On 25 November 1609, Henrietta Maria of France was born as the daughter of King Henry IV of France and Marie de’Medici. There were no great celebrations at her birth, though her father did not seem at all disappointed that she was a girl. She was immediately handed over to the care of Madame de Montglat, gouvernante of the royal children. Her first public appearance was six months later at the coronation of her mother. The day after her mother’s coronation, her father was assassinated in the street, and her brother became King Louis XIII of France.
Her early years were spent at the château of St Germain-en-Laye with her siblings. Her brother the King already had his own establishment. Henrietta Maria learnt to dance at an early age and was said to have had a good singing voice. She was taught to ride and learned all about the court protocol and etiquette. She was frequently present at family functions, such as the betrothal of her sister Elisabeth to the future King Philip IV of Spain. She was present too when her sister left not much later. In February 1619, she was present when her sister Christine married the Prince of Piedmont. And by that time, negotiations for her own marriage were underway. She was being seriously considered as a bride for her cousin Louis de Bourbon, Comte de Soissons. Yet, the idea of an English match was also in the air.
The first report to England on Henrietta Maria read, “I had not been there above an hour but the Queen and Madam (Henrietta Maria) hath seldom put on a more cheerful countenance than that night. There were some that told me I might guess at the cause of it. My Lord, I protest to God, she is a lovely, sweet, young creature. Her growth is not great yet, but her shape is perfect, and they all swear that her sister the Princess of Piedmont (who is now grown a tall and goodly lady) was not taller than she at her age.”
Her religion was a problem, but in the end, the marriage was agreed. Then suddenly came the news that Henrietta Maria’s fiance’s father, King James VI and I, had died. Her fiance was now King Charles I and just two months later, the proxy wedding took place. Henrietta Maria said goodbye to her mother on 16 June 1625 and received a letter from her, which she would often re-read. She met her future husband for the first time at Dover Castle, shortly after her arrival. We don’t know what to first reaction to each other was, but they spoke privately for an hour. However, they were off to a bad start as Charles could not see past Henrietta Maria’s behaviour, which he considered to be frivolous. She was not even 16 years old. Her first year as Queen and a Catholic Queen at that was not a happy year. The English Catholics were no better off, and she had not succeeded in becoming pregnant. She visited Wellingborough several times for its iron-rich springs. Then her husband’s favourite died, and she suddenly found herself at the centre of his attention.
On 15 March 1629, a happy announcement was made at last; Henrietta Maria’s first child was to be expected in the summer. However, just two months later Henrietta Maria fell backwards in a barge and went into premature labour. On 13 May, she gave birth to a boy ten weeks premature and he lived just long enough to be baptised. She took the loss with courage and wrote to her sister, “as to my loss, I wish to forget it.” By November, she was pregnant again and her mother sent her a beautiful chaise to take the air, so there would be little danger. In the early morning of 29 May 1630, she went into labour and by noon “was made the happy mother of a Prince of Wales (the future Charles II).” She gave birth to a daughter named Mary in the early hours of 4 November 1631, followed by another son (the future James II) on 14 October 1633, a daughter named Elizabeth on 29 December 1635, another daughter named Anne on 17 March 1637, a son named Henry on 8 July 1640 and finally another daughter named Henriette on 16 June 1644.
During Henrietta Maria’s childbearing years, England was changing rapidly. Different factions argued over religion and society and were becoming increasingly violent. By 1642, Henrietta Maria had become very unpopular. In February 1642, Henrietta Maria left for The Hague for her own safety, and she accompanied her daughter Mary to her new home, as she was to marry the Prince of Orange. Her sister-in-law, the widowed Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia, was living there as well. She intended to raise funds for her husband as well. It is unclear how much she eventually managed to raise and how much of that even made it back to England. She was worried about her children; Charles and James were with their father, but Elizabeth and Henry had been left behind and were in the hands of the parliament. The situation was moving towards war, and the First Civil War began that August.
Early in 1643, Henrietta Maria travelled to Scheveningen and attempted to cross to England. She feared nothing but God. “As to the rebels, neither their writings nor their threats shall ever make me do anything… much less shall they frighten me, – God being my guide and my safeguard.” Several of her ships were lost in a terrible storm but Henrietta Maria survived the terrible journey but was forced to turn back. She wasted very little time and attempted the journey again as soon as the ships were repaired. This time, she made it and met up with Charles.
The situation was nowhere near under control, and in 1644, despite the difficult circumstances, Henrietta Maria gave birth to her final child. The child was healthy, but Henrietta Maria was bedridden with a “seizure of paralysis in the legs and all over the body.” To make matters worse, an army was marching on Exeter, where Henrietta Maria was. She made up her mind to leave the country as quickly as possible. She left her baby with a trusted friend, Lady Dalkeith, and headed towards Falmouth, intending to go to France. On 9 July 1644, she wrote her husband a farewell letter. “If I die, believe that you will lose a person who has never been other than entirely yours.” She made it to France, just barely, and received medical care. She was installed in apartments in the Louvre and was granted her childhood home as a summer retreat.
The war was far from over and would continue for several more years, eventually ending with the execution of her husband on 30 January 1649. “I have lost a King, a husband and a friend, whose loss I can never sufficiently mourn, and this separation must render the rest of my life an endless suffering.” Luckily, most of her children managed to escape. Anne had died in childhood 1640. Elizabeth had been held imprisoned and died shortly after being granted permission to leave in 1650. Her youngest daughter Henrrieta had been brought over by Lady Dalkeith. Charles, James and Henry all made it safely. Mary was, of course, already in the Netherlands. They were now a family in exile, and they needed money most of all.
Henrietta Maria found solace in religion while in exile, and she also became devoted to her youngest daughter. She was surprised to find Louise Hollandine of the Palatinate, a daughter of the Queen of Bohemia, on her doorstep wanting to enter the Catholic church. She promised to care for her like she was her own child.
Following the restoration of monarchy, Henrietta Maria returned to England in October 1660 together with Henrietta. Her son was now King Charles II. The return to England was difficult and she broke down when she realised that she was near the spot where her husband had died. The joy at the restoration was blighted by the death of her son Henry and her daughter Mary of smallpox. The Queen of Bohemia wrote of Mary, “I shall never forget her memory. We lived almost 20 years together and always loved one another.”
The following year, Henrietta Maria returned to France with her youngest daughter who went on to marry her first cousin, Philippe I, Duke of Orléans. She returned to England in 1662 and intended to stay for the rest of her life, but her health became poor, and she returned to France. She was there to help her daughter through a miscarriage. Henrietta Maria began to suffer from bronchitis and was bled repeatedly. The day before she died, she took laudanum mixed with the yolk of an egg on the advice of a doctor, but he quickly realised he had given her too much. She died in the early hours of 10 September 1669 without regaining consciousness. She was given a state funeral, and she was buried in the royal vault and the Basilica of St. Denis. Her heart was removed and taken to Chaillot in a silver casket. 1