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Henrietta Maria

Updated Sunday, 7th January 2001

A genuine love story, a terrible judge of the political temperature: Charles' queen Henrietta Maria

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Henrietta Maria was only fifteen when she married Charles I and the union was motivated by diplomatic considerations.

At the time of her marriage, J.P. Kenyon describes her as being 'a gawky adolescent, with enormous eyes, bony wrists, projecting teeth and a minimal figure. At the sight of her new husband, she burst into tears'. Despite such inauspicious beginnings, Charles and Henrietta Maria's relationship blossomed into one of the most affectionate love matches of the Stuart era.

Charles and Henrietta Maria's private relationship thrived on a shared passion for arts and culture. Charles was an enthusiastic art collector and championed artists such as Holbein, Rembrandt, Rubens and Raphael. Sir Anthony Van Dyck was a particular favourite who produced 36 portraits of the King, 25 of Henrietta Maria, and numerous paintings of the royal children. These paintings of the royal children are considered to be among his best work.

Architecture and design was another shared passion, and Inigo Jones was a major beneficiary of royal support. Jones designed the Banqueting House in Whitehall for James VI/I and it quickly became a favoured location for masques organised by Charles and Henrietta Maria.

Greenwich House was another much-liked residence which Henrietta Maria dubbed her 'House of Delight'. Charles and Henrietta Maria spent six weeks there in the summer of 1635 enjoying the 'pleasures of the chase', and Henrietta Maria added two rooms onto the main building.

However, it was probably in their shared love of the masque- court spectacles which combined music with dancing, poetry, scenery and dramatic costume- that their enthusiasms overlapped most completely. Charles and his wife loved to present masques for each other and enjoyed wearing the Chief Masquer's costume. Henrietta Maria shocked the conservative mores of the age by appearing on stage during a masque, something which was considered risque for a woman of her status. However, such pleasures were curtailed after 1640 as the Stuart kingdoms lurched towards war.

While Charles and Henrietta Maria's private relationship was a major success, publicly and politically it was a disaster for Henrietta Maria, the daughter of the French King, was a practising Catholic, and Puritan zealots interpreted this as further proof of the King's desire to push England towards Catholicism. The Queen's court circle became a focus for Vatican envoys, Spanish diplomats and fey young nobles attracted to the romance of her Catholicism, while Henrietta Maria's diplomatic links with France and the Vatican provoked further suspicion and resentment.

Henrietta Maria
Henrietta Maria by Van Dyck

In such highly charged times, even innocent pleasures such as masquing carried religious and political overtones. In 1632, the Puritan William Prynne published a pamphlet denouncing the evils of the stage and the use of female actors. Henrietta Maria, who had appeared on stage during a masque, was particularly incensed by this attack and demanded action from her husband. Prynne was fined and imprisoned in 1632, pilloried in 1634 and partly shorn of his ears. The Puritans were horrified, hatred for Charles intensified and connections between politics, religion and culture became explicit.

As the three kingdoms and Wales approached war, Henrietta Maria assumed a more direct role in shaping and formulating Royal policy but this probably did more harm than good. The Queen labelled herself 'the She Majesty Generalissima' during this era and her influence undoubtedly reinforced Charles' tendency towards intransigence and inflexibility.

John Pym and the Puritans detested Henrietta Maria and tried to link her to the outbreak of rebellion in Ireland in late 1641. When rumours began to circulate that Pym proposed to impeach the Queen, Henrietta Maria urged Charles to arrest those who criticised her and opposed him. Charles' disastrous attempt to arrest Pym and his allies in January 1642 created a massive breach in trust between King and Parliament which accelerated the slide towards war.


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