Prince Rupert of the Rhine – Shagamuffin

Rupert, Count Palatine of the Rhine, Duke of Bavaria, 1st Duke of Cumberland, 1st Earl of Holderness
(17 December 1619 – 29 November 1682)

Portrait by Gerrard von Honthurst

Rupert’s parents were Frederick V, Elector Palatine and Elizabeth Stuart, the elder sister of Charles 1. Both were strongly Protestant and it was this that led Frederick to accept the throne of Bohemia – a poisoned chalice which wiser men had already refused because there was no chance that Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand was going to tolerate a Protestant ruler in one of his territories.

Nor did he. Frederick and Elizabeth arrived in Prague in October 1619 to a rapturous welcome and, in December, were blessed with a second son – Rupert. The following November, the Emperor sent an army against Prague which routed the Protestant defenders and forced Frederick and his family to flee. Their departure was so frenzied that it was only as the last coach was drawing away and a ‘bundle’ was thrown into it that anyone realised little Prince Rupert had almost been left behind.

Frederick V’s year as King of Bohemia cost him the Palatinate as well, so Rupert and his growing tribe of brothers and sisters [excluding the three who died in infancy, he had nine siblings!] grew up in The Hague, relying on the charity of family and friends.


Rupert and his younger brother, Maurice, by Van Dyck

Rupert was a boisterous, active child whom those around him, perhaps prophetically, nick-named Rupert the Devil. By the age of three, he could speak English, French and Czech; later he also acquired Dutch, German, Italian and Spanish. He was quick to learn and excelled at mathematics, science and art – studying the latter under Gerard von Honthurst. He was tall – six feet four inches – and very athletic. And his constant ambition was to be a soldier
Rupert was fourteen when his Uncle Frederick Henry of Orange took him on campaign in the Spanish Netherlands and gave him his first taste of warfare. Two years later, he visited England and the court of his uncle, Charles 1. He became a particular favourite of Queen Henrietta Maria – sadly, this changed during the Civil War! – and fell completely in love with both England and its way of life. On his return to the Netherlands, he joined the Prince of Orange again and fought in various campaigns until he was captured at Vlotho in 1638 and imprisoned at Linz by the Emperor Ferdinand until 1641. This period of captivity, though comfortable, must have been extremely irksome – and yet it was not without its compensations. He had his dog, Boy, for company, as well – somewhat incredibly – as a tame hare; and the sixteen-year-old daughter of his custodian, Susanne Marie von Kuffstein, was quite possibly his first romantic interest.

I am not going to attempt to chronicle Rupert’s Civil War career.


It would require a book of its own and I have covered some of his peaks and troughs in A Splendid Defiance and The Black Madonna. Suffice it to say that he fought for Uncle Charles throughout and, in doing so, gained a reputation that was either heroic or demonic – depending on one’s point of view. Between 1649 and 1652 he spent most of his time ‘pirating’ round the Caribbean and he passed the years of the Commonwealth either at Heidelberg with his elder brother or fighting for the King of Hungary. He did not see England again until the Restoration when his cousin, Charles 11, invited him back and settled a pension of £6000 a year on him.
In 1666, he was joint Commander of the Royal Navy during the Second Dutch War (see The Marigold Chain) and remained in active service until 1674. Now, with time on his hands, he was finally able to devote himself to his long-standing passion for science. He became a founder-member of the Royal Society … and, in his fully-equipped laboratory at Windsor Castle, he plunged into a world of invention. He created a new method of mezzotint, a multiple-firing gun, a better-balanced quadrant for use at sea, a new brass alloy and a recipe for gunpowder, ten times stronger than its predecessor. Truthfully, the list goes on. The man was a creative dynamo.

Obviously, although he never married, there were women in his life. His last relationship was with the actress, Margaret Hughes, by whom he had a daughter – somewhat infelicitously named Ruperta.

Back in 1637, Rupert had told Charles 1 that he would like to leave his bones in England. He got his wish. He died of complications following an attack of pleurisy in 1682 and was buried in the crypt of Westminster Abbey. He left the bulk of his estate – valued at around £12,000 – to Margaret Hughes and Ruperta.

So what was he really like … this complex, many-faceted man?

In my opinion, an intriguing blend of enormous strengths and small weaknesses. Energetic, clever and capable of intense focus but also impatient and frequently tactless – his inability to suffer fools gladly probably won him as many enemies as friends. Rupert was far from perfect – and, to me, far easier to like, because of it. He was a remarkable man but endearingly human. He leaves behind a legacy of images as vivid as they are charismataic … the dashing Cavalry leader, the Wizard Prince, the Mad Cavalier … and beyond all these, Rupert the Unswervingly Loyal.

Born nearly 400 years ago, this fascinating character still leaps off the pages of history too boldly to be ignored or forgotten. And, speaking for myself, it really doesn’t hurt that he was also tall, beautifully-proportioned and outstandingly good-looking. I wish – I really wish I could have met him.

The only visible indication of Rupert’s final resting-place is to be found on the floor of the Henry V11 Chapel, squeezed in between the tombs of Margaret Beaufort and Margaret Douglas.
And for anyone interested in further reading, I’d recommend Margaret Irwin’s The Stranger Prince and Prince Rupert of the Rhine by Patrick Morrah.

Author: Stella Riley


10 thoughts on “Prince Rupert of the Rhine – Shagamuffin”

  1. How very interesting! I’m intrigued by the reference to Hungary. Even though I am Hungarian, I have never heard of Prince Rupert’s involvement here , in service of the Habsburgs (I assume). Do you have any additional information or source on this part of his life?
    What a fascinating and eventful life he had. Wars, intrigue, Navy, England and Europe, Caribbeans, scientific inventions, art… my head spins!
    Thank you for the biography!

    1. No, Rupert was staunchly Protestant – he spent a couple of years as a prisoner in Austria prior to the ECW. He was born in Prague during the very brief time his father, the Elector Palatine, held the crown of Bohemia – a poisoned chalice nobody else would accept. Any good biography should fill in the details – the most recent one is by Charles Spencer.

      1. Well, you mention that during the Commonwealth he was with his brother Charles Louis and in service of the King of Hungary – who, at this time, was Emperor Ferdinand III of the Habsburg Empire. Maybe he was less scrupulous about employing a Protestant than other Habsburg emperors. In any case, the Wikipedia article about Rupert also mentions his service to Emperor Ferdinand after 1557 before he returned to England. (Yes, I know wikipedia isn’t a real historical source but they back it up with a citation at least – and at present, I have no time for more detailed research). Still, I find even this slight tie between him and my country intriguing.

        1. I’ll have to defer to your superior knowledge of Hungarian history, Agnes. But it’s probably something I should delve into when I have the time.

  2. Jumping on the bandwagon, it would be nice to buy one for my study, when I’ve sorted it out a bit. Just in case you’re interested, I’ve seen another, modern portrait of Rupert – a double portrait in fact, with Sir Thomas Fairfax. I don’t know how to do a link here but if you google “Cranston Fine Arts Rupert Fairfax” it should appear at the top of your search list. The picture is called “Opposing Generals of Horse, Battle of Marston Moor” and the artist’s name is Chris Collingwood – he seems to have painted quite a few Civil War pictures. The same gallery website has a couple more Rupert pictures on it by other artists. Stella, doesn’t an older Rupert appear in “The Marigold Chain”? DBirrell might enjoy that one too! (Oh, I should probably say I don’t have any connections with Cranston Fine Arts or Mr Collingwood, by the way.)

    1. Sorry – I’ve only just picked up your message. I think I’ve seen the picture you mention – there are lots of Rupert/Civil War images on the net. And yes – Rupert does appear in The Marigold Chain in his role as joint commander of the Navy during the 2nd Dutch war. He’d have been 46 years old at the time.

      On Mon, Dec 23, 2013 at 2:54 AM, Stella Riley

  3. Thanks for this, Stella. I too would have loved to meet Prince Rupert. He led an incredibly adventurous life and was so multi-talented, he must have been fascinating to talk to. I can’t imagine why he isn’t better known in history teaching generally, or why he doesn’t figure as the subject of more historical novels (I do like it when he pops up in yours!) I first encountered him via the Honthorst portrait in the National Gallery, when I was an impressionable teenager (and yes, I did think that he was very easy on the eye!), and then read Margaret Irwin’s “The Stranger Prince”, which I still think is a great book. His flaws do make him very human – you can see the real man – and wow, what a gifted and interesting man he was.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Julie. Rupert’s been my hero for years and, being a fairly sad person, I’ve got a full-size copy of the Honthorst portrait on my dining-room wall where it gives me a great deal of pleasure. I’ve also always enjoyed writing him. Rightly or wrongly [and we’ll never know] I find I have a very clear idea of what he was like – and this means that, when he makes an appearance, he almost writes himself.

      1. I’ve just come across this blog as I periodically Google Prince Rupert’s name. ( have you seen Madame Guillotine- there’s a lot of us who love him)How odd- I’m 57 and when I was about 15 my mum read CV Wedgewoods The English Civil War. She showed me Rupert’s picture ( the Honthurst one) and thus began my life long obsession: got a large copy of the painting from a museum in Germany and it’s now on my dining room wall ! A level history and S Level were inevitable where I promised to get his name into every answer ( I did. got a ‘distinction!) A history degree of course. I still find him the most attractive and interesting bloke ever.

        1. I got my copy of the Honthurst from the National Portrait Gallery in London and I just love it. Rupert is in two of my novels – A Splendid Defiance and The Black Madonna. If you like the 17th century, you might enjoy them.

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