Prince Henry Fredrick: the Prince who never was King

Written Rachael Edge. Edited by Emma Ward.

Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, was the older brother of the ill-fated Charles I, whose reign is a well-known chapter of British history. The lesser told story is that of Henry who was a young heir that never achieved his ultimate purpose of ruling as king. Even though he was the son of a divinely ordained King, death took Henry before his prime.

Henry was groomed from the day he was born to be King. He survived a fraught childhood under the care of John Erskine, 2nd Earl of Marr, while his parents, James VI of Scotland (later James VI & I) and Anne of Denmark, battled over the young Princes’ custody. When Henry arrived in England in 1603 after his father’s coronation, he was an eloquent and pious young man who went on to be educated at Oxford where he was liked by his fellow students and took a fancy to sports. Henry promised much for the future of the crowns of Scotland and England and it is likely that he would have been a very harmonious leader.

Prince Henry Frederick, painted in 1610

Prince Henry Frederick, painted in 1610

Unlike so many heirs before and after him, Henry was interested and adept at state-craft. He took interest in military issues; often requesting friends to send him secret descriptions of French fortifications. Henry’s opinions regarding foreign policy were often at odds with his father’s docile nature, but this endeared Henry to many of his father’s subjects who wanted war and were denied it by James. Henry was seemingly a popular option for the crown of England.

Henry’s court was run in stark contrast to his father’s debauched one. He held a court which was filled with learned, pious, and radical men who he kept a close eye on. The young Prince even had ‘swear tins’ to discourage foul language amongst his followers. It was said that the Privy Council showed great respect for Henry, who could count Edward Cecil (Grandson of the illustrious Lord Burghley) amongst his friends. The popularity of Henry’s court grew to such a size that he began to threaten James’ position; this strained the father-son relationship even further.

It is clear, from Henry’s popularity, interest in warfare and statecraft, and his devout Protestant faith, that he would have been a King that the people wanted and could support. The person Henry would have been ten or twenty years down the line is impossible to know, so his true suitability to be King of England and Scotland can never really be answered with a definitive yes or no: but he is unlikely to have caused as much friction with parliament.

Henry’s death in 1612 from typhoid caused a state of mourning which left a long mark on the national identity of England. Henry’s funeral in December 1612 was attended by two thousand mourners and the mile long procession was watched by a thousand people who lined the streets; this must have been a sight to see. There are many reasons as to why there was such a considerably large amount of grief expressed at the death of a recently adopted Prince in England. The one which I regard as the most significant is that Henry was the future of Protestant England. It was no secret that the Prince was a stout and unwavering Protestant: this made Henry seem to be the last defence against the onslaught of the Catholic League in Europe. He had refused point blank to marry the Roman Catholic princess that his parents had suggested, stating that the two faiths would never share his bed. His death signaled the removal of this protection and the certainty of the future of Protestantism in England. The hopes of an emerging nation were dashed by his death and thus it was deeply felt across all sectors of society and culture.

Another contributing factor to the state of grief felt so widely was that the memory of the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 was fresh in the mind of the people of England. The short amount of time between the death of the legendary Queen and the promising Prince offered a chance for public mourning for the two to merge. Perhaps the mourning for Elizabeth had been put off somewhat by the arrival of a new king who offered great hope for the future. Only on the death of Henry did the emotion have an appropriate vent.

It is also important to note that the death of Prince Henry in 1612 highlighted the instability which was rife in English royalty. Henry had been the first male heir since Edward IV had been born in 1537. He had offered a previously unknown stability to England and the crown. It was clear how he intended to rule, and how well he was likely to rule from his interest in politics and the military. Henry’s death meant that Charles became heir, even then it was unclear as to how he would rule, and there were questions as to his faith and the influence his supposedly Catholic mother, Anne of Denmark, had over him. It is certain though that Charles was not the sure bet that Henry would have been and this caused great sadness: it was said that he sun had gone from England when Henry died.