Daughters of the Winter Queen

Four Remarkable Sisters, the Crown of Bohemia, and the Enduring Legacy of Mary, Queen of Scots

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The thrilling family saga of five unforgettable women who remade Europe.

From the great courts, glittering palaces, and war-ravaged battlefields of the seventeenth century comes the story of four spirited sisters and their glamorous mother, Elizabeth Stuart, granddaughter of the martyred Mary, Queen of Scots.

Upon her father’s ascension to the illustrious throne of England, Elizabeth Stuart was suddenly thrust from the poverty of unruly Scotland into the fairytale existence of a princess of great wealth and splendor. When she was married at sixteen to a German count far below her rank, it was with the understanding that her father would help her husband achieve the kingship of Bohemia. The terrible betrayal of this commitment would ruin “the Winter Queen,” as Elizabeth would forever be known, imperil the lives of those she loved and launch a war that would last for thirty years.

Forced into exile, the Winter Queen and her family found refuge in Holland, where the glorious art and culture of the Dutch Golden Age indelibly shaped her daughters’ lives. Her eldest, Princess Elizabeth, became a scholar who earned the respect and friendship of the philosopher René Descartes. Louisa was a gifted painter whose engaging manner and appealing looks provoked heartache and scandal. Beautiful Henrietta Maria would be the only sister to marry into royalty, although at great cost. But it was the youngest, Sophia, a heroine in the tradition of a Jane Austen novel, whose ready wit and good-natured common sense masked immense strength of character, who fulfilled the promise of her great-grandmother Mary and reshaped the British monarchy, a legacy that endures to this day.

Brilliantly researched and captivatingly written, filled with danger, treachery, and adventure but also love, courage, and humor, Daughters of the Winter Queen follows the lives of five remarkable women who, by refusing to surrender to adversity, changed the course of history.




The castle at Fotheringhay, about sixty miles northwest of London, Wednesday, February 8, 1587

THE DAY HAD DAWNED INCONGRUOUSLY fair, the soft rays of the winter sun gradually diffusing the darkness to illuminate the forbidding aspect of the vast medieval fortress, nearly five centuries old, that dominated the surrounding landscape. But the warming light did nothing to lift the spirits of those sequestered behind the citadel’s impregnable walls, for on this morning, Mary Stuart, queen of Scotland, was to be executed.

She had been convicted four months earlier of treason against her cousin the English queen Elizabeth I. At a trial eerily reminiscent of the inquisition of Joan of Arc, against all protocol, Mary had been denied counsel and forced to face her accusers alone. Her crime lay not so much in the details of the charges against her but in the unshakable constancy of her faith. In an effort to intimidate her, her interrogators, all men well versed in the complexities of English law, thundered their impatient questions at her so rowdily that it was impossible for her to answer them all. It was critical that Mary acknowledge her guilt, but her bold responses and repeated protestations of innocence denied her judges the confession they sought. In length alone did the queen’s ordeal differ materially from the saint’s. It had taken the inquisition months to condemn Joan, a simple peasant girl, to the stake. Mary, once queen of France as well as Scotland, was convicted and sentenced to beheading in just ten days.

The delay between verdict and punishment was attributable to Elizabeth I’s obvious reluctance to sign her cousin’s death warrant. It was not simply a matter of weighing the probable consequences of the act on the kingdom’s foreign policy. Elizabeth’s ambassadors had already sounded out Mary’s only child, James, king of Scotland, and confirmed that, provided his mother’s execution in no way adversely influenced his own prospects of succeeding to the English throne, James would undertake no reprisals should Elizabeth decide on this final, irrevocable step. And although the Catholic kings of France and Spain protested vociferously through envoys against the brutality of the sentence, Elizabeth’s ministers had concluded that their opposition did not extend to the point of armed intervention in Mary’s favor. But still, Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, wavered. It was a grave matter to behead a fellow monarch. It set a sinister precedent. Mary herself recognized this. “Please do not accuse me of presumption if, about to abandon this world and preparing for a better one, I bring up to you that one day you will have to answer for your charge,” she wrote keenly to Elizabeth from her cell at Fotheringhay.

But by degrees, the queen of England had allowed herself to be convinced of the necessity for ruthlessness by her Protestant councillors, and on February 1, 1587, she added the authority of the Crown to the judgment against Mary by signing the death warrant. Four days later, on February 5, this document was secretly dispatched to Fotheringhay by courier, and on the evening of February 7, as she prepared for bed, Mary was brusquely informed that she would meet her death the following morning at eight o’clock.

The Queen of Scots’ reaction to the news of her imminent execution was tempered not only by the extreme duration of her captivity—she had been confined under house arrest for more than eighteen years—but by her profound belief that her martyrdom at Elizabeth’s hands would benefit the Catholic cause in Europe. Consequently, she made no scene, not even when she was refused the services of a priest and the solace of last rites. Rather, she was tranquil and dignified throughout. She spent her last hours composing her will, making bequests, and comforting her servants. She dispensed the few personal items that remained of her once magnificent equipage. She knelt in prayer. All the while, she and her attendants could hear the sound of the wooden platform that would hold the block on which she would lay her head in preparation for decapitation being noisily constructed in the castle’s great hall.

She was summoned to her ordeal at a little after eight in the morning. She appeared in full court dress, accompanied by her small household, one of her manservants holding a crucifix aloft before her. Her flowing gown was of black satin and velvet, highlighted by hints of purple, symbol of royalty. Her trademark red-brown curls—a wig now, as the forty-four-year-old queen’s real hair was gray—were draped by a floor-length white lace veil, signifying purity. A throng of people, both officials of the royal court and local gentry, crowded the hall, having been invited to witness the spectacle of the queen’s beheading. They took their places around the raised dais as Mary, with quiet majesty, mounted the steps to her fate. A heavy stone ax, instrument of her death, “like those with which they cut wood,” an eyewitness later reported, was displayed prominently on the stage.

The ceremony of state execution began. A Protestant clergyman who had been engaged to sermonize the queen began a lengthy discourse. Mary countered by praying aloud, first in Latin and then in English, for the protection and advancement of the Catholic Church. The competing religious devotions having concluded, the queen of Scotland was then divested of her veil and outer gown, as was customary. Her underskirt and bodice were of russet burgundy, another deliberate choice, representing the blood of martyrs. In this costume, she was led to the block and there knelt upon the pillows placed in front of it for that purpose. Weeping softly, her oldest and most loyal maidservant gently bound her mistress’s eyes in white silk and arranged her hair so as to leave her neck bare. Then Mary laid her head upon the block.

Although horrifyingly gruesome by modern standards, decapitation was actually the elite method of execution in the sixteenth century. Because it was over in one quick stroke, suffering was assumed to be minimal, so only those of very high rank were granted the privilege of dying in this manner. Criminals and commoners, by contrast, were almost always hanged, which took much longer. If the offense committed was of sufficient gravity, a culprit might be subjected to the torture of being drawn and quartered. The most excruciating punishment—burning at the stake—was reserved for cases of witchcraft or heresy, as an effective means of discouraging others who might be tempted to follow the profane teachings of the condemned.

But however humanely intended, any diminution of pain was of course entirely dependent on the dexterity of the person wielding the ax, and Mary was not fortunate in her practitioner. The first stroke missed her neck completely and landed on the back of her head. Despite the presence of the blindfold, those spectators close to the stage could see the queen’s expression change and her mouth open and close in shock, reportedly forming the words “Lord Jesus, receive my soul.” The executioner was forced to extract his bloody instrument and raised his arms to try again. The second blow fell with more success—he hit her neck—but failed to cleave all the way through. Rather than lift the weapon a third time and admit his ineptitude, her killer simply hacked at the remaining tissue until at last the queen’s head tumbled from her body. Her lips were still moving when he raised his ghastly prize high for all to see, and continued to move, as though struggling to speak, for ten minutes more, before finally coming to rest.

“Such be the end of all the Queen’s, and all the Gospel’s enemies” was the final verdict solemnly intoned by the presiding magistrate, and with that concluded the formal ritual of death. No witness present in the great hall of Fotheringhay that February morning doubted that Elizabeth had utterly vanquished her rival and that the name Mary Stuart would from that day forth pass into infamy.

But history has a way of confounding even the most seemingly infallible expectations. For it would not be the descendants of the renowned queen Elizabeth I who survived to rule England. Rather, through a series of astonishing twists and turns of fate, through danger, adventure, courage, heartbreak, and, ultimately, triumph, it was Mary’s legacy that prevailed through the fearless person of her granddaughter Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen, and her four daughters, Princess Elizabeth, Louise Hollandine, Henrietta Maria, and Sophia. It is from the female line of this family that every English monarch beginning with George I, including the memorable Victoria and the indomitable Elizabeth II, all the way down to the wildly popular children born to the present-day duke and duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and Kate Middleton, has sprung in an unbroken line.

But theirs is so much more than the legacy of a single realm. Together, these women formed the loom upon which the great tapestry of Europe was woven. The lives of Elizabeth Stuart and her daughters were intricately entwined with all the major events of their day, not only political contests, but also the religious, artistic, and philosophic movements that would dominate the period and set the stage for the Enlightenment to come. It is simply not possible to fully understand the seventeenth century in all of its exuberant, glorious complexity without this family.

This is their story.


Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen

Granddaughter of Mary, Queen of Scots

Elizabeth Stuart

Mary, queen of Scots


A King’s Daughter

That princess rare, that like a rose doth flourish.

—James Maxwell, The Life and Death of Prince Henry, 1612

ELIZABETH STUART WAS BORN ON August 19, 1596, at Dunfermline Palace, her mother’s preferred summer residence, in Fife, just across the bay from Edinburgh. Her father was James VI, only offspring and heir of Mary, queen of Scots; her mother was Queen Anne, daughter of the king of Denmark. Elizabeth was her parents’ second child. An older brother, christened Frederick Henry but known simply as Henry, had been born two years earlier.

Unlike the wild, spontaneous public celebrations that had greeted her brother’s arrival—“moving them to great triumph… for bonfires were set, and dancing and playing seen in all parts, as if the people had been daft for mirth,” as one eyewitness noted—the news that Queen Anne, suspected of Catholic leanings, had been successfully delivered of a daughter was received with stony indifference by the unruly Protestant population. The Presbyterian ministers of nearby Edinburgh, the most outspoken and radical element of Scottish society, incensed by James’s recent decision to allow two formerly exiled Catholic earls to return to the realm, sent an emissary, not to congratulate the new father but to bait him, insultingly calling James “God’s silly vassal,” among other choice put-downs, to his face.

There were not too many kingdoms in Europe where a subject could address his sovereign lord in this fashion without risking imprisonment or execution, but fiercely implacable, wayward Scotland was one of them. The Scottish aristocracy was hopelessly, almost comically fractured by geography, ancestry, religion, and politics. Jealous of one another’s privileges, constantly engaging in conspiracies and treachery or jostling for advantage, about the only quality the various clans had in common was a tendency to take offense at the slightest provocation, a predilection that more often than not quickly escalated to violent civil unrest. To be king of Scotland at the turn of the seventeenth century was not an especially enviable employment. “Alas, it is a far more barbarous and stiff necked people that I rule over,” James observed morosely.

Exacerbating the country’s political woes was its extreme poverty. Trained almost from birth in the habits of frugality, James had become adept at sidestepping unnecessary expenses. To reduce costs, Elizabeth’s christening was held on November 28, when bitter cold and inclement weather would ensure that attendance at the ceremony was kept to a minimum. Those guests who did accept the royal invitation were instructed to bring their own dinners. Ever on the lookout for ways to squeeze a profit from events, to ingratiate himself with his far more affluent neighbor to the south, James fawningly named his daughter for the venerable queen of England. He further nominated Elizabeth I as godmother to the child, as he had done for his son two years earlier, expecting by this means to receive a handsome present. But although the English queen had acknowledged the birth of James’s son with “a cupboard of silver overgilt, cunningly wrought,” as well as a set of magnificent golden goblets, this time no similarly expensive gift—in fact, no gift at all—arrived to commemorate his daughter’s christening. The notoriously stingy Elizabeth I knew a thing or two about thrift herself.

Even before the ceremony, the infant Elizabeth had been removed from her mother’s care and sent to Linlithgow Palace, about fifteen miles west of Edinburgh, to be raised by guardians. Queen Anne, who did not wish to be separated from her daughter, had objected vehemently to this arrangement, as she had two years previously when her firstborn, Henry, had been unceremoniously wrenched from her in similar fashion, but James, citing Scottish custom, had insisted. The king, who had himself been brought up by custodians when political upheaval forced Mary Stuart to abdicate, evidently did not consider a mother to be a necessary or even particularly helpful component in child rearing.*

So Elizabeth spent her early youth in the care of her guardians, Lord and Lady Livingston, who in effect became her surrogate parents. The royal establishment was small—Elizabeth had a wet nurse and a governess, and two of Lady Livingston’s female relations were marshaled to help look after the little princess and assist with the household accounts. In 1598, when Elizabeth was a toddler, her mother gave birth to another daughter, Margaret, who was again taken from the queen against her wishes and also sent to live with Lord and Lady Livingston. Elizabeth would hardly have remembered her younger sister, as Margaret lived only two years, making the separation even more heartbreaking for her mother. A second son, Charles, was born on November 19, 1600. Although the baby was so sickly that he was not expected to live—he was baptized that same day—Charles managed to rally and so he, too, was removed from his mother’s care.

Lacking ready cash, James paid for his daughter’s upbringing with gifts of land and titles. Little Elizabeth’s expenses included satin and velvet from which to make her two best gowns, ribbon to trim her nightdress, and four dolls (charmingly, they were referred to as “babies”) “to play her with”—an indication of a comfortable if not particularly opulent environment. Far more important, her guardians must have treated their small charge with kindness and affection, as Elizabeth retained fond memories of her childhood at Linlithgow Palace and remained close to her wet nurse and adopted family well into adulthood.

This was Elizabeth Stuart’s life—sheltered, quiet, unremarkable—until she was six years old. And then there occurred an event that had a defining effect on her fate. For on March 24, 1603, her godmother, Elizabeth I, storied daughter of Henry VIII by Anne Boleyn, vanquisher of the fearful Spanish Armada, royal patron of William Shakespeare and Sir Francis Drake, the resolutely determined woman who had ruled England for an astonishing forty-five years, died at the age of sixty-nine. And Elizabeth Stuart’s father, the cerebral but ultimately timorous king of Scotland, ascended to the English throne as James I.

NO ONE IN ELIZABETH STUART’S long, full life would have more influence over her than her father. The singularity of his character is absolutely critical to understanding what was to come. And the key to fathoming James’s depths lay not within the confines of mutinous Scotland but in the far gentler, glorious realm to the south. For no ambition held greater sway over the king of Scots’ soul than to rule moneyed England after Elizabeth I. His entire career was spent chasing the rainbow of this one shining promise.

This aspiration may be traced to the hardships of his early existence. Poor James’s troubles had begun while he was still in the womb. When she was six months pregnant with him, his mother had been held at gunpoint while a gang of discontented noblemen led by her husband, Lord Darnley, dragged her favorite courtier, her Italian secretary David Riccio, screaming from her presence and then savagely murdered him. To the end of her days, Mary was convinced that she and her unborn child had been the true targets of the assassins’ wrath—that the shock from the attack had been intended to provoke a late-stage miscarriage. “What if Fawdonside’s pistol had shot, what would have become of him [her baby] and me both?” she demanded of her husband in the aftermath of the slaying.

Not unreasonably, this episode had a deleterious effect on Mary’s affection for her husband. In fact, she couldn’t stand him. When James was born three months later, on June 19, 1566, Mary, forced by the assassination of Riccio to negate rumors of the boy’s illegitimacy, summoned Darnley to an audience at court. “My Lord, God has given you and me a son, begotten by none but you,” she proclaimed, holding the baby aloft for all to see. “I am desirous that all here, with ladies and others bear witness.” She knew what she was doing; the infant’s resemblance to Darnley was unmistakable. “For he is so much your own son, that I fear it will be the worse for him hereafter,” she concluded bitterly.

James’s birth did not have a placating effect on his parents’ relationship. The expedient of divorce or annulment was raised as a serious possibility, but this turned out to be unnecessary when Darnley was conveniently murdered the following February by a group of his wife’s supporters, led by the earl of Bothwell. A mere three months later, in May 1567, Mary scandalously wedded her former husband’s killer, a union that obviously did nothing to dampen suspicions of her own involvement in Darnley’s death. In the event, it turned out to be an extremely short marriage. By June, Bothwell’s enemies, of which there were many, had gathered an armed force together to confront the earl. Mary’s second husband managed to elude capture but the Queen of Scots was not so lucky. Mary was arrested and confined to the remote island castle of Lochleven. On July 24, 1567, she was forced to abdicate in favor of her son, James. Ten months later, she slipped away from her prison disguised as a maidservant and fled to the dubious hospitality of her cousin Elizabeth I, who would hold her under house arrest for the next eighteen years before finally executing her outright.

James was crowned king of Scotland on July 29, 1567, just five days after his mother’s abdication. He was unable to swear the customary oath of office, being only thirteen months old and not yet capable of forming words, so two of his subjects, the earls of Morton and Home, pledged in his name to defend the kingdom and the Protestant faith. Afterward, to mark this solemn occasion, his government granted its new sovereign four servant girls, to serve as “rockers,” and a new wet nurse.

The young king of Scots was raised at Stirling Castle, northeast of Glasgow, by his guardians, the earl of Mar and his wife. Conscious of the heavy responsibility entrusted to them, the pair—particularly the countess—kept a stern eye on their charge. It appears that James spent much of his youth in acute fear of his foster mother; by his own account he trembled at her approach. “My Lady Mar was wise and sharp and held the King in great awe,” a Scottish courtier concurred. The royal education, which began when James was four years old, was overseen by George Buchanan, Scotland’s most renowned poet and philosopher. Buchanan, a fire-and-brimstone Presbyterian, was already in his sixties, brilliant, crusty, and impatient, when he undertook to tutor the child king. It was rather like having Ebenezer Scrooge as a schoolmaster. Buchanan had him reading Greek before breakfast, followed by a full morning of history heavy on treatises by authors like Livy and Cicero. After lunch, he struggled with composition, mathematics, and geography until dark. “They made me speak Latin before I could speak Scottish,” James scrawled mournfully in one of his exercise books when he was old enough to write. Unfortunately, warmth and affection, the customs of polite society, and fun—Presbyterians did not much approve of fun—were not incorporated into James’s curriculum.

The result of all of this gloomy, concentrated instruction was that James grew up to be perhaps the best-educated monarch in Europe—and one of the loneliest. When he was only eight years old, “I heard him discourse, walking up and down in [holding] the old Lady Mar’s hand, of knowledge and ignorance, to my great marvel and astonishment,” a visitor to the court reported. By the time he was eighteen, it was judged by an envoy that “he dislikes dancing and music… His manners are crude and uncivil and display a lack of proper instruction… His voice is loud and his words grave and sententious… His body is feeble and yet he is not delicate. In a word, he is an old young man.”

James as a boy

… and his crusty tutor, George Buchanan

Like others of his faith, his tutor Buchanan had a poor opinion of women in general and of his former queen, the Catholic Mary Stuart, in particular. So from a very early age, along with his Latin, James learned that his mother was a whore and a murderess who had engaged in such “malicious actions… as cannot be believed could come from the wickedest woman in the world,” a witness to his educator’s methods reported. Buchanan’s diatribes in combination with James’s own experience of the fearsome Lady Mar may have colored the king of Scots’ views of the fairer sex.* He had his first homosexual affair when he was thirteen, with his thirty-year-old cousin Esmé Stuart, Seigneur d’Aubigny, recently arrived from the court of Henri III, king of France (also homosexual), and his intimacy with handsome young men persisted into adulthood, despite his marriage to Anne.

In retrospect, it is easy to see the Seigneur d’Aubigny’s appeal. “That year [1579] arrived Monsieur d’Aubigny from France, with instructions and devices from the House of Guise [Mary Stuart’s relations], and with many French fashions and toys,” reported James Melville, one of the Presbyterian ministers, glumly. The young king of Scotland was fascinated by this engaging French relation who treated him like an adult rather than a sheltered schoolboy and who taught him the sort of colorful swear words beloved by adolescent males throughout the centuries. It was d’Aubigny’s task to insinuate himself into James’s life and favor and he succeeded admirably with the socially awkward teenager. “At this time his Majesty, having conceived an inward affection to the said lord Aubigny, entered into great familiarity and quiet purposes with him, which being understood to the ministers of Edinburgh, they cried out continually against… saying it would turn his Majesty to ruin,” observed one of James’s secretaries.

But more troublesome than the profane language and bawdy jokes, the fast horses, the open caresses, the afternoons spent in racing and hunting, and the other delightful activities that stretched long into the night was a more subtle form of seduction that d’Aubigny also brought with him from France: an idea. Specifically, the notion of the divine right of kings, which stated that as the person chosen by God to rule over an earthly kingdom, a monarch had absolute authority over his subjects—all of his subjects, including the ministers of the church.

This was not at all what the browbeaten James, until only recently chained to his lesson book by Buchanan, had been taught. The Presbyterians, particularly the outspoken ministers of Edinburgh, very conveniently believed that (having been preordained by God as saved) they wielded ultimate authority over temporal affairs, which included telling the king what he could and could not do.

D’Aubigny could not have recruited a candidate more receptive to the autocratic French philosophy than the adolescent king of Scotland. Raging hormones combined with a strong intellect and the euphoria of first love soon gave way to open rebellion as James, accustomed to reasoning through long, obscure passages from Greek and Roman scholars, intuitively grasped that in this doctrine lay the instrument of his emancipation. Nor could his ministers argue their former protégé out of his epiphany. So well educated had James become that he could rebuff every objection and answer every remonstrance—and he could do it in Latin.

By the end of d’Aubigny’s first year in Scotland, James had raised him to duke of Lennox and showered him with gifts of land and castles. The next year, d’Aubigny, with James’s tacit support, engineered the downfall of the once all-powerful earl of Morton.* Morton, who had run the kingdom for a decade, was subsequently accused of treason and executed, with d’Aubigny promoted in his place. The church elders in Edinburgh, used to a docile sovereign, were stunned to find a French Catholic and partisan of the reviled Mary Stuart suddenly the reigning influence behind James’s government. (D’Aubigny, attuned to the politics of his adopted realm, made a point of converting to Protestantism, but this fooled no one.) “At that time it was a pity to see so well brought up a Prince… be so miserably corrupted,” lamented Melville.

On Sale
Apr 10, 2018
Page Count
496 pages