Leanda de Lisle’s biography of Henrietta Maria has burnt through the mist of four hundred years of propaganda. It pitches Henrietta at her own level. She is brought down from pious pedestals and raised up from the mire in which her reputation has often lain. With this balanced approach, Phoenix Queen tells Henrietta’s life from her point of view, allowing us to better understand the woman herself. We also see her experiences in comparison to those of her mother and sisters. This ability to turn history 360 degrees and deliver a fresh perspective is one of the book’s many strengths. A beautifully written narrative illustrates her story in the reader’s mind. Coupled with this, an all-important context of the era is given concisely and effortlessly, therefore no prior knowledge is required to enjoy it.
The Wars of the Three Kingdoms, in which Henrietta’s husband, King Charles I, lost both his throne and his life has overshadowed her. Like Charles, she is often judged on this defeat alone. Throughout hostilities, Henrietta displayed courage, loyalty and gritty determination in support of her husband’s cause, labouring physically, financially and diplomatically. This saw her targeted like a she-wolf; a dangerous woman, and worse still, a Catholic. Her exploits elicited much hatred from her enemies, but the truth is less polarised.
As a mere fifteen-year-old, she became queen of a country that had been a long-standing enemy of her native France. Britain was frozen by fear of Catholicism; persecution of Catholics was enshrined in law and the Gunpowder Treason was only twenty years prior. We often see Henrietta from this standpoint and forget how scared she must have been considering that England had struck the heads off a number of its queens. Far from leading a crusade to convert her husband and his kingdoms, it was Henrietta who was cautioned against apostasy. Her mother, Marie de Medici, warned of a thousand curses if she should succumb.
Myths surrounding the ‘popish brat’ are re-examined. In one respect, it could be said that Henrietta was a failure; she was not able to improve the lot of her co-religionists, nor were her children raised as Catholics. Her husband died in defence of the established Church of England and never entertained conversion. Britain remained staunchly Protestant. In short, she failed to live up to her enemies’ propaganda, but was nevertheless made a scapegoat and painted as an ultimate bogeywoman.
Henrietta is shown as one of our most remarkable queen consorts. She was passionately loyal to her husband, and her strength of character was a vital support throughout his reign. She continued the Stuart line and worked tirelessly to re-establish her son on the throne.
Though Henrietta and Charles’s marriage had stemmed from politics, they were devoted to one another from the very start, and continued so until the bitter end. In an altogether fitting way, this splendid work is the perfect consort to Leanda de Lisle’s biography of King Charles I, The White King.
Mark Turnbull is a historian and novelist and author of Charles I’s Private Life.