Erin Griffey in this attractive book fills out our picture of Queen Henrietta Maria, the valiant but controversial consort of King Charles I of Great Britain, by describing the material culture that she created to express and enhance her exalted position primarily at the English but then also at the French, court. She follows Caroline Hibbard who has worked up much of this painting by charting the devoted role she played in support of her husband and then her son. The performance of Hibbard’s task was long overdue thanks to a blinkered historiography that either ignored the protagonist or cast her career in a malign light: she was “after all” both Catholic and French. Griffey highlights these characteristics in her praiseworthy elaboration of a yet further dimension to her heroine’s career.
The evidence required for Griffey to fulfil her task lay chiefly in inventories, some already known, others tracked down by her, which itemized Henrietta Maria’s possessions at various stages of her career, and in household and building accounts of the English bureaucracy. These clerical mines of information have been studied with painstaking thoroughness – no mean achievement in itself – and skilfully interpreted. Her fascination with the material is everywhere apparent down to spelling idiosyncrasies, her not infrequent repetition of which may seem jejune. Indeed if any fault can be found in Griffey’s achievement, it lies in the copy editing, which if it had been more vigorously applied would have made her book an (even) better read.
The book itself is handsomely produced and amply illustrated, often in color, although several redundant details are reproduced. Of the reproductions those after portraits of Hennrietta Maria by Van Dyck are of course for the great part familiar. But the images of a silver (surely gilt) ewer and basin in Moscow, part of her trousseau brought to England in 1625, provide the chief visual evidence of the magnificence that surrounded the Queen. The illustration of a miserable old photograph of a chair, footstool and stools of the period at Knole in Kent hardly makes up for the inevitable paucity of images of contemporary luxury goods. But more furniture of the period could easily have been tracked down at Knole itself and at the Kremlin armoury where the famous Jacobean carriage is preserved.
Such a conveyance would not have been unlike those in the “Ameublement de l’escurie de la Reine”, itemized in the trousseau and to be seen trundling through the French countryside on its way to London in June 1625 following the Queen’s wedding by proxy outside Notre Dame, Paris. This and the trousseau itself are well described and, for once, we hear nothing of the Duke of Buckingham’s unseemly cavortings. The contents of the trousseau are presented in an Appendix, which is followed by the list of items the Dowager Queen most likely took with her to France from her refurbished London palace, Somerset House, in 1665 and by her estate inventory taken at her country seat in Colombes, her nunnery at Chaillot and her Paris apartment in 1669. These inventories or lists are incredibly detailed and give in themselves an evocative and precise idea of the surroundings in which the Queen lived.
Most likely little attention at court was paid to the amateurish prints of the royal couple produced by English second-raters; but Griffey discusses them none the less, along with Van Dyck’s fluent representations which gave the Queen a European standing. She analyses the sequence with sensitivity, although it is hard to believe that Van Dyck would have countenanced her sexually suggestive analysis of the Mytens double portrait he was asked to improve on. More grounded and significant is the difference she detects between the appearance concocted by Van Dyck and the Queen’s preferences, as can be inferred from her household accounts: “… the bills show that her garments were much more richly laced than Van Dyck’s portraits suggest, and more often adorned with spangles and ribbons. But by far the biggest omission in Van Dyck’s portraits as a whole is embroidery … .” Perhaps as she suggests Van Dyck had not time for the fashionable accessories on which the Queen lavished expenditure on a regular basis, and perhaps she set more store by his art than she regretted their absence in her portraits.
Taking her cue from Hibbard, Griffey points out that Van Dyck was named as “principalle Paynter” to both the King and Queen, and it is to be imagined that she let her feelings and wishes known to him as she did to Inigo Jones, an even more important figure at court but of less international repute. Henrietta Maria was to be an early patron of Christopher Wren, but for the majority of the servants who catered to her taste, for instance Charles Gentile, her embroiderer, her tailor George Gillon and her upholsterer Ralph Grinder (or Grynder who was quite prominent in the Commonwealth sales of the royal collection) we know very little. And even those who assisted her – like the long serving Henry Browne Under Housekeeper at Somerset House and her Mistress of the Robes and then First Lady of Honor, Susan Feilding, Lady Denbigh – remain shrouded in obscurity (of the Duchess of Richmond, pace Hibbard, also in her entourage, we are told nothing).
Lady Denbigh was converted to Catholicism; she was one of those, not a few, who responded positively to the Queen’s proselytizing (though Tobie Matthew was not among them as Griffey asserts, he had converted long before her arrival in England). This activity, troublesome for her husband and her son, reached its height in the second half of the 1630s and in the first of the 1660s. Central to her earlier efforts was the chapel for Catholic worship, which Jones designed for her at Somerset House; in the accounts of her treasurer Sir Richard Wynn for 1630-35, preserved in Aberystwyth, is noted a ceiling painting for it, measuring 7.3 x 3.6 m. of the Assumption of the Virginby the barely known “Goodricke” (i.e. Matthew Gooderick, active 1617-?died 1645) – a work which might have very slightly prepared visitors for Rubens’s overwhelming Apotheosis of King James I soon to arrive in Whitehall. Some time earlier Francis Cleyn had painted for the ceiling of the Cabinet room “figures of the Arts seated upon clouds,” showing that the type of idea for decorating the Whitehall ceiling, mooted at the time, had quite a wide currency at court.
Indeed, in considering Henrietta Maria’s image and physical surroundings during the some forty-five years of her public life, Griffey touches on a whole range of topics and this not including her digressions into the predilections of her predecessor as royal consort, Anne of Denmark, and of her husband’s nemesis, Oliver Cromwell. But here we learn mainly of material matters concerning the Queen in most intimate detail, of her spirited spending on fancy goods during the prosperous times in her life and of the frenetic bouts of decoration and movement of items – from French-style beds to paintings – from palace to palace in and around London and across the Channel. All this took place as the backdrop to great and traumatic political events, and was listed by dedicated servants required to keep a record of Henrietta Maria’s consuming involvement with the “stuff” and appearance of her households.