Henry Jermyn (1605-1684) was a young Stuart courtier who, largely due to his skill in speaking French, became the confidant and life-long friend of Henrietta Maria de Bourbon, the beautiful wife of Charles I. Their closeness is widely attested by writers of the time, and some went so far as to assert he was the real father of Charles II. There is some evidence to suggest they may have been right. Below, you will see two pictures, one of Jermyn as a young man, painted by Van Dyck, and the other of Charles II at about the same age. The similarity is certainly worthy of note. But regardless of whether Jermyn actually was the King's father, the fact that he could have been had a significant effect on the way Charles II and the rest of the royal family treated him.
Through the Queen’s influence, Jermyn rose to prominence and power in Charles I’s court. Yet as his status increased, the foundations on which royal power lay were shaken by the King’s conflict with Parliament. As the crisis mushroomed in 1640-1, and without holding any significant office, Jermyn became the most powerful man at court. Yet his plot to bring military force to bear on Parliament backfired, and he fled into exile in France.
The Civil War began and Henrietta Maria (pictured below) joined him abroad. Together, they raised a great army, and, risking near death in a terrible storm, they sailed back to England to wage a moderately successful campaign against Parliamentary forces. In 1644, when the Queen became pregnant again, they returned to France, setting up their home, and hence the unofficial power-centre of the English court, at the Louvre in Paris.
During the rule of Cromwell, Jermyn worked ceaselessly to restore Charles II to the throne and was the driving force behind the ‘Second Civil War’. As life on the Continent became ever harder for the exiled Royalists, however, factions developed and Jermyn’s Louvre circle eventually lost power to the Chancellor, Edward Hyde.
After the Restoration of 1660, Jermyn made a final bid to oust Hyde from power in 1663. Being unsuccessful, he focussed on his life-long plan of creating a lasting peace between England and France. Parts of Jermyn’s plans were sucessful, including the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza, daughter of France’s ally the King of Portugal – a marriage that brought England Bombay, and thus laid the foundations for Britain’s empire in India. The Secret Treaty of Dover (1670) created the Anglo-French Grand Design, a temporary fulfilment of his aims, and a massive political achievement for Jermyn. His efforts to preserve this great alliance, however, in the face of enormous Francophobia at Court, would dominate the rest of his life, though ultimately Charles II was to end his days in a firm alliance with his cousin Louis XIV for which Jermyn could take full credit.
Jermyn’s story takes place on a stage of glittering splendour, in the courts of Whitehall, St James’s, the Louvre and Versailles. His story is also a personal one, of struggle, failure and triumph. It is dominated by his utter devotion to one woman, Queen Henrietta Maria, making this book not just a book about the nature of political power and influence, but also an extraordinary love story.
Jermyn was also the patron of two of the greatest poets of his era, William D’Avenant and Abraham Cowley. Both their poems, especially the former’s mini-epic Madagascar, add unexpected shades to our understanding of Jermyn’s already beguiling personality. His great passion, however, was not books, but architecture. As a protégé of Inigo Jones, and future mentor of Christopher Wren, Jermyn was one of the most influential men in the popularisation of Classical architecture in Britain. The restoration of old Somerset House and the creation of modern Greenwich Palace and Greenwich Park both owe a great deal to him. His great work was St James’s Square and the surrounding streets, including Jermyn Street, in London's Westminster. It was the first truly unified, residential square built on Classical lines in London, and it caused the growth of the West End of London, to the extent that Jermyn has justly been hailed as ‘the Founder of the West End’.
Jermyn’s passion for architecture associated him heavily with the Freemasons. Little is known of this shadowy organisation in the 17th century, but surviving sources are clear on one point: between 1660 and 1666, Jermyn was Freemasonry’s Grand Master. It is likely, in fact, that his Freemasonic links were of great importance to his pre-1660 anti-Parliamentarian plots, and there is no doubt, through his reforms, that he helped lay the foundations for the great success of Freemasonry in the 18th century.
The picture above is Sir Peter Lely's great portrait of Jermyn, wearing his Garter Robes, and holding his white wand of office as Charles II's Lord Chamberlain
Very few biographies can legitimately probe into their subjects's lives after their death. An elegy written for Jermyn's death, however, affords a rare opportunity to follow the journey of Jermyn's soul on the next stage of its journey, in poetic terms at least, and to reflect upon the extraordinary nature of his life.
Jermyn’s enormous contribution to 17th century politics in Britain and abroad, and to the spread of Classical architecture, have largely been ignored. This is mainly because he left behind no archive of correspondence – it was far too sensitive to be preserved – and no self-congratulatory memoir. I spent a substantial chunk of the 1990s drawing together evidence about him from letters, official records, biographies and memoirs of his contemporaries in Britain and France. The précis for the biography was shortlisted in the Biographer’s Club Prize in 2002, and the work is now completed and published.