Although from everything we know about Queen Elizabeth II it seems unlikely that she is much given to ruminating about past monarchs, it is tempting to wonder if it has ever occurred to her that she occupies her
position because of Queen Henrietta Maria.
For if this French-born wife of King Charles I had not reintroduced Roman Catholicism into the Protestant Stuart royal family ruling over England and Scotland, there would have been no need for the Act of Settlement of 1701, which brought the direct ancestors of the current British royal family to the British throne in 1714. Were it not for that law, which still holds sway and forbids any Roman Catholic from reigning, the king sitting in London today would be a man in his mid-seventies known as Duke Franz of Bavaria, a direct descendent of Henrietta Maria.
Although he makes no claim to the British crown, to legitimists he is King Francis II and there is no doubt that by the normal standards of royal succession, his claim to being the rightful king of England, Scotland and Ireland is valid - more so than Elizabeth’s.
Lucy Whitaker shows that Henrietta Maria’s relationship with Charles I was indeed a passionate one, with a real connection on multiple levels between two living breathing human beings, but their marriage came about as part of a piece of cold, calculating realpolitik. In the 1620s, Protestant England was allied with Catholic Spain and Charles went to that country in search of a wife. But Spain demanded a revamping of English law to tolerate Roman Catholic practice, if not his outright conversion, as the price for one of their Infantas and so he played the French card, shaking up the balance of power in Europe.
France was Catholic, too, but in the wake of the Protestant Henry of Navarre’s becoming king in the previous century, he had gone back to Rome, saying cynically that Paris was worth the price of a Mass. But his Edict of Nantes in 1598 ushered in nearly a century of religious tolerance in France, with the Protestant Huguenots prospering and contributing a great deal to the burgeoning economy and other aspects of society in what was becoming Europe’s dominant power.
And so the more tolerant France was happy to offer up its princess and the pope gave her dispensation to marry an Anglican, hoping to put a bridgehead into the Stuarts. Over the two decades of their marriage, religious matters indeed frequently came between Charles and Henrietta Maria: She could not even be crowned alongside him in what had to be an Anglican ceremony.
Her biographer has a knack for clarifying the interlocking dynastic connections and indeed the whole very complicated history of those turbulent times as she guides the reader through palace corridor, parliamentary chamber and battlefield. How many people remember that there was not one conflict but two distinct civil wars in England in the 1640s or that there was another, quite separate one going on in France contemporaneously?
The story of Charles I’s execution has been told many times, but never better than here, and Ms. Whitaker certainly succeeds in her mission of fleshing out the character of her subject far beyond that well-known image of her captured in the many regal portraits of Sir Anthony Van Dyck.
“A Royal Passion” goes on to show the transformation of Henrietta Maria into sorrowing widow. She also had to deal with the loss of her daughter while the child was in the custody of the Parliamentarians who had just cut off Charles‘ head, to say nothing of the natural illnesses like plague and smallpox, which robbed her of another daughter. Still she survived exile and penury to return in some triumph to London, where she saw her son Charles II restored to his father’s throne.
But increasingly religious and reclusive, she eventually returned to France, dying there after years of retreat long before the Catholic sympathizer Charles was succeeded by her other surviving, fervently Roman Catholic, son, James II. And so came the Glorious Revolution, England’s Bill of Rights (the antecedent of our own), the United Kingdom itself and the Protestant succession that endures there today.
So Henrietta Maria’s story is not only interesting as a fascinating piece of history, but reaches down across the years to us in the 21st century. How many people realize that the state of Maryland is named for her? Or that the current British queen is not a descendent of hers, or of her husband and their two sons and three grandchildren who occupied the British throne for much of the latter half of the 17th century and well into the 18th? (Of all the Stuart monarchs whose dynasty ruled from 1603 to 1714, only James I (Henrietta Maria’s father-in-law is a direct antecedent of Elizabeth II).
If only she had converted back to her father Henry of Navarre’s original Protestantism, in a reversal of his assumption of Catholicism, then Jan Morris’ wickedly funny jest of alternative history would indeed have come to pass. Queen Elizabeth would be a minor German princess and the current Prince of Wales would now be living an obscure life in Germany as Prince Karl-Philip of Hanover: King Francis II would be reigning in London. They say one person can’t change history - Henrietta Maria certainly refutes that canard.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.