Sunday, June 1, 2014

To Sacrifice a Prince: King Charles I's harrowing choice

by Ella March Chase

History is filled with tales of the lengths kings will go to secure an heir to the throne. King Henry VIII risked hell for a son, splitting with the pope in Rome, killing his advisors and his friends to secure a divorce from the wife who had given him only one living daughter.

Even reformer Martin Luther said women should bear children until they died of it. That was what God had created them for. To love.

Harsh as this sounds to modern sensibilities, in the brutal world of royal politics, a king's legitimate son staved off the horrors of war.

A queen's first duty was to bear healthy princes to carry on the royal dynasty. A wife-- even a much-loved one-- was an expendable commodity. Europe was full of princesses eager to be queens should a monarch's wife die.

Henrietta Maria
That is why what happened in the confinement chamber in Greenwich Palace, May 12, 1629 is one of the most remarkable moments in the history of royal marriage. After three years without conceiving, and talk from council member of annulling the marriage and sending her back to France as barren goods, French Catholic Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, went into labor for the first time.

The marriage had a rocky beginning largely due to Charles I's charismatic, divisive favorite, George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham. But after the Duke's assassination, the queen had run to her husband to comfort him. The aloof, agonizingly shy king then turned all of the love he had given Buckingham to his wife.

Charles I and Henrietta Maria
Soon after--possibly because the tension Buckingham fostered between the couple had eased-- Henrietta Maria gave the king the news they had prayed for. She was carrying the king's child. The couple rejoiced. The kingdom was divided in opinion-- many concerned about the influence the Catholic queen had on the king. France was at war with England, Henrietta Maria's brother England's great enemy. When England received news that a peace treaty had been struck, the Queen's happiness overflowed. Her joy was shattered when she went into premature labor, an event her doctors attributed to the shock of having been attacked by a pair of large dogs while walking in the gallery at Greenwich.

Old Palace of Greenwich
None of the preparations for a royal birth had been completed. Even the French royal midwife her mother promised to send hadn't arrived yet. In fact, there were no royal midwives at Greenwich at the time.

As the terrified young queen labored to give birth, Charles defied custom and never left her side. When a midwife was found and brought to the queen's chamber, the woman discovered that the baby-- obviously as surprised as everyone else by the onset of labor-- was turned "athwart" in her belly. The midwife fainted at the idea of tending the queen in such extremis.

Realizing that his wife and child were both in deadly danger, the king sent for a famous surgeon, Dr. Peter Chamberlen. Most surgeons of the time would have performed a caesarean section, fatal to the mother, or used a hook to drag the child from the mother's womb, killing the child if it were, by chance, still alive. But Chamberlen had actually delivered babies alive with the aid of the tools he had developed and that his family would keep secret for a hundred more years: a forceps, a fillet (a long pole with a noose attached to the end) and the vectis, a lever used to turn the baby into a better position for birth.

Yet even Chamberlen could not perform the miracle Charles needed. After examining the queen, Chamberlen told the king he must choose: He could save the mother or the child. In any case, the trauma to the queen would be such that it was unlikely she would bear another child.

Henrietta Maria's enemies must have rejoiced at the prospect of ridding themselves of the troublesome French catholic queen. No one could have doubted what the king's decision must be. Save the child. Yet, Charles said there could be other children. Henrietta Maria was irreplaceable.

The children of Charles I
Chamberlen delivered a tiny prince who lived only one hour. Charles was devastated by the loss of his son, but Henrietta Maria surprised everyone, regaining her health swiftly, showing courage that heartened her husband. Though she grieved the loss of her child, she had gained proof her husband loved her enough to forget his royal duty. He had put her survival before that of a royal heir with no guarantee she could ever produce another one. In time, Henrietta Maria would present Charles with seven children, including the bright, merry "black eyed boy" who would become Charles II. The royal family would share ten years of familial bliss despite the unrest beyond the palace walls that presaged civil war.

It is possible Charles I loved his wife too well, listening to her advice that he not bow to the demands of his courtiers and subjects, rigidly holding him to James I's dictates on the divine right of kings.

But no English royal couple faced more treacherous times with such a united front. Known as 'the she-generalissima', Henrietta Maria braved skirmishes, pawned the royal jewels and rallied royalist troops to support her husband's war efforts. She fled to France at his command, yet when she learned of his imprisonment and upcoming trial, she wrote a letter to his captors, begging to be allowed to join Charles and share his fate. The letter was not opened until long after the king's execution. We will never know how the course of history might have been changed if Charles I had told Dr. Chamberlen to save the unborn prince that fateful day in 1629 and Henrietta Maria had died. We do know that Charles I and Henrietta Maria loved with uncommon devotion and that Henrietta Maria grieved for her beloved husband until the day she died.


Ella March Chase cannot remember a time she did not want to write historical fiction. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois. She lives in a house filled with books and music and is lovingly herded by a loyal Shetland sheepdog named Oliver. Chase is the author of The Virgin Queen’s Daughter and Three Maids for a Crown, a story of the Grey Sisters. She invites you to visit her at her website:

The Queen's Dwarf
Amazon US
Amazon UK

Coming soon: Crown of MistGather the Stars and Angel's Fall by Ella March Chase, writing as Kimberly Cates.


  1. Wonderful post! Makes me much more interested in Charles I than I have been up to now.

  2. I so love this post. In researching Charles I's early life I glimpsed a bit of this, and indeed, this royal couple fell deeply in love with one another after a very poor beginning. NowI have new books and a new writer to add to my TBR list.

  3. I agree. With all the horror stories in history, it is refreshing to read about a king putting aside his personal ambitions to display unselfish love.

  4. Charles II was born one year and two weeks later than the first child. On that day, there was a comet (visible at noonday!) observed in England, Germany, and Italy. The comet was considered a sign from God, like the star of Christ's birth, or the comet of the Norman invasion.

  5. This is a wonderful post, Ella! There is something very special about tragic love. You do both King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Marie a great service. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story.

  6. Yes, this is indeed a wonderful post about a loving husband and wife living in the hardest of times.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.