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

11 June 2012

The marriage of Henrietta Maria and Charles I has gone down in history as one of the happiest and most lovey dovey romantic royal marriages ever but is the truth really as straightforward and misty eyed as all that? This is the premise of A Royal Passion: The Turbulent Marriage of Charles I and Henrietta Maria by Katie Whitaker.

In a nutshell: no. Okay, Charles and Henrietta Maria did have a sincere and at times very touching love for each other but it started badly with petty rows and misunderstandings on both sides that were transformed from mole hills into mountains by various court factions and ended with an enforced estrangement after Henrietta Maria was accused of high treason by Parliament and forced to flee home to France, leaving her husband to face his doom alone. However, if they had not found themselves in the midst of conflict and war during the 1640s would they have entered a blissful old age together?

Charles I, Henrietta Maria and the Prince of Wales, Gerritsz, 1632. Photo: Royal Collection.

I absolutely believe that they were devoted to each other but even in this rather sympathetic book Charles still sounds COMPLETELY annoying in an indecisive, weak willed and rather self righteous way while Henrietta Maria quite clearly wore the trousers in their relationship and appears to have been very often exasperated by him, while he seems to have found his French queen often frustratingly stubborn, unacceptably argumentative and often bigoted when it came to matters of religion. However, they managed to make the marriage work despite their differences and although the personalities of both were in part at least the catalyst for the English Civil War, I expect that without those years of conflict highlighting the flaws in both Charles’ ability to rule and Henrietta’s ability to compromise, they would have ended their days still very happy with each other.

Anyway, A Royal Passion is a great book and served as an excellent introduction to the issues that kicked off the start of war in 1642 as well as a behind the scenes overview of the royal marriage that despite its appearance of happiness seemed to cause so much trouble. I was often struck by similarities between the Stuart royal couple and their French descendant, Louis XVI and his Queen, Marie Antoinette – both couples were regarded to comprise a weak, vacillating King and his overbearing, politically meddling and inappropriately behaving foreign consort. As we know, both stories ended in remarkably similar ways – with emigres fleeing across the Channel for their lives; a beheaded King; imprisoned royal children separated from their parents and a Queen accused of high treason with, in the case of Marie Antoinette, tragic results.

Henrietta Maria, unknown artist, background by Hendrik van Steenwyck, c1635. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London.

I read the description of Henrietta Maria’s life in exile at the Louvre, Palais Royal, Chaillot and finally Colombes and wondered if that is how Marie Antoinette’s life would have ended if she had managed to escape Paris and perhaps venture across the Channel to England. A quiet life of regret, devotion and prayer spent permanently dressed in widow’s weeds, signing her letters as ‘La Reine Malheureuse’ and dividing her time between apartments in St James Palace or Hampton Court and a small country estate in Surrey or Essex. An idyllic life with a tang of bitterness.

If you’re expecting a full history of the English Civil War in this book then you’ll be disappointed as once the war kicks off in 1642 and Henrietta Maria leaves England for good, there are large and rather cliff hanger like breaks in the narration. Some may find this frustrating but I liked it as after all this is a study of their marriage, not the wars and once they were separated and in contact only via the medium of letters, there’s a danger of the marriage being pushed somewhat out of the picture by the dramatic events that overcame them.

Charles I, after Van Dyck, c1635-1637. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London.

Ultimately, this book made me dislike Charles I even more than I already did and somewhat dissipated my sympathy for Henrietta Maria. However, I would still wholeheartedly recommend it as a cracking read to anyone interested in the machinations behind the scenes of their court. It’s certainly given me a lot to think about as I write a novel from the point of view of their youngest daughter.

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