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When wonder cast its spell

20 July 2018

Bonnie Lander Johnson considers Henrietta Maria’s Cult of Chastity


Charles I and Henrietta Maria, by Daniel Mytens c.1630-32

Charles I and Henrietta Maria, by Daniel Mytens c.1630-32

THE Church has always been described in marital terms. Rooted in the Song of Songs, and St Paul’s descriptions of the Bride of Christ, the Church’s status as a unified body of believers has, for centuries, underpinned the mystery by which she is joined, or “married”, to God. It is through this mystical union that the Church becomes both the body of Christ and his bride.

Throughout the reforming years of the 16th and 17th centuries, English Christians of all confessions drew on this marital language to express their uncertainty over the schism that they saw damaging the body of Christ. The commonplace description of the Roman Catholic Church as the Whore of Babylon was part of a broader redefinition of the new Church of England as the true Bride of Christ, and the condemnation of Rome as an adulteress. As the puritan preacher Henry Ainsworth put it in 1642: ‘‘The skirts of the whore of Rome have been discovered”; when she was “compared with the chastity of Christ’s spouse”, true Christians must “hate the whore and burn her with fire”.

SuperstockPortrait of Henrietta Maria by Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641)

During the reign of Charles I and Henrietta Maria (1625-49), this language of marital chastity and unchastity took on a new, more political life. In the growing divisions between the largely Laudian and Catholic royalists around the court and Puritan pro-Parliamentarians, claimed with increasing frequency that their own vision of England and its Church would ensure her chastity, while their opponents’ could lead only to further schism and spiritual adultery. In these decades, a cultural war over the definition of chastity went on to shape the revolutionary language of the civil wars.

It is easy to overlook this cultural war, because it took place in some unlikely forums. The fiery pamphlets and sermons of Puritans such as William Prynne are well known, but we do not usually consider the royal performances and ceremonies at court as political statements aimed directly at writers such as Prynne. The new outlet that the printing press gave pro-Commonwealth writers suited their style and their definition of chastity: masculine, individualist, argumentative, and anti-authoritarian. And the older forms of court pageantry suited the more feminine chastity of wonder and visual delight that was advanced by royalists.

The monarchs’ own claims to chastity were advanced through a set of aesthetic and intellectual practices that scholars have come to identify as the Cult of Chastity. Led primarily by Henrietta Maria, this new court culture included the regular staging of elaborate court masques celebrating chastity, salon-style intellectual conversations in which men and women could socialise together without the threat of sexual corruption, the depiction of the royal family in domestic settings, and the commissioning of art and sculpture that proclaimed the monarchs’ chaste and heavenly influence over their subjects. But the Cult of Chastity was also deeply invested in Henrietta Maria’s style of piety, and the writings of her spiritual mentor, St Francis de Sales.

The Counter-Reformation spirituality of de Sales was especially suited to the growing interdependence between enclosed religious houses and the houses of elite and courtly families. It offered a form of devotional piety the could coexist with elegance and worldliness. Centred on devotions to the Virgin Mary and the female saints, scriptural depictions of female encounters with Christ, and visions of the marital Church in the Song of Songs, de Sales’s writing not only recognised the important place of women in public life, but described a quality of wondrous devotion which was modelled on female experience but available and of benefit to all Christians.

ST JOHN’S COLLEGE, OXFORD Statue of Henrietta Maria at St John’s College, Oxford (1631-36)

HENRIETTA MARIA, the daughter of a French king and his Medici wife, came to England as a teenage bride with firm ideas about how a Christian court should be ordered. She established palaces in London where she staged spectacular performances and liturgies as often as she retreated into monastic quarters with her women, to “live like nuns”.

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 faith on arrival in England, but 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 Roman Catholic worship, and 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.

The Capuchin friars whom she brought with her settled at Somerset House, and maintained a cycle of sung and silent prayer, mass, lectures, preaching, catechism, meditation, and confession (all in both French and English), which continued day and night.

The new RC presence in London helped to shape the King’s own tastes, and to strengthen, through his influence, the growing Laudian movement to restore beauty to holiness. The culture of chastity which grew rapidly more popular in and around the court was, in this way, influenced as much by new liturgical tastes as by the monarchs’ enthusiastic sponsorship of Continental art and Counter-Reformation spirituality.

At the centre of the Cult of Chastity was the Queen’s prodigiously fertile body. It was not only a sign of the monarchs’ blessedness, but an affirmation of their claims that the court’s culture of chastity could bring Church and country out of schism and unrest. Henrietta Maria gave birth to a new baby in almost every year of the 1630s. Each child was celebrated with an elaborate court masque and spectacular liturgies. In this decade, the Caroline Cult of Chastity flourished as a set of practices and beliefs that were clearly identified as feminine, pietised, refined, and spectacular, grounded in the celebration of female procreative capacities, and a Marian spirituality of wonder.

William Prynne, by Wenceslaus Hollar

But, as the court’s definitions of a chaste Church and nation grew ever more popular among ordinary citizens, Puritan pro-Parliamentarians began to offer their own definition of the virtue. In his now famous 1632 Histriomastrix, William Prynne condemns women actors (including the Queen) as “notorious whores”.

But Prynne was equally liberal with his abuse of religious Sisters, whom he called “lewd Adulteresses”, “unnatural”, and “shameless”, not only because they removed their hair but because they lived unmarried, “espoused unto Christ” and “freed from all subjection to men, or to their husbands”. Prynne depicts the devil’s religious house as a female order, led by a prioress whom he equates to every Englishwoman that “singeth in the dance”.

By rejecting as unchaste both Catholic all-female devotions and female performance, Prynne asserts that the chaste Protestant woman is one whose pleasure and piety are fostered strictly for the enjoyment of her husband. She does not alter her body and remain celibate for love of God; nor does she live in female community, or perform publicly. Prynne’s tract condemns as unchaste the very forms of womanhood which were central to Henrietta Maria’s Cult of Chastity.

John Milton

IT IS in the work of John Milton that we see the most skilful and influential resistance to the court’s claims to chastity. Milton’s vision of virtue is evident not only in his prose works, but also in his masque. The masque was Milton’s first commissioned work as a writer, and the numerous extant versions show the young poet working through his political response to the culture of chastity at court.

Required to work in the royal genre, the budding revolutionary drew on his personal beliefs about the importance of chastity to begin refuting royalist claims to the virtue. When Milton redefined chastity in his 1634 masque, he channelled the genre’s images of fertility and rebirth into his argument for the development of an individualised and masculine virtue that could valiantly resist the effeminate and courtly culture of chastity in which Marian devotions and Salesian piety flourished.

Throughout his life, Milton believed in the special necessity of chastity, a virtue that, he believed, was realised through a sound and disciplined body and soul. For him, the opposite of chastity was effeminacy: a tendency to vice — ambition, pride, sensuality, lust — to which those in authority were particularly prone. Milton’s early writing on chastity is concerned with avoiding the pride that he describes as a kind of spiritual unchastity brought about by a disordered relationship with God.

This new chastity had less to do with sexual decorum, though it never denied the importance of virginity for the single and fidelity for the married. Milton’s chastity was, instead, a kind of moral armour against any sensual distraction that might lead him away from the constant struggle to do as his “great task master” bids.

But it was also an armour against the moral decay that he saw emanating from the court. In Milton’s hands, the pursuit of chastity became the hallmark of a truly Protestant battle: intellectualised, individualist, masculine, and political. It was also, however, increasingly rebellious. Milton reinterpreted the court’s cult of chastity as nothing but an external and empty show, frivolous and effeminate, and no less than a work of tyranny which the truly chaste Christian must resist.


Milton’s thinking on chastity influenced many less sophisticated pamphleteers such as Prynne. In the 1630s, Prynne and others may have been punished for libel against the monarchs, but it was their view that triumphed in 1649 when the King was beheaded in the very location where the royal masques of chastity had been performed: the Banqueting House, in Whitehall.

In his defence of the regicide, Milton confirmed the definitions of chastity and unchastity which he had worked to define throughout his early career. He accused the King of having defiled the Crown by wearing a masquer’s “painted feathers” to “set him off so gay among the people”. He claimed that the King’s reign had been nothing but “rosary prayers” and “sweet rhapsodies of Heathenism and Knighterrantry”, by which he drew the “ignorant and wretched people” to “go a whoring after him”.

By the time Milton’s “Defense” reached his readers, the martyrology of Charles I had already begun, and new institutional and cultural battle lines were being drawn between the pure and the defiled.



THROUGHOUT the reign of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, two distinct forms of chastity competed for public opinion. The royal culture of chastity was feminine, inclusive, pietised, refined, grounded in Marian devotions and the spectacular celebration of female procreative capacities and a spirituality of wonder. The Protestant, pro-parliamentary culture of chastity defined itself in opposition to the court. It favoured internal moral struggle, individual conversation with God, verbal and introspective worship, intellectualised and highly rhetoric disputation, and a suspicion of centralised authority.

These cultures were particular to their historical moment, and were, in time, succeeded by other forms of social and moral struggle. But we can say that they helped to shape the development of traditions that have come down to us in England. Anti-Catholicism and Republicanism alike have drawn consistently on images of frivolity and disorder — prejudices that are not dissimilar to those that fuelled the civil wars.

Even after the RC Church received legal recognition in England in the 19th century, can we say that the Church of England has ever fully embraced anything like the culture so popular in the 1630s? A Church of jubilant but beautiful worship, of monastic devotion, and a Marian fostering of motherhood as the centre of family and state? Equally, much of Milton’s moral and intellectual rigour remains consigned to his century.

Chastity, the word and the virtue, has all but disappeared from modern society, but the language of purity has continued to haunt the Church in its processes of schism. Despite this sensitivity to the moral concepts that justify and enable our divisions, do we fully appreciate the ageless marital and unifying mystery of the Church as the body and Bride of Christ?

Bonnie Lander Johnson is Fellow, Lecturer, and Director of Studies in English at Selwyn College, Cambridge. Her book Chastity in Early Stuart Literature and Culture is published by Cambridge University Press at £18.99

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