We know a huge amount about the majority of British monarchs and the lives they led. Books about many of them continue to be published hundreds of years after their deaths – will we ever tire of hearing about Henry VIII and his penchant for chopping the heads off his wives? And yet, the achievements of royal spouses have often been downplayed, particularly in respect of royal wives, who frequently have been viewed as appendages.
That’s one of the reasons I was so keen to attend Dr Erin Griffey’s talk, at the Royal Academy of Arts, about Henrietta Maria Stuart, wife of Charles I. Its subject was ‘The Queen’s Influence’, in respect of Henrietta Maria’s patronage of the arts.
Professor Griffey began her talk by pointing out that while Charles I was acknowledged by his contemporaries as having a good eye for pictures, generations of scholars have downplayed the influence of his wife. Instead, they focused on her supposed faults: overzealous Catholic piety, lavish overspending and persistent “Frenchness”.
Henrietta Maria may have been born into privilege and enjoyed many luxuries, but her life presented many challenges. Born in Paris, in 1609, she was the youngest daughter of King Henry IV of France and Marie de Medici. She grew up in Bourbon, under the influence of a dominant mother who instilled in her the strong sense of religious piety that would pervade her entire life and greatly influence her taste in art. Other influences included an ambitious brother and her godfather, Pope Urban VIII, both of whom attempted to make her persuade Charles I to convert to Catholicism.
Henrietta Maria was no pawn, though. Griffey describes her as assertive and opinionated – with an utter belief in her entitlement to magnificence and social standing (no wonder she and Charles got along so well). By the age of 15, she was married and living in England, struggling with a language she didn’t speak and a hostile public, who feared a return to Catholicism.
Initially, the marriage was an unhappy one, but as time went on the couple became devoted to each other. They shared an interest in art and architecture; Henrietta Maria directed many of her own commissions, which were usually funded by Charles.
From childhood, Henrietta Maria had a strong sense of taste and piety. Her wedding trousseau included several devotional pictures which she installed in her chapel at St. James’s Palace, finding them a comfort in “this land of heretics”. For his part, Charles accepted his wife’s religion and her taste in art, although he didn’t always share it; Henrietta Maria was in the habit of having portraits painted of their children, which she would send abroad. Charles was rarely involved and frequently disliked the end results, although he did pay for them.
I hadn’t realised how much of an influence Henrietta Maria had upon architecture in London – or how closely she worked with high-profile architects like Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren on The Queen’s House in Greenwich, Somerset House on the Strand and Wimbledon Palace. Her accounts show that she spent extravagant amounts creating lavish interiors for those royal abodes – Inigo Jones was paid £9,000 for his work in Greenwich, a phenomenal amount by today’s standards. Seen as a ‘pleasure pavilion’, both the Queen and the King were involved in determining what was suitable for the House – and the Queen appointed Orazio Gentileschi, one of her favourite artists, to paint the magnificent nine-painting ceiling in the Great Hall.
Religious images predominated in the Queen’s various bedchambers. She had herself painted as Saint Catherine by Van Dyck, and named one of her daughters after the saint. This did not endear herself to the Protestant public and she remained a figure of hostility even after she went into exile. This period was intensely difficult for Henrietta Maria; marooned in France, she remained loyal to her husband and was devastated by his execution – following which, living in virtual penury; she campaigned for her elder son to succeed to the throne. The once-privileged Henrietta Maria, accustomed to the finer things in life, was now known as ‘The Miserable Queen’.
Charles II was crowned king in 1660 and Henrietta Maria returned to London, where she continued with her restoration projects, spending a whopping £30,000 renovating Somerset House. She remained in England until a virulent outbreak of plague in 1665 caused her to flee to France taking numerous pictures, tapestries and chandeliers with her. After Henrietta Maria’s death, in 1669, around half of those items were returned to England and displayed at the Palace of Whitehall.
Henrietta Maria’s influence at the Stuart court is demonstrable, argues Professor Griffey. Her Catholicism proved politically divisive, yet she was central to diplomatic gifts and commissions involving the Papacy. Her tastes in art were wide-ranging. Yes, she was a polarising figure – but is all the more interesting for that. Throughout her life, Henrietta Maria had to negotiate intense political and geographical issues, but she remained assertive, sophisticated and deeply loyal – and she understood how to marshal art for her own direction and use.