There has been much comment about the fact that the Duke and Duchess’ first-born, should she be a she, will succeed to the throne before any brothers. Had this happened in the early stages of the Stuart monarchy, British history might indeed have been very different. For when the then heir to the throne, Henry, died suddenly in 1612, aged eighteen, his sixteen year-old sister, Princess Elizabeth would have been next in line, not her other brother, Charles (I). This winter, on the four hundredth anniversary of his death, an exhibition on this ‘Lost Prince’ is being staged at the National Gallery in London. Little has been published about him, or indeed about his sister, though a book called A Stuart Portrait was published about Elizabeth, Queen of Hearts, in 1934, by Alice Buchan.
Henry frequently scolded his sister Elizabeth for listening to gossip about their grandmother, Mary Queen of Scots. He said she had been a very unhappy and foolish woman. As time went on she came more and more under Henry’s influence and that of her tutor, Lord Harrington, at his home at Coombe Abbey in Warwickshire, where she was taught the domestic arts as well as receiving the moral education which would one day fit her to be the bride of a Protestant Prince. It was from here that the recusant Catholic gentry planned to kidnap her and smuggle her into hiding so that, once successful in their rebellion against her father, and having killed him and her brother Henry by blowing up Parliament at its state opening on November 5th, 1605, they would place her on the throne as Queen Elizabeth II, gaining the toleration James I had once granted but then brutally revoked. However, both the Gunpowder Plot and the Rebellion came to nothing, failing even to take her captive, since her tutor received warning and swiftly moved her into the nearby walled and gated City of Coventry for safekeeping. The experience merely served to strengthen her in her belief that, like her godmother, the first Elizabeth, she was destined to be the Hope of the Protestant Cause. However, the plotters were right in believing that, also like Elizabeth I, and unlike her father, she did not wish to enslave men to state Protestantism on pain of persecution, but to lead them to God by the shining example of her own goodness.
She wrote religious poetry and did penance, self-inflicted. She saw herself one day reigning with the beauty of her grandmother and the grace of her godmother. All through the endless negotiations for her marriage to the Elector Palatine, Prince Frederick, she had remained the pattern of a dutiful princess. When he arrived to pay his first respects, she had not lifted her eyes from the ground while he bowed over her hand and exchanged compliments with her brother, Prince Henry, but when he knelt before her and she saw how handsome he was, just like the fairy-tale Prince of all her dreams, her heart skipped and she presented not her hand but her cheek in greeting! He was only a year older than Elizabeth, but the Protestant alliance he brought with him would consolidate the goodwill towards the Stuart monarchy of the English and that of the Protestant States of Germany and Holland towards the English. Queen Anne, Elizabeth’s Danish mother, was a secret covert to Rome and wanted a Spanish alliance, but Frederick won her over by presenting her with a diamond coronet.
Before she met Frederick, all her hopes had rested on her brother Henry for the future of her family, as her father was often ill-tempered and argumentative, not least with Parliament, the Commons of which were increasingly critical of his excessive spending at Court. She herself was embarrassed at the lack of funding for her tutelage at Coombe Abbey, where Lord Harrington had to meet most of her expenses out of his own purse. Many hopes were similarly resting on the shoulders of the young Prince of Wales. His brother, Charles, was so small and frail as a child that he was not expected to live long, which was probably why the Gunpowder plotters, on the advice of Sir Thomas Percy, a member of the Royal Household, had decided to kidnap Elizabeth from Coombe Abbey, not risking exposure in London by attempting to seize her sickly younger brother from the royal household. Yet it was Henry who became ill with a contagious disease in 1612, probably the Plague, considering how quickly it killed him and the fact that even his dear sister was forbidden to visit him. She had pleaded many times with the Court physician, Mayerne. Others had shared her helpless misery: Raleigh, pacing the narrow battlement of the Tower, where he had been imprisoned by James, grieved for a hopeful young life which he had watched with keen affection. He believed that the Prince would one day, as King, bring about the reconciliation of Europe, after more than a century of religious conflict and warfare. There were many others like Raleigh who saw in him another Henry of Lancaster, the founder of the Tudor dynasty. He also was stern, courageous, austere, pious and just ruthless enough to enable his ideals to achieve practical success.
Henry’s last words had been for Elizabeth – Where is my dear sister? She had watched from the bedroom of her suite in Whitehall (now backing onto Downing Street) as, with heavy snow-clouds overhead, the funeral procession wound its way through the mourning crowds to Westminster. The following February, on Valentine’s Day, she watched from the same window as the carriages prepared to take her to her wedding. The Prince of Wales’ sudden death still threw a long shadow over the betrothal celebrations. However, it had brought the couple even closer together, since Henry had spoken up on behalf of the match after welcoming the young Elector Palatine, commending him to his sister’s love in the warmest possible terms. Her much-loved elder brother had for so long been her Mentor that she prepared obediently to love the Prince from Germany, the report of whose many virtues had preceded him to England. It was enough for Elizabeth that Henry approved of the marriage. As a young Puritan, he had disapproved of much at Court, forbidding his own servants to swear and fining them if they did, and checking his sister’s hankering after idle vanities!
Elizabeth’s solemn public engagement to Frederick had taken place soon after Henry’s death; she had appeared in black satin with a white plume in her hair. Some students of the Middle Temple had given a play called The Tempest by a popular playwright named William Shakespeare, now an old man living in distinguished retirement in his native Warwickshire. Some of the lines from the play stuck in her memory, recalled in later years, after she had experienced their truths as the Winter Queen of Bohemia and the exiled Queen of Hearts at the Dutch Court:
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit shall dissolve
And like this insubstantial pageant faded
Leave not a wrack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
related articles –
- Henricus Princeps (londonhistorians.wordpress.com)
- Royal succession: why a new law won’t change much | Richard J Evans (guardian.co.uk)