The Lost Prince: The Life and Death of Henry Stuart

Past exhibition archive
18 October 2012 - 13 January 2013

Brave, handsome, clever, athletic, noble and cultured, Henry Stuart (1594-1612) embodied all the princely virtues. As the future King Henry IX he was the focus of great hope and expectation and his court was the centre of a revival of chivalry and a renaissance in the arts. Henry’s early death caused widespread national grief, and led eventually to the accession to the throne of his younger brother, the doomed King Charles I.

Marking the 400th anniversary of Henry’s death, The Lost Prince will include some of the most important works of art and culture produced and collected in the Jacobean period, including portraits by Holbein, Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver, designs by Inigo Jones and poetry by Ben Jonson in his own hand. These will be shown together with a large selection of paintings, drawings, books, armour and other artefacts, gathered from museums and private collections in Britain and abroad, some of which have never previously been on public display.

The exhibition, which explores Henry’s life and image, and the extraordinary reaction to his death, will transform our understanding of this exceptional prince and the time in which he lived.

Supported by The Weiss Gallery and individual exhibition supporters

Henry, Prince of Wales by Isaac Oliver c.1610-12. Supplied by the Royal Collection Trust / HM Queen Elizabeth II 2012

See the Gallery blog for posts by exhibition curator, Catharine MacLeod.

Explore the exhibition

A New Royal Family

James VI of Scotland and I of England by John de Critz the Elder c.1606 by permission of the Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
James VI of Scotland and I of England by John de Critz the Elder c.1606 by permission of the Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

On 24 March 1603, Queen Elizabeth I of England died after a long reign. The throne passed swiftly and with little controversy to James VI of Scotland, a cousin, who became King James I of England. Although he was the son of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, James had been brought up a Protestant and he represented the prospect of a secure succession; for the first time in living memory there would be a complete royal family in England, comprising an adult king, a queen, a male heir, a younger brother and a marriageable daughter. The heir, Henry Frederick, was the focus of particular hope and expectation.

Interest in the new royal family expressed itself in various ways. Basilikon Doron, a manual on ruling written by James for Henry, became a bestseller. Numerous portraits were commissioned, including spectacular full-lengths from Robert Peake and John de Critz, and exquisite miniatures from Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver. But the Stuarts were not universally welcomed. A small group who sought Catholic rule in Britain planned to overthrow the king. The ‘Gunpowder Plot’, which included the murder of Henry alongside James in Parliament, was famously defeated, and the celebrations of 5 November established.

The Making of the Prince

 Prince Henry’s Copy-book
Prince Henry’s Copy-book 160406 Photo: © Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge

Prince Henry was brought up apart from his parents, first in Scotland and then in England. His early years in England were spent mainly at Nonsuch Palace in Surrey and then after his creation as Prince of Wales in 1610, at St James’s and Richmond Palaces. Here he was attended by a combination of Scots courtiers – men such as David Murray, a gentleman of the bedchamber to whom he was especially close – and Englishmen newly appointed by his father. Various sons of the nobility were chosen to be his companions, including Sir John Harington of Exton and Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex.

Henry and his companions were educated under the guidance of the prince’s tutor, Adam Newton. Newton initially devised a curriculum based on that of grammar schools of the day. This included reading and writing in Latin, as well as French, some Italian and italic handwriting. Henry seems to have shown more enthusiasm for his studies as they became more specific to his future role as king, and included history, geography and especially military exercises. His formal education was supplemented by descriptive letters from friends and courtiers travelling abroad, and political information supplied by Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, the most powerful politician in James’s government.

Festivals, Masques and Tournaments

Prince Henry’s Armour
Prince Henry’s Armour Dutch c. 1608 © Board of Trustees of the Armouries

Festivals, tournaments and other kinds of entertainments were an essential part of life at the court of James I. They signalled the importance of the king and the royal family, and Henry was the focus of many such events from early in his life. Elaborately decorated armour and magnificent horses were striking features of such occasions, and known to be particularly acceptable gifts for Henry. The prince’s image, as presented through these entertainments to the court and the world at large, was increasingly that of an ideal, militant prince.

In January 1610 the prince took part in Prince Henry’s Barriers, an elaborate indoor tournament preceded by a theatrical entertainment known as a masque. Masques were vastly expensive performances, staged just once, in which scenes whose aim was the glorification of the Stuart dynasty were acted out by courtiers and members of the royal family. The allegorical narratives, written by playwrights including Ben Jonson, were accompanied by music and dance performed by magnificently costumed participants on spectacular sets designed by the court architect Inigo Jones. The prince himself commissioned Oberon, the Faery Prince, for the Christmas celebrations in 1610–11; he took the lead role, and was presented as an amalgamation of Roman hero and Arthurian knight.

Princely Collecting

Pacing Horse sculpture
Pacing Horse by Pietro Tacca, after Giambologna (Jean Boulogne), 1600 Photo: Supplied by Royal Collection Trust © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2012

Collections of rare and beautiful objects were an important feature of European Renaissance courts. They were seen as reflecting the discernment, intelligence, virtue and magnificence of their owners. King James seems not to have been interested in assembling such collections for himself. Henry therefore became the focus for a group of knowledgeable courtiers who had travelled, read widely and sought to create a court in England to rival the great cultural centres of Europe.

Diplomatic exchanges, gifts from loyal followers and purchases from dealers in Britain and abroad all provided means by which Henry’s collections grew. They were primarily of paintings; sculpture; antique coins, medals and gems; and books, although he also had a collection of scientific instruments and models. Henry’s collection of paintings was one of the first in Britain not primarily composed of portraits. He acquired the first recorded collection of Renaissance sculpture in Britain and the first significant collection of antique gems and medals. Henry’s library was also remarkable. At its core was the great Elizabethan library of John, Lord Lumley, but over a thousand other volumes were added.

Like his European counterparts, Henry also patronised architects and garden designers. He built a new library and riding school at St James’s Palace and initiated a spectacular and ambitious garden at Richmond Palace. Unfortunately almost nothing of this area of his patronage survives today.

Prince Henry and the Wider World

The Embarkation of the Elector Palatine in the Prince Royal from Margate, 25 April 1613
The Embarkation of the Elector Palatine in the Prince Royal from Margate, 25 April 1613 
by Adam Willaerts, 1622
© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

By the time he was in his late teens, Henry had an active role on the world stage, not just as a precocious collector and cultural patron, but also as the focus of wider political and religious activity and aspiration. Marriage proposals were one of the most important kinds of international political exchange. A number of possibilities were considered for the prince, mostly with Catholic princesses, which was a source of concern for him. Henry was also involved in the negotiations for his sister Elizabeth’s marriage, promoting the most significant Protestant candidate, Frederick V, Elector Palatine. In addition he corresponded with various European leaders – both Catholic and Protestant – whom he admired, including his godfather King Henri IV of France and the Dutch leader Maurice of Nassau.

Henry’s interest in foreign politics and religion was closely linked to his support for the navy and exploration. The early seventeenth century was a time of important developments in astronomy and navigation, which contributed to military capability and also enabled the exploitation of new worlds. The prince benefitted from an education in these subjects, in which he took a keen interest. The shipwright Phineas Pett built for Henry the largest, most magnificent ship in the British fleet. Henry also gave his name to one of the earliest settlements in Virginia, and sponsored a voyage to find the Northwest Passage to China.

‘Our Rising Sun is Set’: the Death of Prince Henry

The Hearse of Henry, Prince of Wales
The Hearse of Henry, Prince of Wales by William Hole, 1612 © The Trustees of the British Museum

In the autumn of 1612, during the preparations for the marriage of his sister Princess Elizabeth, Prince Henry fell ill with a fever. Court doctors debated his treatment with increasing desperation, but finally, after much suffering, on the evening of 6 November, Prince Henry died. His family was distraught. It was reported months later of King James that ‘even in the midst of the most important discussions he will burst out with “Henry is dead, Henry is dead.”’ The grief was widespread and deeply felt, both by those who knew the prince and those for whom he had simply represented hope for the future.

The funeral at Westminster Abbey on 7 December was even more magnificent than that of Queen Elizabeth I, nine years earlier. The prince’s coffin, with an effigy laid on top, was carried in procession with 2,000 official mourners; the streets were lined with the grieving populace. There was an unprecedented outpouring of mourning poetry and music. Charles, Duke of York eventually became Prince of Wales and subsequently king, but for years, Henry remained in the collective memory as the ideal of princely virtue.