Henry IX is one of the most interesting monarchs Britain never had.
The eldest son of James VI of Scotland and his wife, Anne of Denmark, Henry, who was born in 1594, took after his mother in looks. He had a long, chiseled face with intelligent eyes, a long nose, and a small, determined chin. Agile and athletic—he loved to practice feats of skill with the pike and lance—he also showed considerable interest in hydraulics and other scientific advances, enthusiastically backed exploration of the New World, and was a patron of the arts whose remarkable collection of paintings included works by Breugel the Elder, Rubens, and Titian.
If he had lived longer, it is tempting to wonder whether he might have done better than his younger brother Charles I at negotiating with Parliament, forestalling unpopular taxes, adopting a firmly Protestant role in Europe, and thus avoiding the Civil War that signed the death warrant for the British monarchy until Cromwell’s early demise without an obvious political heir provided an opportunity for its restoration.
London’s National Portrait Gallery exhibition devoted to images of Henry and his circle is a dazzling show. Ruling in the 16th century was all about display: Power had to be made manifest, glory rendered visible. As James VI explained in the advice book he wrote for his son, Basilikon Doron, “The people that see you not within, cannot judge of you but according to the outward appearance of your actions and companie, which only is subject to their sight.” The costume and trappings of royalty were all-important in projecting the role that the king and his family sought to play. It was the heir apparent’s job to represent the virtues and splendors of national strength.
The portraits of Henry as a young man are remarkably consistent in portraying his features, but they are also allegories of his potential. In one masterpiece by Robert Peake, Henry is depicted in splendid hunting attire, standing over a dead stag. His sword is raised above his head, ready to plunge into the beast’s carcass. In the iconography of the time, his attitude is also that of the Archangel Michael, or St. George, about to slay the dragon. Henry is clad in green: the color of hunting, but also, in Renaissance symbolism, of hope. The picture is, to a degree, naturalistic—Henry loved hunting and horsemanship—but it is also clearly a hopeful depiction of a future leader, one who (perhaps) might not shy away from war with Catholic Spain as his father had done.
In another portrait, Prince Henry is mounted on a horse, and an old man, probably representing Time, is following his progress, his forelock tied to Henry’s pennant. The detail with which armor, clothing, and jewelry are depicted in these paintings is a miracle of workmanship. You can see the very gold threads in Henry’s embroidered doublets, the diamonds on the cuff of his glove, the filigree filaments of lace in his ruff, the embroidered carnations and forget-me-nots in the bodice of his mother’s ivory silk gown.
Diplomats often looked for signs of foreign policy in the origin of the textiles and ornaments that the royal family favored. The cut of one’s cloth might well signal the cast of one’s political mind. James VI and his family spent massively on jewelry: Henry’s bills amounted to three or four thousand pounds at a time. In these extraordinary, jewel-like paintings, one can see the royal family presented itself as a kind of intricate crown, sparkling with gems and glittering with promise. (Children at the exhibition were fascinated by the shoe buckles, some of them like many-pointed, layered starfish inset with pearls. A return of these to high fashion seems long overdue.)
Included as well are various artifacts that offer a fascinating insight into the education of a prince in the late 16th century. Henry was born in Scotland and was, according to Scottish custom, sent away shortly after his birth to live with the Earl of Mar and to be schooled in the ways of princely virtue. His mother was understandably devastated, and we can see from the earliest days a contest between competing influences for Henry’s attention.
James VI was very specific about the instruction he wanted his son to have. It was principally a moral education, with emphasis placed on sound religious observance and physical training. James encouraged fencing, wrestling, tennis, and archery, but forbade “all rumling violent exercises, as the football.” He wanted Henry to have book-learning, but felt that scholarly excellence was not the business of a king.
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