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The upcoming exhibition that can save us from Tudor mania

The National Portrait Gallery, St Martins Place, London (PA)

Cornelius Johnson is not a household name, and I confess that I had never heard of him, until just now. A contemporary of van Dyke, he was court painter to the unfortunate Charles I, and is soon to be the subject of an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, as one can read here. This will give us a chance to see the portraits that Johnson produced of the children of Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria.

Charles I and his Queen, were, by the standards of British royalties, very fortunate in their fertility. That excellent and invaluable handbook, Britain’s Royal Families, by Alison Weir, confirms that they had nine children in all, of whom three, a boy and two girls, died as babies. Of the remaining six, two succeeded to the throne, as Charles II and James II, and the very youngest, Henriette, married the Duke of Orleans, younger brother of Louis XIV of France, and had issue (from whom the only legitimate descendants of Charles I alive today come). There was also Mary, who married the Prince of Orange and became mother of an English king, William III. Two other children who died young, Elizabeth, at the age of 15, as a prisoner of the Commonwealth on the Isle of Wight, and Henry, Duke of Gloucester at the age of 20, shortly after the Restoration. If these last two had lived to have children of their own, the history of Britain might have been very different.

The exhibition will include pictures of some of these children, rather melancholy works, one assumes, for one will not be able to look at them without thinking of the dire misfortunes that were to befall their parents, and themselves: imprisonment, exile, death. Charles II, painted as a child, as we see from the link above, was, even as a little boy, showing promise of becoming the “long black man, two yards high”, as the Commonwealth described him when he was a wanted man after the Battle of Worcester. As pictures of the King in later life show, he was of markedly different appearance to his brother James, and his own father too. Though not conventionally handsome, he was clearly wildly charming, as the long string of his conquests attests. Not only was Charles rather different in physical type to the other Stuarts, he also had the distinction of being politically successful. Indeed, he can fairly claim to be our most successful king, just as his father and his brother, both of whom lost the throne, can claim to be our least successful monarchs.

The explanation for this is perhaps to be found in his ancestry. His mother was Henrietta Maria of France, which means that his maternal grandparents were Henri IV, the great French king, and Marie de Medici, of the Florentine ruling (but formerly banking) dynasty. Marie was in fact a sprig of the junior branch of the Medici (the senior branch had come to an end with that other French Queen Catherine de Medici), but she was descended from the famous soldier of fortune Giovanni delle Bande Nere who was the subject of a prize winning and very good Italian film. Through his Medici grandmother, Charles II was related to most of the major players in Renaissance Italy.

Does heredity mean anything? Did the Medici genes, predominant in Charles II, make him the great man he was? Many people, I am sure, would dismiss any such theorising with a snort of contempt, but it is an attractive idea. And perhaps it goes a little way to explaining why Charles, on his deathbed, embraced Catholicism. But for that one does not have to go all the way back to Renaissance Italy in search of Catholic roots. Of Charles’ four grandparents, three were Catholic: two by conversion (Henri IV of France and Anne of Denmark, Queen of England),and another from birth, Marie de Medici.

The upcoming exhibition will, one hopes, throw new light on Caroline England, which is a good thing in itself, and a welcome antidote perhaps to Tudor-mania. And it will, by bringing the personages of the age to life, remind us that 150 years after the Reformation the question of religion in England and Scotland was by no means settled.