War. This book could have been old-fashioned, simplistic and twee, but it is not. It is bright, subtle and astute.

It also got me thinking: whom would my generation of English princes have to marry to stir things up so much? I fancy it would make pretty small beer if William or Harry married a Catholic now. But a Saudi princess with a chic Chanel burka, on the other hand … that would be more like it.


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