As someone who prefers to learn through fiction, I often struggle to find the motivation to start reading a long non-fiction book, especially one by an author I’ve never tried before. I’ve had this one on my Kindle since last year waiting until it was the right time to read it – and that time came a couple of weeks ago after I read The White Witch by Elizabeth Goudge, a novel in which one of the main characters fights alongside Prince Rupert in the English Civil War. Rupert has a relatively minor role in that novel, and in others that I’ve read, but I thought it would be interesting to find out more about him.
Prince Rupert of the Rhine, as he is usually known, was born in Prague in 1619. His mother, Elizabeth, was the sister of King Charles I of England, while his father, Frederick, was the Elector Palatine and – briefly – the King of Bohemia. When Frederick lost his crown to the Habsburg Emperor, his wife and young children were forced to flee Prague and take refuge in The Hague. Growing up in exile, Rupert gained military experience in the Thirty Years War before coming to England and joining his uncle, Charles I, at the beginning of the Civil War.
As the commander of the Royalist cavalry, Rupert was one of the most colourful characters of the Civil War. When most of us think of a ‘cavalier’ we probably form a mental image of someone very like Prince Rupert: young, tall and handsome, with long, flowing hair and dressed in the latest court fashions. To the Parliamentarians, however, the cavaliers were villains, guilty of theft, rape, drunkenness and all sorts of debauchery. As the most iconic of the cavaliers, and the King’s most famous general, Rupert was the main target of enemy propaganda – he was even accused of witchcraft and his beloved white poodle, Boye, was suspected of being his familiar.
Earlier in the conflict, Rupert led the Royalists to some impressive victories, before suffering defeats at Marston Moor and Naseby. While Charles Spencer’s portrayal of Rupert is generally very favourable, I do think he does a good job here of showing why the Royalist cause ultimately failed and why rivalries and divisions between Rupert and his fellow commanders, as well as some very poor decisions, contributed to their downfall. Spencer does seem to like and admire Rupert (which must be an advantage when writing historical biography) but at the same time, he is aware of Rupert’s negative points and not just his positive ones.
The Civil War years only take up about a third of the book, but Prince Rupert’s military career continued after his part in the war ended. After being banished from England in 1646, he became a Royalist pirate, attacking Parliament’s shipping in the Caribbean. Then, following the Restoration of his cousin, Charles II, in 1660, he returned to England and fought in the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars as a senior naval commander. Both of these episodes of the Prince’s life are given a lot of attention in this book, as are his final years (he died in 1682).
I thoroughly enjoyed this fascinating biography – Charles Spencer’s writing is clear and easy to follow, and I even found the descriptions of battle tactics and military strategies compelling, which is unusual for me! The only time I thought it began to drag a little bit was during the naval sections (I always seem to struggle with books set at sea, which I accept is usually my fault rather than the authors’).
What I found particularly interesting was the information on Rupert’s other accomplishments away from his army and navy career: his scientific work and the part he played in the founding of the Royal Society; his role in the development of the mezzotint printing technique; and his governorship of the Hudson’s Bay Company (Rupert’s Land in Canada was named after him). I wasn’t aware of any of this and hadn’t appreciated just how much Prince Rupert had achieved in his lifetime.
I would be happy to read more non-fiction by Charles Spencer but I’m not sure that any of his other books really appeal to me. He is the younger brother of the late Princess Diana (something I didn’t know when I first started reading) and most of his work seems to be concerned with his family history. If anyone has read any other books on Prince Rupert, though – either fiction or non-fiction – I would love some suggestions.