Best-selling author Leanda de Lisle talks about the princess from France who was also queen of England during its Civil War.
Today’s special episode is an interview with award-wining author Leanda de Lisle. Born in Westminster, de Lisle studied history at Oxford University. She has written a number of best-selling books, including After Elizabeth: The Death of Elizabeth & the Coming of King James, The Sisters Who Would be Queen, Tudor; The Family Story and White King. Today we are talking about her newest book Henrietta Maria: Conspirator, Warrior, Phoenix Queen. Known in France as Henriette-Marie, the French-born princess became queen of England during one of its most tumultuous periods and played a major role in its civil war.
Well, thank you very much for being on the show. It is a pleasure to have you. Your book, Henrietta Maria: Conspirator, Warrior, Phoenix Queen, is a fascinating read. It is truly incredible to read about this French woman who became a queen across the Channel. What inspired you to write a book about Henrietta Maria?
Leanda: Well, I just did a book on Charles I. The King, who, of course, lost his head. He was executed after a trial in England. I became fascinated by his wife, Henrietta Maria, who was a Bourbon princess. And I had to sort of make sure she didn't, she didn't interrupt the biography of her husband too much. And so when I finished White King, then I thought, I've got to write a biography of this remarkable queen whose life was very interesting long before she met Charles I and was very interesting long after he was executed. So, there were many things I wanted to write about.
Gary: You mentioned how both of Henrietta's parents were oddities. Henry IV was a former Protestant who converted to appease his subjects while Marie de’ Medici was a foreigner. How did her unique family dynamics impact Henrietta?
Leanda: Well, I think she was very conscious that her father was a great sort of warrior king and she liked to remind people that during the English Civil War and the British Civil Wars, that she was the daughter of this great warrior king, and she was extremely brave and courageous. She would often say she wasn't going to retreat here or run away and that she was Henry IV’s daughter, That was one way he sort of, I suppose, influenced her. She was also very aware that, as you say, he was a Protestant who converted to Catholicism. But after that, he wanted to and he helped unite France after the Wars of Religion. And he wanted the Bourbon dynasty to become the greatest dynasty in Europe. And that meant taking on their rivals, the Habsburg dynasty, who were also Catholic. And to do this, he was willing to make alliances with Protestant nations, something not everyone in France approved of. And indeed, he was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic who disapproved of this. But Henrietta Maria subsequently saw her marriage to Charles, who was a Protestant king of Protestant kingdoms in the same light as being an example of a Franco-Protestant anti-Habsburg alliance. And she was quite anti-Habsburg for most of her career as Queen of England and Scotland. So that’s Henry’s influence. And then her mother, Marie de Medici, I think influenced her in many ways. I mean, Marie de Medici helped sort of kick start the luxury goods market that France is famous for. And Henrietta Maria also loved, you know, fashion and luxury goods. But more than that, she saw what her mother was capable of in a man's world. I mean, women were not expected to rule over men. But her mother did rule France after Henry's assassination as regent of France. And one of the reasons that women weren't supposed to rule is that we were perceived as innately weak, morally weak and easily corruptible. And an example of this is Eve. Eve in the Garden of Eden was innately weak and was therefore seduced by Satan. And she then in turn seduced Adam and encouraged him to disobey God. And so obviously it's not a good example of a woman ruling a man. But Marie de Medici taught Henrietta Maria about the importance of the Second Eve in theology who was the Virgin Mary, the mother of God? And who reigned as queen of heaven. And she would quote a theologian called Bonaventure who would say that because the Virgin Mary was the mother of Christ when he was a child, she could talk to him as a mother, would tell him what to do. And that it meant also that she had the ear of God, the father. And Marie de Medici interpreted this as meaning that she had as much right to guide her son, the King, Louis XIII, as any male minister. And so I think that Henrietta Maria had a strong sense that women were capable of a great deal, and they had a right to their own opinions on things and a right to express those opinions. Indeed.
Gary: It certainly became important later on. France was going through some violent times during Henrietta Maria's childhood. Can you detail what was happening in the country, her upbringing and how that may have impacted her?
Leanda: Gosh, yes. Well, there was, I think, not everyone liked having Marie de Medici as regent. Some of the princes of the blood felt that they should be ruling France, not Marie de Medici. And she had a very unpopular minister who was also a foreigner called Concini. Who was eventually assassinated on the order of her son, Louis XIII, who I think was 16 at the time. What I find interesting about this relationship is that Marie de Medici had a very close friend called Leonora, who was the wife of Concini. And if she had been a man, Leonora probably would have been her favorite and leading minister. But because she was a woman and her friend was a woman, this wasn't possible. And so she had this chap, Concini, as her leading minister instead, and her friend Leonora said, You know, this is a disaster and Concini is a disaster. And he's become far too big for his boots and it's all going to end badly, which indeed it did. But not only was Concini assassinated and Marie de Medici was put for a time, well, for several years under house arrest, but poor old Leonora was burned at the stake, supposedly for using witchcraft to influence the Queen. Henrietta Maria was only a kind of six years old at the time. But I think knowing that her mother's best, having her mother taken off to imprisonment for several years and her mother's best friend, who she saw sort of doing her hair nearly every day, burnt at the stake, must have had some, would have suggested to her just how dangerous the world was that she was living in. But on the more positive side, her mother also introduced her to things like the theater and taught her. She was taught by the very best actors of the time how to perform on stage. Because knowing that, of course, that as a royal princess she would one day be acting on a sort of public stage. And so that was also an important part of her life. And yes, so those are some of the influences, I suppose, that she had in her childhood. And the other thing, of course, is she was the youngest of several children and she saw her two older sisters married off before her, sent abroad. Her eldest sister, Elizabeth, I think was 14 when she was married to the future king of Spain. And then her sister Christina, was married at 13 to the future Duke of Savoy. And so she would have seen that and known that was her likely fate as well at some point. Well, she was hoping that being the youngest, she might marry in France, but she would have known that it was possible that she would be sent abroad. And the dangers that came with that. Which was that in Spain, for example, her sister was treated very badly for a while, seen as an outsider and as indeed Henrietta Maria would be when she came to England. So I suppose she had some sort of forewarning of her own fate in that.
Gary: So this ties in perfectly with the next question. You go into great detail about the game of marriage politics and how Henrietta Maria was not Charles's first choice. How did the English prince and French princess come to marry?
Leanda: Charles's sister also called Elizabeth, confusingly, known as the winter queen of Bohemia, was married to the elector Palatine, and he had unfortunately decided to take on the Habsburg's and accept the crown of Bohemia, which they believed was theirs by right. And the result was that he not only lost Bohemia, but also the Palatine. And Charles was desperate to help his brother-in-law. But to do this, the English and the Scots, they were different nations, but united under the same crown, did not have a standing army. And they needed a military alliance or a diplomatic alliance to help his brother-in-law. So the first idea was to go to the Spanish. The Spanish Hapsburg's arranged marriage there and perhaps with the with the Spanish infanta. And that the Spanish Habsburg's then might influence the Austrian Habsburg's to give up the Palatine. But that didn't work out. And so he then hoped to form a French alliance with Louis XIII, Henrietta Maria's brother. And, you know, the marriage was part of that. So that's what he wanted out of it. And what the French wanted out of it was that they hoped that the marriage would not only be useful to them because the English were very important in the fact that they dominated the channel. So that was quite useful, had an important Navy, but also they hoped that it might mean that Charles I would lessen and perhaps eventually stop the persecution of Catholics in Britain.
Gary: What was her marriage to Charles like?
Leanda: Well, it sort of changed over time. So at first it began rather badly because unfortunately, just as she was arriving in England, this military alliance with France was already collapsing. And so she arrived and Charles had promised the French that he would lessen the persecution of Catholics. Protestants in France at this time were not persecuted under the Edicts of Nantes. Both Catholics and Protestants were able to practice their religion. And the French hoped that Charles would eventually, I suppose, introduce some sort of form of Edict of Nantes in England and Scotland. But he immediately sort of broke his promises and began actually renewing and even making the harsher the persecution of Catholics as he became angrier with the French over this broken military alliance. And that obviously impacted on his marriage. Henrietta Maria was only 15, but she was an extremely spirited 15-year-old, and she expressed her anger in no uncertain terms. And there's one description of her when she hears as a Protestant services taking place in the house in which she's staying. And so she appears with her ladies in the middle of the sermon and starts stomping up and down the aisle of the church, you know, laughing and joking. And then later on, they find the vicar sort of sitting in the garden behind a hedge, and they sort of take up pistols and they fire them behind his back to give him a fright and a sort of childish teenage way she has her revenge. And more seriously, she refuses to take part in the Protestant coronation ceremony because Charles is ruining Catholics who are refusing to turn up to Protestant services. And so she's doing it really, I suppose, to show her solidarity with her co-religionists. But obviously, this doesn't go this is not going down well in her marriage. And she detests his favorite, the Duke of Buckingham. So anyway, that's all a bit of a disaster. But fundamentally, these two young people and she's much younger than Charles. She's only 15. He's 25. They do want their marriage to work. And I think that is very important. And as she matures and grows up, bearing in mind, as I said, she was only 15 when she marries, by the time she's sort of 18, she and Charles are getting along much better. And it becomes a very, very close and very successful and happy marriage, which produces many children.
Gary: So you touched on this a bit earlier, but this was a very tense time for Catholics. You note how Mary, Queen of Scots had died a martyr. And Henrietta once joked how she would have the same fate. How did the new queen express her faith and interact with fellow Catholics at the time?
Leanda: First of all, she made absolutely sure that she attended Mass as often as possible. Certainly every week, if not every day. Even when they were traveling through the country, she would find somewhere so that she could hear mass. So she wore her Catholicism on her sleeve, you might say. In that respect, she did her best to protect Catholics who, you know, were frequently imprisoned, for example. She did manage to improve the lot of Catholics. Certainly by in the 1630 there was a long period of many years when there were no executions for religion. But Charles continued to fine Catholics. He never stopped persecuting them. There's a sort of myth that he did, but he never did. But he wasn't executing them. So they weren't actually being tortured to death on a public stage and castrated, which I suppose was some sort of advance. She was doing her best in that respect. She encouraged Charles to allow a papal envoy to come to England, which was quite extraordinary really, that she succeeded in doing that. And she managed to do that not because she was persuading Charles to become a Catholic, as some people believed and continue to believe quite wrongly. Charles had no intention ever of becoming a Catholic. She persuaded him, A) because the papal envoy was bringing lots of nice works of art with him, which which Charles liked. And but more importantly is that Charles was still hoping to do something not for his brother in law, who by now had died, but for his his nephew, who was still living in exile in The Hague. And he hoped that the pope might be able to persuade the Habsburg's to give up his nephew's lands in Germany.
Gary: King Charles contentions with parliament eventually led to the English Civil War. I think people would be surprised to discover how impactful Henrietta was, both during her temporary departure from England, her return and her second exile. Can you explain why you call her the Generalissimo?
Leanda: Yes. Well. During the 1630’s, which was the period of peace sometimes known as the halcyon days. It was said that she trusted her husband in everything. By the 1640s, when he'd lost a war against the Scots, it was a rebellion because of course the Scots were, He was king of Scotland. She began to realize that, you know, her husband was not perhaps the most successful ruler in the history of all time, and he'd lost a lot of his servants as they were arrested by parliament. And so she began to give him advice. And one of the things she did was that in 1642 when it was clear that civil war was going to break out and that everyone believed that Charles was going to lose because he had no money and he had no arms and so forth. She went to Holland and she raised money in arms very successfully, and they basically saved his bacon and ensured that he didn't lose the first major battle of the Civil War at Edgehill in October 1642. Parliament realized how useful she was to Charles and were determined to kill her. And so when she sailed back to England, their navy pursued her through the high seas. When she landed in England, they found out where she was staying on the Quay side. And they had her little cottage shelled. And you have this incredible descriptions of her, you know, running under shellfire, men killed yards from her and so forth. But she survived that and then travelled to the north. Charles was in Oxford in the south of England and the south west. She went to the north with an army, and she sat on the Council of War of the leading royalist general in the North, and her armies won several victories up there. And she also managed to personally persuade one of the three top parliamentary commanders of the North to turncoat. Charles then insisted that she join him in Oxford, which she did, and she came south and she joked because she had a great sense of humor. One of the things people don't realize about her, she had a great sense of humor. She was always cracking jokes. And anyway, one of the jokes she made on this stage, she said, wrote a letter to Charles and said, I'm coming south with my army. And Mr. Smith is in charge of the cavalry and Mr. Brown is in charge of the infantry, and I am the she generalissimo in charge of the baggage. This was a joke, but it was taken very seriously and Parliament took it out of context to say, look, you know, she's a terrible example of Eve. You know, there she is. She's ruling men. She's acting like a man, you know, acting as a general and so forth. And indeed, she was. And they weren't entirely wrong because she was a threat. And indeed, her army took Bradford on Trent, I'm sorry, on its way south in what was described as a bloody and desperate fight. Anyway, in Oxford that summer of 1643 she came very close with her armies to helping Charles win the Civil War that summer. And she was very anxious that he do win it, that he would win it quickly, because at this point, it was just the civil War was confined to England and she was concerned that he needed to win it before the Scots joined the civil war on Parliament's side. And they were likely to do that because they were Presbyterians and they were sympathetic to the sort of Puritans in Parliament. She advised Charles to take London. London was having all these riots. There was a lot of antiwar feeling in London. Charles did not take her advice. And this, she believed, was a turning point in the Civil War because the Scots then joined in January 1644. And at that point, the numbers were against Charles. I think she was almost in a state of despair and she returned to France to try again, this time, of course, the first time she had left England was for Holland. She returned to France, her homeland, because she hoped to persuade her powerful Bourbon family to support Charles in the Civil War. And if she was unable to do that, then she hoped that she would be able to raise more money and arms, which is what indeed she did. And the parliament again tried to kill her. She was crossing the channel. And again, there's another amazing description of her ship under fire and her telling the captain that if they were boarded that he should scuttle the ship and drown her rather than let her be captured because she believed that Charles would then be subject to blackmail. But anyway. But she managed to get to France and she sort of supported him from France until he gave up, until he essentially lost his wars as he had lost every war he'd ever fought for. Charles. And she then tried to persuade him to negotiate with his various captors, which he really wouldn't do, and supported him in a second civil war, which he lost. And so she was in France at the time of his trial and execution in January 1649.
Gary: Yes. If only the royal family had read your book, perhaps King Charles would have chosen a different name. One might naturally suspect that after Charles execution, the exiled widow would retreat to a convent to live out her last days. Yet you detail how this Phoenix Queen continued to impact politics in the 1650s until the restoration. Can you give us some insights on her activities following the end of the English Civil War?
Leanda: Yes. Well, she was completely devastated by her husband's execution, and she really wanted, I think, to retreat, to retire to a convent. But she remembered that she had promised her husband that she would support their children their eldest son, who was now Charles II in exile. And she wanted to help him be restored to the throne. It seemed very unlikely that she was going to succeed because Oliver Cromwell was, by this stage, the head of the sort of English republic and seemed very powerful in England. But she did support him as best as could during the next ten years. There was a sort of infamous incident because Henrietta Maria has been blamed for many things. It’s said that she sort of turned Charles Catholic and caused a civil war, which, as I said, is completely untrue. Another of the things which is said is that she was a sort of cruel mother. And an example of this that's given actually all her children are devoted to her. But anyway, they quarreled, but they were devoted to her. But the example of this that is given is her youngest child, Harry, who arrives in France, aged about 14, because he's been basically a prisoner of parliament throughout the Civil War, and she tries to convert him to Catholicism. And this is described traditionally as a sort of act of terrible bigotry. And then when she doesn't succeed, she throws him out of the house, which is seen as a sort of act of cruelty and stupidity. But, you know, life was complicated if you were a queen. And as she told her son Charles II the reason she did it was that, frankly, the Stuart cause looked pretty helpless, hopeless. And she didn't want Harry to suffer the sort of penury and powerlessness that seemed to be Charles II’s lot. And so she said to Charles, if he becomes a Catholic, then he could marry a rich Catholic princess. Or, you know, I could ask the pope to make him a cardinal. He'd be a prince of the church. Anyway, Harry has no intention of converting. His last memory of his father is sitting as a little boy when he's about five, sitting on his father's lap. Maybe he's a little boy sitting on his father's lap. Just before his father is is going to be taken off to be executed. And his father is looking at him in the face and saying, you know, they are going to cut off your father's head. And saying to him that he wants him to obey his mother in all things except religion. And he also told Harry that he was dying for the Protestant Church of England. So Harry was not likely to sort of suddenly turn round to become a Catholic. But anyway. So whatever Henrietta Maria wanted, that wasn't going to happen. She expressed her anger at this indeed by throwing him out of the house. But this wasn't just sort of an act of kind of spite. It was the act of a woman who was Charles II's principal support in Europe, and she could not afford to be seen as weak and being disobeyed by one of your children, particularly a child in his early teens would have made her look weak. And what it often isn't pointed out is that her sister in law, the Winter Queen did exactly the same thing with two of her children, who was also an exiled queen and was also a support for her son. Did exactly the same thing with two of her children, where they conversely converted from Protestantism to Catholicism, which she didn't like. She cut off relations with them. This was a political act, not an act of just sort of spite. And what was very tragic was that at the time of the restoration, when after Cromwell died and the English decided they couldn't stand the republic and they couldn't bear living under Puritan rule, and they invited Charles II back. She wrote a letter saying, Oh, hooray. You know, the whole family are going to be reunited and was obviously looking forward to being reunited with Harry as well as her other children. And very tragically, he died shortly before this could happen. And she's described just after a couple of days after she arrives in England in November 1660. She's described by a famous diarist, Samuel Pepys, as dressed in black and looking very ordinary. And this description is always trotted out of her. We're left thinking that she she's now just a sort of miserable old crone, really. She's a miserable old crone. She failed to sort of turn England into a kind of Catholic autocracy or whatever people like to believe she wanted to do. And she's now all miserable. She can't rejoice, even in the success of her son, Charles II. When, of course, the fact is that she's grieving her son, her youngest son, who's just died. And what they don't do because these things are so often examples of selective quotation, what these historians don't do is then mention the same diarist, Samuel Pepys, a couple of years later in 1662, when Henrietta Maria is again is being described as the Phoenix Queen and is again a very powerful and influential figure in England. And he goes to the court and he describes it as (29:45 please listen-Maria than that of the Maria Monarch, Charles II) it's the gayest, it's the most glittering, it's the most glamorous court. It's her court, which she is at the center.
Gary: A major theme in your book is about Henrietta Maria's youth. She was the youngest of Marie de Medici's children. She was eight and a half years younger than her husband and became queen at 16. How did her age affect her outlook and abilities?
Leanda: She was only 15, in fact, when she married. Well, I think she was, in many respects, a typical teenager. She was extremely passionate and could be quite sort of emotional. And there are, I think, some hilarious descriptions of her. There's one of her getting very angry with Charles and there's a description of them in bed together. And she sort of bonked a sort of bit of paper on him and says, I want to have, you know, this chap and this chap and this chap running my estates in England. And Charles says, No, you can't they're French and we're not gonna have any French people running land in England. And she says, but you know, my mother and I've already said to these people they can. And Charles says well no you can't. And then she completely loses her temper with him. And he describes this and she sort of shouts at him about how miserable she is. And, you know, life is hell and it's all his fault. And, you know, he can't believe that it, he's a king. He believes in divine right kingship. And he's got this teenage girl telling him that, you know, she's miserable and he's horrible and everything's his fault. And that was quite amusing to me, that description, because you can just imagine someone having that kind of row with a 15 year old today. Except of course, they wouldn't be married to them. Or at least one hopes not. She became queen at an early age. So she had a lot of experience. And England very much became her home. And although she never forgot her French origins, far from it, she was very proud of them. And she also became much more English than I think people understand and allow. England was her people. And even after they chopped off her husband's head, people in France, the French noticed when she was in exile in France how she would never hear a bad word said about the English and she would describe anything awful that had happened as just sort of one of those things that could happen anywhere when the wrong people become in charge.
Gary: You argue that Henrietta Maria was not a radical queen, but that she was caught up in radical times. One example you give is how she viewed her marriage with Charles as not necessarily out of the ordinary as France allied with Protestants against the Habsburg's. Yet the Protestants of England became increasingly zealous, executing Catholics and fighting amongst themselves. Can you further explore the tumultuous world that Henrietta Maria was swept in?
Leanda: Yes, I think that she and the average English Protestant had a very different perspective. So from her perspective, she in France was surrounded by Catholics. She was obviously a Catholic. The vast majority were Catholic. But also, though she had Protestant friends, she had a Protestant doctor and so forth. And they weren't persecuted. And so she saw no reason why this could also be the case in England. And the Counter-Reformation in France was very successful and was at this time largely done by persuasion and so forth. And so she felt that there was no reason why she couldn't do that in England. Set a good example and show them what the mass was like and that people would then convert. And she thought there was nothing wrong with any of that. And it all seemed like a good idea. And she thought obviously, that the persecution of Catholics that was taking place in England was bad and that she should do her best to try and alleviate the suffering and if possible, persuade Charles not to persecute Catholics. So that was her perspective. The perspective of the English Protestants and the Scottish Protestants was very different. So England had become broken with rule under Henry VIII one hundred years earlier, a bit more than a hundred years, but a hundred years earlier. And it hadn't really become Protestant until the reign of Edward VI, Henry VII's son. And then it had been very up and down. Had one minute it had been Catholic under Mary Tudor and then had been Protestant again under Elizabeth. And it taken a long time, really the whole of the reign of Elizabeth for the English to become Protestants, proper Protestants. And so there was a sense that it wasn't necessarily as deeply rooted and stable as it might be, although it was very distinctly a Protestant kingdom and the Catholics were a tiny minority by the time Charles I became king. And I think the English Protestants felt very threatened because they saw that the Reformation in Europe was being rolled back not only by Habsburg armies, but also by the fact that the Catholic Church, had during the 16th century, reformed itself and was converting Protestants. And so Protestantism was being pushed back across Europe. And they were understandably fearful that if Calvinism in particular collapsed in Europe, that they would be threatened in Britain. And so they saw any Catholic influence or anything Catholic as a threat. And so on one level, the idea of English Catholics should be a threat to English Protestants was absurd because they were such a tiny minority. On the other hand, it was also it wasn't a completely insane thought. I mean, they had reason for their fears. They had good reasons for their fears. When they looked at the international scene, they were aware that Henrietta Maria wasn't any old Catholic. She wasn't just little Miss Catholic. I mean, she was the sister of the king of France and Britain was not one of the great powers. I mean, people liked the British and possibly the Americans. I don't know. But suddenly the British like have this sort of idea of Britain being a great power for much longer than it was. It wasn't a great power under Elizabeth I or the early Stuarts. You know, France and Spain were the great powers. The Bourbons and the Habsburg's were the great powers. And her brother was the king of France. And that was quite sort of intimidating and seemed potentially threatening.
Gary: Your book starts out by presenting the Protestant narrative of Henrietta Maria as the conniving Eve like seductress who led King Charles to papism and caused the turmoil in England. You go a long way towards countering this narrative. What view do you think people should have of the French Queen of England?
Leanda: I think they should view her as a very remarkable woman. She was highly intelligent. She was great fun. She'd be very good company. She would be somebody you'd enjoy having dinner with. Well, somebody I'd enjoy having dinner with anyway. I think she could be sort of gossipy and amusing and intelligent, had interesting things to say. Well, She hadn't had a very sophisticated education on some levels, academic education. She had a very limited academic education which I think was a source of great regret to her later. But she was certainly highly intelligent. She had great courage, I would say. She was very loving, very passionately devoted to her husband, to her children. She was capable of great kindness. People said to those who were poor servants and ailing servants would be very nice to them if they got a bit slow and or a bit hopeless. She'd be very sort of kind to them and nice to them. But she could also be quite catty, she wasn't wandering around in a sort of cloud of saintliness, very far from it. She was a great support to her husband and I think she would have made rather a good monarch, not necessarily of England. I think being a Catholic monarch of England would have been pretty impossible burden. If she'd have been queen of France, I mean a queen Regnant, you couldn't be a queen Regnant of France. They didn't allow it. But I think she would have been a very remarkable monarch.
Gary: Well, I don't blame her for preferring France to England. No offense to any of our English listeners. The book is Henrietta Maria: Conspirator Warrior, Phoenix Queen. It is a fascinating read. Thank you so much for being on the show.
Leanda: Thank you very much for inviting me. And I hope some of you out there will enjoy the book.