Prince Rupert the Devil

Eleanor Swift-Hook

Prince Rupert of the Rhine was portrayed harshly by the Parliamentarians, but was he really so bad?
Rupert, by Lely
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Prince Rupert the Devil

In September 1642, a month before the first major battle of the English Civil War, twenty-two-year-old Prince Rupert and his younger brother Maurice arrived at Worcester to escort a convoy of valuables to their uncle the king. The princes were resting with their cavalry in a field just outside the city, when a Parliamentarian force arrived to seize the convoy. Rupert immediately ordered his men to their horses and charged the would-be ambushers. The Parliamentarians fled, running until they reached the Earl of Essex’s lifeguard some miles away, who also broke and ran.

Thus, the legend of Prince Rupert began.

To Royalists he was an inspiring, invincible hero. A man of daring, flair and brilliance with a charmed life. He led his famous charges in battle and skirmish, careless of his own safety and immune to harm.

The same attributes were interpreted very differently by his enemies.

Parliamentarian propaganda originally characterised Rupert as a German interloper set to bring the brutality of the continental wars to England. But his early successes quickly spawned a new narrative: Rupert was in league with the devil – either willingly or as the devil’s dupe.

Prince Rupert never goes to bed, but the Devill lights him up a candle, that he may see to forget to say his prayers, and that he may not see his cruell plunderings

Tales spread that Rupert was shot-proof, a sorcerer or a shapeshifter. How else to explain his seemingly unstoppable success in those early months of the war against the righteous cause of Parliament?

Mocking these wild accusations, a Royalist pamphlet parodied them, declaring of Rupert’s dog, Boye:

Lastly, he is a Devil, without doubt;
For when he would lie down, he wheels about;
Makes Circles, and is couchant in a Ring:
And therefore score up one for Conjuring.

Parody it might have been, but Parliamentarian pamphleteers took a more serious view. Boye was presented as Rupert’s familiar, or a witch in canine form granting him evil powers.

One pamphlet called Rupert ‘the Devil’s caterer’ and in it the Devil told him: ‘However yet I am your proper father’.

Ironically though, he was first called ‘the devil’ by his own family.

Rupert (R), with his brother Charles Louis, by van Dyck

Rupert was the fourth of thirteen children born to the exiled ‘Winter’ King and Queen of Bohemia. Although raised in the Dutch Republic, alone of his siblings Rupert was born in Prague. Legend had it he was nearly left behind when the family fled, only his loud wailing saved him.

As a child Rupert was known for his high jinks, stubborn determination and fiery temper. Charles Louis, Rupert’s older brother, earned the family nickname of ‘Timon’ after Shakespeare’s misanthropic character because of his dour nature. Rupert, they called ‘Robert le diable’ – ‘Rupert the devil’.

But was his behaviour in England’s wars deserving of that epithet?

In November 1642 Rupert was accused of devastating Brentford so badly the town still claimed compensation from Parliament over a decade later. But the account in ‘A true and perfect relation of The Barbarous and Cruell Passages of the King’s Army at Old Brainford’ makes one wonder. Did the cavalry really steal three hundred bushels of apples just to trample them into the mud? Why was there no mention of multiple civilian deaths?

Rupert certainly devastated Broughton Castle just beforehand. But as an enemy stronghold, military practice dictated if it could not be garrisoned, it should be slighted and left indefensible.

In April 1643, another pamphlet accused him of much worse. Birmingham prided itself on being the most rebellious English city, disrupting Royalist supplies, seizing the king’s personal possessions, and attacking any Royalists they could find and sending them to Coventry (giving rise to the phrase we use today). Rupert had been fighting on the continent since his mid-teens. Under the rules of war applied there, any community actively supporting the enemy would be treated very harshly. However, Rupert denied accusations he allowed rape or set fire to the town, and independent eyewitness accounts concur.

But perhaps most revealing is an incident that happened at Nantwich in 1644. The Parliamentarians captured and hanged thirteen of Rupert’s soldiers. Rupert responded by hanging thirteen prisoners he had taken and sending a fourteenth to the Parliamentarians saying if any more of his men were hanged, he would hang two of theirs for each. Which ‘stopped that efflux of blood ever after’.

Decidedly not the actions of a saint, nor yet of a devil, but the pragmatism of an effective military commander in that era.

Eleanor Swift-Hook is the author of The Mercenary’s Blade, published by Sharpe Books.