A Stuart royal wedding, 2nd May 1641

2 May 2012

Princess Mary Stuart and Prince William of Orange, Van Dyck. Photo: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

I’ll admit it, writing historical fiction CAN be a bit of a slog at times no matter how much you love the past in general and the topic you’ve latched onto in particular. However, there are odd moments of pure joy to be had such as the times when you research a historical event and discover that it happened on the exact same date only hundreds of years ago. I love that.

Today’s serendipity comes courtesy of the wedding of Princess Mary Henrietta Stuart, the eldest daughter of Charles I and William of Orange which took place in the Chapel Royal at Whitehall on Sunday 2nd of May back in 1641.

I’m really fond of Mary as she sounds like she was quite a character (I’ve given her the idiom of Nancy Mitford’s Linda Radlett in my novel about her youngest sister, Henrietta Anne) and she was also the subject of some of my favourite portraits by Anthony Van Dyke.

What could be more charming than his portrait of Mary and William, painted together in 1641 to mark their wedding?

Princess Mary of England, Van Dyck. Photo: Historic Royal Palaces.

I also love this portrait of Mary aged about six, which was painted in 1637. It was one of her father Charles I’s favourite paintings (a big deal as he is rightly considered to be one of the greatest collectors of art this country has ever seen) and he hung it in pride of place in his rooms at Hampton Court Palace while under house arrest during the English Civil War. When he made his ill fated escape to the Isle of Wight he left behind instructions that ‘the Originall of My Eldest Daughter [which] hangs in this chamber over the board next the Chimney which you must send to my Lady Aubigny‘. I’ll talk about the beauteous and dashing Lady d’Aubigny later as she’s a BIG HEROINE of mine but suffice to say for now that she took the canvas away with her to the Hague where it was reunited with Mary.

The portrait came into the hands of the great and much lamented art historian Oliver Millar many years later and was recently accepted by the state in lieu of death duties when he died. It’s now hanging back in Hampton Court Palace again, where it hangs in the former apartments of her son, William III. Isn’t art history great.

Princess Mary Stuart and Prince William of Orange, Honthorst, 1647. Photo: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Back to the royal wedding of 1641, which seems to have had plenty of the drama that all weddings manage to engender. In this case, the bride’s mother, Henrietta Maria was a bit narked that her eldest daughter was being married off to a relatively obscure Dutch princeling, while her father would have preferred her to be married to her cousin, the son of the King of Spain. To add further complications, their nephew, the Prince Palatine, who sounds like a most unpleasant chap and who had none of the famous charm of his mother, Elizabeth of Bohemia or other siblings (which included the heavenly but rather grumpy Prince Rupert), rolled up in the country in a right old sulk because he thought the Princess Mary had been promised to him.

Princess Mary Stuart. Photo: Royal Collection.

Oh dear. Vivacious Mary herself was nine at the time and appears to have seen nothing wrong with her fifteen year old suitor, who was pretty good looking for a prince if a bit quiet. She was escorted down the aisle of the Chapel Royal by her brothers Charles and James and followed by her watchful governess and an ostentatious troupe of sixteen aristocratic bridesmaids. Her father waited by the altar to give her away, while her mother, sister Princess Elizabeth and grandmother, Marie de Medici watched from behind a curtain at the side.

Mary may well have worn the dress in her wedding portrait by Van Dyke as we are told that it was made of silver tissue embroidered with pearls.

Princess Mary Stuart, Van Dyck, 1641. Photo: Private Collection.

The service was the simple and touching and was followed by a family dinner party before they all walked out to Hyde Park to take the air together and show themselves to the people. Whereas most royal weddings at this time were elaborate affairs with masques, banquets and all sorts of expensive fuss, that of Princess Mary had none of this as the mood in the capital was becoming increasingly sour as the country slid further into rebellion and then war. In fact, Mary’s wedding was to be one of the very last celebrations to be held at the court of Charles I.

That evening, the couple were ceremoniously ‘bedded’ together in the Queen’s state bedchamber at Whitehall. There was all the usual ribaldry although probably tempered by the age of the bride and the presence of her parents who don’t seem to have gone in for the crude japes that had been so popular in the days of her grandparents, James I and Anne of Denmark. William very chastely kissed his bride and then lay beside her on the bed. Court etiquette at the time, which was no stranger to the marriage of children, dictated that the marriage could be considered consummated if their bare legs touched and so Henrietta Maria’s dwarf, Geoffrey Hudson stepped forward with a pair of shears and obligingly ripped the Princess’ nightdress up to the knee. How peculiar.

Princess Mary Stuart, Adriaen Hanneman, 1655.

The marriage was not to be properly consummated for several years but Henrietta Maria travelled with her daughter to the Hague the following year so that she could take up residence with her young husband. We are told that as the Princess and her mother sailed from Dover, Charles I rode along the cliff’s edge on his stallion and waved his feathered hat in farewell to his beloved daughter. They were never to see each other again.

Further reading:

Henrietta Maria: Charles I’s Indomitable Queen

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

Also, I’m currently gripped by the Dorling Kindersley History Quiz. I really should be writing but there’s loads of them, covering pretty much every bit of history you can think of!

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