History Revealed: Henry Stuart isn’t a figure many of us are familiar with. What are his headline achievements?
Sarah Fraser: Prince Henry is the first prince born to inherit all the countries of Britain. When his godmother, Elizabeth I dies in 1603, Henry is the kingdoms united. His father, King James VI and I secures the transition from Tudor to Stuart. Henry guarantees the future stability of the new multi-country realm.
Hailed as ‘Protector of Virginia’, Henry helped make the permanent planting of the British race in American soil a reality in 1607. He began an ambitious review of the navy and armed forces. He aimed to create a fighting force capable of defending our trade and new colonies. It would let Britain rise to global domination. Patron of the Northwest Passage Company, he sent an expedition to discover the mythic north west passage over the top of America, to open up the fabled wealth of the East to our trade.
As his court matured, he laid the foundations of what is the Queen’s Royal Collection today, and put together a fabulous library of manuscripts and books that are the backbone of the British Library. He created a court fit for a Renaissance prince of European renown. St James’s Palace magnetised inventors, explorers, scientists, and progressive military, religious and political men.
History Revealed: What do we know about his personality?
Sarah Fraser: We know Henry valued his privacy. He became secretive as he grew up, and began to disagree with his father on certain matters, like foreign policy. Henry’s motto was, ‘Glory is the torch of the upright mind.’ It meant, winning eternal fame by heroism on the battlefield. King James chose ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ for his motto. You can see where that difference might lead, when the question of whether to take up arms against an enemy, or appease them, arose.
Once you did have Henry’s confidence, however, he relaxed and opened up. He loved banter and jokes, music and dancing, and staging lavish court spectacles. He was pious, with a youth’s black and white morality. He enjoyed a loving relationship with his siblings and parents. Unlike the Tudors, the Stuarts are good family people.
A highly educated Renaissance prince, he was sports mad. He spent hours every day on swordsmanship, learning how to handle pistols and cannon, on hunting, and, above all, on mastering manège, or horsemanship. This is an age of innovation in the cavalry. Henry and his friends loved to practise for hours every day, teaching their horses to turn on a penny and stay calm under fire. I see him like my own sons in the way he revelled in his physical fitness. And pushed his body to its limits.
He was loyal. Loyal to a fault, in fact. Henry would defend a man who was obviously guilty of corruption, just because the man had his trust. I hope Henry would have had the humility, and confidence to see, and own up to his mistakes, if he had lived.
History Revealed: How might history have been different had Henry lived longer?
Sarah Fraser: This is where history drifts towards fiction. But, I suspect we would not have suffered the civil wars. Henry was Puritan minded, unlike Anglo-Catholic Charles I. He was raised by religious and political radicals. High calibre, politically progressive and godly men were his advisers. Some had been with him since he was four years old. I think they would have pushed him to have good working relations between Crown and Parliament. That should have prevented the civil war, and the beheading of Henry’s younger brother, the future King Charles I. So, no Cromwell and no Puritan republic.
However, Henry saw himself as a European prince. The Thirty Years’ War between the Catholic forces of the Holy Roman Empire, Spain and the Papacy on one side, and the Protestant states of Europe on the other, will start a few years after Henry dies. It’s the longest, bloodiest, continuous conflict in Europe until World War I. Henry would have committed Britain more deeply into that war. He was widely spoken of as the natural leader of the Protestant side. It was a role he sought for himself.
History Revealed: Why do you think Henry is so little known today?
Sarah Fraser: I know. For a king like James, obsessed with continuity and harmony, you would have predicted he would slip Charles into Henry’s set up. There was fully functioning court all ready for the new heir. It would have caused minimum disruption. Charles lived with Henry half the year anyway.
But the King dismantled Henry’s home, and dismissed scores of his men, calling some of them ‘notorious puritans’. James made sure a lot of things associated with Henry disappeared. I think that’s partly why he’s not better known. King James, the moderate, self styled King of Peace saw which way the wind blew in the secondary arena of state power – the court of Prince Henry at St James’s Palace. Henry and his circle were far too proactive for the king’s liking, in advocating military intervention and close participation in European affairs. Especially as Europe headed towards war.
History Revealed: If you could somehow travel back in time and ask Henry a question, what would it be?
Sarah Fraser: Accounts of Henry’s last illness – gruesome reading – say he asked a friend to burn a lot of papers. Apparently, they detailed Henry’s plans to go to Europe, announce himself as the future leader of Protestant Christendom, and find a Protestant bride. All this would move him into direct opposition to the king’s wishes. If so, then Henry destroyed records of his secret dealings to protect his followers from his father and the government’s wrath. I would give a lot to ask Henry what exactly was in those papers.
History Revealed: What new impression of Henry, and of this period, would you like this book to leave readers with?
Sarah Fraser: ‘O brave new world that hath such people in it’!
Some Scholars think Shakespeare had Henry in mind when he wrote that. Why wouldn’t he – because, what a cultured, sophisticated, truly European dynasty with global ambition, arrived from Scotland in 1603. After the inertia and problems besetting the last decade or so of Elizabeth’s reign, here was something new and exciting – a burgeoning, intelligent, young royal family. Britain is born. The world expands. Henry and his family inaugurate a century of exciting transformation for these islands. Let’s take the spotlight off the Tudors briefly, great as they are. Let’s enjoy the thrilling dawn of the new Stuart era.