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Testament of Youth

The elder brother of Charles I, in pictures and memory.

Feb 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 20 • By SARA LODGE
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Henry evidently strove to please his father: There are rather poignant examples of his efforts to improve his handwriting. But he would turn into a very different man. James VI expressed himself chiefly in middle Scots; Henry was the first true Scotto-Britannic heir, with close access both to trusted Calvinist Scottish courtiers and to English scholars, nobles, and military men. The evidence suggests that he would have been more active in military exploits than his father and a more zealous Protestant than his younger brother. Even as a teenager, he instituted swearing-boxes amongst his courtiers, the proceeds from which, collected as a result of ill-considered oaths, would be given to charity.

Everything about Henry’s brief life suggests his awareness that alliances needed to be forged. Scotland and England had been estranged, not least by the execution of the Roman Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots (Henry’s grandmother) by her English cousin, Elizabeth. An uneasy truce subsisted in religious matters that might at any time flare into conflict.

A leadership cohort of young men from different noble factions was built around Henry. Meanwhile, judicious potential marriages with French or Savoyard princesses were sought. The cultural sophistication of the court is demonstrated by the numerous plays and masques, by writers including Ben Jonson, in which Henry and his mother often acted parts that tended to promote Arthurian chivalry and visions of peaceful union.

It wasn’t to be. Henry’s death still makes sad reading. A few months before his nineteenth birthday, he came down with a terrible fever. The horrors of the illness were doubtless compounded by the treatment: clysters (enemas), as well as the application of a dead pigeon to his head and a split chicken to his feet. The account of the autopsy means we now know what killed Henry: typhus. Renaissance medicine could not save him.

The wooden effigy that was carried atop his funeral bier is a pathetic sight: The wax head and hands have been lost. Even in death, the prince must be rendered visible to give his people a focus for their mourning.

The 17th century would not prove to be an easy time to reign. Henry was a model prince who, luckily and unluckily, never had to test his mettle by becoming king.

Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics

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