Review: A Royal Passion, Katie Whitaker

When I was seven, my class did a topic on the Tudors.  I fell in love.  It’s never really gone away – I still think the Tudors are fairly amazing.  Anyway, when the term’s topic ended and we moved on (to the Aztecs, it just wasn’t the same thing even if they did have cocoa beans), I tried to console myself by reading further on in my Kings and Queens of England and Scotland book (the Plantagenet Somerset Fry one which is tragically no longer in print) and through this discovered the Stuarts.  Somehow, I never thought that they were as good.  By then I was eight and to my objective eye, their hair was too long, their clothes were weird and they were just silly people who didn’t know how to govern properly.  I have read a lot about the Victorians and the Plantagenets but somehow I’ve never taken a great deal of interest in the Stuarts.  But then … I moved to Oxford.  During the Civil War, Oxford was the Royalist stronghold and my place of work is where Henrietta Maria lived and held court.  So … my curiousity was finally piqued.  I read about the Curious Case of the Headless King.

A Royal Passion sounds like a bad bodice-ripper.  It’s kind of written like one too.  It starts at the end, Charles’ final days.  You can’t help but feel sorry for the man preparing himself to die, bravely putting on two shirts lest he shudder and be thought afraid but then panicking that the executioner will behead him before he is ready.  No one deserves that fate.  Hundreds of miles away in France, his wife does not believe that Parliament will dare execute him.  He writes her a poignant last message of farewell, swearing that their love for each other has been the one constant in his life and has been what he has clung to during his final difficult months.  Her grief will endure for the rest of her life.

This is a very atmospheric account of the royal marriage, Whitaker breathily describes the idyllic days of the 1630s, full of sunshine and hunts and masques.  Yet somehow although Whitaker is obviously trying to squeeze into the template of the Tragic Romance, for me it just did not quite fit.  Even in the early chapters, Whitaker casually notes that Charles I had an affair during his final months of captivity but dismisses the relationship as being purely sexual and having very little bearing on his over-riding love for his wife.  Er … what?  My mind’s eye sums up Charles I whining, “It didn’t mean anything – I love Henrietta.”  What right did Whitaker have to decide on what his adultery meant?  Although she claims that she is using a variety of ‘original’ sources, it seemed a bit limited.  The affair is never mentioned again and Whitaker seems to be writing with just as much of an angle as the French officials who she is so swift to criticise.

That is not to say that the story of Henrietta and Charles’ marriage is not an interesting read – it most certainly is.  Theirs was indeed a turbulent relationship even before the outbreak of the Civil War.  Charles was not even present at their wedding, which took place outside Notre Dame.  Lengthy, protracted negotiations had been necessary to decide on the small print on the marriage contract since Henrietta was a devout Catholic and had no plans to abandon her faith.  Given that Catholicism had been outlawed in Britain, this was something that would become increasingly problematic.  Still, the fifteen year-old Henrietta was quietly keen on the prospect and according to Whitaker showed that she was in love with Charles (a man she had never met) by privately asking to borrow his portrait.

Charles himself was a fairly diffident young man who had been upgraded from spare to heir aged twelve when his brother died.  Where Henry Frederick Prince of Wales had been hugely popular and good-looking, Charles was a bit short and kind of awkward.  He was a far second in his father’s eyes to the Duke of Buckingham; I was very puzzled as an eight year-old to read that James I used to refer to himself as Buckingham’s ‘wife’ and ‘dad’ – one of the wonderful things about books written by Plantagenet Somerset Fry (apart from his frankly amazing name) was that he never did talk down to children.  It’s not that I dislike Horrible Histories, I actually count myself as a fan but there is something to be said for original source material!

Henrietta Maria by contrast comes across as a teenage drama queen.  Although she arrived in England full of good intentions and indeed early meetings with her new husband were favourable, things quickly became problematic.  Henrietta Maria was in no way discreet about her Catholicism, despite it being an outlawed faith in England.  She openly prayed for people executed for Catholic heresy and was rumoured to have referred to one of the Gunpowder plotters as a martyr for his faith – this was a man who had tried to kill her father-in-law.  Her behaviour was at best petulant and at worst downright rude and objectionable.  Still, she was a fifteen year-old caught between the child’s desire for parental approval and her own queenly ambitions.  On the one hand her over-bearing mother Marie de Medici was writing to her telling her repeatedly to hold fast to her Catholicism and speak loudly in its favour and in the other she had her new husband expressing his disappointment.  Even Henrietta’s own supporters admitted that she was ‘a little young’ for queenship.

Early disputes between Charles and Henrietta Maria are almost humourously petty.  They had one lengthy argument over whether or not it was raining – Charles wanted Henrietta to observe his parade outside, she did not want her hair to get wet, he said it was not raining that much, she said it was too undsoweiter.  Another came when the two of them were in bed and Henrietta Maria complained that Charles’ mother Anne of Denmark had had the right to run her own household and she wanted the same.  Charles snapped at her that his mother had been a grander woman and had been more deserving.  Henrietta snapped back that Anne of Denmark was from a smaller country and from a mere duchy, Charles responded that Henrietta was the youngest daughter of her house and so of least import.  Daggers drawn.

I did find it troubling though that a fifteen year-old who was known to be small for her age was having to play the part of wife.  Charles was in his twenties – there is something very disturbing about a man ten years older telling a fifteen year-old that he is about to spend the night with her but that she should remember that this was not going to happen through any love of her but rather because of the love he has for his realm; Charles needed an heir and Henrietta was expected to provide.  Years later, Charles and Henrietta Maria married their own daughter Princess Mary to the Prince of Orange when Princess Mary was nine and the Prince of Orange was fourteen.  Neither Henrietta nor Mary were keen at first because of his low rank; they had hoped to marry Mary to a Spanish prince.  Anyway, the two of them hit it off in the end and the marriage was solemnised but to off-set any risk of the match being annulled, the young ‘couple’ were put to bed alone for half an hour.  Again, odd.  I understand why – I am even willing to believe Whitaker’s assurance that nothing more than kisses and hand-holding occurred.  It’s just weird to think of a nine year-old girl lying in the dark with a fourteen year-old boy – I can’t believe that she wasn’t nervous.

Charles and Henrietta eventually found an equilibrium and even the grand passion that Whitaker signposts in her title.  Charles was actually present at the birth of at least one of his children – he was a very demonstrative husband and it was frequently hard to distract him from his wife long enough to govern.  He would boast of his happiness and of his marriage, that theirs was the most loving in Europe.  Somehow though, I struggled to warm to them as a couple and I think this affected my enjoyment of this book.  It was not that Henrietta Maria was a Catholic, it was that she was utterly unable to comprehend – or even to try to comprehend – that other people might have sincere alternative beliefs.  She thought that Protestantism was a ‘historical aberration’ brought about by Henry VIII’s lust for Anne Boleyn and search for an heir.  Never mind the corruption in the church, never mind people questioning their own faith – I just didn’t take to her.

Weirdly, I found myself liking Charles better but also being really surprised that he lasted as King for as long as he did.  From this book, he did seem to have been a man of conscience – but then so was Henry VIII.  It’s just that while Henry VIII was able to perform amazing mental gymnastics to the point that whatever whim danced into his brain became the Will of God leaving his conscience blindingly white, Charles I’s honour system was far less flexible.  He clung to it even as it began to sink him, he hung on to the wreckage as the waves began to overwhelm and finally it killed him.  A good man.  Not a good King.  He ended up reminding me a lot of Tsar Nicholas II – neither of those men had much in the way of malice in them but yet they forgot that being the monarch also means serving one’s country, not the other way around.

There is a real sense that Whitaker herself fell a little in love with her two leads.  She is clearly ‘rooting’ for them even though at this remove there is nothing any of us can do any more.  I could sense her disappointment that Charles and Henrietta Maria were not even reunited in death, since Henrietta Maria chose to have her heart buried at her favourite monastery and her body was interred with those of her ancestors.  Yet still, this bias gives us a book that feels unfocused, as if Whitaker is trying to sweep past the unfavourable information to present the story that she wants.  One of her most striking points for me concerned Anthony Van Dyck.  He was a celebrated artist who came to Britain and found great favour with the Royal Family.  Henrietta Maria sat for him at least twenty-five times.  Yet as Whitaker points out, they liked him because he presented them as they wanted to be – semi-divine.  Charles no longer appeared short or awkward, Henrietta became more beautiful, the two of them smile serenely, they are all-knowing.  So the images which we know them by, the ones that I first encountered as a child which made me dismiss the Stuarts, are a PR exercise and one that I felt like Whitaker had slightly fallen for.  Except even worse than a PR exercise because Charles and Henrietta Maria came to believe it themselves.

Charles I did not call Parliament for eleven years because he wanted to use his ‘independent authority’.  He would fight no wars, need no money and so need not go cap in hand to Parliament.  That was the plan anyway.  Charles was never much of a fighter though he was an obsessive hunter, taking over two weeks to travel up to York once because he stopped so often to hunt.  He did not seek military glory but he did demand the unquestioning respect that went with it.  He tried to be the medieval King in a Renaissance world.  The two do not sit well together.  He was no Edward Longshanks who might very well kill you with his bare hands.  Neither was he Edward IV who just seems to have been a hard b*****d.  He certainly was not Henry VIII who inspired terror into all those he met him.  But he could not even manage to be an Elizabeth I who was an excellent judge of character.  Instead he was just Charles, nice to everyone and unfailingly polite and courteous but unable to compromise and unable to believe in what was coming his way.  He was not divine.  He was just a man.

I felt that I was covering new territory in A Royal Passion and that I found a new understanding for Charles but yet I still do not see him as a tragic figure.  The Victorians romanticised his death at the hands of the wicked Parliamentarians but Oliver Cromwell was a man who could command – Charles was not.  I am no republican – I actually feel lucky to be living under Elizabeth II’s reign, she has been a wonderful Queen.  Only she could have gone to Ireland and made a Not-Apology-Apology and have it actually seem relevant.  As a non-partisan figure, her role has been invaluable over the decades and anti-monarchists are wrong to dismiss her.  But our Queen has understood and been ready to accept and adapt to change when necessary.  Charles and Henrietta came across as two people who expected to be worshipped and their fall, though sad, was inevitable.

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A Royal Passion by Katie Whitaker
Published by Hachette UK on August 12th 2010
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Historical, General
Pages: 288
ISBN: 9780297860204

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