Elizabeth Stuart – the lost princess

31 May 2011

I’ve just started researching my novel about Henrietta Anne, the youngest daughter of Charles I and Henrietta Maria and have just been sidetracked by the story of her elder sister, their second daughter, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth was born in St James’ Palace in London on the 28th of December 1635 and was baptised the following day by the Archbishop of Canterbury. She was probably given her name in honour of her aunt, Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia who had been named for Elizabeth I. The Stuart children, so charmingly portrayed by Van Dyck over the years, seem to have had a happy and carefree childhood and were adored by their parents, who were unusually devoted to each other.

It all went wrong however when the English Civil War began in 1642 and the royal household was broken up with the Queen and eldest princess Mary leaving for Holland in 1642. Elizabeth and her younger brother, Henry were refused permission to join their father at the exiled Royal court in Oxford and instead ended up in the care of the Parliament and were moved more than once between guardians who were, often unwillingly, given the task of looking after them and ensuring they received a proper education while they remained in a state of virtual house arrest. For young Henry, who was just two years old when the war broke out, the situation was particularly dangerous as there was talk amongst the Parliamentarian leaders of grooming the boy to be his father’s successor – a Protestant king in thrall to the Parliament.

Despite the upheaval of her life during the war, Elizabeth seems to have thrived under the care of such noted tutors as Bathsua Malkin, a well known female scholar who was known as ‘England’s most learned lady’ and was an outspoken believer in equal rights for the sexes. Under her tutelage, Elizabeth developed an aptitude for theology and learned to read and write in French, Italian, Latin, Ancient Greek and Hebrew, emulating the precociousness of her namesake, Elizabeth Tudor.

However, the young princess was far from robust and was frequently ill with what we now know was a severe case of rickets. She even broke her leg at one point, which meant that she had to be moved to a different residence in Chelsea to recover. Despite all this she was well known for her sweet nature, even being nicknamed ‘Temperance’ by her tempestuous, quarrelsome, high spirited siblings who appreciated her calm habit of pouring oil upon their troubled waters.

Sadly, few portraits of Elizabeth exist and although the French ambassador loyally described this half French princess as ‘a budding young beauty’, it seems that she was not quite so pretty as her winsomely lovely sisters, Mary and Henrietta. This coupled with the physical issues caused by rickets probably made the princess all the more keen to throw herself into her studies.

With the rest of the family adrift in exile, Elizabeth and Henry were the only Royal children to be in London when Charles I embarked on his imprisonment at the hands of Parliament and were a comfort to him in his final months. They were permitted to see him for the last time on the day before his execution in January 1649 and we have Elizabeth’s own moving account of what happened:

He told me that he was glad I was come, for, though he had not time to say much, yet somewhat he wished to say to me, which he could not to another, and he had feared ‘the cruelty’ was too great to permit his writing. ‘But sweetheart,’ he added, ‘thou wilt forget what I tell thee.’ Then shedding an abundance of tears I told him that I would write down all he said to me. ‘He wished me,’ he said, ‘not to grieve and torment myself for him, for it was a glorious death he should die, it being for the laws and the religion of the land.’ He told me what books to read against Popery. He said that, ‘he had forgiven all his enemies, and he hoped God would forgive them also;’ and he commanded us, and all the rest of my brothers and sisters, to forgive them also.

He bid us tell my mother that his thoughts had never strayed from her, and that his love would be the same to the last. Withal, he commanded me and my brother to be obedient to her; and bid me send his blessing to the rest of my brothers and sisters, with communications to all his friends. Then, taking my brother Gloucester on his knee, he said, ‘Sweetheart, now they will cut off thy father’s head.’ And Gloucester looking very intently upon him, he said again, “Heed, my child, what I say: they will cut off my head and perhaps make thee a king. But mark what I say. Thou must not be a king as long as thy brothers Charles and James do live; for they will cut off your brothers’ heads when they can catch them, and cut off thy head too at the last, and therefore I charge you, do not be made a king by them.’

At which my brother sighed deeply, and made answer: ‘I will be torn in pieces first!’ And these words, coming so unexpectedly from so young a child, rejoiced my father exceedingly. And his majesty spoke to him of the welfare of his soul, and to keep his religion, commanding him to fear God, and He would provide for him. Further, he commanded us all to forgive those people, but never to trust them; for they had been most false to him and those that gave them power, and he feared also to their own souls. And he desired me not to grieve for him, for he should die a martyr, and that he doubted not the Lord would settle his throne upon his son, and that we all should be happier than we could have expected to have been if he had lived; with many other things which at present I cannot remember.

After the execution of their adored father, the two young Stuart siblings continued to be passed between different guardians, who were even more unwilling than before to house them. It was a difficult situation – to treat them with too much kindness might draw suspicion of royalist sympathies while treating them badly could turn against one should Charles II ever return to reclaim his throne.

The Countess of Leicester decided to ignore all of this and was extremely kind to the two unfortunate youngsters when they came to live with her at beautiful Penshurst Place in Kent. Elizabeth was so moved by her kindness that she gave her a jewel to show her thanks.

After a year of uncertainty and stress, Charles II did indeed return to Britain to lay claim to his birthright and was crowned King of Scotland in the summer of 1650. This was to have sad consequences for his brother and ailing sister who Parliament decreed should be moved from Penshurst to Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, there to be kept as hostages. Elizabeth was grievously ill at this point and begged not to be moved as she didn’t think she would survive the upheaval – her protests were ignored however and on the 8th of September 1650, less than a month after arriving at Carisbrooke she died from a cold that swiftly developed into full blown pneumonia. Elizabeth was found dead in her bedroom, her head lying on the Bible that her father had given her on the day before his execution. She was just fourteen years old.

A letter from Parliament informing the Princess that her request to be allowed to live with her eldest married sister, Mary in Holland had been granted arrived on the island just a few days after her death, too late to reunite her with her fractured family. Her brother Henry, who was the only member of her family to be present at her funeral remained imprisoned in the castle for another two years before Cromwell decreed that he could join the rest of his family in Holland. Ironically, the Protestant upbringing imposed upon him by Parliament during his childhood would lead to quarrels with his family and eventually a permanent rift between him and his mother, the staunchly Catholic Henrietta Maria.

The teenage Princess’ remains were buried in the church of St Thomas in Newport and remained only basically marked for two centuries until Queen Victoria made Osborne House on the Isle of Wight one of her most favoured residences and, doubtless moved by this story of a teenage princess imprisoned and separated from an adoring father, much as she may have felt she herself had once been, decided to erect a more fitting memorial for this tragic Stuart girl.

Victoria’s favourite sculptor, Carlo Marochetti, who created the figures of Victoria and Albert for their own tomb in the Frogmore Mausoleum, was asked to create the new monument for Princess Elizabeth and depicted her as a romantic heroine, her head softly laid against a book just as she had been found after death. The style of the monument is similar to that of Roman martyrs such as Saint Cecilia, who is depicted in much the same way in her tomb in Rome and it reminds one of the appeal that the tragic Stuarts had for the romantic Victorians. Above the sweetly recumbent figure of the dead princess, there are carved broken bars to make it clear that although she was a prisoner at the time of her death, her spirit was now free.

To the memory of The Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King Charles I, who died at Carisbrooke Castle on September 8, 1630, and is interred beneath the chancel of this church, this monument is erected as a token of respect for her virtues and of sympathy for her misfortunes, by Victoria R., 1856.‘ — Plaque on the tomb of Princess Elizabeth, Isle of Wight.