The House of Stuart seem to have been particularly prone to making secret marriages, but they were hardly the first royals to do so. Catherine of Valois, the French Princess who married the famous warrior king Henry V of England chose as her second husband Owen Tudor, a Welsh squire whom she allegedly met when he fell into her lap during a dance at court. The pair became lovers, married secretly around 1430, and founded a dynasty.
When we get to the 17th century, however, it feels as though there is a positive plethora of royal family members indulging in clandestine romantic relationships. King Charles II was obliged to issue a formal declaration that he did not marry Lucy Walter, the mother of his son James, Duke of Monmouth, because the rumours that such a match took place were so pervasive and dangerous to the royal succession. Charles’ cousin Prince Rupert of the Rhine also denied that he had married a lady called Frances Bard, the mother of his son Dudley. He did not deny that he was Dudley’s father; the boy was often known as Dudley Rupert and was sent to Eton College, but poor Frances’ claims that she and Rupert had married in 1664 were dismissed.
Two marriages that were more credible, though, involved two royal ladies of impeccable reputation. The first was Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I. Henrietta and Charles were famously devoted to one another and yet there were persistent rumours that she had had a long affair with her Master of the Horse, Henry Jermyn, and married him after Charles’ death. Certainly Jermyn was very close to Henrietta Maria for a number of years. He probably originally came to her attention because of his ability to speak French and he remained her friend and confidant for the rest of her life. He went into exile with her, helped her to raise an army and rose to prominence through her influence. Gossip suggested that he was the father of at least two of her children, although in the febrile political climate of the English Civil War such slander would not have been uncommon.
When I was researching House of Shadows, my new historical mystery that focuses on the story of Elizabeth, the Winter Queen, I was very struck by the parallels between Henrietta Maria’s story and that of my heroine Elizabeth Stuart. Elizabeth was the sister of Charles I who had married a German prince when she was 16 and gone to live in Heidelberg. Her husband’s rule as King of Bohemia ended in battle and exile after only a year and Elizabeth lived in The Hague for 40 years whilst fighting to regain her husband’s patrimony for her son. Elizabeth and her husband Frederick were also famously devoted to one another and when he died in 1632 she was said to be inconsolable.
In Frederick’s entourage was a young man (12 years younger than Elizabeth) called William, Lord Craven, the son of a fabulously wealthy cloth merchant. Craven became utterly dedicated to Elizabeth’s cause, saving the life of her son Rupert in battle, financing her exile, providing her with a house in London when she finally returned to England in 1660 and starting a building programme of palaces and houses for her on his estates. Like Henry Jermyn he was rewarded with an earldom from Charles II. Londoners celebrated his romantic association with Elizabeth and he was hugely popular.
Of course no convenient marriage certificate exists – or has been found – in either of these cases to confirm the existence of a marriage and we are left to draw on circumstantial evidence as well as historical rumour. In the case of William and Elizabeth there is one particularly beautiful piece of evidence in the form of a painting called The Allegory of Love by Sir Peter Lely, which shows the two of them joined by cupids and features many other symbols of devotion. There is also the incomparable Ashdown House, the hunting lodge Craven built for Elizabeth that still stands like a little white palace on the Berkshire Downs.