The Winter Prince by Cheryl Sawyer

After reading Charles Spencer’s biography Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier a year or two ago, I mentioned that I wanted to read more books, either fiction or non-fiction, about Rupert of the Rhine, surely one of the most interesting and colourful characters of the English Civil War and Restoration period. The suggestion I was particularly drawn to was The Stranger Prince by Margaret Irwin, but with another of Irwin’s books already unread on my shelf (The Galliard) I wanted to read that one first before buying another one. Meanwhile I came across The Winter Prince by Cheryl Sawyer and decided to give it a try.

The Winter Prince is the first in a trilogy which continues with Farewell, Cavaliers and The King’s Shadow. It opens in 1642 with conflict building between King Charles I and his Parliament. When Mary Villiers is informed by her husband, the Duke of Lennox and Richmond, that the King is planning to arrest five members of Parliament in the House of Commons, she thinks she is doing the right thing by warning the five men of his intentions. Mary is a royalist – the Duke is one of the King’s closest advisers – but she believes it will send out the wrong signal if the men are arrested.

Around this time, the King’s nephew, Prince Rupert, arrives on England’s shores having recently been released from imprisonment in Germany. Charles needs all the loyal support he can get and, when civil war does inevitably break out, Rupert (accompanied by his beloved white poodle, Boy) is given the task of leading the Royalist cavalry. Mary Villiers was only fourteen the last time Rupert had come to Charles’s court and they don’t have very fond memories of each other. Meeting again now, as adults, they are instantly drawn to each other and a friendship quickly forms which could develop into something more – except that Mary is already married and Rupert is her husband’s friend.

The Winter Prince is written partly from Mary’s perspective and partly from Rupert’s. There is no actual evidence to prove that they were involved in a romantic relationship, but there are rumours to suggest that it may have happened and Cheryl Sawyer expands on this to create a romance for Rupert and Mary that runs throughout the novel. Because Rupert is away with the army so much of the time and because Mary doesn’t want to hurt her husband (whom she likes but doesn’t love), our hero and heroine don’t often have the opportunity to be together which makes the occasions when they do meet more significant. For me, though, there was something slightly lacking in the romantic aspect of the story. Although Cheryl Sawyer’s writing is very good in other ways, I thought the characters felt a little bit lifeless and because I couldn’t fall in love myself with her version of Rupert I couldn’t entirely believe in Mary’s feelings for him and his for her.

As far as I could tell, the book had been well researched, although as I am definitely not an expert on Prince Rupert or Mary Villiers (or this period in general) it’s hard for me to judge the historical accuracy. I did notice that on the first page the king is referred to as Charles the First whereas at the time he would have been simply King Charles as at that point there had not been a second, but I didn’t pick up on anything else like this. I just don’t have the knowledge to be able to comment, though. Anyway, it is not a light or fluffy novel – in fact, I felt as though I was being overloaded with information at times.

The romance is only one element of the novel; a large part of the book is also devoted to the Civil War itself and there are pages and pages of detailed descriptions of each battle, the tactics and strategies used and the role played by Rupert and his cavalry. I struggled to stay interested through these long military accounts, but this was probably my fault rather than the fault of the author as it’s not very often that I do enjoy reading battle scenes!

My feelings about this book were mixed, then, but it was good to have an opportunity to learn a little bit more about Rupert. I probably won’t read the other books in this trilogy, but I do still want to read Margaret Irwin’s The Stranger Prince.

This book counts towards this year’s What’s in a Name? Challenge: A title containing a season.

Dora Greenwell McChesney’s Civil War

Rupert by the Grace of God I have not just one book but two to tell you about today. Dora Greenwell McChesney is an author from the late 19th/early 20th century whose work I discovered a few months ago when I read her Richard III novel from 1913, The Confession of Richard Plantagenet. I love reading about Richard III, but I also enjoy reading about the English Civil War, so when I spotted reissues of two of her Civil War novels on NetGalley recently I was curious to see what they were like.

Rupert, by the Grace of God, originally published in 1899, was the first one I read. I was attracted to this book by the title; it refers, of course, to Prince Rupert of the Rhine, nephew of Charles I and commander of the Royalist cavalry. When I read a biography of Rupert earlier in the year, I said that I was interested in reading more about him (and was given a few suggestions in the comments, which I will get around to reading eventually – I promise!) so that was definitely part of the appeal of this particular novel for me.

The story is narrated by Will Fortescue, a young man who has defied his father to join the Royalist army. Taking refuge in a church to hide from enemy soldiers one day, Will finds an unusual golden coin on the floor and picks it up, unaware that in doing so he is changing the whole course of his life. The coin is recognised by Cosmas, an elderly man whom some say is a wizard, and Will finds himself drawn into a secret plot to put Rupert on the throne in place of Charles. Rupert himself, however, is loyal to his king and wants no part in such a treacherous scheme!

There were parts of this novel that I enjoyed, but it wasn’t really what I’d been expecting. Being part historical adventure novel and part gothic melodrama, it was entertaining at times, but I have to admit, I can see why it was allowed to go out of print for so long. I was interested in Will Fortescue’s personal story and in his involvement in the battles and key moments of the Civil War, but there was too much focus on secret conspiracies and black magic rituals for my taste and after a few chapters I felt my attention starting to wander.

Cornet Strong of Iretons Horse The second McChesney novel I read was Cornet Strong of Ireton’s Horse, published several years later in 1903. This is a different sort of story, concentrating on the relationship between two soldiers within the Parliamentarian army: Nathan Standish, a young captain, and Reuben Strong, who is promoted to the rank of cornet after capturing Prince Rupert’s banner. Throughout the novel, Strong and Standish cross paths on several occasions with a young Irish Cavalier, Roy O’Neil, and his sister, Eileen.

Strong is a dedicated, inflexible person who believes very strongly in carrying out God’s work. When another character tells him “we are all somewhat more than mere engines of soldiership,” Strong answers “I am no more! I am a sword, a sword tempered to this work and to no other use.” Standish is a more likeable character and plays such a prominent part in the story, I wondered, at least for a while, why the author had chosen to put Strong’s name in the title.

Of these two books, I preferred Cornet Strong. Although it was still quite reliant on coincidences, chance encounters and last-minute escapes, it felt like a more ‘serious’ historical novel, telling a more straightforward story. Instead of the magic and mystery of Rupert, by the Grace of God, this one deals with battles, military campaigns and army life. Again, though, I never really felt fully absorbed – not until near the end, when something was revealed which made me think differently about everything I’d read up to that point.

Dora Greenwell McChesney’s writing style won’t appeal to everyone – the language used in her dialogue is archaic and her prose in general feels old-fashioned, even for books published in 1899 and 1903. These two novels haven’t won a place on my list of favourite Civil War books, but they were interesting in parts and were fairly quick reads, particularly the shorter Cornet Strong, so I did find them worth reading.

Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier by Charles Spencer

Prince Rupert 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.

Rupert 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.