21 July 2023

Guest blog: Princess Elizabeth Stuart (1635-50) (Mary McVicker, writer)

The Five Eldest Children of Charles I  (1637) by Van Dyck (Princess Elizabeth Stuart second-right).

I knew that a couple of Charles I's children (Henry and Elizabeth) had shared a heart-breaking few minutes with their father prior to his execution, but as both died young, their stories have rather been lost.

In this guest article, writer Mary McVicker reflects on the short life of Princess Elizabeth Stuart (1635-50), revealing a dramatic existence governed by the tides of war ...

In 1650, a princess was buried in an unmarked grave. Her name was Elizabeth Stuart, and she had died in captivity, aged just fourteen. The story of her short life is a poignant reminder that during the English Civil War, not even the king’s daughter was cushioned from the upheaval of wartime.

Elizabeth Stuart was born in 1635, the fourth surviving child of Charles I and his wife, Henrietta Maria. Within days, this baby was the centre of international marriage negotiations - but these fell through, and Elizabeth grew into a sensitive and eloquent child. There is evidence that she, like her father, suffered from rickets - but she excelled when it came to learning and languages, and earned admiration from her tutors.

In a portrait painted in 1637 (above), Elizabeth is seated second on the right, holding her baby sister Anne, who would die of tuberculosis as a toddler. Elizabeth is a reflective-looking child, surrounded by the opulence of the royal court - a stable world that would shatter within five years.

In 1642, when Elizabeth was six, her mother left for the Continent on family business: shortly afterwards, the English Civil War broke out. Elizabeth and her younger brother, Henry, were taken captive by Parliament’s forces. She would remain in captivity for the rest of her life.

Despite Elizabeth’s nervous disposition, she knew how to hold her own. When Parliament discussed shrinking the household of the two captives, she wrote a letter to the House of Commons, asking that the entire household be retained. The request was granted.

However, the war turned Elizabeth and Henry into pawns in an endless succession of plots, and everyday life was shrouded by intrigue.

Once, their older brother James (then thirteen) was placed in the same palace as his two younger siblings. He took to playing hide-and-seek with them: he varied his hiding places so that some were obvious, but others were so obscure that Elizabeth and Henry were baffled. Then, one day, he went to hide and was never found: he had slipped into a disguise and left the palace.

Hide-and-seek had been no more than smoke and mirrors, a ruse intended to give James a head start in his flight, before his absence was deemed suspicious.

Another time, when Elizabeth was granted permission to stay with her father at Hampton Court, Charles requested that less guards be posted in the palace hallways. Elizabeth’s sensibilities were so fragile, he appealed, and the footsteps of guards in the corridor were frightening her at night. The request was granted - but the next Elizabeth heard was that her father, taking advantage of the unguarded hallway, had escaped the palace by night. More smoke and mirrors.

But the tide was turning, and in Parliament’s favour: escape was futile for the unfortunate Charles.

In January 1649, Elizabeth and Henry were informed that the king, had been found guilty and sentenced to death. Both were disorientated by the suddenness of the announcement: Elizabeth was twelve and Henry eight.They were immediately taken to say their goodbyes to Charles.

Despite all Charles’ attempts to end the visit on a happy note, Elizabeth was in tears throughout. He gave them gifts of jewellery (and a Bible for Elizabeth), gave Elizabeth a message to pass on to her mother, and reiterated his belief that he was dying a martyr’s death for his principles.

Charles tried hard to reassure Elizabeth that she would forget all this, that she would move on … but she refused vehemently to accept that idea.

The following day, Charles I was beheaded
After the execution, Elizabeth found herself practically orphaned: her mother, who she hadn’t seen since the age of six, was still abroad. Elizabeth’s wardrobe changed: out went the rich green silks visible in her childhood portraits. For the rest of her life, she would dress in black.

Portrait etching of Princess Elizabeth Stuart, mid-seventeenth century (artist unknown)

Increasingly, the Parliamentarians grew concerned that Elizabeth would draw dangerous sympathy to the Royalist cause - and in 1650, she was shipped off to the isolated Isle of Wight, along with Henry. It was there, playing bowls on the lawn of Carisbrooke Castle - where Charles had himself been imprisoned - that Elizabeth caught a cold that would prove fatal. She died of pneumonia on 8th September 1650, at the age of fourteen.

Days later, the news arrived too late that she had been granted permission to join Henrietta Maria on the Continent. As for Henry, he lived to see the coronation of their brother Charles in 1660, but died shortly afterwards, aged twenty.

Two hundred years passed, and the Victorian era marked a resurgence of interest in Elizabeth’s life. It appealed greatly to Victorian sentimentality, and romanticised images of her death abounded - not least a marble memorial, commissioned by Queen Victoria herself. It depicted Elizabeth on her deathbed, with her head on the Bible that Charles had given her.

In recent times, Elizabeth’s life has been overshadowed by the eventful reigns of her oldest brothers, Charles II and his successor James II - and many studies on the Civil War focus on its crucial role in forming British society and government as we know it today. However, politics aside, at the centre of the Civil War is the tragedy of countless families splintered by conflict, and the royal family is no exception: Elizabeth Stuart was a young victim of a turbulent age.


Mary Mcvicker lives in the Scottish Borders and is currently working on a children’s book.

1 comment:

  1. Hello - this is a great read. I am a early careers teacher of Stuart Britain. You wrote an article about David Plant's BCW project (which has been amazingly useful). Do you know where it went. It currently isn't operating anymore. Thanks :)