Detail from a portrait of Henrietta Anne Stuart, Duchesse d’Orléans, French school, c1665. Photo: Royal Collection.
“My poor little mother was on the run from Parliament’s forces when I was born. Sickly, exhausted, frantic about the fate of her husband and other children and massively pregnant, she was forced to seek refuge in the west country city of Exeter and gave birth to me there in a rickety little house close to the centre of town. Mam was so thin and unwell that she fully expected to die in childbirth and in her despair and anxiety even wrote a will and instructions for her burial in Exeter Cathedral.
She was also worried sick about the coming baby for I was born a month too soon and was very small, silent and weak when I eventually made my precipitous appearance on a bright June morning eleven years ago. However, to Mam’s surprise and profound relief, we both survived the hideous ordeal of my birth and all was well for a time.
‘I knew that you would be the last of my children,’ she told me once, her dark eyes staring intently into my own. ‘My enfant de bénédiction and little good luck charm. It seemed incredible to me that we should both have survived despite all the odds being against us and in a way that made you all the more mine in a way that your brothers and sisters could never be.’
Mam’s happiness was to be short lived though as when I was just a few weeks old, the advancement of Cromwell’s troops meant that she had to pack up her things and leave again to seek safety with her own family in France. She wanted to take me with her but due to my small size and feebleness, she was reluctantly persuaded to leave me behind with my governess and nurses in Exeter. There I remained, safe and snug in my borrowed wooden crib and with no idea that my mother had been forced to disguise herself and creep away in the dead of the night and that Cromwell’s troops were preparing to lay siege to the city.
Too late to help his wife, my father arrived in Exeter a month later and insisted upon having me baptised in the nave of the beautiful cathedral in front of a small crowd of loyal witnesses. My name was to be Henrietta in honour of my poor Mam. He stayed just a few more days before he too had to leave like a thief in the night to rejoin his armies. I never saw him again.
When I was reunited with my mother in Paris two years later, she paid for several Masses to be said in honour of my safe arrival. She also gave me a new name: ‘Henrietta-Anne’, to honour Tante Anne and thank her for her great kindness to we poor exiles. I’ve been Henrietta-Anne ever since, although very few people call me that. It hardly trips off the tongue, does it.” — excerpt from my novel Minette.
Henrietta Anne, Duchesse d’Orléans, Mignard, c1665. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London.
My heroine, Henrietta Anne Stuart was born on this day in the nearby West Country city of Exeter, while her mother was on the run from the Parliamentary forces. The year was 1644 and the English Civil War, which would eventually claim the heads of Henrietta Anne’s father, Charles I and send most of her family into exile on the continent, was in full and deadly swing.
Whereas the new little princess’ brothers and sisters had been born amidst the luxurious surroundings of their parents’ palaces and the oppressive court ceremonial that usually attended the arrival of a new royal baby and potential heir to the throne, Henrietta was born in the relatively humble Bedford House in the centre of Exeter, which although the most prestigious address in the city could hardly compare with the likes of St James’ Palace where most of her siblings had been born or even Oatlands where her brother Henry, the one closest to her in age had made his debut four years earlier.
Henrietta Anne, Duchesse d’Orléans, Lely, c1662. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London.
It was an inauspicious beginning to what was to be a dramatic and rather curious life that took Henrietta to Paris via an exciting midnight flit with her courageous governess, Lady Dalkeith and then an impoverished life as the poor exiled cousin on the fringes of her first cousin Louis XIV’s court until her brother, Charles II was restored to his throne and the Stuart family with all their dark glitter and bad luck had another dramatic upswing to their fortunes.
I wrote about Henrietta Anne’s life as an exile in my novel Minette and don’t mind admitting that I fell over heels in love with her as I wrote. I’d always had more than a smidge of a crush anyway but I was her most hopelessly devoted fan girl by the time I’d finished writing the book. By the time the sequel, Madame, comes out (hopefully next year!) I expect I’ll be a totally lost cause.
Henrietta Anne, Duchesse d’Orléans, Nocret, c1662. Photo: Scottish National Portrait Gallery, London/Melanie Clegg.
Anyway, happy birthday Minette and thanks for all the happy times writing about you! Here’s to lots more!
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