10 January 2013

Henry Stuart, Prince of Wales exhibition @ National Portrait Gallery

The Lost Prince: The Life and Death of Henry Stuart at the National Portrait Gallery.

Charles I was never meant be king. His elder brother Henry was intended to succeed his father as Henry IX, but died tragically at the age of only 18. Henry had been held in great esteem, and hopes were high. He would reassert England as a significant Protestant power in Europe, become a beacon for the arts and, through the unifying force of his personality, avoid any need for an English Civil War. He was destined to be/do lots of things, counter-factual historians suggest, drawing - in part - on the outpouring of literature lamenting his loss.

How much can truly be interpreted about someone when they die so young? I went along to The Lost Prince: The Life and Death of Henry Stuart at the National Portrait Gallery to find out ...

The exhibition marks the 400th anniversary of Henry's death, and follows a chronology of his life from his birth at Stirling Castle in 1594 before moving on to his life at court in London seven years' later. The stand-out exhibits from this early section are undoubtedly his copy books. Here are the young Henry's latin exercises, completed in immaculate handwriting and adorned with swirling doodles and practice signatures, the timeless graffiti of the bored schoolboy.

Also from this period is a touching and amusing letter from the king, thanking Henry for sending him examples of his writing but admonishing him for his lack of originality (he suspects that his son has copied from a friend).

Next come a couple of depictions of younger siblings Charles and Elizabeth as children I hadn't seen before, together with portraits of Henry in his infancy. Most arresting, however, are the series of portraits by Robert Peake the Elder, Henry's official painter. Here is the boy already as the perfect Renaissance prince in waiting, virtuous, martial, a sportsman as well as a scholar, the animated, outdoor settings in marked contrast to the usual static and seated royal portrait.

These I was familiar with, though the huge portrait of Henry on horseback was a revelation. Here the saddled, fresh-faced Henry drags along an apparently naked Father Time, leaving no doubt that this was a young man in a hurry. The sumptuous suit of armour he wears is also on display in the exhibition, and the painting is also significant as it is believed to be the first life-sized equestrian portrait of an English royal. As an avid patron of the arts Henry sought a collection of his own, and others on display include works by Holbein, Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver.

Above: Channel 4 Culture Editor Matthew Cain talks about the exhibition.

Henry's aesthetic interests are shown to have encompassed everything from architecture to garden design, and a number of Inigo Jones' preparatory sketches of costumes and scenery for various masques are on show.

Other artefacts help to explain Henry's influence in the context of the wider Stuart dynasty. The Embarkation at Margate of the Elector Palatine and Princess Elizabeth captures Henry's sister leaving for the continent a year after his death, though was actually painted a decade later. The Prince Royal in which the couple travelled was commissioned by Henry, and the Brueghel-esque painting beautifully captures the energy aboard the teeming ships as the flotilla sets sail.

In October 1612 Henry complained of head pains while playing tennis. He briefly regained his health but fell quickly again into a 'corrupt, putrid fever' from which he never recovered. The autopsy survives, a document which has helped medical historians identify typhoid as the probable cause of death. A pair of Italian miniature bronzes nearby appeared unremarkable until I realised bronze horse was the same that was pressed into the dying Henry's hands by his 12 year-old brother Charles (this tale is best told in Jerry Brotton's The Sale of the Late King's Goods).

In such esteem was the teenage Henry said to have been held that the outpouring of public grief was rivalled that after the death of Elizabeth I. His body was carried on a hearse through Whitehall to Westminster Abbey, with an effigy of the Prince lying above the coffin. Remarkably the wooden bottom half of the effigy survives (the torso and head were made of wax), and is displayed here for the first time for the best part of 200 years.

The exhibition runs until 13 Jan 2013.

Why was Henry so revered in life and deeply mourned in death? His father's unwillingness to fully commit England to the Protestant cause on the continent (even when his own daughter and her husband had been forced to flee Bavaria), following on from a foiled Gunpowder Plot, heightened anti-Catholic feeling and led many to fear that England would be unsafe without a strong Protestant heir. The Tudors' military successes were still within living memory and those who felt that England's standing had been damaged by James' reign saw someone who could recapture former glories. Those who claimed to admire Henry for his virtuous, rounded self may have recognised something of a diminished chivalric ideal burning in the young man, though a cynic might question whether they had been presented with a youngster on whom they could project their own myths.

For those with an interest in the English Civil War one of the most poignant images is Peake's painting of the nine year-old Henry hunting with his slightly older friend, the Earl of Essex, who decades later would serve under his brother Charles in Scotland before turning on him as Civil War erupted. Families who play together, as many instances from the conflict in the 1640s have shown, do not always stay together.

Would Henry's accession to the throne have averted war altogether? The disastrous Cadiz expedition and Siege of Saint-Martin-de-Ré demonstrated the influence of the Duke of Buckingham on a young king with few martial ambitions of his own. The same encouragement of a less restrained character might have resulted in many more thousands of men dying on the continent. The focus of Parliament may well have fallen on foreign rather than domestic economic and religious policies, but an intervention by England in the Thirty Years' War would have sooner or later proven far too costly for the country to support (there's some more discussion about this hypothetical question here) and brought home the issues around taxation that helped propel Charles to war with his own people.

We'll never know, but well done to the NPG for putting on such a fantastic exhibition - a model for how this kind of biographical exhibition should be done.

Further reading:

Henry, Prince of Wales and England's Lost Renaissance, Roy Strong (1986) - a little dry in parts, but extremely well-researched.
The Sale of the Late King's Goods: Charles I and his Art Collection, Jerry Brotton (2006) - for the account of Henry's death and more about the passing of his collection to Charles.

The Lost Prince: The Life and Death of Henry Stuart
Bibliography of the literary aftermath (mainly poetry and sermons) after Henry's death

1 comment:

  1. Great article!

    So what do you think would have happened if he'd lived: civil war or no civil war?