The Untold Story of Henrietta Maria, England’s Warrior Queen


In the Atlas Obscura Q&A series She was there, we talk to scholars who are rewriting women long forgotten in history.

Around noon on July 4, 1643, in the countryside just north of birmingham, Queen Henrietta Maria was in her battle tent. Outside, shells exploded. Bullets were flying. Anxiously, the Queen of England waited. Taking Burton-Upon-Trent, a strategic town with a river crossing connecting north and south England, was the first real challenge of his army. Defeat was not an option. But the fighting had already raged for five hours – how long would it take to achieve a victory? Three hours later, the queen got her answer. His royalist army had finally broken through the city’s defences. Victory was assured.

Eighteen years earlier, the Queen had arrived on English shores as a 15-year-old French bride. And now, at 34, she was a warrior queen. The queen would jokingly be called “she-majesty generalissima”. The lines of a contemporary poem, whose authorship is unknown, depict her not only defeating but also unbalancing the forces of Parliament, literally: “Here is where a woman rules; but one would swear that the armies there were made up of women. His talent garnered wide respect from diplomatic elites; the Venetian ambassador observed, “Without [the queen’s] encouragement and help, the king would never have put himself in a position to resist. During the English Civil War, Queen Henrietta Maria was, it seems, all that stood between the certain defeat of King Charles at the hands of Parliament.

But for all her prowess, history remembers Henrietta Maria as an evil seductress, who inspired Charles to war. New biography of historian Leanda de Lisle Henrietta Maria: the warrior queen who divided a nation tells the story of the formidable queen. Dark Atlas spoke with de Lisle about how the Queen dodged bullets, her self-deprecating sense of humor and why history has slandered the fierce English monarch.

One place where 17th century women often wielded power was on the dance floors, where women could speak directly with men in power. “The ball in the court” by Marten Pepijn, 1604. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts/Public domain/Wikimedia

What was it like to be a court lady in the 17th century?

Women were peacemakers, unifiers, helpers for their husbands. But women have never fully adhered to the rules expected of them. And at the court of Charles and certainly at France, there were powerful women who were networkers and could facilitate introductions and so on with powerful men. And so they wielded considerable power.

How did history remember Henrietta Maria?

All the usual tropes directed at women dating back to Eve’s story were used against her. She is silly and frivolous. She is weak. She is superficially attractive, like Eve was, and therefore able to seduce King Charles I into evil. And this evil is supposedly on two levels – one that she makes him Catholic, which is completely wrong, and also that she encourages his authoritarianism, which is also completely wrong.

How was Henrietta Maria?

Henrietta loved fun company. She liked spiritual people. She was very funny. She had a great sense of humor and was full of joy of living. She would have been very fun, self-deprecating company. She could tease people and she didn’t lose her sense of humor. Even in the most terrible circumstances, she made jokes.

For example, there was an occasion during the English Civil War when she departed from Holland on a boat with his ladies. And this terrible storm lasted for days and days. The ships sank. People have died. She and her ladies-in-waiting confessed their sins out loud because they thought they were going to die. But they are not dead. Other ships sank. Theirs did not. They staggered back to Holland, covered in vomit. Their robes had to be burned. But then Henrietta Maria started teasing her ladies about what they had confessed. She said, “Oh, you remember you said that!?” She had a kind of naughty humor like that.

This 19th century painting by an unknown artist shows King Charles I and Prince Rupert preparing for the Battle of Naseby in May 1646. The Royalists suffered a terrible defeat, dashing any hope of victory over the Parliamentarians.
This 19th century painting by an unknown artist shows King Charles I and Prince Rupert preparing for the Battle of Naseby in May 1646. The Royalists suffered a terrible defeat, dashing any hope of victory over the Parliamentarians. Public domain/Wikimedia

How did she become a warrior queen? What was its role in the English Civil War?

She didn’t really get involved in English politics at first. But, as things got closer to civil war, she realized that her husband was handling things incredibly badly. Parliament had most men, most money and most arms in England. And so, she had to step in to help him.

So she went to Holland, apparently to accompany her daughter who was marrying Holland’s heir, and she collected some money. She raised her arms. She raised men. And when everyone expected Charles to lose the first major battle of the Civil War, he didn’t. And the reason he didn’t was largely because of the work she had done in Holland.

How involved was she in the war?

Parliament tried very hard to kill her because they realized she was a great help to Charles. When she landed in Yorkshire after leaving Holland, parliamentary spies discovered the cottage she was spending the night in. They put their boat in the harbor and bombarded his cottage. She fled with her little stuffed dog under her arm, Mitte, into a ditch with her ladies and others. There are very vivid descriptions of bullets hitting the Earth. You can just see the dirt getting into their hair as the bullets and shells hit. A sergeant was torn to pieces a few meters from her.

But she and her army were hugely successful. When Charles ordered her to head south, she took Burton-on-Trent on her way. She was directly involved in negotiating with parliamentary commanders who stepped down. She thus reached the port of Scarborough. She sat on the war councils of the North and expressed her views. She was riding with her army. She came very close to helping Charles win the Civil War.

After the execution of Charles I, Henrietta Maria successfully lobbied for her son, Charles II (far left), to regain the English crown.  Anthony van Dyck's family portrait, shown here, was painted in 1632.
After the execution of Charles I, Henrietta Maria successfully lobbied for her son, Charles II (far left), to regain the English crown. Anthony van Dyck’s family portrait, shown here, was painted in 1632. Royal Collection/Public Domain/Wikimedia

Why is it important to tell Henrietta’s story?

Well, that’s a good story for one and it’s also an important story. It shows how twisted and perverted history can be, and how easy it is to do.

How did you unravel the story of Henrietta Maria?

We must go back to what was written at the time. You have to try to understand the culture of the time. And you have to know what ax people had to grind to be able to separate truth from fiction. Many historians will simply write what has already been written. They will follow the person forward. And they will literally tackle their prejudices. They will look for things that reinforce the ideas they already have. Take quotes out of context.

How do the endings of women’s stories, like that of Henrietta Maria, help tell a better story?

Men and women are part of the same past. Of course, you get bad women. You get useless women. You get stupid women. You have, you know, all kinds of women, just like you have all kinds of men.

It is about seeking the truth. By including women in the story, we can get closer to a true picture of what happened.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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