Book Review- Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier by Charles Spencer

RupertIt has been a while since I enjoyed a book and its subject so thoroughly. I found myself dawdling through the last chapters, sorry that it was nearly over. I picked it up on a whim, since it was available to lend through Amazon Prime, read a chapter, and promptly hit the “buy” button. It very nearly counts as research for the series I’m working on, although not quite. It’s definitely given me a concrete idea for a second series, and a direct sequel to this one. For some time now, I’ve been thinking that if I finished writing five million words about a fake Thirty Years War and still wasn’t sick of the time period, I could continue with a fake English Civil War. Now I’m nearly positive I’ll do that. I even have a fake Prince Rupert already. It was clearly meant to be.

Anyway, this book was awesome, one of my favorites this year, and probably in first place for nonfiction reading. Spencer (Princess Diana’s brother, no less), is an engaging writer and thorough, even-handed historian. And Prince Rupert is a completely fascinating subject. Born in 1619, to Frederick V, King of Bohemia (the Winter King) and Elizabeth Stuart, (yup, MY Frederick and  Elizabeth), he was the fourth of their thirteen children.

Energetic and mischievous as a child, Rupert became a soldier at age fourteen, fighting for the Dutch in their ongoing war against Spain, and in the Thirty Years War. At seventeen, he was captured by the Austrians and became a prisoner of war for two years. After his release, he and his younger brother Maurice went to England where they fought in the English Civil War on behalf of their uncle, King Charles I. Fearless and energetic, Rupert became the Royalist’s General of Horse, a highly prestigious appointment, especially for a teenager.

Rupert gained both fame and notoriety as a “cavalier” during this time. An innocuous word on its own, Parliamentary propaganda portrayed Rupert and his dashing young cavalrymen as terrorists, devil-worshipers, and worse. Though the cavaliers did deserve some of their reputation due to a love of plunder, Rupert in particular was the specific target of a vicious smear campaign because of his proximity to the king and his heroic reputation among Royalists. It didn’t help that he was handsome, tall (6’4″!!), and brazenly wore a red silk cloak in battle, for extreme visibility. Haters gonna hate. He racked up an impressive early victory at Powick Bridge, but soon ran into political trouble due to his somewhat intransigent character. Let’s just say, the man was not known for his diplomatic skills.

Ultimately, the Royalist cause was lost due to Charles I’s spectacular incompetence and terrible judgement in people. While capable, Rupert was constantly undermined by those who opposed him at court, and his youthful exuberance wasn’t enough to turn a losing cause into a winning one. After the Royalist defeat, Rupert and Maurice- his ever-faithful right-hand man and a fierce warrior in his own right- turned to pirating. When in doubt, become a pirate. Was he the perfect man, or what? And here I was, wondering how I was going to work pirates into my story. Fake Rupert, that’s how!

Unfortunately, pirating turned out to be harder and less glamorous than expected (by me). After several years of being hunted all over the ocean in leaky ships with mutinous crews, Rupert had little to show for his efforts and finally landed in France, weakened by tropical diseases and devastated by the loss of Maurice to a shipwreck. While the exiled court of Charles II waited for change, Rupert went to work for the French. He participated in some hair-raising battles and received  a serious head-wound that would cause him trouble for the rest of his life. He also participated in some naval battles on behalf of Charles.

With Charles II finally restored as king, you’d think things would finally be peachy. While they were better, Rupert continued to suffer from relative poverty and a personality that didn’t lend itself to politics. In the frothy world of the Restoration, he was considered a crusty, cranky old German general whose time had long passed. But he wasn’t done. He served on the king’s Privy Council and  as Constable of Windsor Castle and was an admiral during one of England’s wars against the Dutch. He was also very active in the founding of Hudson’s Bay Company, which is why there’s a ton of Prince Rupert stuff in Canada.

A true Renaissance man, Rupert created some notable works of art using mezzotint, a technique he introduced in England (he might have invented it, but that’s up for debate). He posed and solved some highly complex mathematical problems and was known for being a code-breaker. He also invented all kinds of military implements, including some highly superior ship’s cannon, and improved gunpowder. He was also a founding member of the Royal Society.

He never married, though not for lack of trying. His status was problematic: as an essentially dispossessed prince, he was fairly poor, with no estates of his own, but standing so close to the British crown, his status was extremely high. Too poor for a princess to marry, and too snooty for just any old rich girl. He had two illegitimate children with two different mistresses and seems to have settled down more or less happily in middle age with Peg Hughes, a well-known Restoration actress and mother of his daughter.

He died at age 62, a ripe old age at the time, and especially astonishing considering how dangerously he lived. Ultimately, his military career was a disappointment. He was too young and impetuous to be an effective supreme commander during the Civil War, and was undermined by the treachery of French allies and personality clashes (as usual) with important British politicians when he served as admiral.

Still, it was interesting and inspiring to read about someone who went at everything in life full tilt, experienced some serious adversity and failure and constantly bounced back, leaving behind some very tangible accomplishments and reputation.

It isn’t often that you can call a historical biography a page-turner, but this one was. I’ll probably check out more of Spencer’s work, especially around this time period.


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