Prince Rupert was the foremost Royalist military commander in the English Civil War. Prince Rupert was very much a cavalry soldier and the Royalists may have lost the war a lot sooner had it not been for his military ability.
Prince Rupert was born in 1619. He was the third son of Frederick of the Palatinate and Elizabeth, the daughter of James I. Shortly after Rupert was born, his father and mother were forced out of the Palatinate and he spent a great deal of his childhood in Holland. He became a strong and athletic teenager and was nicknamed ‘Rupert-le-diable’.
In 1636, Rupert visited London and quickly made his mark on Henrietta Maria, the wife of Charles I. He joined the Dutch army and in 1637 fought at the siege of Breda. In 1638 he was captured by forces loyal to the Holy Roman Emperor and remained a prisoner until 1641. During this time he spent a great deal of time studying the theories of war, especially the use of cavalry as defined by Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden and the use of swift advances. After his release was negotiated, Rupert went to England in 1642.
At the outbreak of the war, Rupert was trusted with escorting Henrietta Maria to Holland and after his return to England he was given a commission in August when he was made General of the Horse in the Royal Army. Rupert was just twenty-three years of age.
He served King Charles with great loyalty throughout the first Civil War “and he was undoubtedly the ablest soldier in the Royalist armies in England” (C Hill). However, it can be argued that he was impetuous. After a very successful cavalry charge against Henry Ireton’s horse that effectively started the Battle of Naseby, Rupert should have swung his men in to attack the left infantry flank of Parliament’s army. Instead he decided to ride on and attack a baggage train some distance beyond the main battle. When he and his men returned to the fray, any chance Rupert may have had of influencing the battle had gone. It is highly unlikely that he would have altered the final outcome of this decisive battle, but he may have made it more difficult for Parliament.
He was certainly an innovative commander. In the 1646 third siege of Newark, he marched his men between midnight and 02.00 so that they could launch a surprise attack on the Parliamentarian force besieging the town. The attack, against a highly competent commander called Sir John Meldrun, was very effective and Meldrum had no choice but to surrender. Few commanders marched their men in darkness during this time, as the chance of losing control of your men was great. Yet Rupert was willing to try this.
However, for all his talent, Rupert did have his failings. He had a very high opinion of his ability and it was this that angered the likes of George Goring and other senior Royalist commanders. Whereas the Royalist hierarchy should have presented a united front to Parliament, they failed to do so. It was this factionalism that was at the heart of the Royalist weakness. By comparison, Fairfax, Essex, Cromwell and other senior Parliamentary leaders seemed a more cohesive and united force. Another failing of Rupert was the fact that he was probably more concerned with what others thought of him first and worried about the welfare of the men under his command second.
The failure of the Royalist army to win at Marston Moor also spelt the end of Rupert’s success. In November 1644 he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Royal armies but while the Royal armies lack unity of command because of the constant bickering among its senior commanders, Parliament had created the New Model Army. Rupert was blamed by his detractors for the overwhelming defeat at Naseby. In September 1645 he was dismissed from his command by Charles who merely informed him of his decision. A court-martial acquitted him of the charges of treachery and neglect of duty (Rupert had surrendered Bristol in September for very good military reasons) but his career as a Royalist soldier dutifully serving the king was over.
After the Royalist surrender, Rupert was allowed to go abroad and he fought for the French against the Spaniards in Flanders. From 1649 to 1652 he got command of a small band of ships and sailed in the Mediterranean Sea attacking English ships. He also sailed off of Gambia and in the Caribbean where he also attacked shipping. Rupert returned to the French court of his cousin, the future Charles II, in 1652.
However, court life was not for him and he once again returned to fighting, on this occasion for the King of Hungary.
Charles II invited Rupert back to England at the Restoration in 1660 and gave him an annual pension of £6000. Between 1664 and 1667, Rupert fought in the navy during the Second Dutch War. During the Third Dutch War of 1673 he was appointed to the Board of the Admiralty.
When he was not involved in some aspect of the military, Rupert had developed a passion for experimentation, particularly with firearms. He had his own laboratory at Windsor Castle.
Rupert was a founder of the Royal Society.
Prince Rupert never married but in his later years he had a mistress – an actress called Peg Hughes. He died in 1682.
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