Henrietta Maria by Dominic Pearce

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Henrietta Maria by Dominic Pearce

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: Born a French Princess, Henrietta Maria, the uncrowned Queen Consort of King Charles I of Britain, had the misfortune to be a staunch Roman Catholic in Protestant England and a determined woman placed in a no-win situation at a time of severe differences between King and Parliament. This is a very authoritative account of her life and times from her troubled French childhood to the trauma of the English civil war, the unstable years of her brother and nephew on the French throne and the first uncertain years of Restoration England.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: November 2015
Publisher: Amberley
ISBN: 9781445645476

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The phrase 'tragic Queen' is an often overused one, but the French princess who became the second Stuart Queen Consort of Britain surely has as strong a claim as any to the title. In British history she was unique in that she not only lived to see her husband defeated in civil war, but also sentenced to death and in effect judicially murdered.

Born the daughter of King Henry IV of France, who was assassinated when he was only six months old, Henrietta Maria came to England at the age of fifteen as the bride of King Charles I. Her first few years in England were difficult; she was undermined by her greedy French entourage, and overwhelmed by the Pope with instructions to protect her fellow Roman Catholics in England, where they were still to some extent a persecuted minority. In addition she had to put up with interference, not to say bullying, from the Duke of Buckingham. The King's favourite courtier acted shamelessly as a barrier between husband and wife, and was not above reminding her rudely (yet ironically in view of subsequent history) that not long ago there had been Queens of England who had lost their heads. The Duke's murder three years later proved fortuitous, and it was no accident that she and King Charles became much closer once he was gone. On a personal level it would later prove a happy marriage, although as individuals they were increasingly overshadowed by national events. As a family, though, they had their share of tragedies, with two of their nine children stillborn and four more predeceasing her.

She never had a coronation, as being a stout defender of her Catholic beliefs prevented her from being crowned Queen in an Anglican service. Throughout her husband's reign she remained something of an outsider. She never learnt to speak or write English fluently, and because of religious issues she was seen by society as a subversive influence on her husband. As the breach widened between King and Parliament, she was accused of treason and threatened with impeachment. While she did not fear the possibility of execution, she realised that if certain people had their way she could be imprisoned, and foresaw that Charles would have to fight to keep his crown.

As a would-be political operator, her influence was sometimes to the good. During the controversies arising from his determination to enforce the new prayer book in Scotland by proclamation, she tried to persuade him that a peaceful compromise could be reached between both sides, but with his obstinacy and blind faith in the power of the crown he would not listen. However, as the author shows, during the civil war she did the royalist cause more harm than good when the King's coach was captured after the battle of Naseby. Her letters to him in which she outlined her plans for using foreign Catholic troops to invade England on their behalf were published, and thus became the ultimate gift of propaganda for the parliamentary cause.

Possibly convinced that Kings and Queens would survive, come what may, she seems to have been blind to the danger her husband faced. She was in France making plans to try and assist him and even return to England to be by his side, when he was put on trial for treason and beheaded. Shocked and bewildered by this turn of events, her health never really recovered. Yet in her last years she found solace in her religious faith, as well as the joy of seeing the monarchy restored under her eldest son, the birth of grandchildren, and a return to London.

As with any biography of a senior royal personage (we can hardly say 'crowned' in this case) of the age, the book is inevitably as much history as biography, with the civil war in England and to a lesser extent the Fronde or French conflicts, as well as the antagonism between France and Spain, dominating several pivotal years of her life. The author has drawn a sympathetic if not totally uncritical portrait of the woman who married into a foreign country at a time of religious strife, was controlled largely by Catholic forces from her homeland and found the role of loyalty to her husband's country too hard to sustain – and who paid the price.

As a result the reader is left with the feeling that although she made mistakes, she was placed in a no-win situation. Yet in the final analysis, the concluding chapter underlines the fact that if her religious mission was the promotion of Catholicism in England it failed, but if it was the protection of English Catholics, it largely succeeded during the peaceful years. The result is a very authoritative account of the Queen's life and times from her troubled French childhood to the trauma of the English civil war, the unstable years of her brother and nephew on the French throne and the first unsettled years of Restoration England.

For a biography of the Queen's nephew, Louis XIV of France, may we also recommend The Sun King by Nancy Mitford.

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Buy Henrietta Maria by Dominic Pearce at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Henrietta Maria by Dominic Pearce at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Henrietta Maria by Dominic Pearce at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Henrietta Maria by Dominic Pearce at Amazon.com.


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