There are many things one can say about Charles, James I’s second son, the rather uninteresting and sickly spare that was destined to live forever in the shadow of his beloved and admired older brother Henry Fredrick.
One could call him lucky, seeing as big brother died in typhoid fever, thereby making Charles the heir.
One could call him unlucky, in that his reign was to end with his own beheading – to a large extent caused by Charles’ obdurate take on the divine right of kings.
One could call him elegant, a good father and a loving husband. Some would say he was priggish and small-minded. Rarely would one call him flamboyant or daring. And yet, there is one incident in Charles’ early life that speaks of a desire for adventure, a streak of recklessness. I am, of course, talking about the infamous Spanish affair.
Long before there was a Spanish affair, there was the Bohemian debacle. In 1613, Charles’ older sister, Elizabeth Stuart, had married Frederick, Count of the Palatinate Rhine – or Elector Palatinate for short. A wedding mainly contracted for political reasons quickly blossomed into a passionate love-affair, and Elizabeth was head-over-heels with her staunch Protestant German prince. Frederick was of impeccable bloodlines, related with more or less every single royal house in Europe, and the young couple seemed destined for a happy, fruitful union, bringing squalling sons into the world at very regular intervals.
So what does this have to do with Spain? Well, at the time, Europe was a patchwork quilt of loyalties, and ever since the Reformation a century or so before, these loyalties had been realigned, redesigned and generally moved around, creating a political instability equivalent to that of a grumbling volcano.
In 1619, the Holy Roman Emperor Matthias II died. A man who tempered his own Catholic beliefs with a sizeable dose of pragmatism, Matthias had promoted a tolerant approach to the Protestants living within his empire. His successor and cousin, Ferdinand II, was much more hard-core and had every intention of eradicating Protestant influence in his empire. Out with those dastardly heretics ASAP, ensuring the Holy Roman Empire lived up to its name and reputation as the staunchest of staunch Catholic strongholds. Obviously, this did not go down well with his Protestant subjects. It definitely raised the hackles of the Bohemian nobles – not only were many of them Protestants, but Ferdinand II was a great believer in absolute monarchy, thereby over-riding the hereditary rights of the Bohemian nobles to have a substantial say in their government.
Being creative, the Bohemian nobles decided to fall back on their right to choose their own monarch (a right that had not been much exercised over the last few centuries seeing as the Holy Roman Emperors tended to dislike such open displays of rebelliousness) and invited Frederick to take the crown. Frederick was hesitant. His wife wasn’t. Elizabeth wanted a crown, and besides, this was an opportunity for her beloved Freddy to show his prowess and defend his co-religionists. After some hemming and hawing, Frederick accepted the crown and was formally installed as King of Bohemia in November of 1619.
Ferdinand II was not about to tolerate such disobedience from his Bohemian subjects. Who did they think they were, hey? So in November of 1620, the Holy Roman Emperor’s forces (including a large number of Spanish soldiers) trounced those of Frederick at the Battle of White Mountain. The first pitched battle of the Thirty Years’ War had thereby been fought, and Ferdinand and his armies would go on to aggravate most of Protestant Europe for (taa-daa) thirty more years, give or take. For Frederick and Elizabeth, the effects were far more immediate: after one year, they’d been ousted from their thrones and forced into exile.
This is where Spain comes into play. Ferdinand II was a Hapsburg. The Spanish royals were also Hapsburgs. The two branches of the Hapsburg family were very close, as testified by their preference for marrying each other. They were also undoubtedly the most powerful royals in Europe (for a little while longer) and James I had long nurtured the hope of uniting his family with the Hapsburgs, thereby creating an impressive alliance between England and Spain that would effectively crush France between them. Clearly, once James added the English crown to his Scottish one he set little store on the “Auld Alliance”, that very old pact between France and Scotland against England.
Originally, James’ intention had been to wed Henry Frederick to a Spanish Infanta. Given just how fervently Protestant Henry Frederick was, and how fiercely Catholic the Spanish royals were, that would probably have been a rather unhappy match. In actual fact, it is rather odd that the Spanish Ambassador to England even suggested the match. After all, he – and his royal master, Felipe III of Spain – would have known the pope would never give the dispensation required for a princess of such august Catholic blood to wed an upstart heretic. Unless said heretic converted, of course. “When hell freezes over,” would likely have been dear Henry Frederick’s reply to that suggestion.
Henry Frederick died, the formerly so disregarded Charles was installed as Prince of Wales in 1616, and the hope of a Spanish alliance still lived. Ambassador Gondomar sweetened the deal by offering a huge dowry – large enough that James could do without that pesky Parliament, at least for a while. All the Spanish wanted in return was for England to throw out all that anti-Catholic legislation, such as Test Acts and the like, and stay well away from the turbulent situation in the Spanish Netherlands.
James considered himself a great statesman, and was probably more than flattered by the Spanish interest. Being possessed of the ability to ignore that which did not please him, he didn’t pay much regard to the heated protests from various subjects, along the lines that England had not defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588 only to hop into bed with that popish whore of a nation four decades later.
After the Bohemia debacle, James had hopes that a Spanish match could lead to the Spanish Hapsburgs putting pressure on their Austrian cousins so as to reinstate Frederick and Elizabeth. In the aftermath of the Battle of White Mountain, James saw no option but to call a Parliament, hoping thereby to raise the funds required to help Frederick and Elizabeth retake what was rightfully theirs. Parliament was all over itself in its anti-Catholic furore, but saw no reason to expend any larger amounts of English tax money on the Elector and his wife. James was miffed. Even more so when Parliament argued for war with Spain, thereby threatening the potential Spanish match.
After months of arguing with Parliament, James dissolved it. He still had his heart set on the Spanish alliance, but we were now in 1621, Spain had a new king, there was a new pope, and James was also astute enough to realise that Parliament was, in effect, expressing the view of the English people when they opposed a marriage alliance with Spain. Besides, even James must have realised the religious differences between the Spanish and the English were too much of an obstacle.
James’s son, however, did not share his father’s defeatist view on the Spanish match. Neither did Prince Charles’ new bosom friend, George Villiers, the soon-to-be Duke of Buckingham. These two gentlemen decided to take matters in their own hands, and what better way to woo the reluctant Spanish Infanta than by popping in on a surprise visit?
At the time, royal courts worked to defined protocols. Compared to the formal Spanish court, James’s court was like a laid back two-week inclusive in the Caribbean. In Spain, one DID NOT pop by on a surprise visit, even less travelling under an alias. Such minor details did not deter our amorous prince. Charles and George chose (rather unimaginatively) to travel as Thomas and John Smith and set off in February of 1623, Charles determined to win his Spanish bride and return home a married (and richer) man.
Off they went, George and Charles, failing miserably at keeping the low profile required to even slip out of England unnoticed. At some point, Villiers had to reveal himself as the Lord Admiral he was, and only then were our two Mr Smiths allowed to step aboard the ship that was to take them to France. In Paris, they donned periwigs to disguise themselves, which worked surprisingly well, and so after some days of enjoying La belle France incognito, they set off south, riding hard for Madrid and the waiting Doña María Ana, Infanta of Spain and as Catholic as they came.
It seems no one had thought to investigate whether the purported bride had any interest in marrying the gallant English prince. María Ana was very devout, and would no more wed a heretic than she would one of the multiple flea-ridden urchins that prowled the streets of Madrid. Unless, of course, the young man in question were to convert, thereby ensuring María Ana a permanent place in heaven.
Early in March, Charles and George arrived in Madrid. As a matter of course, they went directly to the residence of the Earl of Bristol, England’s ambassador in Spain. The poor ambassador was shocked. Incensed. Aghast. Gobsmacked. All of these. Charles, however, was quite pleased with himself. From his perspective, all the needed to do was to meet his intended, charm her petticoats off, and that was it.
Spanish Infantas did not meet men outside their immediate family just like that. María Ana was no exception to the rule, and Charles’ request that he may be allowed to pay court in person was met with a polite but firm no. Disappointment must have etched deep lines in Charles’ face, because Felipe IV came up with a little plan whereby Charles would be able to see his intended without any breach of protocol.
In Spain, at the time there was a tradition called “hacer la rúa”, or “el paseo”. In essence, it meant people took to the outdoors, whether astride a horse, in a carriage or on foot, and made a pre-defined circuit, thereby upping the chances of running into someone you really wanted to meet. In Madrid, the route circled the Plaza Mayor, detoured round San Gerónimo, and ambled through El Prado (at the time a park, not an art museum). Buckingham and Charles were bundled into a carriage. María Ana was placed in another, accompanied by her brother’s queen, the pretty Isabel of Bourbon. By chance, as it were, these vehicles passed one another a couple of times. Enough for Charles to see bright blue eyes and a stray lock or two of golden hair. Not enough to exchange as much as a word.
For five months, Felipe IV kept Charles hanging. James dispatched a retinue from England, Charles met frequently with Felipe IV and his closest advisor the Count of Olivares. He was feted in grand style, was acclaimed by the Spanish people who were rather taken by the English prince – even more so given that his mere presence in Spain reasonably indicated his intention to return to the True Faith.
There were banquets and balls, there were bull runs and afternoons at the Madrid playhouses, and not once was Charles allowed to spend as much as a moment alone with María Ana, the precious Infanta always impressively chaperoned, never more than an enticing promise.
In a grand gesture, Felipe IV released hundreds of English prisoners from his galleys, but smiled blandly whenever Charles pressed his suit, reminding the eager prince that he needed reassurances, promises that the English anti-Catholic legislation would be repealed, that María Ana would be allowed to worship in accordance with her conscience.
Charles (or his father) had no authority to agree to the Spanish terms – but they did, off the record, like. And still Felipe IV procrastinated. Even after James had signed the contract, Felipe hemmed and hawed, saying he couldn’t be parted from his dear sister until the promised changes had been made.
Truth was, Felipe never had the slightest intention of forcing his sister into marriage with Charles – but he negotiated with Charles as if he did, and all the while Spain was carefully jockeying for a more favourable position in the European conflicts, keeping England docile by waving the carrot of a potential marriage under Charles’ nose. As to the Elector, Felipe was not about to support a Protestant upstart against his Austrian uncle. Besides, Ferdinand II had a son, yet another Ferdinand, and María Ana would make an excellent Holy Roman Empress, wouldn’t she?
Eventually, Felipe came clean and admitted that his sister would not consider marrying Charles – unless he converted. To convert was not on the books as far as Charles was concerned. Humiliated and furious, Charles embarked on the long trip home, and his previously so warm feelings for fair María Ana, for Spain, were replaced by the conviction that nothing good could come from interacting with the accursed Hapsburgs – no matter how blue their Spanish eyes might be.
In 1625, James died, and Charles wasted little time in finding a new bride. This time, his eye fell on Henrietta Maria, French princess and just as fervent a Catholic as María Ana. And yet the English heaved a sigh of relief: at least their future queen wasn’t Spanish!
And as to that pretty Infanta, María Ana went on to marry her cousin Ferdinand III. One of her daughters, Mariana, would subsequently marry Felipe IV, María Ana’s brother. Not at all unusual among the Hapsburgs, to marry close relatives, but this time round all that inbreeding was to result in a number of short-lived babies and a seriously impaired heir – both mentally and physically.
As we all know, Charles I was not destined to live a long and happy life (very much due to his own incompetence), but he was fortunate in his wife, a loyal spouse who stood by him through thick and thin. To Charles, it mattered little that Henrietta Maria was Catholic. Sadly, to his subjects it most certainly did, and the little queen who was so warmly welcomed in 1625 would be viewed with suspicion as the English succumbed to an ever-growing hatred of all things papist. But that, as they say, is an entirely different story.
P.S. For those that, like me, are major Alatriste fans, Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s first book about this Spanish gent is centred round Charles’ spontaneous visit to Madrid. Great read!