Ruth Norrington’s beautifully-bound and carefully selected compilation of letters between King Charles II and his sister, Henrietta, Duchesse d’Orleans is a wonderful read for anyone remotely interested in the Restoration court and the colourful people associated with it.
The book begins with an excellent, concise short history of the time shortly before and after the birth of Charles I & Henrietta Maria’s last child. Henrietta Anne was born in the midst of the chaos of the English Civil Wars, and the Queen, her mother, had to abandon her to the care of a trusted lady whilst she fled to safety in France (her homeland).
Minette had this amazing capacity to make people love her. Rupert of the Rhine was a suitor for her hand (and she might well have been the only woman that lifelong bachelor might have married!), and the Duke of Buckingham was also besotted. Charles truly loved Minette as he rarely loved many others. His love for his little sister was constant and true.
The letters reveal a beautifully close relationship between Charles and Minette. I found myself smiling in places where the genuine nature of it all was revealed:
…I am sure I shall be very impatient till I have the happiness to see my chere Minette againe.
– Whitehall, 16 December 1661
Other letters include those by Louis XIV, Mademoiselle de Montpensier, and more.
In a cruel twist of fate, the woman who was adored by all had to marry a man who simply was neither good nor good enough for her. Enter Philippe, duc d’Orleans, aka “Monsieur”:
Philippe comes across in history as a petulant, vain, effeminate and jealous creature – one who made life for Minette, and then later, Liselotte, most unhappy. It seems quite likely that Minette had an affair with her brother-in-law, King Louis XIV, which caused Monsieur’s displeasure and jealousy. The brief amour between Louis and Minette aroused a good deal of concern, and he started to see Louise de la Valliere “as a ruse to draw attention from Minette.” Louise de la Valliere became one of his most famous mistresses.
There were some awfully cute sentences, in which Charles comes across as extremely down-to-earth, fighting the common cold as here in his letter from 5 March, 1663:
“I writ to you yesterday by de Chapelles, who will tell you what a cruell cold I have gott, which is now so general a disease heere, after the breaking of the frost, that nobody escapes it, and though my cold be yett so ill, as it might very well excuse me writing.”
And feeling the English winter in this letter from 5 January, 1665:
“The wether is so colde, as I can hardly hold a penn in my hand…”
I found the letters contained in this book extremely interesting and well-selected. Since my study of history at university, I have always found that letters were wonderfully informative – better than most other things one can use to study (i.e. textbooks). Letters bring the human touch that really brings past figures to life. I love how the letters between brother and sister talk about all manner of things – personal, political, from trouble with the common cold to war, court intrigue and family loss (Duke of Gloucester, Princess of Orange, etc).
Norrington does a fine job of explaining what was going on at the time each letter was written. In short, this is a lovely book which shows Charles II’s softest side. I highly recommend it.