Nonfiction: Royal Ladies, Royal Intrigue

Goldstone’s forthright and often witty asides keep this complicated story bowling along at a terrific pace. Commenting on young James VI of Scotland’s penchant for toadying to his aunt, England’s aging Queen Elizabeth, Goldstone notes that “this expedient was somewhat put to the test in the aftermath of his mother’s beheading.” Pondering the multiple duplication of names in regal dynasties, she tartly comments that it’s “no wonder no one understands this period.”


Goldstone is right. In addition to her book’s genealogical chart, a timeline might have helped readers follow the intricate twists in the chain of power that led from beheaded Mary, via her son, to his brave, charming and accomplished daughter Elizabeth.

The irresistibly poignant Elizabeth Stuart, sister of Charles I (another monarch who lost his head), was called “the winter queen” after her ill-starred single-season reign as Queen of Bohemia. Hard though Goldstone works, she fails to inject the daughters of her book’s title (Princesses Elizabeth, Louisa, Henrietta Maria and Sophia) with the charisma of their mother, also known in her day as “the queen of hearts” and even as “the most charming princess of Europe.”

Beneath that charm lay a will of steel. In 1636, the widowed Elizabeth commissioned the Dutch painter Gerrit van Honthorst to celebrate her in a work called “Triumph of the Winter Queen.” An immense group portrait, Honthorst’s painting imagines the moment when his patron’s family (its benevolent ancestors beaming down encouragement upon the living) will vanquish their enemies and return to Heidelberg, whose fortress was captured during the king and queen’s misguided move east into Bohemia. Regaining the lost Palatinate became Elizabeth’s prime objective. It was one in which her daughters were expected to play a key role, through expedient alliances. But thanks to Sophia, youngest and liveliest of the four young women, the family gained another, larger prize.

Sophia, recorded late in life as an indefatigable walker and a forthright septuagenarian with “not one wrinkle in her face,” was both clever (she held her own against Leibniz, possibly the greatest philosopher of the day) and acid-tongued (declaring that her aunt Henrietta Maria, Charles I of England’s fugitive French queen, had teeth “like guns protruding from a fort”). When her sister Louisa, a talented artist who became abbess of a nunnery, tried to convert her to Roman Catholicism, Sophia briskly denounced it as “a very evil religion.” Loyalty to her mother’s faith almost brought its own reward: Had she lived just 54 days longer, Sophia, rather than her son, would have become England’s first Hanoverian monarch.

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