The escape of Princess Henrietta

25 November 2011

The Henrietta part of my next book opens with the escape of the three year old Princess Henrietta Stuart from the clutches of Parliament. It’s an astonishing tale really, that I thought I would summarise here for you all while my head is still full of it all!

The Princess Henrietta was born on the 16th June 1644 in Exeter, while her mother Henrietta Maria was on the run from Parliament’s forces. The ailing beleaguered Queen travelled from the temporary royal court at Oxford to Exeter, where she intended to seek the protection of the loyal Sir John Berkeley, Governor of Exeter. She arrived in the city on the 1st May and was there for just over a month before she gave birth to a frail baby daughter.

Henrietta had barely recovered from childbirth before she was forced to leave her infant daughter in the care of the incredibly loyal Lady Dalkeith (Anne Villiers, aunt of the more famous Barbara Villiers, Countess Castlemaine) and continue on her way to Falmouth, from whence she boarded a ship to her exile in France. The unfortunate Queen probably had no idea at this time that she would never see her husband, Charles I ever again.

The daughter she had left behind was to meet her father just once when he fought his way to Exeter and entered the city on the 26th July, when she was just over a month old and had only a few days earlier been christened in beautiful Exeter Cathedral. He immediately hastened to Bedford House in the city where his youngest child was being cared for and embraced her tenderly. Whatever their faults as monarchs, the deep love that Charles and Henrietta Maria had for their children cannot be disputed.

Princess Henrietta remained in Exeter for almost two years until Sir John Berkeley, loyal to the end, was forced to surrender to Parliament on the 13th April 1646 and himself escorted the Princess and her rather winsome governess, Lady Dalkeith, whom he was rather in love with, to Salisbury. Parliament then decided to assert their assumed authority over the persons of the three royal children left behind in England and insisted that she be taken to Oatlands, a royal residence in Surrey.

The Stuart royal children were not treated badly (unlike, for instance, the children of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in a similar situation) but were comfortably housed in royal residences, allowed reasonably sized households and given an allowance to pay for their wants and household expenses. However, in the case of Henrietta, although she was comfortably housed at Oatlands, the allowance promised by Parliament failed to materialise and the already harassed Lady Dalkeith found herself obliged to support them all for three long months.

Like the governess of Princess Elizabeth in the past century, she sent a series of unhappy letters to the authorities, outlining the expenses that the little girl’s upkeep was incurring and demanding assistance until finally Parliament, evidently deciding that a two year old didn’t really require a household entirely to herself, ordained that she should be moved to St James Palace in London, there to share the household of her elder brother Henry and sister, Elizabeth, while Lady Dalkeith would be dismissed from her post.

However, before Henrietta Maria departed for France, her daughter’s governess had promised the Queen that she would never leave the side of her young charge and would personally watch over her until she was able to reunite her with her parents again. This was a promise that Lady Dalkeith was determined to keep, no matter what the cost.

A plot was hatched, probably by Milady, the ever faithful Sir John Berkeley and Charles I’s nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine who paid a visit to Oatlands that summer while en route for France himself. It’s said that many years later, when Charles II was restored to his throne and Princess Henrietta was able to return to England once again, Prince Rupert (who was twenty five years her senior but almost certainly still hot stuff) asked her to marry him and thus be able to remain with her family rather than return to France and the now inevitable betrothal to her other cousin, Philippe, Duc d’Orléans.

On the night of the 24th July 1646, Lady Dalkeith dressed herself as a beggar woman (complete with a roll of fabric stuffed beneath her dress to mimic a hunched back!) woke up her sleeping charge and dressed her as a beggar boy, while a faithful valet, Thomas Lambert dressed up to pretend to be the father of the little party and a maid, Elinor Dyke accompanied them, probably to help with the Princess. They set out on foot, with the Princess Henrietta being carried on Lady Dalkeith’s shoulders.

It seems that they walked the entire 95 mile distance between Oatlands and Dover, with Lady Dalkeith carrying the Princess the entire time and Sir John, also in disguise, walking a few leagues behind her so that he could keep them always in sight and be able to assist them should the need arise. I’ve just looked on Google Maps and, frankly, I’m astonished by this story as this is no mean distance – walking non stop as according to Google, it would take approximately 1 day and 6 hours to get to the coast.

Princess Henrietta, who seems to have been a bit of a chatterbox, didn’t really help matters either by furiously informing everyone that they met on the way that ‘I am not a boy, but a Princess!’ Awkward.

Nonetheless, they reached Dover without incident (Lady Dalkeith having sent a letter to the household at Oatlands asking for their help – they then proceeded to not tell Parliament that the youngest Stuart had escaped their clutches until three days after her departure) and then travelled on to Calais. Lady Dalkeith wrote to Henrietta Maria as soon as they arrived on French soil and a carriage was immediately despatched from St Germain to pick them up and bring them to safety.

It’s said that almost as soon as Lady Dalkeith had handed the Princess to her mother, who hadn’t seen her since she was two weeks old, she then promptly collapsed and then was seriously ill for several weeks as a result of her epic walk across southern England.

An eye witness wrote of the royal reunion that: ‘Intelligence of the whole affair was despatched to the Queen, who quickly sent her carriages; and the governess with all her train reached Paris safely, and respectfully placed in the hands of her majesty the precious deposit, which she had so happily preserved amidst so many awful dangers. Oh the transports of joy, oh the excessive consolation to the heart of the Queen. She embraced, she hugged and kissed again and again he royal infant.

For his part, Charles I, who remained at war in England, was delighted to hear that his youngest child was now in safety while the tale of how the English princess Henrietta was to become a favourite royal story for a long time to come. As the English Ambassador to Paris wrote in his official despatch on the 17th August, shortly after Henrietta’s arrival: ‘The manner of Lady Dalkeith’s bringing her Highness away from Oatlands is a pretty romance‘.

I’d like to make a note here about Oatlands, the royal palace where this romantic escape began as I spent rather a lot of yesterday afternoon researching it (Can the Thames be seen from windows? Is there a gatehouse? Where were the kitchens?That sort of thing.) and getting a bit upset because it can’t be visited any more. It was acquired and extensively remodelled by Henry VIII in 1538 before he married Anne of Cleves but then remained a favourite royal residence after this unhappy event – in fact he married his next wife, Catherine Howard there on the 28th of July 1540 so it was a place of happy memories. For a while at least…

Oatlands appears many times in the history of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs who loved to improve it with an archway by Inigo Jones and gardens designed by the great Tradescant. In fact, you can see it in all of its splendour in the background of this sumptuous painting of Anne of Denmark, the wife of James I of England and grandmother of little Princess Henrietta.

But where is it now? I hear you ask. Oh dear. Well, sadly the original palace was burned down in 1794 and replaced with a hideous mock Tudor monstrosity (I’m thinking the Brighton Pavillion, except with turrets) before gradually falling into a decline once it had passed out of royal hands (the eccentric Frederica, Duchess of York lived there for a while with her extensive menagerie of animals).

Nowadays, a few parts of the palace remain, such as a carriageway and a conduit but the majority of the palace where Henry VIII married Catherine Howard, Kings and Queens frolicked and a tiny Princess escaped in the dead of night now lies beneath an ugly modern housing estate…

Sic transit gloria mundi.

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