Why Minette?

30 June 2011

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 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.’

As I may have mentioned from time to time, my next novel is about the ravishing Henriette Anne, daughter of Charles I and Henriette Marie; sister of Charles II and early love and sister in law of Louis XIV. Poor Henriette, who was called Minette by her adoring brother, died on the 30th June 1670 at the age of twenty six. It was rumoured at the time that she had been poisoned, probably by her husband’s nasty boyfriend, the Chevalier de Lorraine but it’s more likely that she died of natural but untimely causes.

Henriette’s death plunged the court into mourning and devastated both her brother in law, Louis XIV and brother, Charles II, both of whom had adored her. In fact it has been said that Charles loved his Minette more than any other woman, which is quite an accolade when you think about it.

I’ve wanted to write about Henriette for a long time now, although I am slightly put off by Margaret Irwin’s Royal Flush, which is a rightly much loved and respected account of the dramas of her short but dazzling life. It’s quite amazing really – Henriette was born in Exeter on the 16th of June 1644 while her mother was on the run during the English Civil War (she would escape to France soon afterwards, leaving the baby princess in the care of her fiercely protective governess, Lady Morton – mother and daughter would not be reunited for two years) and would later be smuggled to France as a toddler. It’s said that the little princess was dressed in boy’s clothes for this adventure but was infuriated by this lese-majesté and insisted on informing everyone she encountered that she was not a boy after all but a princess!

Several things draw me to Henriette and make me keen to tell her story – the classic Cinderella rags to riches aspect to her story, the tragic Stuart dark sparkle that she appears to have had in spades and the fact that she was loved by the two most powerful and charismatic men of her time. After her escape to Paris, the princess lived in very straitened circumstances first in the Louvre then the Palais Royal with her mother, Henriette who was reduced to accepting an allowance from her French relatives, most of which she sent on to aid the war effort in England. They were 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.

Nonetheless, it was her mother’s wish that her youngest daughter, the final link with her husband that she was raising in Paris to be as much like herself as possible, should in time marry her cousin, Louis XIV but fond though Louis’ mother might be of her sister in law and niece, she had no wish to see her adored elder son marry into the Stuarts, a family of impoverished and unlucky exiles, whose prestige had never been lower. Not to mention the fact that she was more inclined to favour a match between her son and another cousin, her own blood niece, the Infanta Maria Teresa of Spain.

Ineligible though she may have been, Henriette was still much admired at the French court when she made her rare appearances there. Her talent at dancing and public speaking was much commented on and she was considered to be extremely pretty and elegant if a little too thin, with even Louis, normally so courteous but apparently feeling he might say whatever he liked about a little cousin, referring to her dismissively as ‘the bones of the Holy Innocents’ and, more crushingly, refusing to dance with her at a court ball, saying that ‘I do not like little girls’.

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 as his mother had planned, Henriette was instead betrothed to his younger brother Philippe, Duc d’Orléans, with her brother providing a more than satisfactory dowry of 840,000 Livres.

After a very brief honeymoon period, during which the couple seemed to be sincerely attached to each other, the marriage was predictably miserable. Henriette was desperate for love, romance and affection and her husband, who later admitted that he loved his wife for only a fortnight after their wedding, 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 Henriette, who was beginning to blossom into a beauty and was known at court as simply ‘Madame’.

Of course, this being the Cinderella princess, Louis was soon to eat his earlier words when the charm and prettiness of the little English princess, whose fortunes had been so much transformed won his heart.

If I wish myself at Saint Cloud it is not because of its grottoes or the freshness of its foliage. Here we have gardens fair enough to console us, but the company which is there now, is so good that I find myself furiously tempted to go there, and if I did not expect to see you here tomorrow, I do not know what I should do, and could not help making a journey to see you…‘ Louis XIV to Henriette, whose country seat was the Chateau de Saint Cloud.

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.

That they had a flirtation is clear, but no one will ever know just how far it went. What is clear though is that once his love for her had cooled, he remained very fond of Henriette and was sincerely distressed by her death.

The main purpose of the Orléans’ 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.

When Henriette died, Louis was just thirty two years old and in his prime: the building of his great palace at Versailles was underway, he was in thrall to Athénaïs de Montespan and his prestige both in France and abroad had never been higher. The death of Henriette, a girl that he had known since childhood must have shaken him terribly as it was the first passing on within the intimate circle of young people that he had created around himself.

We are told that the normally self controlled to the point of coldness Louis sobbed openly at her deathbed and pleaded with the doctors to save her life, despite the clear hopelessness of the situation. ‘Ah, do not weep, Sire, or you will make me weep too. You are losing a good servant who has always feared the loss of your good graces more than death itself,’ she said gently to Louis as she lay dying.

Much later on, Henriette’s granddaughter, Marie Adélaïde, would travel from her home in Savoy to Versailles to marry her cousin, Louis XIV’s grandson, the Duke de Bourgogne. Weirdly, both she and her mother would follow in Minette’s unfortunate footsteps and die at the sadly young age of twenty six. The Duchesse was mother of the future Louis XV, which means that thanks to Minette, Louis XV and his grandson, Louis XVI were both descended from Mary Queen of Scots and Charles I.

Minette, my novel about Henriette Anne, should be released sometime next year.

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