Henriette Marie of the Palatinate was born on the 17th of July 1626 as the ninth of the twelve children of Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia and her husband Frederick V, Elector Palatine and King of Bohemia. Henriette’s mother was the daughter of King James I of England and her father was the ruler of the Palatinate in modern day Germany. Henriette was named in honour of Henrietta Marie, the wife of her uncle King Charles I of England.
Henriette’s childhood was not that of a typical princess, however. She was born at her parents’ court in exile in The Hague, and her parents often struggled to feed and clothe their brood. Her father Frederick had accepted the crown of Bohemia in 1619, only to lose it less than a year later and along with it, his title of Elector Palatine, his lands and his family’s security. This devastating blow meant that the family were at the mercy of Frederick’s relatives in The Hague, banned from the Empire and relied on whatever money they could raise from supporters and Elizabeth’s family in England.
Henriette grew up with a group of her siblings in Leiden, where they were raised by tutors and governesses, rarely seeing their parents or older siblings. In 1638, at the age of twelve, Henriette left the nursery in Leiden to move to her mother’s court. With her mother Elizabeth being widowed six years earlier, the household was filled with women at this time. When Henriette arrived at her mother’s court, she was very quiet and did not compete with her sisters who seemed very smart and grown up to her. Her sister Elisabeth was an avid reader, and budding philosopher and her sister Louise was a very talented painter. Henriette contented herself with needlework and loved to make preserves; these hobbies kept her occupied during the difficult times her family faced in the following years. Henriette was said to be the beauty of the sisters and the flower of her mother’s flock; with her sister Sophia describing her as having a complexion ‘of lilies and roses’.
In 1647, Henriette left her mother’s court for a journey to Berlin with the Prince and Princess of Orange but fell gravely ill upon arriving. This illness almost cost Henriette her life, and everyone was surprised that she survived. Later that year, Henriette was still staying in Berlin and was spending time with her aunt the Dowager Electress of Brandenburg who became obsessed with the idea of organising a marriage for her niece as she had become very fond of her. Early in 1647 this seemed impossible, Henriette was without a dowry, and the future of her family lands was still uncertain, though treaty negotiations were underway. By late 1647, however it was clear that the restoration of the Palatinate to Henriette’s brother Charles was in sight, an event which finally took place in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia.
After almost a decade of negotiation, the Peace of Westphalia finally brought an end to the Thirty Years’ War. With the peace, came the restoration of Charles Louis, Henriette’s brother to the Electorate of the Palatinate. His territory was reduced, and a new electorate had to be created for him after the loss of the original title. However, his restoration meant that the family were again important Protestant rulers and released from an Imperial ban. It was not just Charles Louis that benefitted from the treaty; all of the children were compensated for the loss of the Upper Palatinate. The result of this was that the girls were offered 10,000 Thalers from the Emperor as a marriage portion, though the older girls were too old to marry by this point.
With the family restored to their true rank and a marriage portion provided, Henriette’s aunt the Dowager Electress could now go ahead with her scheme. A fantastic match said to be ‘the richest and most desirable amongst all the Protestants’ was found for Henriette. The potential groom was Prince Siegmund of Siebenbürgen, who was second in line to the Transylvanian throne and had a castle and large household staff of his own. The twenty-seven-year-old prince had already received portraits from a number of women from more stable and affluent families but was besotted with Henriette when he set eyes on the beautiful Gerard van Honthorst painting of her which had been sent to him. After receiving the portrait, marriage negotiations were immediately started.
When Henriette overheard the marriage plans between the Dowager Electress and the Transylvanian emissaries she burst into tears, she was not used to such attention and was terrified of being sent so far away from home. She knew though that the marriage was best for the family and so did not refuse, but she commented ‘were it not so far off it would be in my opinion an excellent thing’. Henriette was told that she would always be wealthy in her new home but replied that she would not wish to move far from her relations for money and said ‘besides I am used to doing with little’. By this stage, however, plans were well under way, and Henriette began to soften to the idea when Siegmund sent her love letters and presents which included a diamond set watch. The negotiations only went on for so long because of issues of who would pay for the wedding itself, with Charles Louis refusing the funds and Henriette’s mother being penniless.
Henriette’s sister pleaded with her brother for funds to cover at least Henriette’s clothing so she may ‘appear among strangers without shame’. Eventually, Charles gave some of the money, and the Queen of Bohemia provided a new carriage for the journey, but most of the costs fell to Henriette’s aunt Elizabeth the Dowager Electress of Brandenburg. Princess Elizabeth used the meagre funds to put together her sister’s trousseau, for which she sourced the materials as cheaply as possible. A dress of silver thread was provided for Henriette’s wedding dress, which befitted her rank. Other than this, Henriette would leave home with just five more dresses and a small number of undergarments and nightgowns.
The wedding finally came around in May 1651, and the marriage took place by proxy as the groom was so far away in Transylvania. The marriage ceremony between Henriette and the proxy groom took place on 15th May, after days of feasting and celebrations. Following the ceremony, Henriette stepped into the carriage provided by her mother, taking with her the wardrobe sourced by her sister and gifts of a silver basin and candelabras from her aunt. In floods of tears, she waved goodbye to her family and made her way to meet her new husband.
Henriette’s family eagerly awaited news of her new life and were relieved when positive letters began to arrive. Henriette wrote of the kindness showed to her by her mother-in-law and that her husband was a very loving man. She even wrote about being given a traditional Hungarian dress which she felt very pretty in. Her only sadness was that she missed her family and wished they could meet her new husband.
Months after the wedding, the family decided to travel to the Rakoczy country estate for the summer and Henriette went along. As with her travels to Berlin many years earlier, Henriette fell ill and was sent back to Saraspatak by her mother-in-law to recuperate and to visit the spas. In August 1651, Henriette wrote to her brother about how much her husband loved her but wrote that she could scarcely stand up due to illness and had to cut the letter short. Sadly, this was the last letter in Henriette’s hand that made it home.
The next letter from Transylvania was a letter from Prince Siegmund to the Queen of Bohemia which was sealed with a black seal. The letter explained that Henriette had passed away on the 18th of September, probably of a bacterial infection, the Prince wrote that “I hold my life for nothing worth” since the death of Henriette. The Princess had spent her final weeks far from the ones she loved and died in a strange land, followed to the grave only six months later by her heartbroken husband who died of a fever. Henriette was just twenty-five when her life came to a close.1