I have been fascinated by the English Civil War ever since my youthful discovery of the historical fiction of John and Patricia Beatty. The Beattys wrote several young adult titles set in the late Elizabethan period through the mid-18th century, and one of my favorites was Witch Dog (sadly, out of print now I think). Witch Dog tells the story of Prince Rupert, commander of the Royalist cavalry (and sometimes the navy) during the English Civil War. The novel centers around Rupert’s dog, Boye, reputed by Rupert’s Puritan foes to be an evil spirit and the source of his military prowess. So when I was browsing the history section a few weeks ago and came across Charles Spencer’s biography of Rupert, I thought it was about time to refresh my knowledge of his exploits and perhaps learn a bit more.
Too often, biographies of historical characters become dull repetitions of dates and facts tied together with an occasional anecdote to remind the reader that we are talking about an actual human being. Spencer, however, is anything but dull, and he does an excellent job of presenting both Rupert’s life and the broad stage on which it was played. From my earlier reading, I knew some things about Rupert’s command of the Royalist cavalry — his early successes, his tendency towards headlong charges, and his later defeats at Naseby and Marston Moor. But Spencer goes beyond just reciting dry facts and brings to life Rupert, his uncle, the unlucky Charles I, and a host of other characters. The conflicts within the Royalist cause and Rupert’s place in those conflicts was fascinating and well-told.
What was most interesting to me, though sometimes quite sad, was the story of Rupert’s life before and after the Civil War. His young exploits as a soldier in various European armies set him on the path to both success and failure in England. Most touching were Rupert’s services to the Stuart family after the death of Charles I, and the seeming loss of the Royalists. He served several hard years as a privateer captain, enduring miserable conditions, lack of support, and most terribly, the loss of his beloved brother Maurice, whose ship sank with all hands during a storm. Rupert’s later life following the restoration of the Stuarts saw him caught up in some of the same political infighting that proved so detrimental during the Civil War. But there were pleasant times as well, and Spencer shows Rupert’s joy in scientific experimentation and his pleasure in hunting and riding. He also makes the most of the scanty evidence at his disposal to illuminate Rupert’s social life.
For readers interested in English history, the military and political worlds of 17th c. Europe, or just a fascinating story of an intriguing man, Charles Spencer’s biography of Prince Rupert of the Rhine is sure to please.
Check the WRL catalog for Prince Rupert