Minette, an English princess in Paris

7 December 2010


It was bitterly cold that morning and I could hardly bear to get out of bed, not that it made any difference as the threadbare cotton of my sheets were barely able to keep my freezing toes warm, no matter how much I curled them under.

‘Come on sleepy head,’ my brother Charles said with a laugh. ‘We are expected at the Louvre this afternoon and you know how sour Mama gets when we are late.’

‘I don’t want to go,’ I said with a sniff, pulling the covers over my head. ‘Everyone there laughs at me because I wear old clothes and Cousin Philippe says that I’m not a real princess.’

‘Does he indeed?’ Charles stopped laughing and I pushed back the sheet to sneak an uncertain look at his face. He didn’t look cross, which was something and would have been unusual, but there was something brooding and pensive about his eyes that I had never before seen and which made me feel suddenly uneasy. ‘Well, well, good old cousin Philippe.’

‘It isn’t a nice thing to say, is it Charles?’ I asked hesitantly. ‘Mama tells me every day that I am a princess and that I shouldn’t pay attention to Philippe but…’

‘But…’ Charles gently pulled back the sheet so that he could look me in the eyes. ‘I know. It’s hard to feel like a real princess when your shoes have holes, when your dress is far too small and your stomach is growling because you haven’t had enough to eat.’

I nodded, then sat up in the bed, hugging my thin knees beneath the offending sheet. I smiled ruefully up at my brother. ‘Cousin Louis says that I am too thin,’ I said, rubbing my elbows. ‘He calls me the relic of the Holy Innocents. On account of all my bones, I suppose.’

‘He’s a fool.’ Charles reached out to gently touch my cheek. ‘And what is more he’ll realise it one day and rue his words, the idiotic young whelp.’ He took me by the hand and pulled me from the bed, dancing me around the room until I forgot the cold and almost cried with laughter. ‘Besides,’ he said, pausing for a moment to bow over my hand, his long almost black hair brushing against my fingers, ‘people can say what they like about we Stuarts, and they frequently do, but they can’t deny that we know how to have fun.’

Henriette Anne had a bit of a tragic life, all things considered. She was born in Exeter on the 16th June 1644 at the height of the English Civil War, the youngest child of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, who dramatically fled the country a fortnight after her birth, leaving her in the care of her governess Lady Morton.

Poor Minette was not to see her mother again until she was two years old when she was sent to France, where Henrietta Maria was in exile, living in apartments in the Louvre. She was there when her father, Charles I was exected in January 1649.

The exiled Stuarts were extremely impoverished and Henriette and her mother lived a life of penury in Paris first in the Louvre and then the Palais Royale, very much the poor relations of Louis XIV, who was also growing up in straitened circumstances, under the control of his mother and Cardinal Richelieu. Henriette’s siblings were scattered all over Europe, in particular her elder, adored brother Charles II, who became known as The Wandering Prince as, exiled from his own throne in England, he travelled between the courts of relatives, borrowing money, trying to gather support and seducing ladies in waiting.

As was only natural, Henrietta Maria wished to marry her youngest daughter to her nephew Louis XIV but it was not to be – the prestige of the Stuart family had never been lower, his mother had set her heart on his marrying a Spanish princess like herself and, more to the point, Louis did not admire his little cousin’s looks and thought her too thin to be attractive.

After the Restoration of Charles II, however, things began to change for the better and although she was to be denied the prize of Louis XIV, who was instead married to the Infanta Maria Teresa of Spain, Henriette was instead betrothed to his younger brother Philippe, Duc d’Orléans, with her brother, who cherished her as his precious ‘Minette’ and most favourite sister providing a dowry of 840,000 Livres.

The marriage was predictably miserable. Henriette was desperate for love, romance and affection and her husband was a self centered, extravagant, vainglorious bully who prefered to surround himself with perfumed, pretty young boyfriends but at the same time was insanely jealous of his wife, who was beginning to blossom into a beauty and was known at court as simply ‘Madame’.

However, the main purpose of the marriage was to produce children as well as bring the Bourbon and Stuart families closer together and within a year of the wedding, Henriette did her duty and produced a daughter, Marie Louise. However, it was whispered that the baby was not Philippe’s but had in fact been fathered by either his brother Louis or one of his favourite boyfriends, the Comte de Guiche, who had had a brief affair with Henriette, much to the amusement of all the court who had been kept fully entertained by her husband’s tantrums when he learned of the double betrayal.

What of Louis XIV though? Clearly her magnificent cousin had got over his early dislike of her looks as soon after her marriage to his brother, he began to pay her such marked attention that it was generally believed that they were more than likely lovers or at least a bit in love with each other. There is a story that, frustrated with the scrutiny of the gossipy court and fed up with tantrums from Philippe and moralising from their respective scandalised mothers, they cooked up a scheme to deflect attention from their affair by pretending that he was paying court to her most humble lady in waiting Louise de la Vallière, only to have the plan go sadly awry for Henriette when Louis actually did fall for Louise, who was a shy, quiet blonde with a penchant for hero worship, martyrdom and flouncing away from court and declaring that she was going to become a nun whenever things didn’t go quite her way.

Charming, pretty, clever Henriette’s life was cut short at the age of twenty six when she died at Chantilly from what was believed at the time to be poison administered by her husband’s latest and most horrid boyfriend, the venal and beautiful Chevalier de Lorraine, but which was most probably peritonitis. One of her final actions was to help negotiate the Secret Treaty of Dover between Charles and Louis, which formed a controversial alliance between France and England.

She was much mourned at court and her funeral eulogy by Bossuet has gone down in history as one of the most dramatic and moving ever:

Ô nuit désastreuse ! ô nuit effroyable, où retentit tout à coup, comme un éclat de tonnerre, cette étonnante nouvelle : Madame se meurt ! Madame est morte ! Qui de nous ne se sentit frappé à ce coup, comme si quelque tragique accident avait désolé sa famille ? Au premier bruit d’un mal si étrange, on accourut à Saint-Cloud de toutes parts ; on trouve tout consterné, excepté le coeur de cette princesse. Partout on entend des cris ; partout on voit la douleur et le désespoir, et l’image de la mort. Le Roi, la Reine, Monsieur, toute la cour, tout le peuple, tout est abattu, tout est désespéré ; et il me semble que je vois l’accomplissement de cette parole du prophète : le roi pleurera, le prince sera désolé, et les mains tomberont au peuple de douleur et d’étonnement.’

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