Impeaching the Queen of England (1643/4)

By Krista Kesselring; posted 9 October 2017.

Henrietta-Maria NPG 2

Trials of queens generally garner much attention, perhaps in part because they so often focus on sex. The trials of Henry VIII’s wives provoke enduring popular interest, most obviously. The adultery trial of Queen Caroline in 1820, a product of King George IV’s determination to divorce her, has in turn produced several excellent articles and books. But what of the legal proceedings against another queen of England, Henrietta Maria? A daughter of King Henry IV of France and sister of Louis XIII, Henrietta Maria was the wife of one king of England, Scotland, and Ireland and the mother of two others; she was also, in her own right, formally accused of treason by the English House of Commons. The charges against her obviously reflected notions of proper womanly and wifely behaviour, but focused first and foremost on her efforts to ‘traitorously and maliciously incite, maintain, and abet a war’ against her husband’s subjects in support of ‘an arbitrary and tyrannical government’ – and yet the whole impeachment seems to be little known.

Henrietta-Maria Hollar
Henrietta Maria and Minerva

Carolyn Harris’s recent book, Queenship and Revolution, studies the lives of Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette, observing at the outset that both women faced accusations of wrongdoing in revolutionary circumstances, with Henrietta Maria impeached in absentia and Marie Antoinette subjected to a full trial.[1]  Harris doesn’t focus on their trials, but selects these women for comparison based on the critiques launched against them as representatives of foreign interests and transgressors of established norms for feminine behaviour. Marie Antoinette’s trial, famously, resulted in her death by guillotine in the early years of the French Revolution. Henrietta Maria survived the legal manoeuvring against her; perhaps partly for this reason, her legal difficulties are little known. Her husband, King Charles I, was executed in January of 1649 after being found guilty in a specially convened High Court of Justice as a ‘public enemy to the commonwealth’, but she lived on. Having escaped to France in 1644 after charges were laid against her, she returned to England only after monarchy was restored in 1660 and eventually died an entirely natural death back in France in 1669.

Reading through Harris’s book, I realized that I knew almost nothing about Henrietta Maria’s impeachment. Despite having taught about the trial and execution of her husband, and even having assembled a student source book of documents relevant to that set of revolutionary events, I didn’t know precisely what charges had been laid against her or how far proceedings went. That they focused on her Catholicism and her prodigious efforts to supply the royalist forces was likely; but still, reading the precise terms might be interesting – not least in that these were treason charges against a queen not rooted in sex, but also to see if they might hint at anything that would be developed in the later trial of the king. Doing a bit of light digging to satisfy my curiosity, I was surprised to find that there’s almost nothing in print about the event – Harris is quite right to note that it’s been little explored. The only way to see the charges laid against her seemed to be to order up the relevant record from the Parliamentary Archives.[2] In case anyone else is curious – or wants to use it in the classroom to supplement texts on the king’s trial – I’ve transcribed below the document setting out the Commons’ charge against the Queen, with the kind permission of the parliamentary archivist.

As a bit of context: Rumours of a possible impeachment of the Queen had driven Charles to precipitate action early in 1642, prompting him to try (and fail) to arrest five members of Parliament but in the process moving matters closer to war.[3] Henrietta Maria’s avid promotion of Catholicism in the deeply, fearfully Protestant country and a sense that she was advising the king in ways that worked against compromise seemed to drive this talk, but nothing formal came of it – at least not yet.  As war became increasingly likely, the Queen travelled to the continent to gather supplies for the royalist war effort. She put her person in danger on these forays, coming under fire a couple of times. Back in England, she rode at the head of a sizable force, jokingly referring to herself as the ‘she-majesty generalissima’.[4] A group of MPs stormed her Catholic chapel at Somerset House early in 1643, purging it of ‘popish’ personnel and paraphernalia in an act widely seen as a grave insult. It turned out to be preparation for a graver insult still.

Henrietta Maria engraving BL 2
©The British Library Board, General Reference Collection G.4092.

The House of Commons formally raised the matter of her impeachment in May 1643, agreeing upon articles against the Queen quite quickly. In the House, Sir Peter Wentworth reportedly opined that it was ‘high time to lay the axe to the root, as she was, of all their calamities’. Henry Marten argued that they ‘should not fear the dignity of her person, for he knew no person so high (he excepted none) but was subject to the law’. He said, too, that if it were up to him, he ‘would not have her impeached by the name of Queen, but of Henrietta Maria, wife to the king’.[5]  According to one newsbook account, ‘it was debated and fully agreed that she was liable to the censure of the law, as any subject in the kingdom’.[6] It helped, perhaps, that she had forgone a coronation; given her Catholicism, she’d declined the Protestant service, and thus lacked the benefits that might accrue from participating in this ancient ritual. But MPs’ definition of treason was clearly expanding from seeing it as a personal crime against the monarch to something that affronted the people or ‘state’ more broadly.  A report of the Commons’ discussion noted that MPs charged the Queen with having ‘levied war against the Parliament and kingdom (not naming the King but as included in these two words)’.

This was interesting talk indeed, but the Commons’ decision to impeach the Queen received little support from the Lords. In late May 1643, leaders of the lower house notified the Lords of their decision, asking that they summon her to answer the charges. As Sir Simonds D’Ewes reported, however, the Lords ‘thought this action at this time unseasonable.’[7] Members of the Commons nudged the Lords over the coming months to get them to act against the Queen, but with no real luck. MPs had come to favour impeachments over bills of attainder as the former didn’t need the agreement of the king, but they did still need the agreement of both houses of Parliament.[8] Only in January of 1644 did the Lords take formal notice of the articles and assign them to committee.[9] By that time, however, Henrietta Maria, who had rejoined Charles in July of 1643, was pregnant and obtaining from Parliament safe conducts for the woman carrying childbed linens to her and then for physicians. Perhaps this dimmed the prosecutorial ardour of men who’d already thought an impeachment of the Queen imprudent. (As even one member of the Commons had warned, trying the Queen ‘takes away all the hopes of peace, and leaves all to be ended by the sword.’[10]) The impeachment and preparations for the trial of the Archbishop of Canterbury were ongoing, too, and might well have helped keep members of the Lords otherwise focused. The Queen delivered her daughter, also called Henrietta Maria, in Exeter on 16 June and then sailed for France on 14 July.  The Lords never did complete the action begun by the Commons; as such, Henrietta Maria was never convicted or sentenced as a traitor.

Lauds execution
Not everyone made out so well… ©The British Library Board, General Reference Collection G.4092.

That the House of Commons had launched such a process against her, formally impeaching the Queen as a traitor subject to the law of the land, remains nonetheless a fascinating moment in the histories of the civil war, parliamentary judicature and impeachment, the law of treason, anti-Catholicism – and the trials of queens.

Articles of the Commons assembled in Parliament, in the names of themselves and of all the Commons in England, in maintenance of their charge and accusation against the Lady Henrietta Maria, Queen of England, whereby she stands charged of High Treason.[11]

  1. That the said Lady Henrietta Maria, Queen of England, for divers years last past, at the cities of London and Westminster, and elsewhere within this realm, has by all undue ways and means wickedly and traitorously endeavoured, practised, and conspired with diverse popish priests, Jesuits, and other the Pope’s adherents, to subvert the true Protestant religion, and to introduce and set up popery, superstition, and idolatry in this realm, and has at several times within these ten years last past, at the places aforesaid and elsewhere, contrary to the laws of this kingdom, advisedly, wittingly, and traitorously advanced, extolled, and maintained the power, authority, and jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome within this realm, heretofore usurped within the same, and by the laws and statutes thereof abolished.
  2. That the better to compass her said wicked designs, the said Queen and her [ac]complices in or about the years 1639, 1640, and 1641, at the places aforesaid, did traitorously and wickedly incite, maintain, and abet a war raised against his Majesty’s subjects of the kingdom of Scotland, thereby to introduce popish ceremonies into that church and to destroy the Protestants there, and did cause divers great sums of money to be raised and levied amongst the papists in this kingdom for the advancement and maintenance of the said war.
  3. That the said Queen has by several ways and means within these three years last past, traitorously and wickedly contrived, abetted, countenanced, and maintained that horrid and execrable rebellion now on foot in Ireland, whereby many thousand Protestants, his Majesty’s subjects, have been and are most barbarously murdered, massacred, and destroyed, and that kingdom and the true Protestant religion there in great danger to be utterly lost.
  4. That for the ends and purposes aforesaid, the said Queen, in or about the month of February 1642, departed this realm into the parts beyond seas and did there most traitorously and maliciously plot and practise with divers persons and states for the raising of men, money, and arms and other provision for the supply and maintenance of the said war against the Parliament, and at the time last aforesaid did secretly, unlawfully, and traitorously convey and carry over into the part beyond sea divers rich and ancient jewels of the realm, and has there sold or pawned and employed the same for the providing of arms, ammunition, money, and other necessaries for the maintenance of the said war.
  5. That the said Queen since her said going beyond sea has traitorously and wickedly sent or caused to be sent over into this realm to the town of Newcastle and other places divers forces and arms and other provision of war for maintenance of the said war, and about the month of February 1643 returned into England and brought with her great numbers of forces, commanders, and officers of divers nations as English, French, Walloons, Irish rebels, and other strangers and papists, and also great quantities of arms, munition, money, and other provision of war. All which she has traitorously employed in the advancement and prosecution of the said war against the Parliament, and hath raised a great popish army in the northern parts of this kingdom, whereof she takes upon her to be the chief head and commander, and does actually, traitorously, and rebelliously, with all violence and cruelty, levy war against the Parliament and kingdom, to the grievous destruction of his Majesty’s people, and the miserable desolation of the whole realm.
  6.  That whereas divers persons have been notoriously detected, accused, and impeached by the Commons in this present parliament assembled, of several crimes of high treason for practising and conspiring to raise arms and levy war against the Parliament and kingdom, which accordingly they have done and do still prosecute, namely George Lord Digby, Henry Percy, Henry Jermyn, and others, which said persons having fled for the said offences and several proclamations issued out for the apprehending of them as traitors, the said Queen at several times and places as well in the parts beyond sea as in this realm, within these two years last past, has wilfully, traitorously, and maliciously harboured, received, and countenanced and protected them and divers other notorious traitors, well knowing of the said crimes by them committed, and has and does wickedly and traitorously assist, encourage, maintain, and abet them in their several treasons and rebellions.
  7. That the said Queen for the better compassing of her said mischievous ends and for the subduing of this kingdom to an arbitrary and tyrannical government has for divers years last past, by the great power and influence which she has had in the affairs and government of this realm, caused divers papists and other dangerous and ill affected persons to be put into divers great offices and places of trust within this realm, and in effect has gained to herself the disposing of the said offices and places, whereby the popish religion has been advanced and great mischiefs have ensued, and are likely to ensure to this commonwealth.

All which matters the said Commons do and will aver, maintain, justify, and prove.

And the said Commons, by protestation saving to themselves the liberty of exhibiting at any time hereafter any other accusation or impeachment against the said Lady Henrietta Maria, Queen of England, and also of replying to the answer which she the said Lady shall make to the said articles or any of them, or offering proof of the premises or any of them, or of any other impeachment or accusation that shall be exhibited by them as the case shall, according to the course of Parliament, required, do pray that the said Lady Henrietta Maria, Queen of England, may be put to answer all and every the premises in the presence of the Commons and that such proceedings, examinations, trials, judgments, and executions may be upon every of them had and used, as is agreeable to law and justice.


Main image, Henrietta Maria after Sir Anthony Van Dyck, used by permission of the National Portrait Gallery under a Creative Commons License, NPG 227.

2nd: Henrietta Maria with Minerva, by Wenceslaus Hollar, used by permission of the National Portrait Gallery under a Creative Commons License, NPG D26402.

3rd and 4th: From John Vicars, A Sight of ye Trans-Actions of these Latter Yeares (London, 1646), used by permission of The British Library Board, shelfmark  General Reference Collection G.4092.


[1] Carolyn Harris, Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Maria Antoinette (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). On Henrietta Maria, see also Michelle A. White, Henrietta Maria and the English Civil Wars (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006) and various works by Caroline Hibbard, e.g., ‘The Role of a Queen Consort: The Household and Court of Henrietta Maria, 1625-1641’, in Princes, Patronage and the Nobility (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 393-414 and her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ‘Henrietta Maria (1609-1669)’, ODNB, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, 2008. Hibbard also makes clear that perceptions of Henrietta Maria’s efforts to advance Catholicism had a grounding in reality: Charles I and the Popish Plot (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983).

[2] One contemporary newsbook, The Parliament Scout (20 June 1643) does provide a brief summary of the charges, which is quoted by Harris. The full charge seems not to be in print or otherwise readily available, however.

[3] S.R. Gardiner, History of England, 1603-42, 10 vols. (London, 1904-), X.128-9.

[4] S.R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War, 4 vols. (London, 1893), I. 93, 102.

[5] See ‘A Copie of a Letter from a Gentleman in the House of Commons Concerning the Proceedings of that House against the Queen’s Majestie’, in John Somers, A Third Collection of Scarce and Valuable Tracts, 4 vols. (London, 1751), I. 317-9.

[6] A Perfect Diurnall of the Passages in Parliament (22-29 May 1643), p. 3.

[7] Commons’ Journal, III. 98; see also 139, 140, 145, 157-8, 360, 362; BL Harley 164, fol. 390b (D’Ewes’s journal; cited in Gardiner).

[8] See Thomas Erskine May, A Treatise upon the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament (London, 1844), 38-9, 374-80.

[9] Lords’ Journal, VI 104, 118, 362, 367, 369, 378.

[10] Somers, Tracts, I. 318.

[11] Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/3/180/29, Articles of the Charge Against Lady Henrietta Maria, Queen of England, dated 3 January 1644. The transcription is published by the generous permission of the Director of the Parliamentary Archives. I have modernized spelling and punctuation in the transcription, and have updated the dates to ‘new style’, i.e., beginning January 1 rather than March 25. (In article 4, for example, the original document notes that she traveled to the continent in February 1641, but I’ve changed that to read ‘1642’.)

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