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Death of an English Absalom

07 December 2012

Nicholas Cranfield follows the career of Henry Stuart 


Westminster Abbey relic: the funeral effigy of Henry, Prince of Wales, 1612

Westminster Abbey relic: the funeral effigy of Henry, Prince of Wales, 1612

NEXT YEAR marks the 600th anniversary of the founding of the University of St Andrews. Two hundred years later, James VI and I, who in 1608 had deplored the University's continued lack of a library, marked the forthcoming bicentenary with the endowment of 80 volumes, on 1 December 1612.

In this he recalled a vow taken by his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, in June 1566; if she and her child died in childbirth, all her Latin and Greek books should be given to the University to found a much needed library.

The King's gift included the standard Patristic authors as well as Calvin's biblical commentaries. Earlier in the summer, in August, his wife, Anna of Denmark, and their eldest son, Henry Stuart, had donated books. Henry's siblings Elizabeth and Charles (the Duke of York and later King Charles I) had followed suit.

The King even prevailed on the Archbishop of Canterbury to send books. Archbishop Abbot pointedly dispatched a folio version of the new translation of the Bible, the King James Bible of 1611, as well as a Bible in Hebrew, and a missal. For good measure, he included two works validating the claims of the Church of England to be both Catholic and apostolic: Francis Mason's treatise On The Consecration of Bishops (1613), and Henry Savile's Rerum Anglicarum Scriptores (1596).

The most expensive volume presented by the young Prince of Wales were the six volumes of an apologetic Roman Catholic work of disputation, the famed Annales Ecclesiastici of Cesare Baronius, which cost him £5. The volumes that Henry sent north had only been on the library shelves three months when news would come of his sudden and unexpected death in the early hours of 6 November 1612, aged just 18.

A week before, he had been too ill to attend the Lord Mayor's Show, where Thomas Dekker's pageant Troia-Nova Triumphans had lauded him in "Fames high Temple . . . this Court of Fame". Knowing how superstitious the Prince's father was, I imagine that the French physician attending him at Richmond (Théodore de Mayerne, whose portrait is next to a copy of his notes from the autopsy) struggled to ensure that Henry was not reported as dying on the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot.

Henry Stuart has long been known as a book-lover and Renaissance prince of learning (in 1609, he was the beneficiary of Baron Lumley's great library from Nonsuch Palace, where he had lived when he came to England); but this new exhibition reveals how much he also shared his mother's enthusiasm for art.

Henry Frederick Stuart was born at Stirling Castle on 19 February 1594, and had accompanied his mother into England at his father's accession in May 1603. On 4 June 1610, as heir apparent, he was invested as Prince of Wales, the first to be created for more than a century, since Henry VIII in 1503. The Letters Patent for this creation show a resigned-looking monarch in the act of investing the young prince, who kneels before him and wears a closed coronet.

The shift from Scotland to England must have profoundly affected the nine-year-old; but his tutor Adam Newton had already encouraged him in the new learning, and the Prince's education followed the principles established by Erasmus. As a reward, Newton was given the Deanery of Durham (1606), the last layman to be dean of a cathedral, a model that might garner much-needed expertise in our own day to assist cash-strapped Chapters.

From Newton, Henry learned Latin and probably Italian, but seemingly little if any Greek. Any reader first looking into Chapman's Homer will find that the 1609 translation of The Iliad is addressed to the Prince as a second Alexander the Great. Chapman served in his household from 1604.

French was the language of the Scottish court, and the Prince's German-speaking mother, a gifted linguist herself, had learned it when she married James VI. No doubt she shared her skill with her first-born. A French physician attended him in death.

He learned a clear italic hand from a private tutor, Peter Bales, who is regarded as having the best hand in late-16th-century England. Bales was damning of the boy's attempts at writing, which seems harsh on the evidence of his draft letter to his mother (September 1603), when he wrote to assure her that he was in good health, contrary to her fears.

Despite the donation of the Baronius volumes, Henry was less inclined towards theology than his father, although he would not hear a word voiced against the Pope. He was fascinated by the new science, and by mathematics and navigation. New towns in the colony of Virginia were named after him as early as 1607, when the southern cape of Chesapeake Bay was called Cape Henry; the opposite headland was named after Prince Charles.

This exhibition builds on the pioneering work of the likes of Sir Roy Strong and, more recently, of Timothy Wilks, who has contributed to the catalogue, and Elizabeth Goldring, to show that the first Elizabethan Age was readily matched by the Stuarts. Charles I may well have been the royal Maecenas par excellence, but visitors to the National Portrait Gallery will see that his older brother would, had he lived, been more than his equal, collecting art for art's sake.

Both royal brothers followed the lead of their mother as both collector and connoisseur, a point touched on by James Stourton and Charles Sebag-Montefiore in just five paragraphs in their recent overview The British as Art Collectors: From the Tudors to the present (Scala, 2012). Both were pioneers in taste and colour, and, although formal portraiture remained as stiff as at any time in the previous generation, it gained a little in invention, not least as Henry loved horses and wished to be depicted with them and to own them.

We gain a glimpse of the Prince's collection in the delightful bronze statuette, Pacing Horse, that was one of more than a dozen figures that the Medici sent to the Prince when there was talk of a Tuscan-British marriage for him. It was handed to him to hold by his brother Charles as he lay dying at Richmond of typhoid at their last recorded meeting. The bronze, by Pietro Tacca (1577-1640), derives from Giambologna's statue of Cosimo I (1594), as if to emphasise the Stuart prince's command of aesthetic.


As a collector, Henry not only gained Lord Lumley's library and print collection at his death in 1609 (including the Holbein drawings that form the core of the Royal Collection to this day), but he also bought works, principally from the Low Countries. He hoped in vain to attract Michiel van Mierevelt (1567-1641) from the court of Orange to his own. The picture of an old philosopher holding a shell is a tour de force, and the roundel portrait of Maurice of Nassau (Sledmere House) shows even the strength of his studio.

The popular perspective scene Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, painted by the Dutch artists Hans Vredeman de Vries and Anthonis Blocklandt, emphasises Mary's faith at the cost of Martha's attempts at good works in the kitchen. A further theological reflection is to be noted in the pendant painting within the picture of The Sacrifice of Abraham above a buffet behind the seated Christ. Peter, James, and John seem none the wiser, talking among themselves as they await the dinner gong.

Sadly, the painting The Devil Sowing Tares, attributed to Abraham Bloemaert (Somerville College, Oxford), and two great sea-battles by the Dutch marine painter Jan Porcellis (1583-1632) are not included in the exhibition. I was told that the condition of an extraordinarily large canvas, by Palma il Giovane, Prometheus Chained to the Caucasus (the Queen), sent by Sir Henry Wotton to Lord Salisbury in 1608 to give to the Prince, meant that it was not feasible to borrow it.

The last room of the exhibition is at pains to point out the impact of his death as reflected by his funeral, which was much more lavish than that of Queen Elizabeth I nine years before, when economic collapse limited Crown resources.

Whereas the Union of the kingdoms had seemed secure at the outset of the reign, the sudden death of the heir presumptive worryingly recalled the problems that had faced the newly established Tudor dynasty a century earlier.


A contemporary witness to the obsequies recalled the crowds, "some weeping, crying, howling, wringing of their hands, others halfe dead, sounding, sighing inwardly, others holding up their hands, passionately bewayling so great a losse, with Rivers, nay with an Ocean of teares". Thomas Tomkins composed his great setting of "When David heard that Absalom was slain". Inevitably, the public grief over the sudden death of Diana, Princess of Wales, comes to mind.

The remains of Henry's wooden funeral effigy from Westminster Abbey have not been publicly displayed there for nearly 200 years, but are here displayed alongside an engraving that shows it lying on his hearse, dressed in the Prince's clothes. The corpse itself was carried in a casket hidden in the structure of the hearse.

The tradition of carrying an effigy of the deceased prince or sovereign dated from after Edward III, replacing the earlier habit of the body itself lying in state. The surviving mannequins and effigies are now housed in the museum in the undercroft of the Abbey buildings at Westminster.

Elizabeth Goldring, in an essay in the indispensable collection Prince Henry Revived, edited by Tim Wilks (2007), demonstrated how this image was manufactured and reprinted at times of religious crisis later in the reign of James I, and even later. It was as if the Protestant prince was being made to speak from beyond the grave.

William Hole's engraving first appeared in George Chapman's Epicede or Funerall Song (London 1613). Its inspiration may have come from the recently circulated image of the assassinated Henri IV of France (Jacques Briot, 1610), and in turn it inspired the way in which the Earl of Essex, a long time favourite of the Prince, was himself commemorated after his death in the Civil War (1646).

In Europe, a Dutch copy of the print of the dead Prince's effigy circulated after 1620. Eight years after his death, and in the immediate aftermath of the death of his mother, a covert Roman Catholic, and after the expulsion of his sister and brother-in-law ("The Winter King and Queen") from the throne of Bohemia (1620), Henry was being enlisted among the pantheon of Protestant heroes much as some websites still seek to divinise Princess Di.

Other visual images on display are more colourful, and evoke the wealth and riches of the age, as well as Prince Henry's inclination towards the Mannerist style. These include startlingly fresh portrait miniatures and some of the best paintings by Robert Peake the elder (1551-1619), who challenged static, formal court portraiture.

When Henry died, he was interred beneath the lavish tomb that his father had provided for his own beheaded mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, in the south-aisle ambula- tory of the Abbey, when he brought her body from Peterborough Cathedral to be reinterred in the Abbey.

This had been designed by William and Cornelius Cure (1612) to match the one that Maximilian Colt had earlier (1606) made for Elizabeth I and her half-sister Mary Tudor. James I's own cousin, and a possible contender for the throne in 1603, Lady Arabella Stuart, was also interred in the vault when she died (September 1615). After the Restoration, the vault was opened again for Henry's sister Elizabeth, the Winter Queen.

Even in death, James VI and I hoped that Henry Stuart signalled the claims of the Stuart dynasty to a united kingdom that might ab- sorb both Anglicans and Roman Catholics - after all, his wife and Prince Henry's mother was a covert RC.

There was, of course, a later Henry IX (1788-1807), the fourth and last Jacobite claimant to the throne, who died in Rome. Henry Benedict Thomas Edward Maria Clement Francis Xavier Stuart (b. 1725), to give him his full names, had been created Duke of York at his birth, and, as Bishop of Frascati (from 1761), he was made a cardinal in 1761. He is interred in St Peter's in the Vatican, a far cry from all that Prince Henry would have recognised. But that, as they say, is quite another story.

"The Lost Prince: The Life and Death of Henry Stuart" is at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London WC2, until 13 January. Phone 020 7306 0055.


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