Henry Prince of Wales, and England’s Lost Renaissance
Prince Henry is the great might-havebeen of English history. Eldest son of James VI of Scotland, who in 1603 became king of England, Henry died at the age of eighteen in 1612. He was succeeded as James’s heir by his stuttering obstinate younger brother, who as Charles I provoked and lost the civil war of 1642–1646, and then became the first English king to be publicly tried and executed as a traitor to his people. As king, Charles was an unmitigated disaster, whose execution became what Oliver Cromwell called a “cruel necessity.” No one could negotiate any further with a man who thought it his religious duty to double-cross anyone who did not accept his divine right to rule as he chose. In retrospect many—on both sides in the civil war—looked back nostalgically to the young prince who had died in 1612.
Death is a passport to good reputation. Many in the reigns of James and Charles recalled the golden days of Good Queen Bess as a polite way of criticizing her successors. But Prince Henry’s reputation was not just a posthumous fantasy. In his lifetime he seemed to many to embody virtues that his father lacked, and that his younger brother lacked even more conspicuously.
Occupying the English throne in the early seventeenth century was a hazardous and unrewarding job. All over Europe inflation was driving up the costs of government, and especially of war. The great absolute monarchies of the Continent, France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire, had built up standing armies and bureaucracies powerful enough to enforce the collection of taxes. In the island of Great Britain national defense was the affair of the navy, and navies cannot be used for internal repression. Henry VIII had missed the chance of establishing an independent monarchy when at the Reformation he allowed the lands confiscated from the monasteries to pass into the hands of those who were, or became, gentlemen.
Lacking an army and a bureaucracy, the English monarchy depended on taxes voted by the gentry in Parliament, assessed and collected by the gentry in the counties. Kings had few independent financial resources: they could make war only with Parliament’s consent. Elizabeth had just warded off, by good management and good luck, the invasion threatened by the Spanish Armada in 1588; that was an issue on which the taxpayers were united behind her.
James, faced with rising costs and diminishing revenues, virtually ceased to have a foreign policy. He rationalized by aspiring to play the role of peacemaker, mediating between the rival Protestant and Catholic camps into which Europe was divided. But this policy collapsed when the Thirty Years’ War broke out in 1618. England—the leading Protestant power—proved incapable of assisting her Protestant brethren in Germany. When Bohemia and the Palatinate were overrun by the Catholic troops of the Austrian and Spanish Hapsburgs, the king of England, in the sick contemporary joke, sent to their aid 30,000 ambassadors—not troops.
James seemed to patriotic Protestant Englishmen to have sold out to Spain. He had the Elizabethan hero Sir Walter Raleigh executed at the behest of the Spanish ambassador. Poor James’s policy of neutrality was financially sensible if unglorious. But when Parliament voted money to his successor, Charles used it to help the Catholic king of France to suppress the Protestant Huguenots. When Protestantism in Germany (and therefore in England) was finally saved in the early 1630s by Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, Charles I was negotiating with Spain for an alliance—against Sweden. Positions in English politics were increasingly polarized until civil war came in 1642.
Since Elizabeth’s reign there had been a party in England advocating an aggressive Protestant foreign policy. This was the party of Elizabeth’s earls of Leicester and Essex, of Hakluyt, Raleigh, and the “sea dogs,” of Sir Philip Sidney and Fulke Greville. It wanted war against Spain in alliance with the Dutch, in order to snatch the wealth of the New World from the antichristian Spaniards. Merchants wanted an expansion of England’s staple export, cloth. Traditional markets in northern Europe for heavy cloths were lost in consequence of the Thirty Years’ War. To win new markets for lighter cloths (the New Draperies) English merchants needed protection in the Mediterranean, against Spaniards and pirates. The monarchy could not provide the necessary fleet. Charles indeed told English merchants to keep out of the Mediterranean because he could not protect them. Algerian pirates swarmed in the channel and took slaves from the southern coast of England. Charles aspired to build a fleet; but he was already trying to rule without Parliament, and his collection of ship money without parliamentary consent was a major cause of the civil war. Only in the 1650s, after civil war and revolution, did Oliver Cromwell establish England’s power in the West Indies, while Blake’s fleet swept the Mediterranean.
So we come back to Prince Henry, who had hoped to carry out a Cromwellian policy. Henry grew up just when alarm was increasing about James’s appeasement of Spain. Henry took up an outspokenly anti-Spanish attitude. A group of survivors from the old Elizabethan war party gathered around him. The prince, Sir Roy Strong tells us, should be firmly placed in an ideological line of descent which runs from the Earl of Leicester, Sir Philip Sidney, and the Earl of Essex, executed in 1601. Henry’s friend, the Earl of Southampton, had been one of Essex’s most loyal supporters. Henry’s lord chamberlain, Sir Thomas Chaloner, had been Essex’s agent in Italy and France. “Sir John Hayward, the Prince’s historiographer, looked to Essex as his patron. Lionell Sharpe, one of [Henry’s] chaplains, had also been chaplain to Essex.” Inigo Jones, the Prince’s surveyor, had been a member of the household of another devoted follower of Essex, the Earl of Rutland. Francis Bacon, who dedicated his Essays to Henry, had been Essex’s secretary. There are many more.
Henry was quoted as saying of the imprisoned Sir Walter Raleigh, “None but my father would keep such a bird in a cage.” Raleigh advised the prince on questions of foreign policy, and his great History of the World, written in the Tower of London, was intended for Prince Henry. When the prince died, Raleigh abandoned work on it.
Henry took great interest in the navy, and was said to be preparing for naval war with Spain. He “himself (if so it should agree with his Majesty’s pleasure) would in person become the executor of that noble attempt for the West Indies”—what was later to become Cromwell’s Western Design. After Henry’s death the possibility of such a policy being carried out by the monarchy ceased to exist.
But the prospect of Henry leading a united Crown and Parliament into aggressive colonial war against Spain, intriguing though it is, is by no means the only point of interest in his brief career. As Roy Strong’s subtitle indicates, Henry was also of central importance in the cultural history of England. Who better to write about this than Sir Roy Strong, one of England’s leading art historians?
Here again Henry was heir to Leicester, Sidney, and Essex. Some of the names of Henry’s dependants whom I have already mentioned are suggestive: Francis Bacon, father of English science; Raleigh, poet and historian; Inigo Jones, England’s first great architect; Hayward, historian of Richard II and Henry IV (“One cannot help but speculate as to Henry’s interest in a book detailing the misgovernment of the realm by a decadent king under the influence of favourites,” Strong comments). Sir Charles Cornwallis, second only to Bacon as an essayist, was treasurer to the prince’s household. Joseph Hall, essayist and poet, was one of the prince’s chaplains; another was Joshua Sylvester, poet and translator of Du Bartas. The poet Sir Arthur Gorges was a Gentleman of the Prince’s Privy Chamber. Samuel Daniel and Michael Drayton were poets on the prince’s payroll. All four were of the Spenserian succession of poets, strongly Protestant. Gorges prudently left his more critical poems about James unpublished, but Daniel had been in trouble with the Privy Council, and the king was known to dislike Drayton. George Chapman had a place in the prince’s household, and it was at Henry’s request that Chapman undertook his translation of Homer, dedicated to the prince. The Scottish poet Sir William Alexander was a Gentleman Extraordinary of the Prince’s Privy Chamber. He, too, was keenly interested in colonization, later founding Nova Scotia.
This is an impressive list. Even more important was the prince’s role as patron of art. “At the court of Prince Henry, the visual arts were to…occupy a position quite unparalleled in England before 1610.” Neither Elizabeth nor James was interested in the arts. Yet these were the great years of court patronage in Europe. “Stylistically England was a backwater,” insular and old-fashioned. Henry embarked on “the deliberate recruitment of artists of the type that graced the courts of Florence and Prague.”
The Prince needed an architect for his palaces which were to be built in the new style; a designer for his court festivals, for they were to emulate those of the Medici; a court portrait painter, for the Prince must be presented both at home and abroad as a man-at-arms and the perfect cortigiano; an expert on hydraulics, for his gardens must outshine Pratolino and Saint-Germain-en-Laye; and even an engraver, for the visual arts of his court must be taken to the people through the art of mass reproduction.
It was a fantastically ambitious program for a boy who died at the age of eighteen.
In addition to Inigo Jones, Henry employed the Florentine Constantino de’ Servi and the French Huguenots Salomon de Caus and Isaac Oliver; Sir Roy has much of interest to say on the careers of all four. Oliver’s work, he concludes, “sums up the incipient internationalism of Henry’s circle. It…speaks of a process of assimilation in one gigantic stride of the whole of what the mainland of Europe had achieved in the preceding century.” Henry’s engraver was Cornelius Boel, whose work was “far in advance of anything being produced in England at the time.” Henry seems to have brought him over from Antwerp; it was in Henry’s palace that Boel executed the title page to the authorized version of the Bible which was published in 1611. “Nothing could more forcefully associate the Prince with this landmark in the history of the Church of England than this engraving.” In the same year a translation of Sebastiano Serlio’s Architectura was printed, dedicated to Prince Henry by his “picturemaker” Robert Peake.
In the years between 1610 and 1612 the prince was busily building up a collection of pictures, “very different from anything that had gone before in England.” What is extraordinary is the expertise that he revealed in selecting. He had a large collection of coins and medals and he acquired “by far the largest part of the second greatest library of the Elizabethan age, that belonging to John, Lord Lumley,” formerly his tutor. “What we are witnessing under Prince Henry is the virtual refoundation of a Royal Library.”
Characteristically, the prince was interested in tournaments, while his father’s interest lay in the masque. Henry used the pageantry of tournaments in an attempt “to bring exercises of arms at the Stuart court up to date in European terms.” The Barriers of 1610 registered the prince’s passion for history and were “a kind of manifesto as to Henry’s intentions for architecture.” It was based on “the earliest complete set of drawings we have by Inigo Jones for a court spectacle, and the first which record his use of scientific perspective.”
Finally, many members of the prince’s household and court “were also participants and advocates of the ferment of scientific inquiry and experimentation that characterized the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods.” After his death “there was a tremendous decline, and royal and aristocratic patronage of the sciences was notable for its absence.” Apart from Bacon, Edward Wright, William Barlow, William Gilbert, Matthew Gwinne, Phineas Pett, and Cornelius Drebbel were all patronized by Henry—important names in the early history of English science and mathematics. Henry was deeply committed to the establishment of an academy royal, whose objective would first and foremost be “the learning of the Mathematiques, and Language.” “If it had proceeded it would have radically affected, with its mathematical bias, the intellectual make-up of the governing classes…. Henry emerges as the Prince par excellence of Renaissance hermetic science in England.”
That alliance of art, science and the monarchy snapped in 1612, not to be re-established until after the Restoration, with the foundation of the Royal Society. Prince Henry’s renaissance was a unique fusion of all that was most advanced in the arts and sciences in late Mannerist Europe, aligned to a fiercely Protestant stance…. When the theme was taken up again by his brother in the 1620s it was no longer based on the “arts mechanicall.” The approach henceforth was to be wholly aesthetic and one of the gentleman virtuoso.
Worse still, “in the mind of the Protestant populace the arts as cultivated at the court of Charles I were to be linked with concessions to Catholicism, an association fatal for the crown.”
Henry’s court became a significant cultural center at a time when his father’s court shocked Puritans by its drunkenness and immorality. The idea of opposing the king was impossible but, as under the Hanoverians a century later, the court of the heir to the throne could become a focus for those who hoped to change government policy. It was not long before James realized that his son was becoming “too high mounted in the peoples love.” “It seems that the King has some reasonable jealousy of the rising sun,” observed the Venetian ambassador. When Henry was inaugurated Prince of Wales, the City of London was instructed (at the last minute) not to receive him with too ostentatious ceremony.
We must be careful of course not to make too much of the might-have-been. History is not made by individuals alone. Henry had much more sense and much more flair than the younger brother whom Henry had thought would make a tolerable Archbishop of Canterbury. Insofar as the English revolution was about Protestantism, patriotism, foreign and colonial policy, Prince Henry’s approach might have helped to delay it. But the revolution was about many other things as well. Henry would still have had to face the problem of financing England as a great power. His foreign policy would certainly have been more in tune with the wishes of the gentry and merchants represented in the House of Commons than either his father’s or his brother’s. An old rhyme predicted that Henry IX would put down bishops and deans as Henry VIII had put down monasteries. The profits of confiscated church lands helped to pay for Cromwell’s aggressive foreign policy. Why not for Henry IX’s? If Henry rather than Charles had succeeded James, the cultural gulf between Laudian court and Puritan country would not have widened so suddenly and so abruptly; the consequences of that for English history would have been immense.
A good book on Prince Henry has long been needed. Sir Roy has given us a superb one. It is learned, admirably documented, definitive. The author’s expertise as art historian is its essential basis. But to have concentrated only on Henry as a cultural figure would have left out much that inspired his contemporaries. Strong has grasped, and conveyed, the importance for the artistic, literary, social, and political history of England of the prince’s two brief years on stage. A remarkable achievement.
Homer for Henry February 12, 1987