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Restoring Charles I's queen to her rightful place as a major collector and patron of the arts

Henrietta Maria: patron, collector and propagandist

In June 1625, 15-year-old Henrietta Maria, the daughter of Henri IV of France and Marie de Médicis, arrived in England as the bride of Charles I. With her came numerous attendants and a trousseau of clothes and jewels that hinted at her later reputation for profligacy and ostentation. She also travelled with a burden of diplomatic expectation. Factions within the Stuart court supported a French alliance, while at home it was hoped that a Catholic Queen would encourage conversions in the highest places, smoothing the path for Protestant England’s return to the papal fold. Given the tricky question of her faith and the conflicting interests invested in the match, the future Queen’s success was far from guaranteed. Yet, against all odds, from around 1630 the royal couple enjoyed a lasting period of domestic harmony, while Henrietta Maria came to occupy a powerful if ambivalent position at the heart of the English establishment.

Henrietta Maria’s involvement in politics and her diverse cultural activities form the basis for a collection of interdisciplinary essays edited by Erin Griffey, Senior Lecturer in Art History at the University of Auckland. The volume begins with Malcolm Smuts’s analysis of statecraft at the Caroline court. Invoking David Starkey’s concept of the “politics of intimacy”, Professor Smuts portrays a world where strategies were developed and destinies controlled from outside official state institutions: where power relationships were played out in the Petrarchan language of romantic love, although real sexual intrigues were often part of the currency too. Diana Barnes further investigates the influence of aristocratic women in networks of political allegiance, through her reading of Jacques du Bosque’s popular epistolary text The Secretary of Ladies, published in 1635.

Caroline Hibbard’s examination of inventories and artisans’ bills provides evidence of the Queen’s hefty expenditure on household goods and clothing. Professor Hibbard sheds new light on Henrietta Maria’s employment of artists, both under her own auspices and in projects funded by her husband. Jessica Bell pinpoints the formative influence of Marie de Médicis on her daughter’s tastes, arguing that Marie’s creative collaboration with Rubens at the Luxembourg Palace inspired Henrietta Maria to construct a personal iconography referencing their joint patron, the Virgin.

Gudrun Raatschen and Erin Griffey also highlight Marian allusions in their analyses of Henrietta Maria as a portrait subject. Did such imagery function as a straightforward statement of the Queen’s Catholicism, and would this have been provocative? Dr Griffey’s discussion of the appearance and non-appearance of devotional jewellery suggests that Henrietta Maria might indeed have had to walk a fine line in overtly projecting images of her faith. Jonathan P. Wainwright’s study of music commissioned for the Queen’s Chapel at Somerset House raises similar questions, exploring the implications of an openly Roman Catholic repertoire in such a prominent site of worship. Dr Wainwright indicates the political overtones inherent in the use of Marian devotional texts, drawing parallels with Henrietta Maria’s role, widely perceived amongst English Catholics, as an intercessor with the King.

For the majority of the contributors, Henrietta Maria is identified as a key player in contemporary politics, and as an astute manipulator of patronage practices. Most are eager to defend her skill in visual self-fashioning: only Dr Raatschen seems inclined to place her within a more traditional rhetoric of dynastic succession and divine right centred on Charles himself. Why, then, has Henrietta Maria not received the scholarly attention she deserves? To some extent, her legacy as a patron of the arts has been obscured by her investment in ephemeral cultural forms. The expensive textiles she commissioned were dispersed and destroyed. Her interest in theatre, discussed here by Karen Britland and Sarah Poynting, is well documented, but actual performances can only be reconstructed. It may be commonplace to decry the bias of previous generations: nevertheless, it remains the case that the focus in recent decades on material culture and elite female patronage has paved the way for reappraisals such as this one. If Charles I represents the jewel in the crown of English connoisseurship and collecting—an image that Henrietta Maria, given her love of gems, might have enjoyed—perhaps it is time for the reputation of his Queen to take its rightful place as the resplendent setting.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Henrietta Maria: patron, collector and propagandist'