The Golden Boy of the Jacobean Age: first Prince of Wales of Great Britain, is this perhaps one of the greatest Kings we never had?
Discovering Henry Stuart, Prince of Wales (1594-1612), the drama, excitement and heartbreak of his all too brief life enchanted me.
I have sons. I recognised in Henry the same young man’s insatiable curiosity and appetite for life that they possess in bucket loads. Henry, though, pursued his destiny on a European stage, at a critical time of change in history.
Thus, most of his actions take place on a very big scale. I had to write Henry’s story. Although, the ending of it broke my heart.
To start at the beginning, Henry was born in February 1594 at Stirling Castle.
Impregnable Stirling was his childhood home for the first nine years of his life. It was a safe haven for a Stuart Crown Prince at continual risk of being kidnapped and made a political pawn in the power games of the time.
His parents are King James VI & I and Queen Anne of Denmark. His sister Elizabeth is now known to history as Elizabeth of Bohemia, ‘The Winter Queen’. Henry’s younger brother is notorious as the largely disastrous Charles I. They are quite a family.
In March 1603, Elizabeth I, last of the Tudors goes ‘out like a lamb’. This Stuart family ascends her thrones. In doing so, they achieve in peace what centuries of armed and diplomatic conflict failed to do: unite the countries of Britain for the first time. Henry becomes first Prince of Wales of all Britain.
For the next ten years, Henry is prepared for rule. His father might die at any time. The security of the succession, in the person of a dynamic and charismatic Crown Prince, secures the peace and prosperity of their people. A renaissance prince, charismatic, vigorous, brave and cultured, Henry is soon thought to embody all the princely virtues.
But in terms of the big historical picture, what always excited me about Henry’s story was glimpsing how Henry’s court connected the last decade of Elizabeth I to the Civil Wars, to a Puritan republic, and the British Empire in America; but also, to the transformation of the Navy into a force achieving global domination of the high seas; and the breaking down and recreation of Britain’s armed forces into a world-class fighting machine.
With King James, Henry re-founded the Royal library, amassing the biggest private library in England.
He began to create a Royal art collection of European breadth – paintings, coins, jewellery and gemstones, sculpture, both new and antique, on a scale no royal attempted before him. These went on to become world-class collections under his brother, Charles, and are the backbone of the British Library and the Queen’s Royal Collection today.
Henry undertook the grandest renovations of royal palaces in his father, King James VI and I’s reign, and mounted operatic, highly politicised masques.
His court maintained a dozen musicians and composers. Among the era’s writers, Ben Jonson, Inigo Jones, Michael Drayton, and George Chapman created work for him.
He responded with enthusiasm to the vogue for scientific research, putting time, money and men into buying cutting-edge scientific instruments – telescopes and automata that tried to model the heavens. He financed ‘projects’, business schemes, to try and extract silver from lead, or make the heat output of furnaces more fuel efficient.
His curiosity made him probe the boundaries of the known world. He persuaded the king to let him begin a full-scale review and renovation of Britain’s naval and military capacity. He was raised in the ancient culture of chivalry, but welcomed active servicemen from the frontline of Europe’s religious wars. Henry’s court was where the latest developments in the arts of warfare were received and taken up.
He became patron of the Northwest Passage Company to find a route across the top of America and open up the lucrative oriental trade to our merchants.
Called ‘the heir of Virginia’, Henry and his court were the driving force behind the project to realise a decades’ old English dream: to plant the British race permanently in American soil. Whatever we think of colonialization now, these men transformed the world.
As a man and prince, Henry knew himself to be European as much as he was British, using as one of mottos, Fas est aliorum quaerere regna, ‘It is right to ask other nations.’
At his death, he was preparing to go and stake his claim to be the next leader of Protestant Christendom, in the Protestant struggle to resist a resurgent militant Catholicism. He was a devout puritan minded Protestant. Under Henry, St James’s Palace combined a cutting edge military academy with chivalric virtues.
In the arena of British politics, I wanted to make a case for seeing Henry’s court as a significant way station between the earl of Essex’s abortive aristocratic uprising of 1601 – when Essex sought to force Elizabeth I to name James VI of Scotland as her heir in parliament – and the regicides shivering in the Painted Chamber, ready to sign the death warrant of Henry’s little brother, Charles I, in December, 1648.
By 1612, you could see Henry and his court positioning themselves at the front line of so much that came to define Britain in its heyday.
To try and find out, who was Henry, meant recreating the ambience and resurrecting the people that made up Henry’s world, and formed him. He was only nine when he came to England. For nearly a decade in Scotland and nearly a decade in England, some of the most influential men, and two women, of the Jacobean age wanted to shape the character of the future king and his monarchy. Who he responded to, and to whom he did not, suggested what kind of king he would be.
But then he dies a gruesome death over two gruelling weeks in November 1612. If the physicians and humourists reading his humours had only kept him cool and hydrated, there is every chance he would have lived. He suffered horribly, poor boy.
Today, in the conservation room at Westminster Abbey, the wreck of a life-sized wooden manikin is stretched out on a table. This is what remains of Henry. People used to call the royal effigies ‘the ragged regiment.’
His effigy remains as a symbol of his dual nature. As his body rotted in the coffin, his symbolic life as Prince of Wales was supposed to live forever. The eager ravages it suffered reflect how well Henry had grown into his public role. By 1612, his court was recognized as an important power bloc at home and abroad. For me, he is one of the greatest Princes of Wales we ever had.
Against the backdrop of religious turmoil in Europe, he stood ready to unite and lead all Protestants in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48). A cosmic conflict for the soul of Christendom, it loomed over the horizon. Henry’s thrilling story casts the Stuarts in a very different light, at the start of a century of transformation for Britain.
– Sarah Fraser
Sarah Fraser won the 2012 Saltire First Scottish Book of the Year for her acclaimed debut The Last Highlander (HarperCollins, 2012), which in 2016 also became a New York Times ebook bestseller. A writer and regular contributor on TV and radio, she has a PhD in obscene Gaelic poetry and lives in the Scottish Highlands. As well as writing, she is a carer since her husband’s stroke in 2011, and also has four children.
Her latest book is The Prince who would be King: The Life and Death of Henry Stuart (HarperCollins, 2017)