She is better known to history as the sister of Charles II of England and the sister in law of Louis the XIV of France. It was the latter association which made the luck of Henrietta’s life. She was the last child of Charles I and his French Queen Henrietta Maria. She had gone with her mother into exile in France after her father’s capture and execution, and endured a cold and miserable childhood flitting about the backstairs of the French court, noticed by the young Louis only for her extreme lankiness.
After the Restoration of her brother Charles’s crown, Henriette went from being a skinny girl of no consequence, to being one of the most eligible young women in France. She made a very grand marriage indeed (1661) to Phillippe d’Orleans, younger brother of Louis XIV.
It was a happy marriage for two weeks. This was the longest interval of uxoriousness that Philippe was capable of, and after it was over, he returned to his great love, the Chevalier de Lorraine.
By that time however, Henriette had caught the eye of Philippe’s older brother and king, the decidedly heterosexual Louis, who found that she had become a fascinating and witty young woman. They began a public flirtation which scandalized the court. Louis’ Queen pouted, and Philippe disliked playing second fiddle even more than he disliked being a putative cuckold. The couple hit on a solution. They decided that Louis would pretend to be infatuated with one of Henriette’s maids of honor. When Louis asked her which one should be his fictional lover, “Oh, why not little La Valliere?” replied Henriette, thereby beginning the first serious love affair of Louis’ life.
The next few years found Henriette’s place at the French court much more neatly defined as the Duchesse d’Orleans, always accorded the title of “Madame”, flirtatious wife of a man a good deal more feminine in his tastes and occupations than she was.
Only two daughters survived infancy, Marie Louise, born in 1662, and Anne Marie, born in 1670, though the paternity of that first daughter was doubted by the court due to an affair Henriette may have conducted with the Comte de Guiche.
She served the one important function of her life, acting as diplomatic liaison between her brother-in-Law and her brother to sign The Secret Treaty of Dover in that same year.
It was to prove the very last significant action she ever took. In 1670 she suddenly became very ill after drinking a glass of chicory water. She suffered severe stomach pains, and this being France in the seventeenth century, and her household being the peculiar place that it was, everyone at once assumed she had been poisoned, presumably by her husband’s favorite, the Chevalier de Lorraine. Her sufferings were swiftly over. Within hours the twenty six year old Duchess was dead, a shocking fact even in the 17th century.
Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux and one of the great preachers of the day delivered the funeral sermon to the court, genuinely a little shocked at the rapidity of the Duchess’ exit, weeping into their lace handkerchiefs and listening to the Bishop’s rolling phrases:
“Madame however passed from the morning to the evening like the grasses of the field. In the morning she flourished, with what charms you knew: by evening we saw her dried and dead…”
He thundered at them over the pulpit, “ All of a sudden like a clap of thunder, came this astonishing news: Madame is dying! Madame is dead!”
It remains one of the most rapid departures of any famous and glamorous young woman on record, scarcely equaled until in the 1990’s the Princess of Wales made a similarly fast one. “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity” as Bossuet would have said.
(See also Francois de la Chaise, S.J.)