Rivals at Court

From the Mauritshuis museum entrance, you walk round the left corner and follow the street along the Hofvijver. At the end of it, on the right corner, is another museum: the “Haags Historisch Museum”. Its current temporary exhibition focusses on two women.

These two power-brokers spent most of their lives in 17th century The Hague. One was the English Stuart Princess Elizabeth. She was the daughter of James I of England and Anne of Denmark. She was the sister of Charles I. She was married off to a German prince. Unlike many arranged marriages, this was a happy one.

This couple might have led a peaceful life together in their Heidelberg castle. Unfortunately, they were offered the Bohemian crown and accepted it. They moved to Prague, but lost a battle and they had to flee. In fact, they were in such a hurry they nearly left their youngest son, Prince Rupert, behind.

The couple also lost their German territory. As they were related to the house of Orange, they fled to the Dutch Republic. Prince Maurits, son of William the Silent, offered them lodgings in The Hague. The refugees became part of his The Hague court. Mockingly, Europe called them the Winter King and Queen.

Among the Winter Queen’s ladies-in-waiting was a beautiful young but poor German aristocrat. Prince Maurits’ younger half-brother was a ladies’ man. It started as an affair, but under pressure, Frederick Henry married Amalia von Solms. Their marriage contract, signed by Elizabeth among others, can be seen at this exhibition. Former royal employer and “upstart” ex-lady-in-waiting became rivals, trying to outdo each other in everything.

The exhibition shows how this rivalry went on for decades. There are portraits in which each strikes the same pose, is dressed in similar clothes, wears similar jewellery. There are replicas of their jewels made according to original designs. For the court jeweller’s book of designs can be seen at the exhibition, as well as orders, accounts, bills. In Elizabeth’s case: a great many unpaid ones.

Masques were a hit at brother Charles’s London court? Elizabeth introduced these in The Hague. Masked balls were the rage and one dressed up as goddess? Amalia was painted as one – and Elizabeth too.

The rivalry does not stop at masques, balls, paintings, palaces. Elizabeth loses her husband; her brother his kingdom and head. She plays the lonely, feeble widow – though she raises an army and fails to reconquer her husband’s Pfalz. Amalia becomes a widow too. She turns palace Huis ten Bosch into a shrine to commemorate Frederik-Hendrik’s successful battles.

Each has children to marry off? One stresses royal blood and royal relations. The other one lacks this trump card, but has money. A painting at this exhibition illustrates the sad history of Louisa Hollandina, one of Elizabeth’s talented daughters.

Elizabeth negotiates a marriage to another German prince. Like her mother and father, Louisa and her German prince meet and fall in love. But the prince’s father marries him off to … one of Amalia’s daughters. Amalia secretly negotiated this marriage and then as now: money buys anything.

The most galling marriage – according to a letter written by Elizabeth – is Amalia managing to marry her son William II of Orange to Mary Stuart, Elizabeth’s niece. Ultimately, Amalia’s grandson William III will marry another Mary Stuart and end up on the English throne.

The exhibition not only contains paintings, engravings, jewellery, and antiques. It also shows examples of letters written or signed by both women. Their spelling can be erratic and phonetic. Interesting is the example of the use of cypher and tiny secret messages.

The museum of course has a permanent exhibition as well. But on the third floor is another small temporary exhibition. It’s about immigrants and refugees like Elizabeth, Amalia, and more recent ones and their influence upon The Hague’s cultural life. So though less famous than the Mauritshuis, this small museum is currently well worth a visit.

For the museum’s website: Haags Historisch Museum


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