The Winter Queen

Reimagining a dramatic reign

Royalty sells. Throw a dart at the entertainment industry and it will hit a royal tale in production. Our obsession with all things purple-­tinged is so voracious that creators are plumbing dynastic genealogies and historical records for the next big thing. No topic or character is too esoteric. This fascination is easy to understand: in a celebrity-­obsessed world, royalty is off limits to all but a select few. To access the sanctum, one must either be born a royal or marry one. With only a few thrones surviving in Europe, and a few others scattered around the world, their mystique is only increasing.

David Elias has added the dramatic life of Elizabeth of Bohemia to the pile. He chose well. There was so much turmoil and intrigue in the Tudor and Stuart eras that the times are plumbed constantly for new stories. The Favourite, the award winner directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and set in Queen Anne’s court, is just one recent example.

Elizabeth Stuart — better known as the Winter Queen, in recognition of her husband’s one-­season reign over Bohemia — was born in the waning days of Elizabeth I’s reign. As the eldest daughter of the first Stuart monarch, James I, she lived in an era when princesses, like all women, were pawns to be bought, sold, or bartered for financial or political advantage. It was also an era racked by upheaval and war. Elizabeth had a front-row view of the chaos.

She was six when her father, then the Scottish king, inherited the English throne from Elizabeth I; nine when Catholics tried to assassinate her father to place her on the throne; and sixteen when her father chose the fiercely Protestant Frederick V of the Palatinate as her husband. She was twenty-­three when they were crowned monarchs of Bohemia in Prague. Their rule was short-­lived. They fled just ahead of soldiers loyal to the Catholic Holy Roman Empire. As the Thirty Years War devastated Europe, they sought refuge in The Hague. She was a widow at thirty-­six, and fifty-­two when her brother, King Charles I, was executed in London. After the monarchy was restored by her nephew, Charles II, she returned to England. She died there in 1662, aged sixty-five.

David Elias’s Elizabeth is a deeply unhappy woman. Elizabeth of Bohemia is structured as a memoir of an old woman looking back at her life, coldly analyzing the choices she made and the vicissitudes that befell her family. It opens on October 18, 1612, when she is about to meet her future husband, Prince Frederick, who has travelled from his southern German state to London. But she isn’t focused on her intended — “a decent and amiable fellow.” Rather, she’s worried for her older brother, Henry. Their bond was forged in childhood, spent in the household of an aristocrat named Lord Harrington, far away from their parents. Henry is handsome, intelligent, charming, athletic, and unexpectedly ill. Elizabeth worries that “the one shining light against the darkness of my uncertain future should threaten to be extinguished.”

Historical fiction gives writers the luxury of a known framework of events, dates, and locations around which they can build original stories. So when Elizabeth notices “an unusual greenish hue at the base of [Henry’s] fingernails,” it’s at a royal command performance of Hamlet, with Richard Burbage playing the title role and the playwright acting as Hamlet’s ghost.

That sign of possible poisoning exposes an irritating flaw of reality-­based fiction for those who like to be surprised by a novel’s plot: the answers are all too easy to discover via Google and Wikipedia. While Elias commits to the poison theory, hinting that the king was involved in the death of his uber-popular heir, a quick search finds others pointing to a more logical cause: typhoid fever. There’s even a detailed analysis by a Dr. Norman Moore, from 1882, all but confirming this.

Elizabeth of Bohemia is engrossing, though uneven. The days of the princess’s engagement are explored in great detail — Elias spends nearly half of his novel on the four months between Frederick’s arrival and their marriage, in February 1613. But her later years as queen, and then in exile, are given little attention. Yet the rest of Elizabeth’s life was enthralling, worthy of the same detailed analysis Elias gives her pre-­marriage period. For example, he barely explores her relationship with her thirteen children, who are fascinating in their own right. Among them is Elisabeth, abbess of the Herford convent in Germany, most famous for her correspondence with the era’s intellectuals, including René Descartes. Her third son, Rupert, born during her ill-­fated tenure on the throne in Prague, played an outsized role in Canada’s history. Not only did the prince help finance the 1668 voyage of the Nonsuch to Hudson Bay, but he also became the first governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company and namesake of its exclusive commercial domain, Rupert’s Land. Elias concentrates on the Winter Queen’s most well known relationships and moments rather than inventing a full life worthy of such a complex personality.

While Elizabeth of Bohemia is clearly fact-­based fiction, some ardent royal watchers can’t handle the fictional aspects of such tales, especially when writers and producers play fast and loose with solid historical facts. Royal experts hate-tweet each episode of the saccharine Victoria television series, decrying plot twists as historical figures are invented and disappeared, time is compressed, and conflicts are invented.

Battles between fact and fiction have been raging for centuries. Perhaps the most famous involves Shakespeare. The monarchs of the Tudor dynasty boosted their tenuous claims to the English throne by having their house propagandist turn the defeated Richard III into a “poisonous bunch-­back’d toad” with a withered arm and a limp. (The Tudors’ systematic elimination of Richard’s family helped the story stick.)

Fast-forward to the 1950s, when Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time sparked a surge of interest in a more balanced view of the English monarch. Then, in 2012, scientists uncovered bones buried under a parking lot in Leicester. By using mitochondrial DNA from Canadian descendants of one of Richard’s sisters, they were able to conclusively identify the bones as those of Richard III himself. Along the way, researchers corrected Shakespeare’s image. Although the king had a twisted spine — from scoliosis, just like Usain Bolt — he wasn’t a hunchback, nor did he have a major physical deformity or limp. Indeed, a good tailor could have hidden any outward signs of his condition.

As for Elizabeth Stuart, she is buried in a family vault in the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey, along with her beloved older brother, Henry, Prince of Wales. Eighteen of Queen Anne’s children are also interred there. It was Anne’s death in 1714, half a century after Elizabeth’s, that marked the end of the Stuart dynasty. As her heir had to be Protestant, the line of succession wound back through the family tree until it hit Elizabeth Stuart’s family. One of her grandsons, George, the elector of Hanover, travelled to London to become King George I. Elizabeth Stuart may have been queen for only one winter, but her descendant now occupies the most famous throne in the world. For George I’s great-­grandson was the mad King George III, whose granddaughter was Queen Victoria, whose great-great-granddaughter is Queen Elizabeth II. But those are different stories, to be told in different tales.