December 21, 2010
On a drizzly afternoon, dashing to Coventry station to get the quick train back to London, we pass a sign to Coombe Abbey. I must have passed it hundreds of times before, but never noticed it. Coombe Abbey was the house where King James' beloved daughter, Princess Elizabeth, lived for a time. It is odd how one's eyes and ears become particularly sensitive when you are researching a project - attuned to any possible connection that might be useful or interesting. Even though we are pressed for time, I am inclined to make a detour.
Henry's younger sister Elizabeth spent much of her childhood at Coombe Abbey, in the care of Sir John Harrington. After the family came down from Scotland when her father was made King of England on Queen Elizabeth's death, the young Elizabeth (who had been named after her godmother, the late queen) was brought here to be educated. It may seem strange to us that the royal children were brought up separated from their parents, but nevertheless it was so.
There is a painting in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich of the princess. She is seven years old (it says so on her fan). Sir John Harrington had both the princess and her brother Henry painted at this time, by Robert Peake, perhaps in the rural setting of Coombe Abbey.
But the country retreat nearly proved most dangerous for Elizabeth, for two years after the portrait was painted, in 1605, the Gunpowder plotters planned to abduct the princess from Coombe Abbey and having assassinated King James and his parliament in London they intended to place the little girl on the throne as a puppet monarch. She would have been Queen Elizabeth II.
A later painting of our sparkly-eyed bride-to-be, also by Robert Peake (now owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York), shows Elizabeth as the beautiful young woman that Frederick Elector Palatine would have encountered on his arrival in 1612 (see previous blog post). She is dressed in the highest Jacobean fashion, in a silver farthingale sprigged with brightly coloured flowers and foliage and butterflies, with a high lace standing collar. A diamond studded chain hangs from her shoulders, and she wears a pearl necklace around her neck. Her hair, adorned with drop pearl and diamond ornaments, is backcombed into what resembles a sixties' beehive.
Her story is a sad one. After her marriage to Frederick, she became briefly the Queen of Bohemia. He built her a place at Heidelberg with a monkey house and a garden so beautiful it was described as the eighth wonder of the world. But Elizabeth was to become known to history as the Winter Queen, when her husband's Catholic enemies drove the couple away from their throne. Elizabeth's descendants would become the Hanoverian monarchs of England. She was the grandmother of King George I.
I don't have time to detour, and we continue on to Coventry. Coombe Abbey is now a luxury hotel.
by Greg Doran
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