Throughout the 1630s, Queen Henrietta Maria’s mission to re-establish the Catholic faith in England looked increasingly successful. The decade saw numerous high-profile conversions, growing crowds around the new centres of legal Catholic worship in London, and a relaxing of penalties against Catholics.

But none of this activity went unnoticed by Puritan detractors. By the end of the decade, parliamentarian unrest increasingly targeted the queen’s influence on the king.

To help Charles I prepare for the possibility of war, Henrietta Maria sailed to the Continent to raise funds and gather an army. Her letters to Charles during this period confirm parliamentary suspicions: the queen was her husband’s most hardline counsellor. She repeatedly urged him to defend his Crown, his family and his people against the rebels, threatening that if he did not take stronger action she would retreat to a nunnery. Such strong terms were necessary. Charles’s military decisions during the first years of the 1640s were halting and uncertain, and he sometimes appeared ready to submit to his opponents’ demands.

In early 1643 Henrietta Maria returned to England, landing in the small port of Bridlington, midway between the parliamentary strongholds of Hull and Scarborough. She had with her an army of 1,000 men and 300 officers, 1,000 saddles, £80,000 in cash and suits of armour for 20,000 men. Royalist hopes surged with her arrival and a series of victories against the rebels followed. The queen herself came under fire shortly after her return. Waking in the night to the sound of shot circling the house where she slept, she ran outside and hid in a ditch until morning.

While she was dodging cannonballs in the north, her houses in London were being ransacked. One of the Capuchin friars attending Henrietta Maria reported that John Clotworthy MP entered the chapel at Somerset House, where he climbed on top of the altar table and looked at Rubens’s The Crucifixion in its gilt frame. “Calling for a halbert, he struck Christ’s face in contempt with such offensive words it would be shocking to repeat them. His second blow was at the Virgin’s face, with more hateful blasphemies, and then, thrusting the hook of his halbert under the feet of the Crucified Christ, he ripped the painting to pieces.”

Clotworthy and his men then smashed sculptures of the Virgin and Child, cut up the remaining paintings, set the books alight and took off with the vestments. The Capuchins were arrested and deported. All this was done because Parliament “was greatly incensed against [the queen] … without [whose] encouragement and aid the king would never have put himself in a position to resist”.

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