David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father
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Life partner

What do Henriette Marie Regina, 17th century queen of England, and the biblical matriarch Rebecca have in common? More than you'd think
Charles (l) handing a laurel wreath to Henrietta Maria, by Daniël Mijtens, c. 1631. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Charles (l) handing a laurel wreath to Henrietta Maria, by Daniël Mijtens, c. 1631. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Hands up everyone who knows which Mary the state of Maryland was named after.

If you said, “Queen Mary” you are mostly right. Her name was actually Henriette Marie and she was the wife of King Charles I of England and Scotland (until he lost his head), mother of King Charles II, also of England and Scotland and of James II of England (who was also James VII of Scotland).

But “Queen Mary” did not like the name Mary. She signed her letters “Henriette R” or “Henriette Marie R” (“R” was not her last name. It stands for “regina” meaning “queen”).

Henriette Marie was the youngest daughter of King Henry IV of France and his second wife Marie de Medici and was named after both of them. She was born on November 25, 1609, in the Palais du Louvre.

She met Charles I for the first time in 1623 when he was travelling incognito to Spain to discuss the possibility of marrying the Infanta Maria – Maria Anna of Spain. Charles was accompanied by his close advisor, George Villiers, the 1st Duke of Buckingham.

Villiers had been a trusted advisor to James I. In 1614, while he was out hunting, James saw the 21-year-old Villiers, and soon afterwards, appointed him as his cup bearer. From 1615, Villiers performed before the king as a dancer. He rose through the ranks of nobility, being knighted as a Gentleman of the Bedchamber, King’s Master of the Horse and eventually a Knight of the Garter. In 1623 he was appointed as Duke of Buckingham.

Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Buckingham by Peter Paul Rubens. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

In 1617, James explained to his Privy Council, “You may be sure that I love the Earl of Buckingham more than anyone else, and more than you who are here assembled.”

After the death of James in 1625, Buckingham become one of Charles’s most trusted advisors. He went with Charles to negotiate the king’s marriage to the Infanta, which would have brought the kingdoms of England and Spain much closer together. However, it is alleged that Buckingham’s behavior was the reason the deal fell apart. When they returned, the Spanish ambassador asked Parliament to execute Buckingham for his behavior. In return, Buckingham called for England to go to war against Spain.

Villiers continued trying to find a match for Charles, but then in December 1624, the 24-year-old Charles announced he was engaged to Henriette Marie, who was then only 15. France was Spain’s sworn enemy, so we can imagine that revenge on the court that spurned his marriage proposals may have been in Charles’s mind.

James died in March 1625, and Charles decided not to go himself to his own wedding. The main reason he could not attend was that he was now the head of the Church of England, and Henriette Marie was Catholic.

Instead, he sent Henry Rich, the 1st Earl of Holland, who had begun the marriage negotiations, and James Hay, 1st Earl of Carlisle, a Scotsman, who joined Holland to complete the deal. They acted as witnesses to the wedding. However, it was Claude, Duke of Chevreuse who stood in as proxy for the king at the ceremony on May 11, 1625. Even though Chevreuse was Catholic, the wedding was held outside, in front of Notre Dame Cathedral, rather than inside. Holland and Carlisle acted as witnesses. That night, in his role as proxy, Chevreuse lay in bed with Henriette Marie, touching her thigh with one hand, which symbolized the consummation of the marriage.

Henrietta Maria and King Charles I with Charles, Prince of Wales, and Princess Mary, painted by Anthony van Dyck, 1633. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

A month later, Henriette Marie left France and journeyed to England to meet her husband for only the second time. She spent her first night with her actual husband on June 13, 1625, in St Augustine’s Abbey, near Canterbury.

Relations between England and France were frosty at the time. Since 1618, the Thirty Years War, between Catholics and Protestants, had been spreading across Europe. The newly Anglican England supported the French Protestant minority. So when Charles married the Catholic Henriette Marie, she was seen as the child of the enemy.

When Charles was crowned in Westminster Abbey on February 2, 1626, the Catholic Henriette Marie was not permitted to enter. She watched the ceremony from a distance.

Buckingham was not happy about the marriage and spent the next few years trying to drive a wedge between Charles and Henriette Marie. Luckily for the king and his queen consort, Buckingham became increasingly unpopular with Parliament. They tried twice to impeach him. Eventually, on August 23, 1628, he was stabbed to death at the Greyhound Pub in Portsmouth.

After Buckingham’s death, Charles and his queen became very close. They had nine children together. Henriette Marie loved to play jokes on her husband, and eventually replaced Buckingham as his most trusted advisor. Charles would address her in his letters as “Dear Heart.”

By the 1640s, the English Civil War was brewing. Henriette Marie went to Europe to raise funds for the royalist cause. However, by 1645, Charles’s position had become extremely precarious, and the queen moved back to Paris. It was from there that she heard of the execution of her husband on January 30, 1649.

It was also from Paris that she learned of the resignation of Richard Cromwell, who had become Lord Protector after the death of his father, Oliver Cromwell. She returned to England in 1660 following her son’s coronation as Charles II.

Henriette Marie returned to France in 1665, blaming the British weather for her bronchitis. She passed away on September 10, 1669, soon after the birth of her granddaughter Anne Marie d’Orléans.

Charles was presented with the first pineapple grown in England in 1675. Painting by Hendrick Danckerts. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

She was the ancestor of most of the European royal families.

After the death of Charles II in 1685, his brother James succeeded him. In 1688, James was deposed in the Glorious Revolution, and replaced by his son-in-law and daughter, William and Mary, both grandchildren of Henriette Marie.

The story of Henriette Marie’s marriage and arrival in England as an outsider reminded me of the central story in this week’s Torah portion.

After the death of his wife, Sarah, Abraham sent his servant Eliezer to Aram-naharaim to find a wife for Isaac. Abraham entrusted Eliezer to decide who would become the next matriarch. He made the servant swear that he would not find a Canaanite wife for Isaac (Genesis 24:3-9):

I make you swear by God, Lord of the heaven and Lord of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of Canaan who I live among. Rather, go to my country, to my birthplace, and take a wife for my son Isaac… The servant put his hand under his master Abraham’s thigh and swore to him.

Abraham sought to forge an alliance with the country of his birth with whom he had more in common than the inhabitants of Canaan.

Eliezer found Rebecca as the most suitable wife for Isaac. Like Henriette Marie, she was younger than her husband. Like the English queen, she was married by proxy, and only met her husband after traveling back with Eliezer to Canaan. Like Charles and Henriette Marie, the relationship between Isaac and Rebecca seems to have at first been strained. But with time Rebecca came to be her husband’s strongest supporter and the ancestor of all the future Jewish people.

The Talmud and commentaries point out that, “The conversations of the servants of the patriarchs is preferable before the Omnipresent to the Torah of their children,” (Bereishit Rabba 60:8). There are many mitzvot that are not mentioned at all in the Torah, or only referenced obliquely. Yet the entire story of Eliezer seeking a wife for Isaac and selecting Rebecca takes more than 60 verses.

Furthermore, it seems strange that the long story of the negotiations surrounding Rebecca’s marriage to Isaac fall in between the narrative of the death of Sarah and the death of Abraham. Why is the happiness of marriage bookended by the sadness of death? In fact, the Talmud derives some of the laws of marriage from Abraham’s purchase of a burial place for Sarah. It seems like a strange contrast — the laws of marriage learned from acquiring a grave.

The reality is that the choice of a life partner is more important than just about all of the other mitzvot. It defines the life of the couple and what they will achieve in their lives. When Abraham bought a burial plot for Sarah and eulogized her, he defined everything she had accomplished and credited her with everything that he had achieved in his life.

Without the right spouse, it becomes far more difficult to focus on a relationship with God or observing His commandments. The Torah spends so long describing Eliezer’s task and its outcome because that was to shape not only Isaac and Rebecca’s service of God, but also to define the essence of the Jewish people.

While writing this, I had in mind that it is my wife’s birthday this week. Happy Birthday.

My next class on WebYeshiva in the series entitled “20th Century Responsa” will be on November 22. You can sign up on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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