the Winter Queen”
Little, Brown, $30
Next month, millions of people around the world will tune in to watch the royal nuptials of Prince Harry and the American actress Meghan Markle at Windsor Castle in England. For those not well versed in British history and wondering how the current royal family came to its enviable position, Nancy Goldstone’s new book, “Daughters of the Winter Queen,” offers a thorough and thoroughly engrossing guide to the “astonishing twists and turns” of the 17th century that established the over-300-year “unbroken line” of the reigning British family.
Elizabeth Stuart and her four daughters, the subjects of Ms. Goldstone’s absorbing book, have been largely overlooked by historians, but the author convincingly shows that these women ought to be understood as drivers of history. From the start, Elizabeth’s life seemed touched by fate. Granddaughter of the martyred Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth was just 6 when her father, James Stuart, was made king after the death of Elizabeth I.
One might imagine that being the king’s daughter would have guaranteed the young princess a life of stability and ease, but that was not how things worked in the 17th century, especially with James I as your father. James, who had scant respect for or, frankly, interest in women, saw his own daughter as little more than a bargaining chip for his own interests. Pushed into marriage at the age of 16, Elizabeth wed Frederick V, a German count far below her rank, because her father pledged he would help her new husband become king of Bohemia.
For a season, Frederick and Elizabeth did rule Bohemia, but only for that long. (Hence Elizabeth’s being known as the “Winter Queen.”) Betrayed by her father, who despite his earlier promises now opposed Frederick’s claim to the crown, Elizabeth and Frederick abdicated and fled to live in exile in Holland, where they plotted their return to Bohemia. Frederick’s death in 1632 at the age of 36 devastated Elizabeth — notwithstanding their awkward start they had found true love and companionship together — but it did not temper her resolve to improve her family’s position, especially the futures of her four daughters.
Although a place of exile, Holland, with its electric intellectual life and tolerant culture, proved an especially beneficial spot to raise four precocious and talented young women. The oldest daughter, also named Elizabeth, possessed a fierce intellect that attracted the likes of René Descartes, the French philosopher and mathematician. In their lengthy correspondence, Descartes offered himself as a teacher and friend to Elizabeth, who devoured his algebra and geometry problems and reciprocated his philosophical discourses. In admiration, Descartes would dedicate his 1644 masterpiece, “Principles of Philosophy,” to the young princess. Later, Elizabeth would also become a close friend of the Quaker William Penn.
Louise Hollandine, Elizabeth’s second daughter, who shared her optimistic spirit, excelled in painting, and trained under the famed Dutch artist Gerrit van Honthorst. Free-spirited and lively, as befitting her artistic temperament, she shocked everyone, her mother especially, when she ran away from home at the age of 35 and converted to Catholicism. Soon after, she took her vows to become a nun and joined the abbey in Maubuisson, near Paris.
The third daughter, Henrietta Maria, everyone acknowledged as the family’s most beautiful. She was also its most fragile. Her marriage to Siegmund Rakoczy, brother of the Prince of Transylvania, had been secured by sending him a portrait that showed her remarkable good looks. Marrying into a rich and royal family, Henrietta had guaranteed her future and also strengthened her family’s position through a respectable alliance. But it also cost Henrietta her life. Having made a difficult journey of nearly 600 miles to her new home in Transylvania, the frail Henrietta died just five months after her wedding, exhausted and homesick.
Despite Henrietta’s illustrious marriage, it was Sophia, Elizabeth’s youngest daughter, born in 1630, who would return the Stuarts to their royal position. Sharp, sensible, and endearing, Sophia brilliantly strategized in collaboration with her cousin William III, the king of England, to have Parliament recognize her family as legitimate heirs to the British throne. Parliament agreed in the Act of Settlement of 1701, declaring Sophia “the next in succession in the Protestant line to the . . . Crown.”
That Sophia, the great-granddaughter of Mary, Queen of Scots, who had lost her head because of her Catholic faith, had now been brought into the succession line to ensure the British crown remained Protestant seemed a fitting end to her family’s twisted history. Sophia’s son George Louis was crowned king of England in 1714 upon the death of Queen Anne. It is from King George I that Queen Elizabeth II is descended.
Far beyond the struggles over one kingdom’s monarchical titles and succession lines, Ms. Goldstone argues in her conclusion that “there was almost no major political, cultural, philosophical, religious, or artistic movement . . . in which the queen of Bohemia and her daughters did not figure prominently.” That’s a big and bold claim, but it is one that she is right to make at the completion of her impressive book.
Ms. Goldstone, the author or co-author of 10 other well-regarded books of European history, is a thrilling narrator of this complicated history. Yet the achievement of a work like this is not merely its command of a vast and dense web of the past, but also its incredible literary merit. “Daughters of the Winter Queen” is nothing short of page-turning, an exceptional work of scholarship that reads like a favorite novel filled with political intrigue, romantic scandal, and more than one dark-of-night escape.
If you are an Anglophile desperately awaiting season three of “The Crown,” you might at least avail yourself in the meantime of this fascinating account of where the queen’s royal line began.
Neil J. Young is the author of “We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics.” He lives in East Hampton.
Nancy Goldstone lives in Sagaponack.