Elizabeth Stuart: A Tragic Princess – A Guest Post by Sarah-Beth Watkins

Elizabeth Stuart. National Portrait Gallery, London: Creative Commons
after Unknown artist, etching, mid 17th century

Elizabeth was the second daughter of Charles I, the ill-fated king who would unprecedentedly lose his life after years of civil war. Born in 1635 to a London covered in snow, this daughter was named after her godmother and aunt, Elizabeth of Bohemia, the Winter Queen and would earn the nickname ‘the winter princess’. Elizabeth would grow up against the backdrop of the English Civil War, become separated from her parents and die tragically young.

As with all princesses her marriage was never far from her parents mind but it was her grandmother Marie de Medici who put her forward to marry William, son of the Prince of Orange. However it would be her older sister Mary who would marry him in a ceremony at Whitehall in 1641 and Elizabeth would watch her sister’s wedding ceremony from a private closet with her mother and grandmother by her side.

With her sister leaving for her new life in the Netherlands, the family was smaller but it was even smaller still when Elizabeth’s parents, King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria fled to the safety of Hampton Court in 1642 and then moved on to Oxford leaving Elizabeth and her younger brother Henry behind. The two youngest children of Charles I came under parliamentary control at St James’ Palace. There was an attempt to move them out of London when the plague struck but Elizabeth was too unwell to move. She was often ill and must have felt the stress of her situation.

When changes were made to her household she wrote to Parliament:

My Lords, I account myself very miserable that I must have my servants taken from me, and strangers put to me. You promised me that you would have a care of me, and I hope you will shew it, in preventing so great a grief as this would be to me. I pray, my lords, consider of it, and give me cause to thank you, and to rest, Your loving friend, Elizabeth.

Despite Elizabeth’s letter changes were made and eleven servants let go.

Elizabeth spent her time studying, learning Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Italian and Spanish under the care of Bathsua Makin who was a firm supporter of a woman’s right to education. Music, singing, dancing, writing, and needlework were added to her curriculum. She loved reading the Scriptures which helped to relieve the boredom of recuperation when she broke her leg in the autumn of 1643. Later investigation would show that she suffered from rickets – a weakening of the bones.

She spent some time in 1644 in Chelsea at the home of Sir John Danvers – a man who would later sign her father’s death warrant but before long she returned to St James’ with her brother Henry. Separated from her family she at least was able to see her father when she was allowed to visit him at Caversham and en route stopped at the Greyhound Inn where Elizabeth met General Fairfax, commander of the Parliamentary forces. She thanked him for the chance to see the king and ‘for the high happiness she now enjoyed in the sight of her dear father, which she knew was obtained only by his industry and management’. The little princess was so charming the general asked for permission to kiss her hand.

She was also allowed to visit him at Hampton Court with her brother Henry throughout August and September in 1647. In October the children were ready to move back into London for the winter but Charles asked they be allowed to stay with him for the weekend that was only marred by the fact that she could not sleep due to soldiers tramping up and down outside their rooms.

Back at St James’, Elizabeth had little in her life to comfort her. Occasionally she received letters from her father who was moved around under guard and wrote to him often uncertain of whether he would receive them or whether she would see him again. In one letter she wrote ‘the greatest terrestrial joy that can be to me, is to hear that you are in health and prosperity, and nothing hath been such a terror to me as that I have not heard from you so frequently as formerly’.

She also wrote to Parliament that she be allowed to go to Mary in Holland. She wanted so much to be with her sister who had been joined by their brothers Charles and James and their mother Henrietta Anne and her younger sister were not far away in France. But Parliament did not even send her a reply.

Instead she had to wait for now what seemed the inevitable – the execution of her father.

Elizabeth recalled:

He wished me not to grieve and torment myself for him, for that it would be a glorious death that he should die, it being for the laws and liberties of this land, and for maintaining the true Protestant religion … he told me he had forgiven all his enemies, and hoped God would forgive them also, and commanded us, and all the rest of my brothers and sisters to forgive them. He bid me tell my mother that his thoughts had never strayed from her, and that his love should be the same to the last. Withal he commanded me and my brother to be obedient to her, and bid me send his blessing to the rest of my brothers and sisters, with commendation to all his friends

At their final meeting Charles I embraced Elizabeth and Henry and gave them both pieces of his jewellery before turning to leave the room but Elizabeth was so upset she cried until her father came back for a final embrace. He was executed the next day at Whitehall.

Elizabeth was traumatised by her father’s death and she fell ill again but still she asked to be allowed to go to her sister in Holland. Her request was refused. She was destined to stay in England – never to meet her family again.

At least for a while she would be well looked after. With her brother Henry, she was moved to Penshurst Place in Kent to the home of Robert Sidney, 3rd Earl of Leicester and his wife Dorothy. Dorothy was warm and welcoming and took the children under her wing. She had several children of her own and for the first time in years Elizabeth and Henry became part of a family with other children to play with. Dorothy was under strict orders not to treat them as royalty but she furnished their rooms with furniture from Whitehall and allowed them to eat at a separate table with their own servants to wait on them. Elizabeth, now fourteen, would thrive under her care and her health would improve over the coming months.

But soon they were visited by William Lenthall, Speaker of the House of Commons. He was appalled to see Elizabeth and Henry being treated as royalty and ordered their removal from Dorothy’s care. Elizabeth and Henry were moved to Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight under the protection of Governor Anthony Mildmay. Whilst playing bowls outside they were caught in a torrential downpour and Elizabeth came down with a fever. Doctors were called but to no avail.

Elizabeth died on 8 September 1650 just as Parliament finally agreed she could be sent to live with her sister in the Netherlands. Rumour spread inaccurately that she had died with her head on her father’s bible, open at ‘Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden and I will give ye peace’. She was buried at St Thomas’ church in Newport on the Isle of Wight where two hundred years later Queen Victoria would erect a marble sculpture in her honour – a fitting tribute for a tragic princess.

Sarah-Beth Watkins grew up in Richmond, Surrey and began soaking up history from an early age. Her love of writing has seen her articles published in various publications over the past twenty years. Working as a writing tutor, Sarah-Beth has condensed her knowledge into a series of writing guides for Compass Books. Her history works are Ireland’s Suffragettes, Lady Katherine Knollys: The Unacknowledged Daughter of King Henry VIII, The Tudor Brandons, Catherine of Braganza, Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scots: The Life of King Henry VIII’s Sister, Anne of Cleves: Henry VIII’s Unwanted Wife and the forthcoming Tragic Daughters of Charles I.

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  1. Sarah Waldock

    Poor little soul. I saw the title and thought of the Winter Queen, thank you for this as I know nothing about the children of Charles.

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