by Linda Porter
Macmillan 448pp £20
Linda Porter’s lively and engaging study begins with the first meeting between Charles I and his Bourbon bride Henrietta Maria, youngest daughter of the formidable Marie de Medici.
After a year of marriage, the queen still spoke no English. Staunchly Catholic, Henrietta Maria refused to attend her husband’s coronation or to be crowned herself by a Protestant archbishop. Battle lines were drawn and it was only after Charles’ favourite, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, was assassinated that a distraught monarch and his young wife finally bonded and were thereafter ‘inseparable’, albeit not physically, as they spent many years apart.
Henrietta Maria was 19 when her first child was born prematurely and died within hours in May 1629. This event was set against the king’s ongoing battle with Parliament over who should ultimately rule the country. Their eldest surviving son – the future Charles II – was born a year later to much rejoicing. Sister Mary was born 18 months after that, to be followed by James, Duke of York, in 1633 and Elizabeth in 1635. Another daughter was born in 1639 but died after a few hours. The year 1640 was a significant one politically and personally, as rebellious Scots invaded northern England, Henry, Duke of Gloucester was born and their middle daughter, Anne, died. The royal children are at the heart of Porter’s book.
Childhood does not last long when you are a princess and Mary was married to the 15-year-old Protestant Prince William of Orange at the age of nine, although it was arranged for her to remain in England until she was 12. In the event, Mary was forced by circumstances to embark for the Netherlands when still just 11, a journey that provided a degree of cover for her mother’s fundraising efforts. Porter presents the self-styled ‘Generalissima’ as working tirelessly to raise money to support her husband’s military campaigns. While Henrietta Maria’s letters show her to be frequently critical of her husband, she shared Charles’ belief in the divine right of kings and held the English system of government in contempt.
The last of the children – the girl later known as Henriette Anne or ‘Minette’ – was born in June 1644, while her mother was in exile in Exeter. A month after the birth, the queen left the baby and fled in disguise to Brittany with a handful of companions, including her confessor, one lady-in-waiting and the dwarf Jeffrey Hudson, a loyal attendant for many years.
Aged two, Henriette Anne was dressed as a boy and smuggled to France. By now, the king had left his base in Oxford in the guise of a servant, heading for London, then Norfolk and the Scottish camp. After further bungled escapes, Charles was held for over a year in Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, where he waited in vain for the Scots to invade England and save him.
Disguise and flight are constant themes and Parliament’s decision in 1648 to force Charles I to abdicate was the cue for James, Duke of York, to flee from St James’s Palace. He did this during a game of hide and seek with the aid of his sister Elizabeth and a supporter named Anne Murray, who arranged for a dress to be made for him. The boy gave himself away to the bargemaster by hitching up his frock to rearrange the garters on his stockings. Despite this glitch, James made it across to the Netherlands, where his sister Mary was waiting to greet him. His elder brother was already in France, ‘enduring his mother’s marital schemes’. Despite being impeached for high treason in 1643, Henrietta Maria hoped to agree a politically advantageous marriage between the prince of Wales and her niece ‘La Grande Mademoiselle’, Anne de Montpensier. It was not to be.
The final third of the book covers the years following Charles’ execution. Porter describes the king’s ‘harrowing and deeply affecting parting’ from the two younger children, who remained in England. The princess Elizabeth was to die a few months later in Carisbrooke Castle. Young Henry remained there for a further two and a half years before being despatched to France, where his mother attempted to convert him to Catholicism to the great anxiety of Charles II and his supporters. When Henry refused to bend, his mother threw him out. Henrietta Maria emerges as tough and controlling, at one time withdrawing money from James and forcing his household to go without food and heating when her son’s actions displeased her.
What follows is the well-known, though no less fascinating, story of the new Charles II hiding in an oak tree then escaping disguised as a manservant. After the death of Cromwell and the failure of his son Richard as Lord Protector, Charles II eventually returned to England in May 1660 with brothers James and Henry. Their happiness was short-lived: Henry succumbed to smallpox in September and Mary died on Christmas Eve.
The penultimate chapter is devoted to Minette, who was married to Louis XIV’s younger brother, Philippe, Duke of Anjou. The descriptions of Monsieur’s homosexual affairs and Madame’s scandalous closeness to her brother-in-law offer a glimpse of the glamorous French court. The book ends with an ‘Epilogue’ devoted to the death of Charles II in 1685 and the accession of his brother. James II’s optimistic Catholicism led to religious intolerance once again raising its ugly head and rebellion in Scotland and the west of England followed. With the country against him, James departed for France and his nephew and son-in-law, William of Orange, became king of England.
Porter deftly weaves together the key political events from a 60-year period with the turbulent lives of some of its youngest royal players. As the book reminds us, having royal blood offers scant protection from the turmoil of war.