Friday, May 18, 2012

Consort Profile: Princess Royal Mary Henrietta of England

HRH Princess Mary Henrietta was born at St James’s Palace in London on November 4, 1631, the eldest daughter of Their Majesties King Charles I of Britain and Queen Henrietta Maria of France. Wishing to imitate the French tradition of the firstborn daughter of the King being known as Madame Royal, the French-born Queen consort wanted to do something similar for her own daughter. So, in 1642 King Charles I gave Princess Mary the title of Princess Royal, establishing a new tradition in the British Royal Family. Even as a tiny child, the new Princess Royal was immediately the center of marriage negotiations. Originally, King Charles had wished his daughter to marry into the Spanish Royal Family to secure a long-lasting alliance between Britain and Spain. His own father had tried to see him married to a Spanish princess as King James had hoped that Britain could act as the great peace-maker between the Catholic and Protestant powers as the wars between the two sides were tearing Europe apart. This was a long-standing ambition of the House of Stuart, to emerge as the monarchy that restored peace, if not unity, to Christendom.

First choice was therefore one of the sons of King Philip IV of Spain but Karl I Ludwig, Elector Palatine (and her first cousin) was also a possibility as he hoped to counter any British shift toward Spain. Indeed, in the future he would be alienated from his uncle King Charles I for his sympathies with Parliament during the English Civil War. In any event, neither match came to be and so the Princess Royal was engaged to Prince Willem, son and heir of the Prince of Orange, Frederik Hendrik, Stadtholder of the United Provinces of The Netherlands. Despite not being the first choice, this was a potentially beneficial match. Prince Fredrik Hendrik was fast proving one of the greatest leaders the Dutch ever had and The Netherlands was emerging as a rapidly growing maritime power and commercial powerhouse. Both sides were in agreement and the marriage was properly arranged though it would have all seemed very strange to modern eyes. The wedding was held on May 2, 1641 at the Chapel Royal in Whitehall Palace in London, the Princess Royal a mere nine years old and the little groom only fifteen. Although, at that time, 15-years-old was not an unheard of age to start married life, the couple had to live apart until the 9-year-old Princess Royal matured enough to be a wife in fact as well as name.

Britain was no safe place for a young princess either. There had been the Bishop’s War with Scotland, a rebellion in Ireland and by 1642 civil war was raging in England. That being the case, the little Princess Royal, accompanied by her mother Queen Henrietta Maria, traveled to The Netherlands to take up residence with her new family. By 1644 Princess Mary Henrietta was becoming a major social figure in the Dutch Republic as the daughter-in-law of the Stadtholder. Although Prince Fredrik Hendrik held things together well, the Dutch were going through some of the same problems as the British, with an Orange faction favoring a greater role for the Princes in a more stable system and an anti-Orange faction which opposed this, knowing that such changes would ultimately lead to a monarchy. On March 14, 1647 Prince Fredrik Hendrik died and his son succeeded him as Prince Willem II of Orange, Stadtholder of The Netherlands and things came to a head. Prince Willem II was sincerely convinced that electoral formalities were hindering his country which was practically a monarchy already but which lacked the stability of a formally established royal system. He was determined to see all that changed and probably looked to becoming the first King of The Netherlands.

Naturally, Princess Mary Henrietta supported her husband in his endeavors and also campaigned for Dutch assistance to her father and the embattled royalists of Great Britain. Because of this, the Princess Royal was not the most widely popular Dutch “First Lady”, though this has, to some extent, been overblown. She was certainly unpopular with the anti-Orange republicans who opposed the efforts of her husband to formalize the authority of the House of Orange and the efforts of the Princess to aid the royalists in Great Britain. However, she was, of course, popular with the Orange party and those in The Netherlands who sympathized with the English cavaliers and feared what might happen if the wealthy merchant-class that funded the cause of the Parliamentarians came to power. The situation in The Netherlands became more and more heated and Prince Willem II decided, like his father-in-law had done, that he must take up arms to save his country. The military was strongly behind him and so he left Princess Mary Henrietta, who was heavily pregnant at the time, to march on Amsterdam with his army. He besieged the city and negotiated the removal of some of his fiercest political opponents but, only a few days later, died of smallpox on November 6, 1650 at only 24-years-old.

Just two days before Princess Mary Henrietta had given birth to their only child, Prince Willem III of Orange but she had to share guardianship of her young son with her mother-in-law Princess Amalia von Solms-Braunfels, an intelligent, ambitious and overall formidable woman. For the mourning Dowager Princess of Orange, this was a dangerous time. After the death of her husband the anti-Orange republicans seized power and The Netherlands entered what is known as the period without a Stadtholder. The republicans also whipped up public opinion against Princess Mary for the (obviously quite natural) concern and support she showed her family, giving her brothers, rightly King Charles II and the future James II, the Duke of York, safe haven in The Netherlands, which became something of a center of exiled English royalists. Finally, the political authorities forbid her to have any contact with her own English relatives and she spent more and more time outside of the country. In 1657 she became sole regent for her son, Willem III Prince of Orange, which enhanced her position but things were still far from ideal. As her mother always advised she called on King Louis XIV of France for help but none was forthcoming as he had his own designs on the Low Countries.

Anti-English sentiment in The Netherlands was heightened by the First Anglo-Dutch War between the United Provinces and the “Commonwealth of England” under Oliver Cromwell. Despite their squabbling in The Netherlands, the English Parliamentarians viewed the Dutch as enemies they wished to take revenge on due to the support (moral and monetary) that Prince Fredrik Hendrik had given the late King Charles I. In fact, he had even considered direct military intervention with his powerful, highly-skilled army. Cromwell wasted no time in striking back, despite the overtures of friendship from the Dutch republicans who even hinted that they might wish to join his Commonwealth in return for his support against the Orange party. Despite some remarkable successes, the result was eventually a defeat for The Netherlands but not such a defeat that they were unable to reject most of the English terms. They refused to join the English Commonwealth and refused to ally with Cromwell for a war of conquest against Spanish America. They did agree, since they wished it as much as Cromwell, to prevent the young Willem III from ever becoming Stadtholder. This was the hostile environment the Dowager Princess of Orange found herself in with enemies to her father and brothers in control in England and enemies of her late husband and son in control in Holland.

Finally, relief came with the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660. Suddenly, the Dowager Princess and her son were important figures again and could not be ignored. Anxious for friendly surroundings, the Princess of Orange quickly returned to her native England where she died not long after on December 24, 1660 at Whitehall from smallpox, the same affliction that had carried away her husband. She was not yet 30-years-old. The course of her life had been set before her from the time she was a small child and she had known great troubles and difficulties throughout her all too short life. Yet, though she did not live to see it, thanks to her young son, she would have the last laugh against all who had opposed her. The politicians in Holland proved unable to lead and the Prince of Orange did finally become Stadtholder of The Netherlands, fend off French invasions to become the Protestant champion of Europe and, in 1688, would invade England and alongside his English wife become King William III of Great Britain, beginning the era of the British constitutional monarchy as it exists today.

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