Throughout the 1630s, Queen Henrietta Maria’s mission to re-establish the Catholic faith in England looked increasingly successful. The decade saw numerous high-profile conversions, growing crowds around the new centres of legal Catholic worship in London, and a relaxing of penalties against Catholics.
But none of this activity went unnoticed by Puritan detractors. By the end of the decade, parliamentarian unrest increasingly targeted the queen’s influence on the king.
To help Charles I prepare for the possibility of war, Henrietta Maria sailed to the Continent to raise funds and gather an army. Her letters to Charles during this period confirm parliamentary suspicions: the queen was her husband’s most hardline counsellor. She repeatedly urged him to defend his Crown, his family and his people against the rebels, threatening that if he did not take stronger action she would retreat to a nunnery. Such strong terms were necessary. Charles’s military decisions during the first years of the 1640s were halting and uncertain, and he sometimes appeared ready to submit to his opponents’ demands.
In early 1643 Henrietta Maria returned to England, landing in the small port of Bridlington, midway between the parliamentary strongholds of Hull and Scarborough. She had with her an army of 1,000 men and 300 officers, 1,000 saddles, £80,000 in cash and suits of armour for 20,000 men. Royalist hopes surged with her arrival and a series of victories against the rebels followed. The queen herself came under fire shortly after her return. Waking in the night to the sound of shot circling the house where she slept, she ran outside and hid in a ditch until morning.
While she was dodging cannonballs in the north, her houses in London were being ransacked. One of the Capuchin friars attending Henrietta Maria reported that John Clotworthy MP entered the chapel at Somerset House, where he climbed on top of the altar table and looked at Rubens’s The Crucifixion in its gilt frame. “Calling for a halbert, he struck Christ’s face in contempt with such offensive words it would be shocking to repeat them. His second blow was at the Virgin’s face, with more hateful blasphemies, and then, thrusting the hook of his halbert under the feet of the Crucified Christ, he ripped the painting to pieces.”
Clotworthy and his men then smashed sculptures of the Virgin and Child, cut up the remaining paintings, set the books alight and took off with the vestments. The Capuchins were arrested and deported. All this was done because Parliament “was greatly incensed against [the queen] … without [whose] encouragement and aid the king would never have put himself in a position to resist”.
After a slow and perilous journey south to Oxford, the queen was reunited with Charles in 1643 and was soon pregnant with their ninth and final child. Shortly after the baby girl was born, the ailing and disconsolate queen returned to France to gather more money and soldiers. But by the middle of the decade, Cromwell’s New Model Army was frustrating Cavalier military endeavours and the royalists suffered a series of defeats.
When the king was finally captured his letters from the queen were seized and published widely. Here, finally, the rebels could claim proof of their suspicions that the queen had seduced the king “under the royal curtains … to advance the plots of the Catholics”. Under her influence, the king had begun to “pray unto the Lady Mary and be ruled by his little Queen Mary”, who had convinced him that to do so was not “idolatry, but the way to increase his Royal Off-spring”.
Too ill to return to England, Henrietta Maria instead worked for the royalist cause from France; but in 1649 Charles was executed. The queen never recovered from the loss. Aged 39, she retreated with her youngest child to the Carmelite convent of her youth. A number of sources attest that, were it not for her children, she would have remained in enclosed prayer for the rest of her life.
When Cromwell died and then, in 1661, Charles II was crowned, Henrietta Maria returned to England and re-established her court at Somerset House. The chapel was restored to its former glory and the Capuchin friars invited back, the confraternities of St Francis and the Virgin were reintroduced and the queen began commissioning new art and performance. This was a three-year period of great happiness for Henrietta Maria, but the English climate continued to aggravate her illness and her energy for politics was not what it had been.
She returned to France where, in the mid-1650s, she had established a House of the Visitation at Chaillot. The queen’s final years in this convent, living a semi-enclosed monastic life, attest to her abiding beliefs in the proper arrangement of a Christian court. In England, it was precisely this vision that had confirmed the queen’s popularity. A mother and an active political leader, Henrietta Maria had established a moral and aesthetic court culture in which the virtue of married chastity was celebrated privately through Marian piety and publicly in her extravagant court masques.
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