Editor’s Note: Today Queenanneboleyn.com celebrates with historian Leanda de Lisle the British release of her highly acclaimed biography White Charles I — Traitor, Murderer, Martyr. Below, enjoy Leanda’s brilliant account of the judgment of the British people of King Charles I’s compelling wife Queen Henrietta Maria of France, as well as other “foreign spouses” of the Royal Family — especially Prince Henry of Wales’ recent choice of life-partner, American Meghan Markle.
While at the website, do check out Queenanneboleyn’s recent interview with Leanda, as well as our review of White King, Charles I — Traitor, Murderer, Martyr both published for the October 31, 2017 American release.
In June 1625, a fifteen-year old girl stood on the shore at Boulogne, letting the waves lap her feet. Henrietta Maria was excited to be catching the ship that would take her to England as the consort of their king, Charles I. It is a haunting image of a carefree innocence, before she was brought to a new shore and to the judgment of the British people.
As Meghan Markle has already discovered, that judgment can be harsh. When Meghan’s relationship with Prince Harry first became public he felt forced to complain about ‘abuse and harassment’ ‘sexism and racism’. Friends of Meghan’s observe more circumspectly that it was disappointing to see her judged an outsider – as ‘other’. Racism was suspected, but we have one of the highest rates of interracial relationships in the world, with one in ten raised in mixed-race families. The focus on race underestimates the extent to which the ‘other’ is actually tied up with Meghan being American.
One newspaper complained last year that Meghan had failed a test on Britishness in a quiz for Dave TV. She had scored only four of fifteen points, proving unable to translate cockney rhyming slang (how many people can translate cockney rhyming slang, who don’t live inside Guy Ritchie’s imagination?), and choosing Vegemite over Marmite.
Although the United States is a friendly power, it also a great power, against which we can feel a little inadequate: a lot of people dislike Marmite, but choosing Vegemite over it risks offending our sense of national self-worth.
Meghan has already attempted to address this, announcing she is becoming a British citizen and even signing up to the Church of England. It won’t be enough. Prince Philip has complained that when he married the queen he was always treated as a foreigner, even though he had fought from Britain in the War. In the Spitting Image satire, which ran until 1996, he was still ‘Phil the Greek’, demanding to be served taramasalata. We must hope poor Meghan doesn’t feel she must be photographed eating jellied eels to gain our favour, or find it necessary to name her first child ‘Dave’.
But being seen as ‘other’ can have serious consequences, as it did for Henrietta Maria. And there are lessons in this past for Meghan.
The study of our history is like the psychoanalysis of a nation. There are past events, and false memories, stuff we have been told, absorbed and half-forgotten, that shape how we think now. Attitudes and prejudices have been hard-wired into us over hundreds of years creating patterns of thought we are not always aware of. Some relate to gender, others to our royal heritage.
Charles I’s queen proved to be a loyal wife after her arrival in England as his bride. A ‘lovely creature’ with ‘large, black eyes’ she fulfilled the principal duty of a queen consort, which was to produce male heirs, and so ensure there could a smooth transference of power on the death of the king. The entire purpose of the monarchy was to create a secure environment, in a pre-democratic age, that would keep harmony between subjects, and allows the exercise of justice, as well to foster national pride. It was a duty Charles I was destined to fail to live up to, and under his rule, England would fall into civil war.
Henrietta Maria gave up the comforts of life in a palace, to ride with an army against her husband’s enemies. No other spoilt princess of Europe faced the dangers she did in 1643 when she sheltered in ditches from shelf fire that blew men to pieces only yards away from her.
A cache of never previously published royal letters, kept under lock and kept at Belvoir castle, and to which I was granted the first full access, reveal the living voice of a woman described in France as a beauty who was every inch the child of the great warrior king Henri IV– and not just in courage. Like her father it was said, Henrietta Maria ‘had infinite wit and a brilliant mind’. Yet this is not how British history remembers her.
In common with Prince Harry’s mother Diana, Henrietta Maria was – and is – condemned for her girlish histrionics, while, at the same time, being depicted as an aged and hideous seductress, just as Camilla once was.
The first lesson from history is to grasp the persistent importance of that mysterious force – myth. Living as we do in a secular, post machine age, it is difficult to understand the working of story, but successful royal figures have always embodied a myth, one that helps to decide their significance in our lives. The story attached to Henrietta Maria was to be a story of division and threat. Positive myths, by contrast, reflect the purpose of monarchy, to promote national unity and pride.
Our current queen, as a survivor of World War II, and our longest ever reigning monarch, has come to embody a myth of national resilience and stability. She is a thread that runs through the fabric of our individual pasts and whether we are monarchists or republicans that has meaning.
Less is expected of a royal consort than of a monarch, but much is expected none-the-less, and these expectations are also rooted in a duty to bolster national self-esteem and harmony. The former means the British expect dignity in their royal consorts. We were horrified by the antics of the Duchess of York and her toe-sucking boyfriend, witnessed by the world’s press: Having her as a royal consort was being shown up at school by an embarrassing relation. But Fergie was never hated. She was never a divisive a figure – as Henrietta Maria was.
Unfortunately for the fifteen-year-old who arrived in England in 1625, Henrietta Maria was perceived not merely as foreign, but also as a child of the enemy. In Europe, a Protestant rebellion against the Catholic Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor had triggered the Thirty Years War and Britain’s fellow Protestants in Europe were losing. Although the Catholic French would join Protestant forces against the Habsburgs, Charles I’s political enemies missed no opportunity to associate his French-born wife with Protestant suffering.
This was less the fault of Henrietta Maria, however, than it was a consequence of the policies of her husband.
The post Reformation period had seen the development of new religious justifications for violence. Catholics justified overthrowing or killing Protestant monarchs, and Protestants justified overthrowing not only Catholics but also those they deemed the wrong kind of Protestant. Charles’s father King James, had responded with his famous theory of the Divine Right of Kings – that monarchs drew their right to rule from God and so only God had the right to overthrow them.
Charles I had proved to be a young king of energy and action. His was a cinematic imagination and he used the visual, a theatre of court ceremony, religious ritual and beauty to shape a socially deferential and hierarchical society appropriate to a divine right monarchy.
In English churches, parishioners had witnessed a move away from a stripped back form of Calvinist Protestantism, which focused on sermons and impromptu prayers, to ceremony and music. Some liked it. Others believed it threatened the Church of England’s Calvinist traditions – that it was the wrong kind of Protestantism. Meanwhile, successive military failures saw the fear of Catholic triumph becomes more acute.
A break down in trust between the King and his opponents in parliament led to him ruling without one for eleven years. Eventually, the split became the civil war, that saw more people die in England as a percentage of population than in the trenches of World War I. Charles would play for this failure with his head, executed in 1649 at the hands of his own subjects. But for much of this time, it was Henrietta Maria who was the more threatened.
To raise support for their side of the conflict, Charles’s opponents had ramped up fears of Catholics. A new fast-moving media of print deployed fake news and exaggerated accounts of atrocities against Protestants in Ireland, while Henrietta Maria was trolled as the Papist in Chief.
This was the starting point for the propaganda that shaped a reputation that remains in the eye of a storm of sexist tropes. And the attacks made on Henrietta Maria are recognizably the same as those used against royal consorts and all kinds of prominent women today.
In biographies of Henrietta Maria, it sometimes seems she is never allowed to grow up from the child bride of 1625. She is depicted as silly and petulant, a reflection of the belief, drawn from ancient Greece, that women are creatures of emotion, not reason. The word ‘hysteria’ comes from the Greek word hesterika for uterus, the source, supposedly of women’s extreme and uncontrollable mood swings.
Diana was said to be mad when she complained at her treatment at establishment hands, and every woman knows that to raise her voice in a formal argument is to risk being condemned as ‘strident’. David Cameron, as Prince Minister, reminded us of this danger when he asked the MP Angela Eagle in a debate of NHS reforms, to ‘calm down dear’.
Conversely, the childish Henrietta Maria also shares Camilla’s fate in being condemned as an old bag. In one work of history published this summer, (Benjamin Woolley’s The King’s Assassin), a remark about Henrietta Maria’s teeth ‘projecting from her mouth like javelins from a fortress’, made by an unfriendly relative in 1642, when she was aging and ill, is used to describe her as the girl in 1625.
And there are biblical roots to this kind of attack. It was a woman – Eve – who brought evil into the world by persuading Adam to bite from the apple, against God’s command. The message we have absorbed in that behind a seductive woman lies evil. So the face of the lovely girl morphs into the witch-crone.
In the narrative of Charles’s enemies, Henrietta Maria had supposedly persuaded him to become a Euro-Catholic-tyrant in Protestant, parliamentary, Britain. She had, in short, seduced him into evil and was the true ‘wearer of the breeches’.
The fact that Meghan is a few years older than Harry could one day also be used against her, with her age also used to suggest a power shift. Mme Macron, the older consort of the President of France, has been depicted as bossing around a husband in schoolboy short trousers. And Meghan has already had a taste of this in the newspaper columns of Boris Johnson’s sister, Rachel.
The impeccably upper-middle class, Johnson decreed that Meghan had failed her ‘Mum’ test. In this, she relegated Harry, who saw military service in Afghanistan, to the place of a vulnerable boy – and Meghan to a rather different role.
M. Johnson first made a misjudged attempt at flattery, describing how Meghan would ‘thicken’ the ‘watery, thin blue blood and Spencer pale skin and ginger hair’ with ‘rich and exotic DNA’. This was taken a poke at race, but it could also be seen as a coded reference to class: The blue blood of the aristocrat versus the dark skin of the field worker. She went on to warn Harry that Meghan is a ‘bolter’, a divorcee, later adding, after Harry attempted to defend Meghan, that his girlfriend she was ‘three year older than you, a TV star and a self described ‘brash American’ in no need of his gallantry. It seems Meghan too is a ‘wearer of the breeches’.
Harry imagines his actual mother, if she were still alive would ‘jumping up and down’ with excitement over his engagement – and indeed Diana would have had good reason to do so.
Prince William’s wife, the middle class Kate Middleton, is accepted rather than adored as the aristocratic Diana was, but this is not a matter of class. It is because Kate gives the impression she would rather be at home being a mum than out supporting her charities. Diana was loved for reaching out to those in pain, for seeming to know and understand suffering.
Meghan’s success will depend on her empathy, and her ability to bring people together. Here the stars are surely aligned, just as Harry says they were when he met Meghan.
Foreign-born consorts have been the norm in historical terms, and while some, like Henrietta Maria, have had the misfortunate to become political footballs, others have been embraced for their personal qualities and goodness. Meghan has long demonstrated a strong social conscience and has been described as a ‘true humanitarian’ by the charity campaigners she has worked with. In her warmth, and the happenstance of her mixed race and her marriage is the potential for a new royal myth, a symbol of unity between past and present, and between Britons of different heritage and race. She is a royal consort for our time.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Leanda de Lisle is a renowned journalist and historian who writes articles and book reviews for BBC History Magazine, History Today, the Literary Review, the New Criterion and the Spectator, as well as several national newspapers in the United Kingdom. Leanda’s first non-fiction book made a huge impression, a runner-up for the Saltire Society’s First Book of the Year award. Leanda’s latest book, Tudor; The Family Story (1437-1603), was a top ten bestseller in the United Kingdom and released in the United States, re-titled for an America audiences. Leanda’s highly anticipated newest biography White King, Charles I — Traitor, Murderer, Martyr releases today in the United Kingdom. Fittingly, Leanda lives near Bosworth Battlefield, Bosworth, England. For more information, visit Leanda’s website at LEANDA DE LISLE.