Elizabeth Stuart: Queen of Hearts 
by Nadine Akkerman.
Oxford, 581 pp., £20, December 2021, 978 0 19 966830 4
Show More
Show More

Ina collection of essays published in 2005 to mark four hundred years since the Gunpowder Plot, Antonia Fraser imagined Elizabeth Stuart being crowned as Queen Elizabeth II in January 1606. ‘The Gunpowder Plot Succeeds’ describes the plotters’ confessed intention, in the chaos following the death of James VI and I in the explosion at Westminster, of abducting his eldest daughter from her governor’s home in Warwickshire. Elizabeth would be placed on the English throne as a puppet sovereign, to be betrothed to a French or Spanish royal suitor and facilitate England’s re-Catholicisation. Fraser admitted to several known unknowns in her counterfactual history, but was certain that ‘the young Elizabeth Stuart would have made an excellent queen, with her intelligence, charm and sense of ceremonial’ already evident, despite her being only nine years old when the Gunpowder Plot was discovered.

‘The Triumph of the Winter Queen’ by Gerard van Honthorst (1636).

Dramatic speculations irresistibly attach to the life of Elizabeth Stuart. Known to many of her contemporaries as ‘the Queen of Hearts’, she was also referred to less charitably as ‘the Winter Queen’ following the ill-fated decision of her husband, the Palatine Elector Frederick V, to accept the crown of Bohemia in 1619. Frederick and Elizabeth’s reign in Bohemia lasted only a year: military defeat at the Battle of White Mountain, outside Prague, prompted their flight into exile in the Dutch Republic, and continental Europe was plunged into the serial conflicts we call the Thirty Years War.

From The Hague, Elizabeth spent more than two decades pursuing restitution of her husband’s Palatine lands and privileges, alternately assisted and frustrated by the fortunes of the Stuart monarchy in Britain. The dust jacket of Nadine Akkerman’s biography shows a composite portrait of Elizabeth wearing an ermine robe and crown. The crown is not, however, Bohemian, but the Tudor crown once worn by Elizabeth’s namesake and godmother, Elizabeth I, making the image that of a 17th-century Queen Elizabeth II. While the ermine robe and Tudor crown were later additions, painted by an unknown hand, Akkerman points out that ‘commissioning or even possessing this painting would have been nothing less than treason’ for subjects in England, no matter how disillusioned they were by James’s pacific inaction or by the apparently popish inclinations of his successor, Charles I. (Puzzlingly, the dust-jacket credit attributes the original portrait to Michiel Janszoon van Miereveldt but, when the picture is shown again in the tenth chapter, the caption indicates that it is ‘from the studio of Honthorst, and reminiscent of Miereveldt’.) Nearly a century later, however, it would be Elizabeth’s youngest daughter, Sophia, Electress of Hanover, who stood to succeed her second cousin Queen Anne. In the end, Anne outlived Sophia by a couple of months, whereupon Elizabeth’s grandson Georg Ludwig became Britain’s first Hanoverian monarch, George I, in 1714.

Akkerman is well-placed to write a Life of Elizabeth Stuart, having produced two edited volumes of more than 1200 letters written by and to the queen between 1603 and 1642; a third volume covering the two decades until Elizabeth’s death in 1662 is awaited, with tantalising references in this biography. As well as collating, transcribing and translating letters from 47 archives in Europe and North America, Akkerman needed to decode different ciphers deployed by the queen and her correspondents. Any aspiring biographer of Elizabeth Stuart, she says, must be ‘relentless, dedicated and bloody-minded’ – ‘not unlike’ Elizabeth herself.

Physically robust and stubbornly determined, Elizabeth adopted plustost morte que changée (‘I rather break than bend’) as her personal motto. After moving from London to Heidelberg on her marriage to Frederick in 1613, the 16-year-old Elizabeth was observed by German courtiers returning from a hunt, crossbow in hand, having ‘chased the deer after such a fashion that it was marvelled at and in this country even seemed somewhat strange’. Hunting was a family passion. According to his biographer Brennan Pursell, persistence was one of Frederick’s main qualities (‘pursuing a single rabbit for three to six hours on a hunt was not beyond him’), while Elizabeth’s father liked to measure the passage of time by the amount of quarry killed. Concluding a letter to the Earl of Salisbury in 1610, James wrote that he was ‘going to bed, after the death of six hares, a pair of fowls and a heron’. Two decades later, having just celebrated her thirty-fifth birthday and pregnant with her thirteenth child, an exhilarated Elizabeth wrote from the Rhineland estate of Rhenen that ‘we are here hunting as hard as we can, I think I was born for it, for I never had my health better than now.’ Unsurprisingly, she had little time for ill-health in others, observing in the 1650s of a niece debilitated by childbirth that if ‘she will exercise enough she will be soon well, after I had my first child, I was just so [lean and pale], but I rumbled it away with riding and hunting. I tell her of it, but she is deadly lazy.’

‘To write a woman’s biography,’ Akkerman says at the outset, ‘is automatically to write feminist biography, with the accompanying implication that you must celebrate womanhood.’ The claim remains undeveloped, though she adds that Elizabeth ‘was no mere victim of circumstances dogged by misfortune, and she was certainly no saint’. Just as certainly, however, the queen’s circumstances were determined by dynastic diplomacy, confessional divisions and geopolitical ambitions. Following her father’s accession to the English throne in 1603, marriage proposals for Elizabeth arrived from suitors including Philip III of Spain; Frederick Ulrich, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel; Prince Philip Emmanuel of Piedmont; Otto, Prince of Hesse; the future Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden; and Maurice, Prince of Orange. In the event, she married the Palatine Elector Frederick V on Valentine’s Day 1613 in a lavish royal wedding that cost, by Akkerman’s estimate, the equivalent of £12.5 million in today’s money. As well as enjoying spectacular fireworks, masques and mock sea battles, the guests dined in front of tapestries celebrating the defeat of the Spanish Armada a quarter of a century earlier.

Elizabeth’s chances of succeeding her father had increased following the unexpected death of her elder brother, Henry, in autumn 1612. Her younger brother, Charles, was sickly and frail. Much of the militant Protestant fervour that Henry had attracted was transferred to Elizabeth and her family, whose fortunes became, to many English minds, synonymous with the future of Protestantism in Europe. Accordingly, throughout the 1610s and early 1620s, the prospect remained of Elizabeth and Frederick ruling a single German-British Protestant state with territories strategically situated in the Holy Roman Empire and maritime access to the Atlantic and the colonies beyond. The remarkable fecundity of their marriage also worked to her advantage. Elizabeth had thirteen children, eleven of whom survived infancy, before Frederick died from a fever in November 1632.

Elizabeth’s persistent efforts to secure restitution of the Palatinate’s lands and the dignity, or status, of elector for her husband, and thereafter for her sons, illustrated the significant confessional and geopolitical stakes of the Thirty Years War. Following the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, Catholic Habsburg forces occupied Frederick’s hereditary German territories, including the town of Frankentahl that had been part of Elizabeth’s marriage jointure, intended to remain in her possession even after Frederick’s death. By 1630, Habsburg forces had overcome Danish resistance to take positions on the north German coast. The Edict of Restitution passed by Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II in 1629 forced Protestants to return to the Catholic Church all property seized since 1552 and outlawed Calvinism. Although Elizabeth’s focus remained Palatine restitution, she continued to insist that ‘Queen of Bohemia’ be retained in her title. While she had no desire to return to Prague, the loss of her royal title would effectively concede that her husband’s acceptance of the Bohemian crown had been unlawful and therefore that the imperial ban depriving him of his lands and electoral dignity had been justified.

Although Frederick’s death left Elizabeth ‘as cold as ice’, she declined her brother Charles’s invitation to return to England and summarily dismissed the 150-strong embassy that had been sent to The Hague as an escort. Instead, she resolved to maintain the Palatine court-in-exile, admitting to a former lady-in-waiting her surprise at the turn of events that had seen her ‘become a stateswoman, which of all things I have ever hated’. In her quest to secure Palatine restitution, Elizabeth attracted unswerving devotion from an older generation of globally-minded and Puritan-leaning diplomats, most prominently Sir Thomas Roe, who had commanded an expedition to Guyana in 1610 and formed part of the entourage that accompanied Elizabeth from London to Heidelberg in 1613, before serving in the Dutch army. Roe wrote to Elizabeth throughout his career, from Mughal India, Poland, Denmark, Vienna and England. In a letter sent from Constantinople in 1624, he declared: ‘I have not one drop of blood in my heart, which I will not shed for you.’ On the battlefield, Elizabeth could rely on steadfast service from German relations such as her first cousin Christian of Brunswick, who was wounded at the Battle of Fleurus in 1622; fitted with a silver prosthesis, he assured Elizabeth that despite having ‘lost one arm in her service’, he ‘had another and a life left to spend in her quarrel’. Given Akkerman’s claim that ‘from Elizabeth’s perspective, the Thirty Years War was also a family feud,’ it’s a shame that her book includes no family trees. Alongside Christian of Brunswick (nephew to Elizabeth’s mother, Anne of Denmark), the conflict involved Elizabeth’s maternal uncle, Christian IV of Denmark, as well as Frederick’s relations, the princes of Orange and Amalia, Landgravine of Hesse, while those on the opposing Habsburg side included Frederick’s cousin Maximilian, Duke of Bavaria, who occupied Frederick’s former territories and to whom Frederick’s electoral dignity was formally transferred. Akkerman’s readers need a clear and cool head to navigate this dynastic labyrinth.

Cousinly allegiance stood in conspicuous contrast to brotherly coolness. Preferring ‘Personal Rule’ to negotiating with a hostile English parliament, Charles I thwarted his sister’s attempts to stir up support for Palatine restitution and raise funds in London. In 1634, Elizabeth’s agent, Sir Francis Nethersole, was arrested after failing to obtain sanctuary at the Dutch ambassador’s house in London. Outraged by the seizure of her private papers, Elizabeth fumed at the implied suspicion that ‘I have any evil plots against my brother,’ complaining that while Charles’s ministers would never dare tamper with the diplomatic correspondence of foreign princes, as ‘the king’s sister, I may claim as much or more respect from them’. When Charles continued to follow his father’s preference for diplomatic negotiations over military deployments, Elizabeth relayed to the archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, that she had ‘never … read in the chronicles of my ancestors, that any King of England got any good by treaties but most commonly lost by them, and on the contrary by wars made always good peaces’.

In the mid-1630s Elizabeth sent her elder sons, Charles Louis and Rupert, to press the Palatine case at Charles’s court, only to be dismayed by their susceptibility to damaging distractions, as the king proposed sending Charles Louis to the Spanish colonies and another scheme envisaged Rupert leading an expedition to conquer Madagascar and become the island’s viceroy. Scarcely able to credit a plan whereby Rupert should ‘Don Quixote-like conquer that famous island’, an exasperated Elizabeth directed Roe to ‘put such windmills out of his head’.

One of the delights of Akkerman’s biography is its splendid illustrations. After the Peace of Prague transferred the Upper Palatinate and electoral dignity to Maximilian of Bavaria in June 1635, Gerard van Honthorst produced a painting, three metres by five, entitled The Triumph of the Winter Queen (1636). It had been commissioned by its subject, according to Akkerman, ‘in a cloud of righteous fury’. The painting shows Elizabeth in martial splendour, wearing the Bohemian crown and riding a war chariot drawn by three lions to symbolise the Palatinate, the Dutch Republic and England. She is accompanied by her ten surviving children: Charles Louis wears the Palatine Elector’s hat. Other images, however, are less triumphalist and point to domestic tensions in The Hague. Akkerman presents a striking juxtaposition of two works by Honthorst now in the Dutch Royal Collection: one is a portrait of Elizabeth, the other a portrait of her former lady-in-waiting, Amalia van Solms, who had since married the Dutch Stadholder, Frederick Henry. The two images are virtually identical. Moreover, when Elizabeth commissioned Honthorst to depict her as Esther – symbolising female royal authority alongside revenge – Amalia commissioned the same allegorical image from him ‘as part of a conscious strategy of emulation’. But, as Akkerman argues, Elizabeth was unlikely to have been ‘impressed by such cheek: imitative flattery was one thing; pretending to be a queen quite another. There could only be one queen in the Dutch Republic.’

In her introduction, Akkerman acknowledges a debt to the Life of Elizabeth written by the Victorian historian Mary Anne Everett Green, which proved ‘invaluable both as a source and as a template’. Everett Green’s book first appeared as part of a six-volume Lives of the Princesses of England, published between 1849 and 1855; it was posthumously revised by her niece, Sophia Crawford Lomas, and published separately as Elizabeth, Electress Palatine and Queen of Bohemia (1909). Having consulted continental archives while accompanying her husband, George Pycock Green, on overseas painting trips, Everett Green applied the same forensic analysis to reconstructing Elizabeth’s life as she did to the more than forty volumes of State Papers, Domestic from the Public Record Office that she calendared between 1855 and her death in 1894. Everett Green seems to have had something of Elizabeth’s persistence, continuing her work while child-bearing and rearing, even persuading the antiquary Thomas Phillipps to send manuscripts from his private collection to the British Museum to save her leaving London after the birth of her second daughter. In his obituary of Lomas in 1929, Charles Firth recalled visits to the elderly Everett Green ‘in a tumbledown building in the Rolls Yard’. He admired the tenacity of both aunt and niece, as Lomas continued Everett Green’s immersion in the state archives and tried to assist the historian Samuel Rawson Gardiner. But as Firth explained, Gardiner ‘preferred to do all his work for himself’, meaning all Lomas ‘could do was to feed him with titbits from the State Papers, which was like offering a bear the currants out of a bun’.

Akkerman argues that Everett Green is ‘not only one of the most prolific historians who has ever lived, but also one of the least visible’. As Lisa Jardine suggested in Temptation in the Archives, however, Everett Green might also be regarded as ‘the puppet-mistress who pulls the strings on our excursions into the State Papers’, since ‘her omissions and elisions … determine where we venture, and where we pass by.’ Jardine was speaking from experience, having spent several years trying to locate an eyewitness account of Elizabeth’s tour of north Holland in 1625, written by a member of her retinue, Margaret Croft. Although Everett Green had cited Croft’s account in her biography of Elizabeth, when Jardine eventually found it (with Akkerman’s help), she believed it had been deliberately misfiled. Replete with multilingual puns, Croft’s account describes the royal party inspecting an elephant’s penis while another of Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting mischievously asked the custodian for descriptions in Italian, Latin and French. Croft also recorded that when an elderly courtier approached Amalia van Solms, and ‘kissed her and tickled her with so much affection, playing with his fingers on her buttocks’, the queen ‘began to be jealous’. Jardine surmised that Everett Green had ‘cannily lodged’ the manuscript ‘out of place in the archive, where it was safe, but where the curious could only find it again with difficulty’, pointing out that Everett Green had also helped the Victorian novelist Geraldine Jewsbury to destroy letters written to her over a twenty-year period by Jane Carlyle.

Victoria’s accession to the throne in 1837 revived popular interest in female royalty, as evidenced by Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England (1840-48) and Everett Green’s Lives of the Princesses. Consideration of Elizabeth Stuart prompts further parallels, not least between Elizabeth’s rich and extensive correspondence and Victoria’s detailed journals. Both queens also experienced defining moments of widowhood and, just as Victoria wore mourning dress for four decades after the death of Prince Albert in 1861, Elizabeth decked every letter she sent after Frederick’s death ‘in their own mourning garb’. As Akkerman explains, ‘the paper would sometimes be edged in black, the same colour as both floss and seal.’ And both queens ensured the success of their dynasties. Miles Taylor has acclaimed Victoria’s marriage negotiations on behalf of her nine children ‘as a sustained exercise in dynastic statecraft’, while Akkerman presents George I’s accession in 1714 as proof that ‘Elizabeth’s years of politicking and matchmaking had finally borne fruit.’

In the 21st century, however, the intended audience of Akkerman’s reconsideration of Elizabeth Stuart is less clear. The book’s price and terrific illustrations suggest a general readership, but the editorial decision to retain original orthography ‘so that voices come across as authentically as possible’ makes for a slow and halting read (I have modernised spelling). Readers unfamiliar with the tempestuous exchanges of Elizabeth’s parents will, presumably, be already sufficiently disconcerted to learn of the means chosen by Queen Anna to self-administer an abortion in 1603 without needing to translate ‘scho had gottin sum balme watter, whilk haistnit hir abort’. Similarly, the young Elizabeth’s description of her wigs as ‘pykit vyr, coverit vith heir, to ver on my head’ jars with Akkerman’s more colloquial analogies that describe, for example, Elizabeth’s wedding celebrations as ‘more akin to the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games than a mere firework display’. Elsewhere, Akkerman recounts how, once married, Elizabeth would recklessly pawn jewels as surety for financial loans, knowing that King James’s ‘need to have his daughter look every inch the princess effectively handed her possession of his credit card’. The titles of some subsections retain a Victorian tinge: ‘Fairy-farms, periwigs and powder plots’; ‘Neither prattling of maid and valets, nor flirting’; ‘Homesick at Heidelberg’.

More curious, however, is the extent to which familial relations remain unexplored, despite Akkerman’s comment that ‘Elizabeth’s letters are brimming with loving references to her children’ before these relationships became more tense and querulous in later years. A painting by Elizabeth’s second daughter, Louise Hollandine, shows a middle-aged Elizabeth sitting at a dressing table, with her reading glasses and false teeth before her, as her other daughters, Elisabeth, Sophia and Henriette, dress their mother’s wig. Yet Akkerman devotes little space to exploring the experiences of Elizabeth’s children, cousins and other relations. She mentions that Prince Rupert’s ‘infamous’ dog Boye was killed at the Battle of Marston Moor, but does not elaborate. Readers interested to know how Rupert’s older sister, Elisabeth, became ‘a great female philosopher’ and sustained a learned correspondence with Descartes will need to look elsewhere. Akkerman’s account presents Elizabeth as calculating and somewhat callous, readily admitting her willingness to ‘strangle my children with my own hands’ rather than accept that any should convert to Catholicism. Elizabeth and Frederick’s decision to entrust the embalmed body of their firstborn, Frederick Henry, to The Hague’s Kloosterkerk after the teenage prince accidentally drowned in 1629 similarly signifies, for Akkerman, the ways in which ‘Elizabeth made political capital from personal tragedy – for her, of course, the personal was the political.’

When her nephew Charles II was restored as king of England in 1660, Elizabeth admitted to Charles Louis that she ‘should be glad to see my own country, having been so long out of it’. Disappointed not to have been invited to return by Charles, she defied his request that she remain abroad until further notice and arrived in London in May 1661. After a temporary residence in Drury Lane, Elizabeth rented Leicester House in Westminster, where she died, aged 65, in February 1662. Akkerman follows Everett Green in summarising the contents of the queen’s will, but claims that Elizabeth’s ‘true legacy is incalculable; it is no exaggeration to say that the original Queen of Hearts is still with us,’ in the form of today’s descendants of the Hanoverian ruling dynasty. This may be true, but it doesn’t quite match up to the counterfactual speculation: what would British history look like had Elizabeth Stuart been Elizabeth II?

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 44 No. 12 · 23 June 2022

A peculiar sort of ‘lost cause’ monarchism has surfaced in the LRB recently. First Neal Ascherson, in the issue of 12 May, mourns the 18th-century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as a sort of serf-holding proto-bulwark against Putin. Then Clare Jackson, in the following issue, takes a liking to Elizabeth Stuart, the sister who made Charles I look democratic by comparison and influenced the future history of the British royal family through incontinent breeding (thirteen children).

Elizabeth Stuart once declared that she would ‘strangle my children with my own hands’ if they became Catholic. Judging by the mental composition of her relatives, it is fair to say she meant it. One such relative was Christian of Brunswick. ‘On the battlefield,’ Jackson writes, ‘Elizabeth could rely on steadfast service from German relations such as her first cousin Christian of Brunswick, who was wounded at the Battle of Fleurus in 1622; fitted with a silver prosthesis, he assured Elizabeth that despite having “lost one arm in her service”, he “had another and a life left to spend in her quarrel”.’ This warlord, known as the Mad Christian, the Wild Duke and the Madman from Halberstadt, led an army of mercenaries provided by his brother, Elizabeth’s husband, without having the money to pay them. Christian was a war entrepreneur, and his ‘service’ was to lead thugs about Europe, killing, robbing, raping and extorting to meet the payroll. He won no real victories, only plunder. In Paderborn he looted the cathedral, taking the church silver and the shrine of St Liborius, which he broke up and melted down for cash. When demanding protection money he anticipated horror movies by sending letters, on singed black paper, conveying such threats as (in the original, in full) ‘Blut, Blut!’ As for the silver prosthesis, Christian is said to have had his forearm sawn off to a drum roll in front of his men to build morale. There is an iron (not silver, not silver-coloured) prosthetic known as the Braunschweiger Hand in the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum in Braunschweig. Today the prevailing view is that it didn’t in fact belong to Christian, and that he used ad hoc wooden attachments. He was dead at 26, unmourned, psychotic as they come. In character his cousin Elizabeth Stuart wasn’t so different. She simply had more money, more children and more years on this earth.

A better monarchism is possible. There have been monarchs who ruled justly and contributed to the arts and sciences. There is no need to indulge in obscurantist whitewashing of nasty noble nobodies.

Benjamin Letzler
Mödling, Austria

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences