The Royal Academy exhibition of Charles I’s reunited collection is breathing new life into the king’s martyrology. But history has still mostly forgotten that Charles I’s reign witnessed English Catholicism’s near-triumph and a phenomenal mission to reconvert Britain that was led for two decades by the sophisticated, politically alert and supremely devout Queen Henrietta Maria.

A century after the dissolution of the monasteries, things began to look good again for English Catholics. In 1625 Charles I, a man of considerable sympathy for continental art and worship, inherited the throne and married Henrietta Maria. A French teenager descended from the Medicis, Henrietta Maria had been raised with strong views on how to run a Catholic court, and she arrived in England bearing vast chests of paintings, sculpture, textiles, books and jewellery, and numerous attendants, many of whom were ordained and dressed in Catholic costumes that had not been seen in England for generations.

The French court had strong ties with Rome and had insisted that the nuptial contracts include provision not only for Henrietta Maria to practise her own faith on arrival in England, but also for her to be attended by those foreign religious figures on whom the integrity of her faith depended, from cardinals to nuns and friars. For the first time in living memory, London became the centre for legal Catholic worship. The faithful arrived from as far as Scotland to receive the sacraments, often carrying with them their dead in the hope that they might be buried in the small plot of consecrated ground near the queen’s new residence at Somerset House.

There was controversy at the chapel doors, however, with Charles insisting that the legal protection of Catholic worship extend only as far as the queen and her entourage, and that his own subjects must be barred from entry. He placed soldiers at the gates – but only when his Puritan detractors demanded it most vociferously. Once they were placated, the guard was removed.

One of the Capuchin friars who accompanied the queen kept a meticulous record of her English mission. In London, Henrietta Maria formed and led two confraternities: the Holy Rosary and St Francis. She took her entourage on a very public pilgrimage to pray at the site of the Tyburn tree, where Catholics had been martyred under Elizabeth I. Remarkably, even a statue of the Virgin Mary, the cult most reviled throughout the Reformation, was sent to Henrietta Maria from her mother and was carried to and around the queen’s London chapel by a priest in pontifical habit. The Capuchins settled in monastic quarters and maintained a constant presence in the chapel at Somerset House, where the cycle of sung and silent prayer, Mass, lectures, preaching, catechism, meditation and confession (all in both French and English) continued throughout the day and night. Curious Catholics and Protestants visited the monastery to observe the simplicity of life there.

The Capuchins themselves took note of the luxury in which most Londoners lived, untaxed by Parliament since the beginning of the king’s personal rule. Where, they asked, did the money go? It was evidently not spent on the country’s churches, which were neglected to the point of desecration. The lowness (and meanness) of most English worship was something Charles and his archbishop, William Laud, strove to correct. But before they did Henrietta Maria herself established a liturgy so spectacular as to confirm all Puritan opinions of Catholic excess. The queen was a passionate sponsor of the theatre and the first public Mass said in her chapel was famous for its use of the most recent stage technologies. Winches lifted clouds from above the altar to reveal the Eucharist bathed in golden light, music resounded through swathes of incense, all to the delight of crowds packed inside the chapel or peering in from outside.

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