16th July 2019
It was on this day, 16th July in 1644, that Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, landed in Brittany after fleeing England during the English Civil War. Her husband’s position was growing weaker and Henrietta Maria – a French princess before she was an English queen – hoped to raise funds and support for his cause from the continent.
She would also be safer in France. It had only been a month since Henrietta Maria had given birth to her youngest child, also named Henrietta. But the queen was forced to leave her infant daughter behind where she had been born at Exeter, as her husband’s enemies were quickly approaching. Henrietta Maria fled to avoid capture, and would not see her daughter again for two years, when she was finally brought to France to be with her mother.
Even after she set sail from Falmouth on 14th July, Henrietta Maria was still pursued by Parliamentarian ships. They fired on her fleet, and the queen gave orders to her captain to blow the gunpowder in the hold of the ship should they be overrun. She would not risk capture as she knew that Charles, the husband who she had come to love after a rocky start to their marriage, would make compromises to ensure her safety.
The situation did not come to that – Henrietta Maria arrived in France alive, though she was very ill. She made her way to Paris, and was greeted as warmly and with the same ceremony that she had received when she had left it almost twenty years previously. In Paris, she had the sympathies of her sister-in-law Anne of Austria, the widowed Queen of France who was currently acting as regent for her five year old son King Louis XIV. Even as she recovered, Henrietta Maria kept her energies focused on England and her husband’s situation, raising arms and sending money given to her by Queen Anne.
Henrietta Maria always planned to return to England and to her husband. However it was not to be – in 1649 Charles was executed and the English monarchy abolished. His death left Henrietta Maria stunned. She retired to a convent to read the last letter that Charles wrote to her and for a time it appeared that she would never again return to court, so deep was her grief. Eventually she was persuaded that her children needed her at court and so returned – in a simple black gown that she would wear for the rest of her life.
Later, Henrietta Maria would write to Charles II that she wished she had never left his father in England. That if she could not have prevented his death, she would rather have been executed alongside him.
After years of supporting and resourcing her exiled son Charles II’s claim to the English throne, Henrietta Maria’s ambitions were finally achieved. In 1660 the English monarchy was restored and Charles II took his place as King of England. That same year Henrietta Maria returned to the country she’d fled under cannon fire sixteen years previously. Now Dowager Queen of England, she was accompanied by Henrietta, the daughter she’d been forced to abandon there as a baby.
Images: Princess Henrietta Maria of France, Queen consort of England, by Anthony van Dyck, c.1636-1638, via Wikimedia Commons. Henrietta Anne, Duchess of Orleans, possibly after Pierre Mignard, based on a work of c.1665-1670, NPG 228, © National Portrait Gallery, London.