‘Queen Mary’, Queen Elizabeth and Parliament in the 1640s: suspicion, solidarity and nostalgia

As Queen Elizabeth II celebrates a milestone 70 years on the throne this month, we have been thinking about the relationships that other Queens throughout history had with Parliament. In 1625 Charles I married French Princess Henrietta Maria, but his Consort faced heavy comparison to other female monarchs, as Dr Vivienne Larminie from our Commons 1640-1660 project explains…

The breakdown in relations between Charles I and Parliament which led to civil war and ultimately to the execution of the king in 1649 has been charted in previous posts. But what was the attitude of MPs and peers towards Charles’s consort, Henrietta Maria? How did she compare with other queens whom they knew, or thought they knew?

The marriage between Charles and the then fifteen-year-old French princess, celebrated by proxy in May 1625, got off to a rocky start. However, the assassination in 1628 of the king’s favourite, George Villiers, duke of Buckingham, removed a rival for his affections, and the royal couple became devoted to each other, presenting a picture of domestic bliss very rare among contemporary monarchies. Ironically, it was their intimacy that fuelled a negative image of a queen who exerted undue influence, steering her husband in the direction of Catholicism and absolutism. At first she had her defenders even among those for whom the survival of Protestantism was a priority. Decades on from the Armada, Spain, with its Inquisition, apparent closeness to the pope, and onslaught on Protestant territories in the Thirty Years’ War, was still the main bugbear. France, on the other hand, was allied with the Protestants and exercised a limited toleration for adherents of the religion, while Henrietta Maria was a daughter of the much-admired Henri IV. But the colourful rhetoric of detractors, of whom William Prynne was the most excoriating, had a corrosive effect. Charles’s own practice of sometimes referring to his wife publicly as ‘Queen Mary’, intended to be a more accessible name than the unfamiliar Henrietta or Henriette, misfired. She disliked it and for British subjects it evoked uncomfortable memories of Catholic Mary Tudor or Mary, Queen of Scots.

Queen Henrietta Maria
Anthony van Dyck
National Trust, Trerice via ArtUK

A few weeks into the Long Parliament, in December 1640, the king promoted a bill to confirm several letters patent that he had issued during the years when no Parliament had met, making financial provision for ‘his Majesty’s dearest Consort’. In subsequent months, amid unprecedently intense activity in the Commons, ‘the committee for the queen’s jointure’ continued to meet. The following spring she frequented the Lords for the trial of her husband’s adviser and lord deputy of Ireland, Thomas Wentworth, earl of Strafford, and later claimed to have negotiated with various parliamentary leaders on his behalf.

However, with the revelation from early May 1641 of the ‘army plots’, allegedly formulated to spring Strafford from the Tower of London and to stage a coup to reassert royal authority, tension mounted. The ‘priests, Jesuits and Capuchins’ surrounding the queen in her (Catholic) private chapel and court at Somerset House came under intense scrutiny. She was required by Parliament to submit a list of her servants; those who refused to take the oaths of supremacy and allegiance (to the monarch as head of the Church of England) were threatened with deportation. Meanwhile, the Commons heard on 11 May that another ‘Queen Mary’, the queen mother, Marie de’ Medici, visiting England to escape political troubles in France, had ‘sent twice or thrice to express her apprehension, and her fear, and desired a guard’ against popular disorder. Henry Rich, earl of Holland, as lord lieutenant of Middlesex, directed that ‘a guard of one hundred musqueteers’ be despatched, but found ‘great unwillingness in some of them to go; they thought it fitter to do other things, than guard any stranger’. Peers were reportedly keen to impress on MPs that ‘if anything should happen to the queen [mother], it would be a great dishonour to the nation’; she had conducted herself in England with ‘modesty and moderation’ and had ‘often desired his Majesty might so govern, as to have the Affections of his People, and particularly, by Parliament’ [Journal of the House of Commons, ii. 143].

That August Marie de’ Medici departed the kingdom with the promise from Parliament of a pension of £10,000, to be paid in instalments. In the interim, her daughter also planned a trip abroad, ostensibly for the sake of her health but actually to pawn some of the crown jewels to raise money for her husband, but abandoned it in response to Parliament’s opposition. Over the summer and autumn she grew more fearful of the rising levels of violence in and around London and of rumours that she, like Strafford, would be impeached. In February 1642, following the publication by Parliament of intercepted letters between the king and queen and their closest supporters revealing the measures they were prepared to take against it, she left for the Netherlands, and was not to return to London until after the Restoration.

Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia, the “Winter Queen”
Workshop of Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt
via Wikimedia Commons

This was not the last set of intercepted letters to damage the royal cause. A collection including coded messages from Henrietta Maria, captured after the battle of Naseby in June 1645, and published by parliamentary order as The Kings Cabinet Opened, persuaded many at a critical point that Charles was not to be trusted. The reputation of others was also sabotaged by such means. Loyalty to the king’s elder sister Elizabeth Stuart, who had married Frederick, elector palatine of the Rhine and briefly king of Bohemia, had been a keynote of 1620s Parliaments; calls for military intervention to restore them to their territories had had considerable support. Sentimental attachment to Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia, a Protestant heroine now widowed and exiled in The Hague, endured into the 1640s. Representations in the Commons outlining her parlous financial circumstances yielded both sympathy and funds for her and her numerous children. But the discovery of letters from her to her brother and to her son, Prince Rupert, a royalist commander, revealed that she too was no friend of the Long Parliament. Her letter to Rupert, reproduced in its original French in the Commons Journal, urged him to do whatever he could to support his uncle and lamented the fact that his elder brother, Elector Charles Louis, had been led astray into fraternising with Parliament.

Queen Elizabeth I
NPG 2082
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Loyalty to that other Queen Elizabeth, of England, lasted longer. In a speech at Whitehall in January 1641 in which he had announced an ‘intention to reduce all matters of religion and government to what they were in the purest times of Queen Elizabeth’s days’, Charles had told most MPs exactly what they wanted to hear. As late as 1648, those who desired a settlement with him secured the republication of Elizabeth I’s speech to her last Parliament in 1601, expressing the relationship of monarch and people to which they aspired. The queen aimed ‘to be the mean, under God, to conserve you in safety, and preserve you from danger’. Since ‘my heart was never set upon any worldly goods, but onely for my subjects’ good’, she would not hoard, but give back her riches again; ‘far above all earthly treasures I esteem my people’s love’. To ‘wear a crown is a thing more glorious to them that see it, then it is pleasant to them that bear it’; she ‘was never so much inticed with the … royal authority of a queen, as delighted, that God hath made me his instrument to maintain his truth and glory, and to defend his kingdom from dishonor, damage, tyranny and oppression’ [Queen Elizabeth’s Speech (1648, BL E.432.15].


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