When I sat down to write this blog post, it was originally going to a book review of of Charles Spencer’s “Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier”. However as any followers of mine on twitter will attest to, when I finished the book yesterday I went on a rampage about how much I love the Rhineland Prince, and listed in a barrage of tweets WHY I love him so much. And I also warned people that this blog post may happen.
I’m not sorry.
Anyway, I first of all wanted to thank Charles Spencer for providing me with lots of extra information about this fascinating man in the history of the Seventeenth Century. Oh don’t get me wrong, I knew of Prince Rupert loooong before I picked up a book about him and that is all down to my days in the Sealed Knot, and plenty of beer tent drinking with Prince Rupert’s Blewcoats! And in my reading around The English Civil War, the name of this exceptional military man just kept on popping up. Whether it be with fantastic military victories, Cavalry charges worthy of a song or the hateful propaganda poured out by Parliament; there was something incredibly special about Prince Rupert of the Rhine. And well…I guess you will all know already that I have one hell of a thing for Rupert because of the massive picture of him in the header image up there!
Reading Spencer’s biography of Rupert was an eye opener for me, and has really peaked my interest. And so this post is going to talk about WHY I have such a thing for this dashing, Cavalier poster boy. And I’m going to do bullet points just because if I didn’t then this post would end up being a million times longer. And each point, I hope, will show exactly how awesome (…oh god did I really just use the word awesome in a history blog post? I regret absolutely nothing) Prince Rupert was.
- He was the nephew of Charles I – what’s not to like?
- Him and his family ended up in exile after his parents took over Bohemia where they ruled for just one season, which is why his parents Frederick V and Elizabeth of Bohemia are so often called the “Winter King & Queen”. After the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II began advancing on Prague in 1619 just a few months after Rupert’s birth, the family were forced to flee. And poor baby Rupert was almost left behind! A court servant ending up throwing him into one of the carriages at the last minute!
- They escaped to The Hague, where Rupert grew up, earning himself the nickname “Rupert the Devil” due to being incredibly mischievous.
- By the age of 14, Rupert had become a soldier, fighting in the Siege of Rheinberg in 1633, and by 1635 had become a member of the Prince of Orange’s lifeguards. And during these years he earned himself a reputation for fearlessness in battle!
- In 1638 Rupert was captured during the Invasion of Westphalia, and imprisoned in Linz where his captors tried to convert him to Catholicism – Rupert refused, he was Calvinist and proud, and kept on refusing even when he was told he could go free if he converted.
- His captors ended up liking him though, and gave him a white poodle which he named “Boye”
- He was released in 1641 after promising never to take up arms against the Emperor again and went to England.
- He was appointed General of the Horse in 1642 by his uncle King Charles and ended up recruiting over 3000 men by the September. He won an astounding success at Powick Bridge after leading a surprise Cavalry charge.
- He played a key role at Edgehill, but he ended up arguing with another commander, making a swift cavalry charge but a lack of discipline in the ranks meant that he was unable to bring the troops back to the field. Edgehill could have been won by the Royalist, but it ended up with no clear victor.
- In 1643, he took Bristol, which became one of his best victories.
- It was at this point that Parliament really feared him. And he became a big issue in potential peace negotiations. And the propaganda against him kept on coming, some said he could even dodge bullets!
- During his later years in the wars though, he managed to make enemies. He may have been a great military man but he was never able to grasp the ways of the courtier, and had a very quick temper. He managed to have a huge falling out with George Digby, a favourite of King Charles, and this would end up haunting him for many years.
- At the battle of Marston Moor, 1644, Rupert commanded much of the Royalist army which ended up being a huge defeat. Rupert, and lack of clear communication, were blamed.
- After the Battle of Naseby, Rupert was one of the few Royalists to realise that actually, the war would be Parliament’s and he tried his best to make his uncle see that. He urged his uncle to vie for peace but Digby got in the way of this! In 1645, Rupert was back at Bristol and overwhelmed by Parliament – he surrendered it in the September. Charles (influenced by Digby?) dismissed Rupert from his service.
- But Rupert being Rupert managed to convince his Uncle to hold a court martial to see is he had in fact been negligent in letting go of Bristol. After meeting with the King, it was decided that actually, Rupert had been the one in the right. Yet, Charles and Rupert ended up arguing about the fate of the Governor of Newark. And so Rupert resigned.
- He ended up in France where he ended up fighting for Louis XIV, although he was quite clear in the fact that if his uncle wanted him, he would go back to England. Now that’s loyalty!
- The main problem that Rupert had while he was in France was that the French court was dominated by his Aunt, Queen Henrietta Maria (who had a bit of a dislike for her Nephew) and her favourite Digby. I can imagine Rupert seething as he first came into contact with Digby upon entering the French court. So Rupert moved on and accepted a commission from Anne of Austria to fight for Louis. From 1647 Rupert fought with De Gassion, taking the fortress of La Bassee after a three week siege. Sadly not long after, Rupert and De Gassion were taken unawares by the Spanish – Rupert was shot in the head and very badly injured. It was an injury that would affect him for the rest of his life. Whilst Rupert was recovering, De Gassion was killed in combat.
- After this Rupert returned to the service of his Uncle, where he joined the Navy. At the time, Charles was a prisoner on the Isle of Wight and Rupert argued that the fleet should be used to rescue Charles. In the fleet, discipline was lacking and many ships ended up turning tail and joining the other side!
- After a reconciliation with his uncle, Rupert took command of the naval fleet himself. His command took him many many places. It was in Ireland that he learned of the execution of his Uncle. But he sailed on, determined to keep on fighting for the Royalist cause and the new King Charles II. These years took him as far as the Caribbean as a privateer (pirate), though he was often pursued by Parliamentary ships under the command of Robert Blake.
- During the trip, Rupert almost lost his life in a storm in which his ship The Constant Reformation was shipwrecked. He was determined to go down with his men, except they ended up pushing him into a lifeboat and sending him across to his brother Prince Maurice. 333 lives were lost on that ship as well as a lot of treasure. Not long afterwards, in another storm as they sailed for the Virgin Islands, a hurricane scattered the remaining ships. The Defiance which was captained by Prince Maurice went missing and was never found. Rupert refused for a long time to believe that his brother was dead, although it was certain. And Maurice’s death left a hole in Rupert’s heart that would never be filled.
- in 1653 Rupert returned to France and the court of the exiled Charles II. But his presence caused problems, as he apparently became involved in a plot to assassinate Oliver Cromwell in 1654 and many in the court including Clarendon saw Rupert as an obstacle to peace.
- in 1655 Rupert left for Germany, where he visited his brother Charles-Louis. Relations broke down though and they parted on bad terms in 1657 and he took up employment with Ferdinand III.
- However after Charles II’s restoration, Rupert moved permanently to England (with lots of wine!) and was granted a large pension by his cousin and ended up being made Constable of Windsor Castle in 1668. He continued his work with the Navy, fighting in the Dutch Wars.
- His old head wound began to flare up again and Rupert ended up undergoing trephanning TWICE to sort the problem out. This surgery had changed little since it had first been used by people in prehistory, and the survival rate was low. But survive, he did. And after retiring from active naval service in the 1670’s he began to work very closely with the Royal Society, having long had an interest in science. Much of his scientific work ended up being military, and he is credited with early versions of the machine gun, revolver and torpedo. He also became involved in the colonisation of North America, dealing in trade and also the slave trade, he was also made First Governor of “Rupert’s Land”, an absolutely huge expanse of North America, though he never set foot there.
- Towards the end of his life, Rupert became romantically involved with the actress Peg Hughes – he never married her but ended up falling so head over heels in love with her that he almost became the laughing stock of court. Despite never marrying Peg, Rupert openly acknowledged their daughter Ruperta (born 1673), and enjoyed the family lifestyle.
- In November 1682, Rupert died of pleurisy at his house in Westminster. He was buried in the Henry VII Chapel at Westminster Abbey and given a magnificent state funeral.
Most people will think of the English Civil War when they hear Rupert’s name and for a long time I was the same. But his life was absolutely remarkable and he ended up staying in the military well past his 50th year. Not only had he been part of the army and Navy, but he had been a pirate as well as taking part in science via the Royal Society and being hugely involved in the colonisation of America. And THAT is why I have such a thing for him.
Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier – Charles Spencer