Henry Stuart, Prince of Wales – ‘The Best King we Never Had? The BBC want the Answer …

Stirling Castle, a cold February morning in 1594, a Scottish prince is born. His birth symbolises the hopes of four nations. He is Henry Frederick Stuart.

When his father, James VI of Scotland inherits the crowns of Elizabeth I in 1603, James inaugurates the new age of the Royal Stuarts in Britain. This dynasty will unleash a dramatic and traumatic century of transformation for these islands. But before the trauma of civil war, a Puritan Republic and regicide, it all boded so well.

Crown Prince Henry became the symbol of a ‘brave new world’

As James VI and I’s heir, in 1603 Prince Henry becomes the first ever Prince of Wales of Great Britain. Offspring of the Union of Crowns, Henry is the kingdoms united – but he was made in Scotland. All too soon, tragedy strikes.

By his premature death in 1612, Henry was a celebrity throughout Europe. His is the first recorded state funeral for a prince. Only monarchs and their consorts were earned them before him, not princes.

Yet, today most people are unaware he existed. I love a mystery. I really longed to find this missing prince, and discover why he merited a state funeral. The journey took me from Stirling Castle to Westminster Abbey, via the palaces of Richmond and St James’s, and the courts of Henry’s fellow Princes across Europe.

Henry, aged 2 – every inch a king in waiting

About Sarah

I am a writer, broadcaster, blogger and vlogger, wife, mother, granny and carer. We live in the Highlands of Scotland and London.

Stirling Castle 1594 to 1603

It all started at Stirling Castle, nursery and protector of Scottish monarchs. Henry grew up here until the age of ten.

A coterie of loving but hard-line Scottish Protestants educated him intensively, from the age of four. They saw the break with Roman Catholicism as the defining moment of their time. To them, the Protestant reformation stalled half way to victory over Rome. It just needed a figurehead to complete the reforming mission. Their prince would be that man.

Among the first to arrive was Adam Newton, an Edinburgh baker’s son. Devout Calvinist, humanist scholar, he was Henry’s private tutor. Richard Preston, veteran of Europe’s religious wars, came to develop other sides of their Renaissance prince. Soon Henry and his friends loved nothing better than ‘active and manly exercises’, learning to ride, sing, dance, leap, shoot with the bow and gun, toss the pike, and being instructed in the use of arms’.

Stirling – very much as it looked in Henry’s day

James trusted the Earl of Mar, the king’s oldest friend, with overall charge of Henry’s home. James VI grew up with Mar, whom he called ‘Jocky O’Sclaittis’ – Jock o’ Slates – recalling their school days. Hereditary keepers of Stirling, the godly Mars were the traditional Guardians of Scottish monarchs.

James himself contributed to his son’s education. He wrote Basilikon Doron for Henry: ‘The King’s Gift’. A practical guide to ruling, by someone in a unique position to know what he was talking about; it’s a how-to manual for moulding the divinely appointed monarch.

In it, James talked to Henry about everything from love and marriage, to when and how to wage war – and when not to. He discussed the military arts, sports, clothes, favourites, religion, and the nature of kingship. The king was a witty and clever man and Basilikon Doron became a European bestseller. People loved imagining they were eavesdropping on the private exchanges of royal father and son.

Henry’s handwriting – practising his signature with lots of flourishes

1603 – the death of Elizabeth I, last of the Tudors

After 1603, many of Henry’s inner circle came with him to England, when Elizabeth I died. Henry kept them close all his life. In important ways, this was his real family. He absorbed their culture. His mentors’ influence on Henry’s outlook is fundamental to understanding who he became; and, through him, how the puritan faction, who will fight his brother Charles I, grew in Britain.

In the following years, Prince Henry began to stretch his wings. Under Henry, the court of the heir at St James’s Palace soon combined a cutting edge military academy with the creation of a sophisticated court.

Voraciously curious about everything, Henry founded a royal art collection of European breadth. He amassed a library of priceless books, and undertook grand renovations of royal palaces. He mounted operatic, highly politicised Court entertainments, called masques.  His initiatives made the positive diplomatic chatter about him grow in volume. ‘He is a prince who promises very much,’ the French ambassador told his king. The French, Dutch, Venetians, and Protestant German territories all worked to cultivate special relationships with him.

Richmond Palace, 1611, when it was Henry’s
An Inigo Jones costume for a Star in Henry’s masque, ‘Oberon’ (1611)
King James VI of Scotland & 1 of England

The New WORld – henry and america

Typical young man, his energy and ambitions were boundless. He reviewed Britain’s naval and military capacity, and set about modernising it. He patronised cutting-edge science, funding the acquisition of telescopes and automata. Becoming patron of the Northwest Passage Company, Henry yearned to sail through the barriers of the known world to explore new continents.

Called ‘the heir of Virginia’, Henry was behind the push to plant the British race permanently in American soil. The pioneer colonists first made land at the mouth of the James River, and promptly named the place, Cape Henry. The prince’s gunner, Robert Tindall drew up the first ever map of the Chesapeake area of Virginia for his prince. Henry found it exotic and alluring.

By 1610, Henry shone at the centre of the Court of St James’s. His court magnetised artists, musicians, scientists, explorers, and writers. Some of the most talented men of his generation, like Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones, worked for him. A Renaissance prince, charismatic, vigorous, brave and cultured, he was seen to embody all the princely virtues. They were excited to be around him. Playwright John Webster said, it was ‘as if we stood in some spacious theatre, wondering what’ he would achieve for Britain.

Against the backdrop of growing religious instability in Europe, Henry schooled himself to be ready to lead all Christendom’s Protestants against a militant Catholic League threatening them. A cosmic conflict for the soul of Christendom loomed on their horizon.

The Thirty Years’ War began in 1618 and it would eventually claim the lives of nearly half the population of the German states, and devastate central Europe for decades.

First ever map of Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, 1607 Commissioned by Henry
La Pendaison (The Hanging), Jacques Callot, 1633, from a series of images of brutal, gruelling Thirty Year’s War

King James, self-styled ‘King of Peace’, felt pride and discomfort when he considered his stellar son. At home and abroad, Henry seemed bent on action, intervention, and change. The prince entertained some politically and religiously radical men. They wanted to strengthen the rule of law by reforming the monarchy. The future Henry IX should rule through his parliament. Not, as his father and brother Charles did, by dismissing them, and issuing edicts by invoking the divine right of kings.

Whether you suspected Henry’s motives, or cheered him on, suddenly became irrelevant. Henry caught typhoid in the autumn of 1612. After suffering the barbaric treatment that passed for cures in 1612 – being bled, blistered, purged with vomitories and enemas – Prince Henry died, delirious with pain.

The King ordered a state funeral to satisfy his people’s need to grieve their golden prince.  But then… Henry disappeared from history. the story of his amazing state funeral, and the subsequent suppression of his legacy is the subject of next week’s blog…

The BBC loved Henry’s story and were intrigued by how little known he is today. They decided to put that right. Based on my lief of Henry, on Nov 30, BBC 2 Scotland, you can follow Paul Murton (Grand Tours of Scotland) and me on a journey to find a lost prince and restore him to our national memory.


  1. Undine MacSuibhne

    I’ve been trying to locate some information on possible paramours of Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales. Are you aware of any? Thank you-

    • gavinfenton

      The only romantic interest about which I could find any evidence at concerns Frances Howard, Countess of Essex. If you look her up in my index under ‘Essex, Frances Howard, Countess of’ you’ll find all I found, plus sources in the notes. Good luck, Sarah


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Henry in Armour, 1610
The Funeral Bier of Henry, Prince of Wales, 1612

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