A Point of View: The Winter Queen of Bohemia

Elizabeth Queen of Bohemia

Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia was a hugely powerful figure in her time. She deserves her rightful place in history, argues Lisa Jardine.

I was sorry to have to miss a recent event at which Radio 4's Woman's Hour announced the results of their Power List - their pick of the UK's 100 most powerful women. I was going instead to an event in the Netherlands, to celebrate another once extremely powerful, now largely forgotten, woman - Elizabeth of Bohemia.

On Valentine's Day 1613, a celebrity wedding took place in the Royal Chapel at Whitehall Palace in London.

The bride was James I's 16-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth Stuart. The groom (also 16) was Frederick V, heir to the German Palatinate territories and titular head of the league of Protestant Princes.

This was an enormously popular match, the occasion for an outpouring of public affection for the young couple on the streets of London. John Donne's was only one among dozens of extravagant Epithalamia, or wedding poems, published to mark the occasion.

The wedding ceremony lived up to expectations. It was later described as "a wonder of ceremonial and magnificence even for that extravagant age".

The bride was dressed in cloth of silver lined with taffeta, with a crown "of immense value" on her head.

Sixteen noble bridesmaids, dressed in white satin, carried her train. Her hair hung in plaits down to her waist, and between every plait was "a roll of gold spangles, pearls, rich stones and diamonds... many diamonds of inestimable value were embroidered upon her sleeves which even dazzled and amazed the eyes of all the beholders."

Elizabeth was apparently overcome with adolescent laughter as she took her vows.

For almost two months the couple were feted and feasted in the capital. They eventually set out on the journey to their palace in Heidelberg, sailing from Margate to Vlissingen in Holland.

When they reached The Hague they were welcomed as family - Frederick was the Stadholder's nephew - and treated to celebrations to match any they had left behind in London.

At her departure five days later, Princess Elizabeth was presented with a collection of gems and pearls, together with tapestries, damask table linen, tableware and household furnishings to the value of £10,000 (well over £1m in today's money).

Six years later, in late 1619, Frederick and Elizabeth were crowned King and Queen of Bohemia (today part of the Czech Republic) at the invitation of the Bohemian Confederacy, to prevent a Catholic incumbent ascending the throne - only to be driven from their court in Prague and deprived of all their Palatinate lands the following year by the Hapsburg Emperor Ferdinand.

Image caption Gerrit von Honthorst's 1642 portrait of Elizabeth

The "Winter King and Queen" - so called because their reign had lasted a single winter - sought refuge back in the Netherlands, in The Hague.

Frederick died in 1632, but Elizabeth lived on in the Dutch Republic for a further 30 years, returning to England in 1661, a year before her death and a year after the restoration of her nephew Charles II.

It was to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the wedding of the Winter King and Queen that I came to be in the Hague last week, walking through heavy snow past the Mauritshuis to the grand opening of a glorious exhibition of 17th Century paintings of the couple and their family.

The Hague's glitterati were there, as was the British ambassador to the Netherlands. This was, after all, at its heart, a very British occasion, even if the speeches were in Dutch.

As I listened to our host praising the enduring political power and influence of Elizabeth of Bohemia, Holland's queen of hearts, I asked myself why there had been no equivalent celebration in the UK?

How had we missed the opportunity to mark the appearance on the royal scene of a couple who in their own day had matched the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge for glamour, and who at the time of their marriage were similarly destined to achieve international power and influence?

How, above all, have we all but forgotten the Winter Queen? Many readers will never even have heard of her.

And yet during the period of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) Elizabeth was one of the foremost power brokers for the Protestant cause in Europe.

When her husband died unexpectedly from the plague at Mainz while on perpetual military campaign, Elizabeth was forced to take Palatine affairs firmly into her own hands, vociferously continuing to lay claim to the disputed territories on behalf of her children.

In this most political period of her life, Elizabeth devised ploys to gain financial, moral, and military support for the Palatine cause, frequently in direct opposition to her brother Charles I's wishes and demands.

Image caption Mauritshaus in The Hague, a city where Elizabeth spent many years in exile

More than 2,000 of her letters survive, revealing her to have been a key cultural, political and religious figure, her views taken seriously from London to Prague.

Lobbying, bargaining, negotiating and cajoling, she was a major player during a particularly unsettled period of European history.

In the end, she was successful in having her eldest son Charles Louis reinstated as Elector Palatine, and subsequently restored at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, to his Lower Palatinate lands along the Rhine.

Elizabeth's role in the affairs of the UK was equally important.

Half a century after her death, when it became clear that Queen Anne would die without heirs, Elizabeth of Bohemia's youngest daughter Sophia (who had married the Elector of Hanover) was designated heir presumptive to the British throne, once again to put paid to a Catholic claimant.

Sophia's son George I subsequently became King of Great Britain and Ireland in 1714. All British monarchs ever since are descended from Elizabeth of Bohemia.

Why then is she largely hidden from history?

Looking for an answer, I turned my attention back to that search for powerful women on Radio 4's Woman's Hour.

The declared goal there was to look beyond the obvious candidates to find women who exercise real authority and can influence the outcomes of significant events. And indeed they were not hard to find. In the end the judges confessed that the difficulty had been whittling down a possible list of 250 or more to that top 100.

What strikes me as I read the final list is that the real issue is not whether there are women in powerful positions (there clearly are) but whether their presence and importance is properly acknowledged in the train of events that eventually become our nation's history.

Many of those on the list have been doing a great job for years, whether in public life or more discreetly behind the scenes. Their influence extends across business and commerce, politics and philanthropy, culture and journalism, science and technology.

But like the Queen of Bohemia, relegated to the margins despite the pivotal role she played in international politics throughout much of the 17th Century, there is still a tendency in public debate to diminish the significance of women's actual achievements, and underrate their importance.

When the big, defining stories are told, all too often it is still the protagonists in a recognisable male, adversarial mould who get the attention.

Women outnumbered men by four to one at Bletchley Park during World War II, and played a vital part in the code-breaking operations that were key to the Allied victory. Yet modern accounts rarely feature any of the heroic female cryptographers who worked there in total secrecy for years.

In spite of her formidable presence in politics, profiles of the Home Secretary, Theresa May, who ranked second on the Power List, still like to dwell on her weakness for designer shoes, just as Elizabeth of Bohemia, if remembered at all, is likely to be associated with her pet monkeys and lapdogs, rather than with her impressive portfolio of international political contacts.

Will ranked lists put this right? I somehow doubt it.

First we need to reframe the stories of our past, in which, after all, lie the origins of our present understanding of ourselves.

Those tales too have favoured warriors and generals, tycoons and tough boardroom bosses, lone, dysfunctional scientific geniuses, angry self-destructive artists, overlooking their equally single-minded female equivalents who were obliged to make their world-changing interventions in other ways.

And for a start we need to give women like Elizabeth of Bohemia their proper place as powerful figures in their own right in the history of their times.

You can follow the Magazine on Twitter and on Facebook