A Glimpse into the Personality of Princess Henrietta Anne Stuart, duchess of Orléans

Henrietta_of_England,_Duchess_of_Orléans_-_Musée_Rolin

In reading the letters of King Charles II to his sister Henrietta Anne, whom he called Minette, we get an in-depth glimpse into her personality.  Not only that, there are a handful of descriptions by third parties of Minette’s appearance and personality which have numerous similarities.  It is my intention to write a biography for this blog of Minette but for now, I’d like to share two descriptions of her written by two different people who knew her.

The first description was written by a person close to Minette, known as Madame, and her husband Philip, Duc d’Orléans, known as Monsieur.  Monsieur was the brother of King Louis XIV.  Daniel de Cosnac, Bishop of Valence officiated the wedding of Minette and Monsieur.  He left court after the marriage to spend four years in his diocese.  When Louis and Monsieur’s mother Anne of Austria, Dowager Queen of France died in early 1666, Cosnac returned to court to express his condolences on the death of the queen mother.  He became the confidant of Minette and Monsieur, expressing his great admiration for the Duc and encouraging him to maintain good relations with his brother the King with the aid of Minette and to cultivate his considerable skill as a soldier.  Cosnac was devoted to Minette and wrote this about her:

“Madame had a clear and strong intellect.  She was full of good sense, and gifted with fine perception.  Her soul was great and just.  She always knew what she had to do, but did not always act up to her convictions either from natural indolence or else from certain contempt for ordinary duties, which formed part of her character.  Her whole conversation was filled with a sweetness which made her unlike all other royal personages.  It was not that she had less majesty, but she was simpler, and touched you more easily, for, in spite of her divine qualities, she was the most human creature in the world.  She seemed to lay hold of all hearts, instead of treating them as common property, and this naturally gave rise to the mistaken belief that she wished to please people of all kinds without distinction.

As for the features of her countenance, they were exquisite.  Her eyes were bright, without being fierce, her mouth was admirable, her nose perfect, a rare thing, since nature, unlike art, does its best in eyes and its worst in noses!  Her complexion was white and clear beyond words, her figure slight, and of middle height.  The grace of her soul seemed to animate her whole being, down to the tips of her feet, and made her dance better than any woman I ever saw.  As for the inexpressible charm which, strange to say, is so often given to persons of no position, ‘ce je ne sais quoi’ (I do not know what), which goes straight to all hearts, I have often heard critics say that in Madame alone, this gift was original, and that others only tried to copy her.  In short, everyone who approached her agreed in this, that she was the most perfect of women.”

Another acquaintance of Minette, Phillip, 2nd Earl of Chesterfield wrote to the Countess of Derby and included a description of her.  In his letter he called her Armida.  Armida was a fictional character created by the Italian late Renaissance poet Torquato Tasso.  She was a sorceress who falls in love with a soldier and holds him prisoner in an enchanted garden of her own creation.  Chesterfield says this about Minette:

“Armida, whom all the world so much admires, is a princess who, at first blush, appears to be of the greatest quality, and has something in the looks beside her beauty, so new and unusual that it surprises the beholders.  Her stature is rather tall than otherwise, her shape is delicate, her motions graceful, her eyes sparkling and yet compassionate, and do not only penetrate the thoughts of others, but often also express her own, teaching, as it were, a language yet unknown to any but the blessed above.  ….and yet so sweet an inocency shines in her composure, that one would think that she neither knew nor had ever heard the name of sin.  Her lips do always blush for kissing of the finest teeth that were ever seen, and her complexion is unparralled.  The freedom of her carriage and the pleasantness of her discourse would charm an ancorite, yet there is something of majesty so mixed with all the rest that it stifles the breath of any unruly thought, and creates a love mingled with fear, very like that we owe to a diety.  Her wit is mostly extolled by all that hear her, for she not only has a peculiar talent in finding apt similitudes, and the quickness of her repartee, but in the plainest subjects of her discourse, she finds out something new and unexpected which pleases all her auditors.”  (The spelling of the original author has been used here.)

In brief, it sounds as if Minette was an enchanting creature.  She was very popular at court, participating in many plays and ballets and attending and hosting many parties.  It is easy to understand how King Charles loved his sister and carried on such a charming correspondence with her.  Not only did they keep in touch, Charles employed Minette as an unofficial ambassador in his dealings with the French government.  Charles and Minette eventually managed to broker the secret Treaty of Dover in 1670 between France and England before her untimely death on June 30, 1670.

Further reading: “My dearest Minette:  Letters between Charles II and his sister, the Duchesse d’Orléans” by Ruth Norrington, entry on Henriette Anne [formerly Henrietta], Princess, duchess of d’Orléans in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by John Miller

 

Mimi Matthews

Mimi Matthews

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