For all that Charles I led England into a civil war and then lost his crown and, well, head, he was at least one half of a happy marriage. For an institution once upon a time comprised mainly of foreign alliances and quiet desperation, that’s something, no? After a rocky start, Charles and Henrietta Maria of France settled into the kind of complacent domesticity to which political matchmaking aspired, and from this came nine children. Two of those sons – Charles II and James II – would end up kings. A daughter, Mary, would become the mother of another – William III. And another daughter, Henrietta Anne, would marry into the French Royal Family and end up a dazzling fixture at Versailles.
But what of the others? Well, two – another Charles and a Catherine – would tragically die the same day they were born. Another, Anne, lived only until the age of three and was buried at Richmond Palace before the civil war broke out. And a final two – Elizabeth and Henry – would not end up as famous as their siblings, but are still worth capturing for the good of the order.
When civil war officially broke out in 1642 the Royal Family was scattered. Henrietta Maria’s popularity was at an all-time low and early in the year, Charles decided that she would accompany their eldest daughter, Mary, to Holland where she was to marry Prince William II of Orange. At the same time, Charles removed himself from London, setting up residence at Hampton Court Palace. When active conflict broke out that summer, Charles was accompanied by his son, the Prince of Wales, during the Battle of Edgehill.
Elizabeth, age seven, and Henry, not yet two, were installed in St James’s Palace in London under the care of Parliament. Too young to understand what was going on, they were nonetheless aware that they had lost – in short order – their mother, sister and a beloved governess who went with Mary to Holland.
By the autumn it became clear the extent to which they had effectively become bargaining chips. On November 12 their cousin, Rupert of the Rhine (son of Charles’s sister, Elizabeth), crossed the Thames and attacked Parliament garrisons. Elizabeth and Henry were moved from St James’s Palace to a private home on Broad Street so as to dissuade Rupert from setting fire to London.
As the violence unfolded, so too did opportunities for negotiation, but Henrietta Maria’s return to England early in 1643 and her presence by Charles’s side at his base in Oxford exacerbated the situation. Now pregnant with her ninth and final child, the couple again separated in the spring of 1644, Henrietta Maria gave birth to a daughter and then she swiftly fled for France. In 1646, the child – Henrietta Anne – was ferreted out of the country to join her mother.
Until 1646, the Prince of Wales continued to support the royal army’s military campaigns until the cause was lost. He then fled England for Holland, seeking refuge at the court of his sister, Mary. James, Duke of York stayed at Oxford between 1642 and 1646, but was eventually arrested by Parliamentary leaders after his father’s defeat and held as a prisoner at St James’s Palace in London. Two years later he would escape to France disguised as a woman.
Elizabeth and Henry were not so lucky thanks mainly to their age. In 1645, they were given to Algernon Percy, Earl of Northumberland, the highest-ranking member of Charles’s government to support the Parliamentarians…but also the leader of negotiating attempts throughout the 1640s. Indeed, he led a last ditch effort in December 1647 and was a staunch opponent to trying and executing the King in 1649.
Under his care, Elizabeth and Henry were essentially left to continue their studies with little of their day-to-day life feeling wildly different save separation from the rest of their family. Theoretically visits were allowed, but when James, Duke of York came to see them, it was Elizabeth who sent him away on the grounds that they couldn’t trust their enemies. Even at such a young age she seemed to understand that custody of her brothers – particularly her older brothers – were powerful tools for the Parliamentarians.
In 1643, the children were moved to Chelsea to continue their studies and several reports noted that, with little else beyond studying to focus on, Elizabeth became a gifted linguist in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian and French. She was also an avid reader of religious texts, which is more than a little ironic given the ire with which her mother was viewed thanks to her Catholicism.
In 1647, the two were taken with their brother, James, to meet their father at Maidenhead. As Charles’s biographer Leanda de Lisle writes:
“An overnight visit was not permitted, but twelve days later the royal children were brought by carriage to the Greyhound Tavern in Caversham. Their father arrived under escort an hour later, at 11 a.m. Cromwell described the family reunion as ‘the tenderest sight that ever did his eyes beheld.’ The seven-year-old Henry, Duke of Gloucester, was bewildered, and when Charles asked, ‘Do you know me child?’ he answered, ‘No.’ ‘I am your father, child,’ Charles explained, ‘and it is not one of the least of my misfortunes that I have brought you and your brothers and sisters into this world to share my miseries.’ James and Elizabeth then began to cry.”
The reunion led to a series of visits while Charles was held at Hampton Court Palace, all arranged by the moderate Northumberland, who had moved the children to his home at Syon Abbey. Charles reportedly sought to impart as much paternal wisdom as he could during these meetings, urging all of his children to remain true to the Church of England and their brother, the Prince of Wales. He told Elizabeth not to marry without the consent of her brother or mother, advised James to escape to Holland as soon as he could and made Henry promise that should anything happen to the Prince of Wales he would transfer his loyalty to James as the next-in-line to the throne.
These visits ended when Charles escaped imprisonment for the Isle of Wight. When he was recaptured a year later, his fate was essentially sealed. James, luckier, would eventually escape, having arranged a series of meetings with a royalist spy under the pretense of playing hide and seek with his siblings and Northumberland’s children. One night, instead of going to bed, he went to say goodbye to Elizabeth, slipped out a back door into the garden and made for St James’s Park where he was met by the spy. Disguised as a woman, James finally made it to the safe refuge of the Dutch court and his sister, Mary.
Meanwhile, the new House of Commons ruled that Elizabeth’s household should be disbanded. Precocious and learned, she put pen to paper to protest the decision:
“My Lords, I account myself very miserable that I must have my servants taken from me and strangers put to me. You promised me that you would have a care for me; and I hope you will show it in preventing so great a grief as this would be to me. I pray my lords consider of it, and give me cause to thank you, and to rest. Your loving friend, Elizabeth.”
The House of Lords proved more sympathetic and overturned the decision, but even so the children were held under strict lock and key. As Elizabeth had sensed years ago, the presence of a Stuart prince was compelling to the new regime. With Charles deposed and the Prince of Wales and Duke of York abroad, the idea of establishing the younger Henry as a new king gained traction through Parliament. Having been controlled since he was a toddler, they could be certain he was a Protestant and free from the harmful interference of his French Catholic mother.
A letter from Charles to Elizabeth written after his re-capture and before his execution survives:
“It is not want of affection that makes me write so seldom. I am loath to write to those I love when I am out of humor lest my letters should trouble those I desire to please.”
He offered his blessing and asked her to bestow the same on Henry for him.
Less than two months later, Charles stood ready for execution. His wife and other children abroad, it was only to Elizabeth and Henry he could say goodbye, formally requesting Parliament that he be allowed to see them one last time. The final meeting with Elizabeth was painful – she reportedly sobbed through most of it, though she later recalled her father again offered her his blessing. He promised her that she would not always remember this, but she responded, “I shall never forget this while I live.”
Charles urged her to remind James to always be loyal to the Prince of Wales, and that all of the siblings should support one another. He asked them, too, to forgive their enemies, but never trust them. Finally, knowing that his daughter loved to read, he offered up some of the few worldly items still in possession – books.
As for Henry, Charles knew well that Parliament was considering making him a puppet king. He told him:
“Sweetheart, now they will cut off your father’s head. They will cut off my head, and perhaps make thee a king; but mark what I say. You must not be a king so long as your brothers Charles and James do live; for they will cut off your brother’s heads (when they do catch them) and cut off your head too, at the last, and therefore I charge you, do not be made a king by them.”
The boy responded, “I will be torn to pieces first,” which made Charles smile.
Charles offered them what remaining jewels he had on his person and then embraced them a final time. As they left the room Elizabeth’s sobs were so loud that Charles eventually ran after them for one last kiss. The next morning he was executed outside of Banqueting House.
Their father’s death left Elizabeth and Henry in even more of a state of limbo. Parliament refused to let them join Mary in Holland, but a series of guardians with whom they were placed proved unwilling to take them on. They finally settled with the Earl and Countess of Leicester at Penshurst Place, however when the Prince of Wales (now technically Charles II) traveled to Scotland to be crowned king, Parliament meted out punishment by moving Elizabeth to the Isle of Wight.
There, she caught a cold and died at the age of 14 in Carisbrooke Castle.
Two hundred years later Queen Victoria would take a fancy to the Isle of Wight when she purchased and renovated Osborne House. Knowing the princess’s sad fate, the Queen commissioned a statue in her honor that included a plate reading:
“To the memory of The Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King Charles I, who died at Carisbrooke Castle on 8 September 1650, and is interred beneath the chancel of this church, this monument is erected as a token of respect for her virtues and of sympathy for her misfortunes, by Victoria R., 1856.”
Two years after Elizabeth’s death, Oliver Cromwell and Parliament finally relented and Henry was allowed to join his family on the continent. Charles and James had by this time moved from Holland to Paris where Henrietta Maria and their youngest sister lived under the protection of Louis XIV. Unfortunately, Henry chafed against the influence of his mother, namely on matters of religion. He eventually joined the Spanish army and then resided with the Prince of Condé.
After Cromwell’s death in 1657 and the gradual disintegration of his government, Henry was reunited with his eldest brother. He was with Charles during his triumphal return to England in May 1660 and was eventually confirmed by him as the Duke of Gloucester and Earl of Cambridge. Just four months later, as negotiations were underway for his betrothal to Princess Wilhelmine Ernestine of Denmark, he died on September 13 at the Palace of Whitehall, aged only 20.
Given the eventual succession crisis of the Stuarts prompted by Charles II’s childlessness and James II’s Catholicism, the idea of a third Stuart prince – particularly a staunchly Protestant one – is an intriguing one. Had Henry lived it’s entirely likely that not only would the Glorious Revolution have looked radically different, but the reigns of William & Mary and Queen Anne might have been avoided altogether. Of course, had Henry produced children of his own, there might never been a reason to reach into Germany for George I and what became the House of Hanover.