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.

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12 thoughts on “Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier by Charles Spencer”

  1. This sounds fascinating – I know nothing about Prince Rupert and had no idea he’d been involved in so much. And I didn’t realise it was *that* Charles Spencer either! So does that mean that Prince Rupert was an ancestor of the Spencers?

    1. Charles Spencer wrote two or three history books, but his others are on the Spencer family and the Althorp estate. I don’t think Rupert was an ancestor, though who knows?

  2. The obvious novel, though very old now and probably rather dated, is ‘The Stranger Prince’ by Margaret Irwin. He also features in two novels by Elizabeth D’Oyley, ‘The English March’ and ‘Prince Rupert’s Daughter’, but I’m not aware of any others in which he’s the main figure. All too often, just as every modern thriller hero has served in the SAS, so every Civil War hero seems to have fought with Prince Rupert! I owe him and Margaret Irwin a huge debt, though, as reading ‘The Stranger Prince’ got me interested in the Civil War, and eventually into university and my writing.

    1. I read one of Margaret Irwin’s other novels a few years ago and enjoyed it, although it was fantasy rather than historical fiction and probably not the best choice for me to have started with. I’ll definitely think about looking for The Stranger Prince – it doesn’t bother me if a book is old and dated!

      I haven’t forgotten that I still need to read the rest of your books, by the way. I did love The Moon in the Water and Chains of Fate. 🙂

  3. I fell in love with Prince Rupert at a very early age, thanks to Margaret Irwin’s “The Stranger Prince”. (She was also responsible for my falling in love with Robert Dudley and the Marquis of Montrose, but I think Rupert always had the edge!)

    He is also a major character in Diana Norman’s “The Vizard Mask”, which is about the actress Peg Hughes who was his mistress. Well worth reading, like all Diana Norman’s books, if you can lay your hands on a copy.

    1. It sounds as though I need to investigate Margaret Irwin’s books as soon as possible! I did read one of them a while ago – a fantasy/fairytale called “These Mortals”, which obviously wasn’t typical of her work. Her historical novels would probably be more to my taste. And thanks for reminding me about Diana Norman!

    2. I read ‘The Vizard Mask’ and couldn’t get on with it at all. It was a long time ago, but I do remember thinking that some of the history wasn’t right.

    1. Yes, Rupert did have a fascinating life. Until now, I had only really read about him in connection with the Civil War, so I wasn’t aware of everything else he had achieved.

  4. I got to read a bit about Prince Rupert and his parents in Peter Ackroyd’s Rebellion; the 3rd volume of The History of England. Not enough though! At the time I was thinking they would be interesting characters to read more about. From what you’ve said it sounds like Prince Rupert really is an interesting character to read more about – I will have to keep this biography in mind 🙂

    1. Yes, I remember Prince Rupert being mentioned in the Peter Ackroyd book too. I think it’s definitely worth reading more about him. 🙂

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