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.