Coming into the world as the daughter of King James VI, the beautiful Elizabeth Stuart was the pride and joy of her noble family. So how did it all go so very wrong? Elizabeth may have started as her county’s precious crown jewel, but her life ended in bitterness and brutality. Here are tragic facts about history’s “Winter Queen.”
While all princesses are spoiled one way or another, Elizabeth Stuart really took the cake. Born in August 1596 to Queen Anne of Denmark, her father King James VI of Scotland already had a male heir in Elizabeth’s older brother Henry. This took the pressure off the royal family, and James was free to baby Elizabeth to his heart’s content. The results were…not good.
As a young royal, Elizabeth was more than a little prissy. She grew up idolizing her brother Henry, whose golden status as Prince of Wales made him especially attractive to Elizabeth. But that wasn’t all. When her baby sister Margaret was born, Elizabeth reportedly paid the girl zero attention, opting instead to lavish it all on, you guessed it, Henry.
You can’t really blame Elizabeth for turning out self-indulgent. After all, her upbringing was pretty suspect: Although her father King James gave her the best tutors, he refused to teach her any of the classics. Why? James thought “Latin had the unfortunate effect of making women more cunning.” Well, he couldn’t have that. Then again, Elizabeth probably could have used more cunning…
In 1603, Elizabeth’s world changed in an instant. That year, Queen Elizabeth I of England finally passed, handing over her throne to none other than Elizabeth’s father, who now added “King James I of England” to his titles. The illustrious House of Stuart was at the top of the Western world—but the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
Oh, don’t get me wrong—at first, it was everything the pampered Elizabeth Stuart could have dreamed of. When the Stuarts traveled south to England for James’s coronation, Elizabeth joined her mother "in a triumphal progress of perpetual entertainment,” and delighted in the extravagant English court for weeks. It’s just the party didn’t last long.
Elizabeth’s new gig as a Princess of England was on shaky ground right from the start. The late Queen Elizabeth had left England in a raging conflict between Catholics and Protestants, and many saw the Protestant House of Stuart as a threat to their religious freedom. Eventually, it came to an infamous climax, and Elizabeth was right in the middle.
In 1605, the notorious Gunpowder Plot hit England when conspirators tried and failed to depose Elizabeth’s father King James by blowing up parliament. But most people don’t know Elizabeth’s role in the plot. After slaying James, the collaborators intended to put the nine-year-old Elizabeth on the throne in place of her dear old dad. Oh, but there was more.
If it seems like a compliment that the conspirators chose Elizabeth Stuart, well, it wasn’t. It was downright insulting. The plotters really only wanted her as a puppet queen, and although they had considered all of her siblings in turn, they thought they control her best and even convince her to convert to Catholicism. Well, she’d prove them wrong.
With the Gunpowder Plot behind them, the royal family turned their sights on marrying off Elizabeth as quickly as she could go. To Elizabeth’s delight, she was a very hot commodity on the marriage market, with scores of princes and various other rulers vying for her hand. Yet despite all these potential suitors, it was no fairy tale.
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King James had his britches tied in a knot when it came to marrying off Elizabeth. He considered the decision of the utmost importance and wanted to find a man who was not only high-born enough for his little girl, but also a staunch Protestant to carry on the House of Stuart’s faith. One day, the situation got very sticky.
One of Elizabeth’s potential bridegrooms was Gustavus Adolphus, the future King of Sweden. He had a fantastic pedigree, a handsome face, and a Protestant faith. There was just one big problem. His country was in a conflict with Demark, the native land of Elizabeth’s mother Anne, and the Stuarts shut him down on principle. Awkward.
After vetting and rejecting nearly all of Europe’s most eligible bachelors, Elizabeth and her family finally narrowed it down to one man—and he came out of left field. The lucky bloke was Frederick V, Count Palatine of the Rhine. Although he was a man of great lineage, he only ruled over a smaller territory in the Holy Roman Empire. Still, he made one heck of an impression.
When Frederick came to visit Elizabeth, he obviously understood what was up for grabs, and put out all the stops. While he was with the princess, everybody noticed how he appeared to "delight in nothing but her company and conversation.” This, quite frankly, is just a smart business move when it comes to romance. His real stroke of genius came later.
There’s no definitive way into any woman’s heart, but the way into Elizabeth’s heart was through her brother Henry. Picking up immediately on this, clever Frederick pursued a close friendship with the Prince of Wales upon his arrival, a move that Elizabeth deeply approved. For all that effort, though, Frederick was about to hit a brick wall.
King James liked Frederick’s connections and Elizabeth liked his taste in friends—but the Queen Mother Anne had an entirely different opinion. Anne not only came from a long line of kings, she had also married a king. Naturally, then, she was appalled at the idea that Frederick was a mere count. As we’ll see, this would have devastating consequences.
A disapproving mother-in-law will do a number on your self-esteem, and Frederick must have felt a teensy bit unworthy when it came to the great House of Stuart. Even so, the pair signed a preliminary marriage contract in May 1612, to the absolute horror of Queen Anne. Before long, there was an entirely new horror on the horizon.
In the lead up to Elizabeth’s high-profile wedding, her beloved brother Henry fell ill. Then, in the blink of an eye, the situation went from bad to worse. The 18-year-old Prince of Wales passed on November 6, 1612 of typhoid fever. It was just months before Elizabeth was supposed to walk down the aisle, and now she was in the middle of chaos.
Prince Henry was extremely popular with the people of England and Scotland, and his tragic passing caused waves of mourners to pay their respects at his memorial—yet no one grieved as deeply as Elizabeth. Henry had been her entire world, and his passing knocked her off her feet. Is it any wonder she went and made a rash decision?
With Henry gone, Elizabeth Stuart was now second in line to the throne after her new baby brother Charles, and this made her all the more valuable as a wife. Many people—her mother Queen Anne among them—even urged her to drop that good-for-nothing loser Frederick and seek greener pastures. Elizabeth’s reaction was not what they were expecting.
Elizabeth Stuart may have been a bit bratty, but she wasn’t about to go back on her word to Frederick—and she had a heartbreaking reason to keep her promise. She knew that Henry had liked her fiancé, and in some ways marrying Frederick meant keeping her brother’s memory alive. Too bad that after all that, their marriage was one giant mess.
Elizabeth and Frederick began their nuptials with a bang. Their royal wedding was the event of the century, which is really saying something. When they tied the knot on Valentine’s Day, 1613, more royals than ever before traveled to the celebrations, and the constant feasting and merry-making almost bankrupted Elizabeth’s father. But the warnings signs started early.
In preparation for his wedding, Frederick strove to be worthy of his Princess Bride. He completely renovated his home at Heidelberg Castle, transforming it from a humble ancestral seat to a sprawling palace complete with a monkey-house and a Renaissance-style garden. It might have been a grand gesture, but it was also a red flag: Frederick was insecure, and Elizabeth held all the power.
Right before Elizabeth Stuart left her home in the United Kingdom to live with Frederick in Heidelberg, her father made a bizarre and harmful demand. He insisted that Frederick promise to treat his little girl Elizabeth like a Queen—and to have her take precedence over even his mother, Louise Juliana. Did this go well? Well, what do you think?
As it happened, Elizabeth’s new mother-in-law Louise was none too happy that this spoiled, young whippersnapper was arriving in her home country and immediately unseating her from her pride of place. The two women’s relationship was frigid forever after…and Elizabeth Stuart would soon need all the friends she could get.
It’s hard out there for a 17th-century woman, and Elizabeth found this out better than anyone. She and Frederick took “an heir and a spare” a little too seriously, and for almost the entire span of her marriage, Elizabeth was either pregnant or had just popped out a baby. By the time she was 36 years old, she’d had 13—thirteen!—children.
As we’ll see, though, they only brought her heartbreak.
In 1619, just as Elizabeth had finally started to settle into Heidelberg, her life went through its biggest transformation yet. That year, the turbulent Kingdom of Bohemia found itself in need of a King again—but no one wanted the tense, thankless job. Eventually, they somehow convinced Frederick to take it on, despite the fact he didn’t want it, either.
Except, there was one thing driving him…
Frederick may not have wanted the crown of Bohemia, but Elizabeth sure did. Like her mother, Elizabeth was used to being around kings and queens, and she darn sure wasn’t going to waste her shot at becoming a ruler. She wheedled at Frederick and “appealed to his honor” to take the job. Well, be careful what you wish for.
After Frederick took up the royal seat, the new King and Queen of Bohemia moved to Prague, the center of the kingdom, and set themselves up in a palace. It went well—at first. Elizabeth got her very own coronation on November 7, 1619, and apparently, “the new King was received with genuine joy.” But not everyone was happy.
As anyone could have told them, Elizabeth and her husband were stepping into a writhing snake pit. See, there was a reason no one wanted to be King of Bohemia: The Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand already thought he was the rightful heir, and he intended to take the kingdom by force. He came for Elizabeth and her crown…and he did not miss.
In the end, Elizabeth’s dream of becoming queen turned into an utter nightmare. Ferdinand attacked with all his might, and the newbie royals crumbled with staggering rapidity. By November 8, 1620—almost exactly one year since Elizabeth and Frederick took the Bohemian throne—they had lost their crowns as well as the rest of their titles. And then the true horrors began.
As Elizabeth’s fairy-tale world crashed down around her, she fled for her life. Heavily pregnant (again), she escaped Prague for Germany with her lady-in-waiting Amalia of Solms-Braunfels. It did not go how she planned. She and Frederick were now public enemies, and people denied them shelter along the way. Before long, it reached a breaking point.
Elizabeth wasn’t just pregnant, she was very pregnant, and the shock of the situation didn’t help matters. While she and Amalia were scrabbling on doors for survival, the fugitive queen went into labor. She just barely managed to eke out a stay at Custrin Castle, near Berlin, to have her fifth child, Maurice. Yet her journey was far from over.
After months on the run, Elizabeth and her raggedy household finally managed to find a safe haven in The Hague, thanks to the pity of the Netherlands’ Prince of Orange. Even this soured quickly. The court was small, bare-bones, and nothing like the extravagance “Queen” Elizabeth was used to, and she grew restless. Maybe that’s why she started causing drama.
The humble Dutch court was also chilly, and Elizabeth didn’t find many friendly faces around her—which made it all the worse when her closest ally turned into a bitter enemy. Her lady-in-waiting Amalia struck up a romance with the Prince of Orange himself, marrying him in 1625. All of a sudden, Amalia was top dog, not Elizabeth. Spoiler: Elizabeth didn’t take this well.
Elizabeth could barely stand to watch her friend get all the glory—in fact, she didn’t stand it, and the women turned into fierce rivals. They ended up creating two separate and competing courts, vying with each other over who could wear the best clothes, throw the best parties, and earn the most admirers. And the piece de resistance was yet to come.
While the exiled royal couple were in The Hague, Elizabeth and Frederick still thought constantly of their honor and how they could prove their worth. It seemed natural, then, when Frederick decided to join the King of Sweden, Elizabeth’s old suitor Gustavus Adolphus, on the battlefield. It was a date with a cruel destiny.
Frederick never returned from this ill-fated trip, but not for the reasons you might be thinking. He not only survived the battlefield, but Gustavus Adolphus also tried to do his fellow royal a solid and offered to help reinstate Frederick as king. Fearing he wouldn’t survive a second term as ruler, Frederick declined. Ironically, he didn’t survive at all.
Back in The Hague, Elizabeth impatiently awaited her husband’s return. She ended up heartbroken beyond words. On the way back from the battlefield, an infection that had been ravaging Frederick’s body claimed his life at last, and he passed on November 29, 1632, at the age of 36. And then someone had to break it to his queen…
When Elizabeth caught wind that Frederick was never coming home, her response was practically unhinged. Her grief very nearly drove her mad, and she refused to eat, drink, or sleep for three days running, unable to believe that her husband was really gone forever. When she regained her senses, she had one thought on her mind: revenge.
Elizabeth’s state was so alarming, her brother Charles I, now King of England, invited her back to Old Blighty to recover. Elizabeth refused; after all, she had bigger plans. She became laser-focused on regaining her son Charles Louis’ right to the Electorate of Palatinate, his late father’s old seat. And that wasn’t her only big swing.
You can’t say that Elizabeth was a shrinking violet, and even her approach to mourning Frederick was extra. In 1636, Elizabeth commissioned an enormous—dare I say gaudy?—memorial portrait of Frederick and herself, requesting that the painting depict a seascape of their supposedly “joyous” entry into The Hague. And then in an instant, everything was ruined.
In the middle of Elizabeth’s ostentatious mourning of Frederick, her old frenemy Amalia of Solms-Braunfels came back out of the woodwork—and she one-upped her in the worst way possible. When Amalia’s own husband passed, she commissioned an even bigger, better memorial portrait of her own family. Ah, if only Elizabeth’s life ended with this petty drama—instead of immense tragedy.
Over the course of her life, Elizabeth’s 13 children dwindled down one by one, but the next decades were the worst. Three of her surviving children passed within three years of one another, and as Elizabeth approached old age, she had less than half of her original brood left living. Fate had been cruel to her, but it was about to get crueler.
In 1649, Elizabeth received the most devastating news of her life. England had been experiencing civil turmoil, and the government had brutally beheaded her baby brother King Charles I, exiling her whole family in the process. That’s right, Elizabeth lost her crown, her husband, and now her ancestral royal line. Seriously, could it get worse? Uh…
Though Elizabeth mourned her deceased children, she didn’t exactly treat the living ones with kindness. Many of them accused her of being a cold, distant mother while they were young, too set on gaining and keeping her throne to coddle them, and she was estranged from them as adults. Of course, this only made the next infamous piece of news more difficult to bear.
On June 20, 1646, Elizabeth’s son Prince Philip slew the notorious French lover Colonel Jacques de l’Epinay in a duel, and his reasons were scandalous. According to rumor, l’Epinay had provoked Philip by claiming he had not only slept with his sister Princess Louise, but also with his mother, Elizabeth herself. Man, I really hope that rumor isn’t true.
In 1660, fate finally went Elizabeth’s way, and her family the Stuarts regained their throne, with her nephew Charles II becoming king. Elizabeth wasted no time taking advantage of the windfall, and she sailed back to England for good, landing in May 1661. It was a triumphant homecoming for England’s beloved princess…but she didn’t have long to enjoy it.
Because her reign with Frederick in Bohemia lasted just one year, Elizabeth Stuart is famous today as “The Winter Queen,” alongside Frederick’s “Winter King” moniker. This lasting yet ignominious claim to fame hardly could have pleased the ambitious Elizabeth. Ironically, though, it was winter that felled the exiled queen at last.
In the bitter early months of 1662, Elizabeth had only been back in England for mere weeks when her health took a violent downturn. The aging queen caught a nasty case of pneumonia, and on February 10, she succumbed to a hemorrhaged lung and passed. All the glories of her life were long gone, yet there was one final indignity at her end.
Once Elizabeth’s time finally wound down, the people who once loved her—even her own family—forgot the precious jewel of England. Only one of her sons, Rupert, showed up to carry her coffin into her final resting place of Westminster Abbey. Nonetheless, there was one person waiting for her, at least: They buried her next to her long lost brother, Henry, Prince of Wales.
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