The Man Who Should Be King

Henry Prince of Wales, and England's Lost Renaissance

by Roy Strong
Thames and Hudson, 264 pp., $24.95

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…

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