Review: Henrietta Maria: Conspirator, Warrior, Phoenix Queen

This new biography by Leanda De Lisle is due to be published on the 4th August in the UK with Chatto & Windus and in the US on 6th September with Pegasus Books (2022)

  • Review by Katie Marshall 
UK Cover: Henrietta Maria, Conspirator, Warrior, Phoenix Queen by historian Leanda De Lisle

It is often difficult to hear and truly understand women who lived over 400 years ago, even in the case of royal women who were once among the most discussed figures of their time. With a level of power and influence which meant they defied the contemporary expectations of their sex, the true characters of these royal daughters, sisters, wives and mothers are too often so heavily clouded by slander and myth that we, in the 21st Century, face the challenge of trying to capture snapshots of what kind of person they really were. Many remain as divisive today as they were in their own time. In her newest biography, Leanda de Lisle takes on the story of one such royal woman. Henrietta Maria was at the heart of among the most dramatic and uncertain moments in England’s history, and rose anew from the ashes as the ‘Phoenix Queen’ upon the accession of her son Charles II in 1660. In this, her newest book, De Lisle builds on the events of her highly-acclaimed ‘White King’ (2018) praised by many as the definitive modern work on King Charles I.  But this time De Lisle reshapes the narrative, instead telling events from Henrietta Maria’s perspective, as the royal who, unlike her husband, escaped losing her head to the parliamentary cause. The result is fascinating, offering readers a chance to delve into her experience – the atmosphere, obstacles, joys and tragedies – of being the foreign Queen of a hostile and divided nation. 

Henrietta Maria – born the daughter of the formidable Henry IV of France in 1609 and becoming the wife to Charles I of England in 1625 – was, in her own time, condemned as that ‘Popish brat of France’, accused of being frivolous, unfaithful and a figure who stoked division in England. The following centuries saw Henrietta become a victim of a trope-heavy reputation preceding her: as a Catholic conspirator out to corrupt the King, her husband, and lead him astray with the force of her Catholic conviction. As De Lisle points out, Henrietta was so easily cast into the role of the seductive Eve-like figure, readily blamed for ‘seducing Charles into his evil and tyrannical ways’ and ultimately sparking Civil War. 

The book is neatly split into six parts denoting the key phases of Henrietta Maria’s life. Each part consists of between 4-5 chapters, each of which is named after a key quotation or concern that defined the era, giving a hint of what is to come. There are also maps (useful for reference due to the international scope of the narrative) and family trees, offering readers a better understanding of the sometimes-intimidating number of branches in early-modern royal families. 

One particular strength of this portrait of Henrietta Maria is how seamlessly it weaves together the religious and political landscape with the culture and ceremony of a 17th Century court. Whist the young Catholic queen was working to lessen the blow on her co-religionists, she was also at the forefront of commissioning the finest art and cutting-edge architecture of the age. In a time when the Mass was banned for Charles’ subjects, Henrietta never forgot the promises she had made to her relatives before leaving for England aged only 15. Regarded with suspicion from the moment she arrived, De Lisle’s book takes you through the phases of her Queenship, each with its own unique and complex challenges. It describes how, despite being initially denied the religious rites outlined in the marriage contract, Henrietta Maria remained determined in her insistence upon the completion of her private chapel, which quickly became an attractive focal point for those with Catholic leanings. Surviving numerous personal and political attacks, England’s young Queen allowed her natural joie de vivre to shine through and inject a much-needed boost into the magnificence of the monarchy.  

The extensive use and quotation of letters, reports and memoirs, which the reference notes attest to, greatly enrich the impression the reader is able to gauge of Henrietta’s character. Many witty anecdotes from the early days of her Queenship often act as reminders of how very young Henrietta was when she first took up the role. Her childlike sense of humour, her evident passion for fine clothes and gardens, as well as the occasional emotional tantrum, all add to the image De Lisle paints of Henrietta not just as a royal woman, but also as a vulnerable and conflicted teenager. When compared with the controlled and formalised first meetings of many contemporary royal couples, the account of Henrietta’s spirited embrace of Charles I takes you by surprise. It is made evident that Henrietta’s arrival signalled not just a flare up of heated religious argument, but also a palpable clash of English and continental ideas and customs.  

As with all of De Lisle’s books, among them ‘The sisters who would be Queen’, on Jane Grey and her sisters, and ‘After Elizabeth’, familial relationships are at the heart of the narrative. De Lisle’s ability to sympathise with and shed light on the bonds and tribulations Henrietta experienced with members of her family, as well as her closest friends, adds a very human dimension to a period in history when difficult choices were always having to be made and divided loyalties became the norm. There can be clear parallels drawn between the experiences of Henrietta and those of her sister, Elizabeth, Queen of Spain, who both effectively found ways to react to their husband’s dwindling military funds within their feminine sphere. But Henrietta, as is noted, faced the further battle of being constantly vilified by the people of England for her Catholicism, which was not an issue for her sister, being a Catholic Queen in a country of the same religion. It is through Henrietta’s interactions, both in person and in writing, that the reader is best able to gain an intimate impression of her multifaceted character. De Lisle’s beautiful framing of such extracts in the context of the situation is remarkably effective and often very moving. 

Heading into Part five, ‘The Generalissima’ chapter of Henrietta Maria’s life, it becomes even more apparent that this biography presents a view of the civil war from her perspective. Events are focused around the locations where Henrietta is based at any given time and this really provides a sense of how misinformation on the progression of the war would have impacted both sides. The pace of De Lisle’s account of the dramatic events is pacy, but still detailed and never dry. There is always another angle being introduced. The book’s narrative effectively builds the picture of how events in England also provoked anxieties in surrounding nations, creating a more rounded picture of the civil war as it progressed. Henrietta’s obvious determination to pursue her own strategies against the odds, combined with the trouble her influence on the King posed to the Parliamentarian cause, adds a powerful new dimension to her character. As has been highlighted in a couple of other books published on the civil war in recent years, notably Jessie Childs’ ‘The Siege of Loyalty House’, women evidently played underestimated, vital roles on the home front that are now being further explored, but Le Lisle’s Henrietta Maria, as England’s Queen, is perhaps the ultimate example of this. Over the centuries, Henrietta Maria may not have achieved the accolade of being one of our greatest Queens, but De Lisle gives her a fighting chance, restoring this much-maligned figure to her rightful place in our national story. As de Lisle herself puts it, of the Queen consorts to have held the title since the union of the crowns, she was ‘perhaps the most remarkable of them all‘.

Henrietta Maria: Conspirator, Warrior, Phoenix Queen by Leanda de Lisle is available to pre-order now (released in the UK on 4th August 2022)

Leanda de Lisle photographed at her home, in Leicestershire. Picture by Damien McFadden

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Published by katiechronicles1

Young historian and Classical Soprano Twitter: @katiehalf1533 @katiemarshall__

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