The king, his sister, and the secret treaty
One of the things that I find very endearing about Charles II, is that he was very much a family man. Not, I hasten to add, family man in the sense that he liked sitting at home with the wife and have tea (our Charles was quite the bounder, more than fond of an intense and…err…varied nightlife), more in that he held his Stuart family close to his heart.
I suppose to some extent this is the lot of the eldest sibling. Charles took his role as big brother seriously. Even more, I assume this is due to his father’s execution, leaving not only Charles, but his brothers and sisters, fatherless at a very young age. Charles was not quite nineteen that icy January day when Charles the First stepped out onto the temporary scaffold erected outside the Banqueting House.
The moment Charles’ severed head was displayed to the assembled crowds, Charles junior became king – in his heart, in his mind, and definitely in the opinion of the die-hard royalists. He also became the head of his family – albeit that his mother comes across as a forceful lady. At the time, two of his siblings were in Parliamentarian hands – youngest brother Henry and middle sister Elizabeth. His oldest sister was safe in the Netherlands, his closest brother was in France, as was the baby of the family, little Henrietta.
Charles would always have a soft spot for this his youngest sister. Nicknamed Minette, the little princess grew into quite the little charmer, and one of those she wound successfully round her little finger was her big brother – probably because she represented something of a sunbeam in a life defined by the pressure of being an exiled king.
Princess Henrietta was born in 1644, lived in England for the first few years of her life until the development of the Civil War led to the princess being carried overseas to the safety of the French Court. Once there, the little princess was given an additional name, Anne, in honour of her aunt, dowager queen of France.
In many ways, Henrietta was the luckiest of the Stuart siblings: too young to know her beheaded father, too young to miss England, she was also something of a pampered favourite at the French court. In difference to Charles, who was to spend a decade in more or less constant penury, painfully aware of just how insignificant an exiled king could be, Minette was brought up as a lady at the French court – even to the point of being raised a Catholic, this despite having been baptised into the Church of England.
She did, however, have to deal with her mother’s utter devastation upon hearing of her husband’s death. Luckily, Henrietta Maria rallied from her paralysing grief and did what she could to support her surviving children. A devout Catholic, Henrietta Maria was of the opinion it would be best for all her children to embrace the true faith. She got little response there, as Charles was not about to risk his claim to the English throne, Mary was married to a staunch Protestant, Henry was a fervent Protestant, and James was far too busy covering himself in glory as a soldier – just as Henry, both brothers eventually ending up fighting for the Spanish against the French.
Henrietta grew up to be an attractive girl – sufficiently so for her mother to propose her as a bride for Louis XIV. (Marriage between cousins was apparently considered a good idea not only by the Hapsburgs.) Anne of Austria was not all that thrilled: while she was fond of her pretty namesake, an impoverished exiled princess was not what she had in mind for her son.
Louis XIV went on to marry his Spanish cousin in 1660 (a Hapsburg bride, marrying the son of a Hapsburg mother…What can I say?) By then, of course, Minette’s status had changed for the better – her eldest brother had been invited back to England, there to reclaim the throne of his father. This substantially increased Henrietta’s value as a bride, and suddenly Louis’ brother, the flamboyantly homosexual Philippe, the Duc d ’Orleans, expressed a desire to wed the precious Minette. Probably Philippe realised he had no choice: he was expected to marry and produce an heir, and if so obliged, why not choose someone he knew and cared for – albeit not like that.
Before any wedding could take place, Henrietta and her mother went to England. An intended joyous occasion – the reunion of the royal Stuart family – became instead one of common grief, as Prince Henry succumbed to smallpox in early summer of 1660. Obviously, Henrietta and her mother had to stay for longer than intended – Charles needed their support and love. Things did not exactly get better when yet another of the siblings contracted smallpox. In December of 1660, Princess Mary died as well. 1660 might have been the year when Charles finally got his crown back, but it was also the year in which he lost two of the four siblings remaining to him.
Henrietta returned to France and her waiting groom. By all accounts, that first year of their marriage was a happy one, and a year or so later, little Marie Louise saw the light of the day. Henrietta was devastated by the fact that she’d given birth to a girl, not a much longed for son. Her husband, however, was thrilled – but he was less than pleased by the rumours that hinted at illicit liasons between his wife and other men, notably his own brother and a certain Conde de Guiche – who was also Philippe’s lover. It seems our Minette had acquired extensive skills in the subtle art of flirting, or maybe she was just getting her own back by pretending to seduce the handsome count.
Henrietta was getting tired of Philippe and his handsome young men – especially the dashing Chevalier de Lorraine, rather quaintly described as “as greedy as a vulture”. The Chevalier bragged that he could easily convince Philippe to divorce his wife – the Duc d ‘Orleans was far more attached to his male lover than his wife. This did not go down well with Henrietta – or Louis XIV. Philippe, however, was totally devoted to his lover, so much so that he even installed him in his household, creating an anything but cosy ménage-a-trois.
Throughout these rather tempestuous years of her life, Minette kept up a regular correspondence with her brother. They shared a close bond, were perhaps the most similar in temperament, and Charles was more than aware of how unhappy Henrietta was with her husband, even if now and then the couple reconciled sufficiently to make a new child. In total, Henrietta gave birth to four children including Marie Louise, one of which was a beloved son who died of convulsions before the age of two, one a stillborn daughter. The last, born in 1669, yet another little girl named Anne Marie.
Not only did brother and sister correspond about family news. Henrietta was instrumental in the sensitive negotiations between France and England. Louis XIV wanted England to ally itself with France so as to crush that annoying pest William III, the soon-to-be Stadtholder of the United Dutch Provinces. William was a voluble defender of Protestants everywhere – and he was also Charles II’s nephew, which made the entire situation somewhat delicate.
In 1669, Henrietta lost her mother to an overdose of opiates. She was devastated, even more so when her husband hastened to claim his mother-in-law’s possessions. Having the smirking Chevalier de Lorraine lounging about in her home did not improve matters, and this time Henrietta appealed to the king. Louis XIV listened and decided to help his sister-in-law, not that he held any hopes of ever being able to wean his brother of his addiction to the charming, beautiful and remarkably intelligent Chevalier.
The Chevalier was exiled in January 1670. He was back home a month later, Louis XIV having succumbed to his brother’s pleas. Obviously, this little fracas did not improve the relationship between Henrietta and her husband, but for the moment she had other things to concern herself with, starting with her recurring digestive problems. Since 1667, Henrietta had suffered intense pangs of pain in her side, and in April of 1670, things got so bad she could only drink milk.
Fortunately for Henrietta, she had something with which to distract herself from her constant pain: years and years of careful overtures to her brother Charles were finally bearing fruit. At last, Charles was seriously considering a treaty whereby France would help Charles bring England back to the Holy Roman Church. In return, England was to abandon the triple alliance with Sweden and the Dutch Republic and help Louis XIV conquer the Dutch. Should this venture be successful, England was promised control over several profitable Dutch ports.
Specifically, the treaty called for Charles to officially announce his intention to convert, at which point he would receive the handsome sum of two million crowns to support his massive conversion programme. Simultaneously, England was then to declare war on the Dutch, thereby allying themselves with France’s invasive force.
Needless to say, the above was so incendiary that, should it have become public, chances were Charles II would have ended up as his father. Only two men knew of Charles’ desire to embrace the Catholic religion – or of the treaty as such. One of these men, Thomas Clifford, was a devout Catholic. The other, Henry Bennet, was convinced it was in England’s interests to help France crush the Dutch.
It was decided that Henrietta should travel to England, there to sign the treaty on behalf of Louis XIV. She was delighted at the opportunity to see her brother again, and in May 1670 she landed in Dover. Brother and sister had a tender reunion scene before settling down to business. On June 1, 1670, the (secret) Treaty of Dover was signed – and it was so secret no one knew about its existence until the late 18th century. Once all the paperwork had been concluded, Henrietta decided to spend a further few weeks in the company of her brother, and by all accounts they were both delighted to spend time with each other.
By late June, Henrietta was back in France, back to handling her husband, his enervating lover, and her constant stomach pains. On June 29, she drank a glass of iced chicory water. Immediate pain had her crying out that she’d been poisoned, and people rushed to give her assorted anti-dotes. Nothing helped. Nine hours later, Henrietta was dead, just 26 years old.
Her husband and his lover were immediately suspected of having poisoned her. It is said that when Charles found out his sister had died – and how – he exclaimed “Philippe!” before retiring to grieve in solitude. An autopsy, however, revealed she’d died of gastroenteritis. Henrietta’s contemporaries were not convinced…
Ironically, Henrietta’s daughter Marie Louise was to die of similar symptoms and at the same age. Yet again, there would be cries of poison, yet again, such suspicions would remain unproven.
Henrietta was buried in Saint Denis on the 4th of July 1670. Of all her siblings, only two remained: a grief-struck Charles II, and a somewhat less devastated Duke of York. As to her husband, he was to remarry with almost indecent haste. The man needed a male heir, and this time he requested his royal brother’s help to find him a suitable bride. The lot fell to Elisabeth Charlotte, Princess Palatinate – granddaughter to Elizabeth Stuart, Charles I’s sister. It would seem Philippe was stuck with Stuart women…In any case, in difference to Henrietta, Elisabeth was to present her husband with a son. Just like Henrietta, Elisabeth would live cheek to jowl not only with her husband, but also with his lover, that irrepressible Chevalier de Lorraine.