06 September 2014

Sydney and the royal family - Prince Henry, The Lost Prince, 1612

The Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney (until 28th Sep 2014) is showing two portraits of royal siblings on loan from the National Portrait Gallery in London. I will cite the words of the AGNSW coordinator, Josephine Touma, who wrote a wonderful history of these two Stuart royals. But I will disagree with her on how their lives changed history.

When Queen Elizabeth I finally died in 1603, the English crown passed to her distant cousin, King James VI of Scotland. Thus, the Tudor dynasty was supplanted by the House of Stuart, and the crowns of two kingdoms were united. King James moved to London to take the throne, along with his wife Anne of Denmark, Henry aged 9, Elizabeth aged 7 and the newborn Charles. There was a smooth transition to a new dynasty.

Prince Henry (1594-1612) and Princess Elizabeth (1596-1662) were the two eldest children of this new royal family, painted by one of the preeminent British portraitists, Robert Peake I (1551-1619). The two portraits were meticulously detailed, jewel-like art works.

Painted in 1610, when Prince Henry was 16 and Elizabeth only 14, the portraits marked Henry’s becoming the Prince of Wales. Henry had been groomed to rule from a young age, and in the brief period from 1610 until his untimely death in 1612, his public image as the next king began to flourish. He took a keen interest in the arts, science and discovery, with the ambition to rival the courtly magnificence and learning of his contemporaries on the Continent. 

Robert Peake, 
Prince of Wales c1610,
National Portrait Gallery, London

In 1604, Henry made Robert Peake his principal artist. Peake’s style was somewhat old fashioned, in keeping with the flat, linear Elizab­ethan manner. But these two works represented the height of courtly fashion in Britain. Henry was depicted as an ideal prince: a man of high status, learning, wealth and good taste. With one hand on his hip, and gazing confidently, the young prince was portrayed as indep­end­ent, knowing and ready for power. Which he was!

Elizabeth was shown quite differently. Her primary political power lay in her potential for marriage into a foreign court, for diploma­atic purposes. Her portrait therefore emphasised the virtues of a pot­ential bride: beauty, grace, high status and above all virginity.

In 1612, two years after these paintings were made, King James I found an appropriate Protestant husband for his daughter; Elizabeth was betrothed to Frederick V of the Palat­inate. In an effort to balance his political interests and keep peace in Europe (still entangled in the religious conflict of the century-old Reformation), King James proposed Roman Catholic matches for Prince Henry. Alas in October 1612, the same year Elizabeth was betrothed, Henry caught typhoid and died. He was only 18.

The royal family fell into shock. Such was Henry’s place in the popular imagination that mourners lined the streets of London for his funeral procession, wailing at their loss. The prince’s short life was passionately memorialised in poetry, music and biographies. 

Robert Peake, 
Elizabeth later Queen of Bohemia c1610 
National Portrait Gallery, London

Despite her own deep mourning for her brother, Princess Elizabeth did in fact marry Frederick V in 1613. The couple settled in Frederick’s castle at Heidelberg, where they began to establish a lavish court culture, but their peaceful existence was short-lived. In 1618, Frederick was installed as the King of Bohemia, where the Catholic monarch had been overthrown by a largely Protestant people. Alas he and Elizabeth ruled in Prague for only one year, before mounting religious conflict drove them into exile. Their brief reign earned them the title of The Winter King and Queen.

The royal refugees settled in The Hague. There Elizabeth remained for another three decades, as conflict continued in Central Europe and civil war broke out at home. She had endless babies and grandchildren, and was devastated by the execution of her brother King Charles I in 1649, and the exile of the surviving Stuart family during the Puritan Commonwealth. So Elizabeth could not return to London until she was elderly (in 1662); when she died, she was buried next to her beloved brother, Prince Henry.

Upon Henry’s untimely death in 1612, his younger brother Charles became heir to the throne.


I agree with Touma that The Lost Prince and the Winter Queen Exhibition is an opportunity to understand more about the lives of both Henry and Elizabeth, and I agree that it is also an opportunity to examine C17th royal port­raiture closely. Painted on the eve of tragic events, Peake’s meticulous works did truly preserve the magnificence of the Jacobean court and the ambitions of two significant lives brimming with potential.

But “events in their lives that would utterly change the course of history”? I don’t think so! The Protestant Reformation had been initiat­ed in Germany by Luther in 1517, King Henry VIII had broken with Rome back in the 1530s, and in 1618 the largely Protestant estates of Bohemia had already rebelled against their Catholic King, triggering the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War. The world was already set on its historical path, with or without Prince Henry living long enough to inherit the Stuart throne in 1625.

Josephine Touma believed the disastrous reign of King Charles I, which ended with his execution in 1649, only fuelled the flames of nostalgia for Henry, Prince of Wales. Scholars, she said, have continued to ponder what might have been, had Henry The Lost Prince lived long enough to rule after his father King James died. Furthermore she suggested that even today, the public are still affected by the story of Henry’s sudden demise. I have not seen any of that nostalgia, but who knows what might have happened. Perhaps Prince Henry would not have been the stubborn, insensitive ruler that his brother King Charles I turned out to be and perhaps the two catastrophic civil wars might have been avoided. 


Andrew said...

Interesting to ponder. You would know better than I, but The Hague seems an odd place for the exiles, but then Netherlands wasn't what it is now.

Deb said...

I don't remember Prince Henry at all, even though we did Tudor and Stuart history in high school and uni. Am I the only one?

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen,

The Royal houses of Europe are so convoluted and interconnected that we often lose track. This is an interesting account which has shed a little light on at least one corner of history.

To be exiled to The Hague does seem extraordinary.

columnist said...

A very topical subject. The joining of the kingdoms eventually led to the Act of Union in 1707, which looks quite likely to be undone on 18th September, and even if the current monarch remains Queen of Scotland, I think it is quite likely that the monarchy will subsequently be abolished in Scotland, if it becomes an independent nation, and the split is a success.

Hels said...


This is probably more than you wanted to know about the Protestant-Catholic wars so apologies.

Frederick eventually found refuge in The Hague because Spanish and Bavarian troops occupied his German territories. Noblemen did raise armies and fought for Frederick’s cause in Germany, but the Catholic forces defeated them and Emperor Ferdinand II declared Frederick an outlaw.

Five years later Bavaria annexed the Upper Palatinate, so Frederick continued to live in exile at The Hague on charity provided by the Protestant Dutch. They paid... he lived where they told him.

Hels said...


You are not. I don't remember Prince Henry either.

And Princess Elizabeth was famous only because King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden fancied her and because of her son Prince Rupert. Even going back to Britain was difficult for Elizabeth. Only in 1661 did her nephew Charles II resentfully let her back into "his" country.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

yes indeed...timing is everything. If King James I's children had lived at any other time in history, they would not have had to deal with The Thirty Years' War (1618–1648) and Britain's civil wars.

Firstly the Protestant-Catholic wars involved most of the European countries in a long and devastatingly destructive conflict. Secondly strange marriages emerged and national alliances changed. It is difficult to get one's mind around the messy details, even at this distance.

Hels said...


when King James VI and his entire court travelled south to London, there was a very mixed response in both England and Scotland. Are you suggesting that the current question of Scottish sovereignty is really just the long term consequence of King James gaining the throne and the Act of Union being declared 300+ years ago?

columnist said...

No, not at all. The desire for independence stems inter alia from a wish to see the concentration of power removed from Westminster. Unfortunately the so-called "Devo-Max" option was not offered in the referendum, and the fact that more than 800,000 Scots living in England have no vote, and the 300,000 English and other non Scots living in Scotland do have the vote, makes the whole exercise rather silly. Given the likely economic fallout from a "Yes" vote throughout the current UK, the other inhabitants of the kingdom, (rUK), should also have had a say. I fear it will end in tears; it has already caused a vicious split within Scotland between the two sides.

Hels said...


it will certainly end in tears. If there is a close outcome, noone will feel vindicated. Even if there is a clear cut victory for one side or the other, millions of people will find themselves disenfranchised and without a future.

Anonymous said...

I read your Daily Review reference which said "Only last year, in a National Portrait Gallery exhibition devoted to Prince Henry’s life and patronage, some London visitors were said to have wept at the sight of his effigy and personal belongings". Nuts.

Hels said...


Citizens over 75 years old might still weep for King George VI who died in 1952. He was a great dad, a brave royal during the war and he prevented his brother from ruining the monarchy. But weeping for royals before George VI? I don't think so.