Saturday, 2 August 2014

'Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier' by Charles Spencer (2007)

Whilst I can't claim to be any kind of a history buff, a period of history that I've always found especially interesting is the English Civil War. Not many people share this with me. The periods of history that Brits tend to have the most interest in are the Tudor era, the Victorian era, and World Wars I and II. The English Civil War is a very neglected part of our history and isn't even that widely taught in our schools. Why is that even the case?! The English Civil War is a fascinating time in our history! It had political machinations and espionage. It had action and drama and heroism and tragedy. And it had some fascinating characters: characters like Prince Rupert of the Rhine. Prince Rupert isn't a very famous figure these days but it seems that those people who have actually heard of him are big fans :D I spent two weeks volunteering at a music library last year and got very excited when I discovered that two of the librarians there both had huge crushes on Prince Rupert. We had such a fun conversation! Ah, good times, good times... Anyway, my New Year's Resolution for the past two or three years has been to start reading more historical biographies but I've never got round to it. Which period of history do I start with?! But in the end I went for this biography and I'm glad I did. Up until now my entire fondness for Prince Rupert has been down to the famous portrait by Gerrit Van Honthurst see above, isn't it gorgeous? and the fact that he was a dashing Cavalier who fought against Oliver Cromwell (who I can't stand). But by reading this book I learnt so much more about Rupert and I can honestly say that he's one of my favourite historical figures :)

Prince Rupert was born in Prague on 17 December 1619. His mother was Elizabeth Stuart. She was the granddaughter of Mary Queen of Scots, the eldest daughter of King James (VI of Scotland and I of England), and the sister of Charles I. Rupert's father Frederick was a German Protestant prince. Rupert's parents were genuinely in love and were married on Valentine's Day. Shakespeare wrote his play The Tempest as a wedding gift for them. Rupert was the fourth child of thirteen children. Shortly before Rupert's birth, his father was invited to accept the throne of Bohemia after a rebellion. However, this decision infuriated the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II and he then sent a massive army after them. The family had only a few hours to pack up all of their things and flee the city. In their panic they almost left Rupert behind. The family now had to live in exile. Because Frederick was part Dutch the family were granted sanctuary in the Netherlands and Rupert spent the rest of his childhood there. With their kingdom lost the family had to rely on handouts from the Dutch and English courts and often had to sell their valuables in order to get by. Nevertheless Rupert's childhood seems to have been a happy one. He was fiery, passionate and very inquisitive and bright. He could speak English, French and Czech by the time he was three. He found maths easy and he would do chemistry experiments for fun. He and his sister Princess Louise were gifted painters. Rupert was handsome, athletic and tall. Very tall! When he got to 18 he was 6'4" which was nine inches taller than the average height for men at the time. As a child Rupert's dream was to become a soldier and he achieved this at the age of 14 when he fought for the Netherlands against the Spanish. Two years later Rupert visited England for the first time and met his uncle Charles I. Rupert completely fell in love with England and felt a deep spiritual connection to his mother's country. On a hunting trip with his uncle he even said that if he died right there and then he'd be happy because his bones would be buried in England forever.

Prince Rupert (right) with his brother Charles Louis

Rupert returned to the Netherlands at the insistence of his mother and then fought in various military campaigns until he was captured at the Battle of Vlotho in 1638. He was then held as a prisoner of war in Linz for the next three years. This period of captivity was extremely irksome for Rupert because he had to constantly resist his enemies' attempts to get him to convert him to Catholicism and join their side. But this period of captivity wasn't without its compensations. He was allowed to practise his military skills and took up tennis during this time. He was later described as the fourth best tennis player in England. He acquired some pets. He managed to tame a hare and was given a pet poodle for company. Rupert called the dog "Boy" and it became his constant companion. In the Civil War Rupert would even take it into battle with him. Rupert also fell in love with a girl called Susan who was the daughter of his captor.

Charles I was eventually able to get Rupert released and Rupert then went back to England to try to help his uncle win the Civil War. He became a Royalist cavalry general and then a senior commander. Rupert must have made a strong impression, what with his extreme height and his riding around in flamboyant clothes with his pet poodle scampering around the battlefield. But in battle, Rupert was also bold, brave and daring. He gained a fearsome reputation and won some great victories. His greatest achievement was the Storming of Bristol in 1643. Sadly Rupert's reputation was so fierce that it resulted in some truly vicious Parliamentarian propaganda. A Parliamentarian who surrendered to Rupert was so touched by Rupert's kindness and graciousness towards him and his troops that he actually sent a letter to the Parliamentarian pamphleteers which begged them to stop writing lies about him. But one of the funnier pieces of propaganda about Rupert involved his dog Boy. The Parliamentarians claimed that Rupert's skill on the battlefield could only be down to witchcraft and wrote pamphlets which claimed that Boy was a demon from Hell who'd been sent to earth to protect Rupert on the battlefield. The Cavaliers thought this claim was hilarious and mocked it relentlessly. They produced pamphlets of their own which claimed that, yes, Boy did have supernatural powers. He could predict the future, could find buried treasure, could catch bullets in his teeth, and would spy on the Parliamentarians by turning invisible. Boy was eventually killed at the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644. Rupert must have decided that this battle would be too dangerous for Boy because he left him tied up by a tent but Boy escaped and chased after Rupert into the battle. He was then shot and Rupert was left devastated.

Rupert spent four years fighting in the Civil War and as the war continued he eventually lost all hope of a Royalist victory. He became deeply frustrated by the lack of discipline within the army and in the king's sycophantic advisors. Rupert had no patience with those he disliked and he made some powerful enemies within the Royalist camp. The fact that he was a foreigner also made him an easy target for blame. These enemies managed to drive a wedge between Rupert and Charles I which resulted in Rupert being dismissed. Eventually Rupert and Charles I were reconciled but, after the Parliamentarians captured the city of Oxford, the war was lost and Rupert was banished from the country.

After the loss of the Civil War, Rupert and numerous Royalist exiles escaped to the Continent and established a court-in-exile in France. Rupert was still only 26. He fought in the French army against the Spanish for a year before he decided to become a pirate on the behalf of the Royalists. Yes, Rupert became a literal pirate prince! :D He sailed around the Caribbean, capturing Cromwellian ships and treasure. Rupert only gave up on this life of piracy under deeply tragic circumstances. He was caught up in a hurricane which sank one of his ships and took the life of his beloved younger brother and best friend Maurice. Rupert was absolutely devastated by this loss. He then went back to Europe. During this time, Rupert went to live in Heidelberg with his older brother Charles Louis for a while and accidentally got caught up in a bizarre love square with his brother, his sister-in-law, and his sister-in-law's companion Louise von Degenfeld.

Rupert wouldn't visit England again until the Restoration of the monarchy when he was invited back by his cousin Charles II. Rupert joined the Royal Navy and fought in several campaigns against the Dutch in the Anglo-Dutch Wars. He eventually became the Naval commander. Rupert then became the Governor and Constable of Windsor Castle. Rupert was much-loved by the citizens of Berkshire and he made many improvements on the castle. Rupert used this time at Windsor to devote himself to his lifelong passion for science. He became one of the founders of the Royal Society and set up several laboratories at the castle. He invented a new kind of mezzotint, prototypes for the machine gun and torpedo, a new kind of gunpowder that was 10 times stronger than its predecessor, an improved quadrant for use at sea, a brass alloy, and a diving engine that was capable of reaching the sea bed. Rupert also became the driving force of the Hudson's Bay Company which played a pivotal role in mapping out Canada. Had it not been for this company Canada would have probably been placed in the possession of America rather than England. There's a town near the Canadian/Alaskan border that's named after Prince Rupert. Rupert died in 1682 at the age of 62 and was buried at Westminster Abbey. He was survived by Peg Hughes, his mistress for 14 years, their daughter Ruperta, and a son from a previous relationship called Dudley Bard.

This book is packed with many brilliant stories from Rupert's life that I haven't even touched on. Although I wouldn't describe this book as being "unputdownable" I still found it to be an immensely interesting read. Spencer's writing is quite academic but I never once found this book stuffy or dry. Since I've never read another biography about Rupert before I'm obviously not the best person to speak on this book's historical accuracy but it always seemed like an accurate read. The book chimes with information that I've been able to find on the Internet and there were never any details that didn't quite make sense or add up to me. Also the book has an extensive 10 page bibliography at the end and Charles Spencer, who's probably best known for being the brother of Princess Diana, was given permission by the Queen to access the royal archives at Windsor Castle. In his prologue Spencer explains that he consciously chose not to spend more a third of the book on the Civil War because, as exciting as this period was, it only took up four years of Rupert's life and Rupert went on to do plenty of other things. Although the Civil War period and Rupert's pirate years were the most interesting parts of the book for me I completely respected Spencer's decision.

Prince Rupert had his flaws. He could be stubborn, tactless and overly impulsive. He was very sarcastic and contemptuous towards those he disliked and in his younger years his temper could be explosive. In the later years of his life he was probably fairly promiscuous. Rupert was always very discreet but we know he had at least two mistresses and it's possible that he had more. I wonder how Rupert was able to reconcile this with his devout Calvinism? But I still think that it would be extremely difficult for a person to not develop a liking and admiration for Rupert after reading Spencer's book. Rupert was passionate, intelligent, dashing, decisive and brave. He was extremely loyal to the people that he cared about and he inspired deep loyalty and affection from the people around him. Rupert was creative, determined, and had an extraordinary amount of energy. He had epic adventures and was ludicrously accomplished. He was very attractive in his younger years. Rupert deserves to be so much more famous than he is and I really can't understand why there hasn't there been a biopic about him. Seriously, someone in Hollywood or at the BBC or at HBO or whatever really needs to get on this! Rupert's good looks, combined with his exciting life and personality, would create an army of fangirls! It would be so wonderful if someone made a biopic about Rupert's life with Spencer's book as the basis for the script!

Rating: 5/5

P.S. I've recently discovered that the Channel Four miniseries The Devil's Whore featured a brief performance from Harry Lloyd as Prince Rupert in one of its episodes. The miniseries really doesn't sound like something I'd enjoy - but I do appreciate the gifs of Prince Rupert that I've been able to find on Tumblr. Very nice!

Via Tumblr

Via Tumblr


Manette said...

I think civil wars in general are a rather unpleasant subject in most people's opinion, in all countries. We can usually justify fighting against other countries by "we had to defend our own country", but warring within the country is often considered something of an embarrassment by later generations, and something teachers find difficult to talk about to children at school. Finland had a civil war in 1918 and even nowadays, people are so uncomfortable with the subject that they don't even know what would be the most "politically correct" way to refer to it. Also, some people are afraid that discussing civil war might give others the impression that they "support" one side or the other, and then there's always a chance it's the "wrong" side!

Sorry, I got a bit sidetracked from Prince Rupert, but I find wars very interesting and when you mentioned that your Civil War is a somewhat neglected part of your history, I immediately noticed the similarity with how the Finnish one is treated :) History yay.

Hannah said...

Hmm... I suppose you're right but it still seems silly to me. When it comes to your country it seems more understandable to me that people would be reluctant to talk about the war because it's still relatively recent. It would have affected people's grandparents. *Were your grandparents involved? I didn't know Finland had a civil war* But the English Civil War happened 400 years ago and I really can't imagine people wanting to start fights with me because I'm a Royalist supporter!

Yes, yay history! I can't understand how anyone could find it boring!