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The Winter Prince

The warrior prince who comes to save a kingdom
The royal duchess who fights to resist him
The Parliament of England brands them as lovers ...

Prince Rupert of the Rhine and the beautiful Mary Villiers, Duchess of Richmond, clashed in 1642 when England was splitting apart into Civil War. Mary was a ward of the king, and she had her own hopes for saving the throne of England in the struggle with Parliament. The tall, handsome Prince Rupert chilled her with his thirst for glory and a genius for warfare that would destroy any chance of peace.

This is the story of a man and a woman at the heart of the royal court, caught in a war that pitted son against father, brother against brother, and ended with the execution of the first King Charles of England. It takes the reader into the palaces, the councils, the battlefields, the great halls—and the bedchambers—of those who held the nation's fate in their hands.

While writing this book, in which all the characters are authentic historical figures, I was very aware that Prince Rupert and the Duchess of Richmond were the superstars of their era. They didn’t need paparazzi to hound them. They had Parliament. 

Looking at the famous portraits of Prince Rupert, you could believe the phrase “the handsome prince” was coined for him and only him. As for his courage, his passionate loyalty and his tireless energy -- he was the pattern of the hero.

I also explore the fact that there once was a high-placed woman who dared to put her love poems, bold political broadsheets and biting satires about court life into print. She was one of the first in England to do so. She called herself Ephelia. Maureen E. Mulvihill, an author and scholar at the Princeton Research Forum, Princeton, New Jersey, has built an attractive case for Ephelia as the brilliant, witty, and ingenious Mary Villiers, Duchess of Richmond, who had more secrets than she ever revealed in her lifetime. Except, perhaps, to Prince Rupert.

For The Winter Prince I tramped Civil War battlefields and county towns in England and explored the colleges, streets and museums of Oxford, King Charles I’s elegant royalist capital, to rediscover as much as I could of the complex and perilous world inhabited by the Duchess of Richmond and Prince Rupert of the Rhine. I am very grateful to General Sir Frank Kitson, a masterly biographer of Prince Rupert, and former Commander-in-Chief UK Land Forces, who kindly agreed to read the manuscript for military accuracy. He wrote to me in 2006, “Your book is an excellent recreation of the period and of the Civil War. Your depiction of Rupert as a commander is both vivid and convincing. I was particularly impressed by your description of the battles of Newark and Marston Moor. Whereas I was only able to describe what happened in the light of hindsight, you describe them as they might have appeared to Rupert at the time in a vivid and spectacular manner … You get King Charles’s charm, consideration, indecision and ability to be swayed by the last person speaking to him, to a tee; a mixture between a saint and a disaster.”

Prince Rupert was King Charles’s most brilliantly successful commander in the first phase of the Civil War, which lasted until the battle of Marston Moor in 1644. It was in many ways a tragic period, which saw the realisation that however justified Charles I might have felt himself to be in his actions towards Parliament at the beginning of 1642, he had in effect declared outright war on his own people.

I have included an historical note in the book which I hope will be of help to those interested in the early Civil War, but don’t hesitate to write to me if there is anything in the novel that piques your curiosity, and I’ll do my best to answer your query. 

It is February 1642. Prince Rupert of the Rhine, a gifted military commander and nephew of King Charles the First of England, has been called to Britain to defend the king against the increasing power of Parliament. This is the beginning of the English Civil War, a long and bitter struggle that tore the kingdom apart and saw a new commonwealth in modern Europe.        

THE CLIFFS of Dover beckoned like smooth white arms, and Prince Rupert leaned on the rail, alone in the bow, and willed the clumsy Expedition towards them. On leaving the coast of Holland he had spent days debating with the officers and sailors about what was wrong with the hull and what sort of trim might correct its failings, but he had resigned himself in the end to a slow voyage.

Impatience kept the court of his uncle, King Charles the First of England, clear and bright in his mind. He would step into Whitehall -- or Hampton Court, perhaps, or Windsor -- and feel that unique atmosphere descend on his shoulders like an elegant, feather-light cloak. It was his easy acceptance by his uncle’s family that had first touched him when he had arrived as a seventeen-year-old. Everything had flowed from that: heady hours out riding in the English countryside with Charles, the only man he knew who hunted as much as he; the long, shimmering days spent strolling about the palaces and grounds, always with someone agreeable. He had needed to make no special effort to please—there was a general assumption that he belonged in that warm, refined environment. He had invented games in the gardens for his cousins the royal children; he had been introduced to the wit and the teasing indulgence of the queen and her coterie, and to all the circles of clever, cultivated women. No other time in his existence could compare with the benign education he had received in the best of English habits, manners, arts and conversation.

Rupert thought of it with nostalgia, because it could never be the same again; a few days of that charmed inaction were all he could allow himself. King Charles had already done wonders with fierce diplomatic efforts to persuade the Holy Roman Emperor to release Rupert from three years as a prisoner of war. He was not here with his hand out; he was here to say thank you. He would refresh himself in the sincere affection he was sure to meet -- and then he would set out across the country to raise the finest army England had seen.

The wind was in the right quarter, the captain had no trouble getting them into the harbour, and then they were near enough for Rupert to discern it -- the royal standard, flying from the keep of Dover Castle, high on the headland above. He was with his officers in the stern, and they all turned to him as he looked up through a spyglass and frowned. After a baffled moment he thought the king might have sent little Charles, the Prince of Wales, down with a ceremonial escort to greet him, but he dismissed that -- the standard could only mean that the king or queen were present. And it seemed an impossible time for the king to leave London, for Parliament was still in session as far as he knew, and the Commons and Charles were in dire opposition. He lowered the spyglass. Despite the gratified glances of his escort, he felt a jolt of foreboding, which he hid by going below to change.

There was a press of people at the wharves by the time the ship docked, and as the gangway was lowered Prince Rupert scanned their ranks for the cavalcade of reception. At that very moment the crowd parted and the party came into view, on foot, a stream of courtiers richly dressed and flanked by a troop of guards. All were male except a lady in front with red-gold hair who was taking delicate steps across the flagstones of the dock, one gloved hand bunching her full skirt to keep it out of the dirt. She raised her eyes as the gentleman beside her lifted his arm and the party came to a halt. Rupert registered the ultramarine blue of her gaze, and a split second later recognised the gentleman also. Royal Stuarts were welcoming him to England -- the Duke and Duchess of Richmond.

He descended, and there were cheers from the crowd, which made him grin and caused them to cheer the more. The Richmonds remained in formal pose, the others tidily disposed behind them. Beyond, banners flapped in the sea breeze, and in the middle distance, over the heads of the multitude he could see a group of horses waiting, saddled and bridled.

The duke and duchess bowed and Rupert extended his hands, one to each, and gave them greeting. The duke, first cousin to the king, was as Rupert remembered him: broad-shouldered and sandy-haired with regular features and an alert air. His rounded voice made itself heard without effort. “Your Royal Highness, Prince Rupert of Bohemia, Count Palatine of the Rhine: His Most Gracious Majesty King Charles of England and Scotland has great joy of your coming. As Constable of Dover Castle and Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports I am charged to bid you his most fond welcome to England, and to assure you that as you honour us with your august presence you will enjoy in every part of the realm the exalted respect and admiration of his loyal people.” There was another cheer from the bystanders, and under cover of it the duke said more sensibly, “I trust Your Highness is in good health, and travelled safely. How did you sustain your journey?”

“Well, I thank you. His Majesty is in Dover?”

“The king and queen are in residence in the castle, with the royal household. It is my honour and privilege to conduct Your Highness into their presence.”

“Why Dover?”

Seeing her husband baulk slightly at this abrupt question, the duchess answered, “The court has left Whitehall. We moved out of London on the tenth of last month and spent some time at Hampton Court and Windsor. Then we took ship from Greenwich and sailed here.” There was an expression of faint distaste on her beautiful face, but he could not tell whether it was caused by her reaction to him or to the royal family’s inexplicable removal from London.

“His Majesty awaits you,” the duke continued, “and will acquaint you with all his concerns.” He turned, sweeping his hand towards the escort. “It is also His Majesty’s pleasure to bestow on you this gift.”

The courtiers parted to make way for two grooms and a powerful black stallion, expensively caparisoned, which pranced towards him with its great polished hooves crashing on the flagstones. Rupert took it in with a glance: it was a splendid horse, the right height and weight for him, with a deep chest and strong, solid legs. He nodded to the squires to step aside, walked up to take the reins, then swept off his hat to address the crowd. The long feathers drooping over the brim brushed the stallion’s gleaming coat, and the skin beneath twitched once and was still.

"I thank His Gracious Majesty for this magnificent gift. Almighty God has called me to serve my uncle and liege, King Charles of England and Scotland. Whenever I raise my arm in this country, I do so in his royal service, and by the same token do I pledge myself to faithfully serve his loyal subjects.” He raised the hat high, and there was a roar, such as he had never heard before, welcoming him to England.When he caught the eye of the duchess again, the distaste was gone and her expression was open and receptive, as clear as her marvellously pale skin. He gestured for the couple to turn and precede him, to spare them any mischief the stallion might do with its heels, and walked behind them through the other ranks, giving a swift, frank greeting to the courtiers he remembered from his visit five years before. There were many, which was both heartening and a puzzle. What were they doing in Dover?

They mounted their horses and wound in procession through the streets, still flanked by the guards. He took his direction from the duke and duchess, who rode at a walk on each side. He towered over them on the stallion and they were not always abreast of him, so talk was difficult, otherwise he might have asked more questions of the duchess, since she had been ready enough to answer him.

Rupert had some liking for Richmond, but on his previous visit to King Charles’s court he had spent very little time in the company of the fourteen-year-old Mary Villiers. He was made a great fuss of when he first arrived, and some of the very young ladies felt free to tease him, as they might a pet to be doted on. He certainly minded none of this, but in Mary Villiers’s clever glance he had seen something satirical, and detected a mocking edge to her voice. Time had passed, however, and the woman beside him, riding expertly astride, showed no disposition to make him uncomfortable. Instead she looked at the bystanders in the streets, and he sometimes saw her smile -- with a radiance that transformed her dark figure, in purple riding gown and sable furs, into a golden being whose hair and face ravished the eye like a queen in an old fresco.

As they broached the road that wound up to the castle, he leaned down towards her and said, “You are content in Dover, madam?”

“I hate it.” On this passionate exclamation the smile disappeared and she bit her lip. Astonished, he watched her struggle for control. Then she said, “Forgive me, Your Highness. You may very soon understand what I mean. And if you do not, please do me the favour of forgetting what I just said.”

“I doubt if I can. May we talk of this again?”

There was a long pause while he looked at her half-averted face and then she reluctantly bent her head in assent. They rode on without another word.

       

MARY WAS present when Prince Rupert had his audience with King Charles and Queen Henrietta-Maria in the Great Hall of the castle, of which Mary’s husband was Constable. It was an emotional reunion; he fell on one knee before them but was raised and embraced, and both king and queen shed tears. Precisely how Prince Rupert reacted, Mary could not see; as he bent to them his face was hidden by the thick, tumbling waves of his dark hair, which reached to just below his shoulders. After that she listened rather than watched; her eyes were somehow dazzled, and she did not dare to look at him for long in case someone else could read her face.

She had felt absurdly overwhelmed from the moment he stepped from the ship—it was like being suddenly drunk on one sip of wine. She had never before felt that in any man’s presence; not the handsomest of any country or race, not the most seductive of any visitor to the court, had ever had this effect on her. He was too much for her to take in. She had hidden this folly from her husband and please God from the prince, but she could not overcome it. While he was standing before her or riding beside her, it seemed quite impossible to command her voice. Yet on both occasions when he addressed her she had answered him at once, in irresistible response.

She could barely look at him, fearful that the tall lean form, the straight shoulders, the poise and balance of his strong frame might increase whatever magic had her in its grip. The expensive clothes, evidently chosen with care but worn with lofty carelessness, emphasised his natural grace. The long, well-shaped hand that he had extended to her when they met held no rings and he wore no other jewellery. He was not seeking to impress, but to be what he was—the traveller returning to a friendly port, the soldier prince whose help the king had long looked for. Well, he was here, and he should make no more difference to her than the sensitive young man of years before, whose beauty and charm she had been able to withstand simply because everyone else made too much of him.

The conversation was of family matters: his mother Elizabeth; the king’s children, where they were housed and who was looking after them. His deep voice sounded sincere and his replies were direct and deferential. His accent was more German than she remembered, and she was surprised: besides his father’s tongue and his mother’s he reportedly spoke Dutch, French and Spanish, and she had recalled his inflection as almost neutral. On the contrary, it sometimes made him sound solemn, a quirk she was sure she would have made fun of at an earlier age. She would soon be over this foolishness and able to laugh at him again. The terrible thing was that she had no will to break the strange spell. It was too new and reached too deep for her to yet find ways to escape.

Meanwhile, at every moment Mary could feel the prince wanting to ask why the court was not in London. King Charles in his hospitable, magnanimous way, skirted the issue for a time; then he gave Prince Rupert the story of the alarming struggle with Parliament and his decision to remove his family from Whitehall.

When it came to this, Mary could not help watching. For one thing, everyone else’s eyes were riveted on what went on at that end of the hall, and no one was observing her, not even her husband. For another, some of the speeches seemed like an extension of the dialogue between herself and the prince on the way up to the castle. She felt like crying out, “I told you! You see what they have done? You see what they have thrown away?”

Prince Rupert held his long upper body bent forward attentively in his seat, one leg extended and a hand on the thigh, his fingers curled inward across the supple black leather of his high boot. All his questions drove towards the same point, and Mary was astonished that Charles did not see it and stand on his dignity.

“I wish to understand,” said Prince Rupert. “In the first week of January, there was a possibility of an impeachment of the queen. What was the accusation by Parliament?”

“There was a base rumour,” the queen said loudly, “that I was encouraging Catholics to revolt in Ireland!” She looked on the point of tears again.

The prince nodded but looked at Charles. “And was a bill of impeachment brought against my dear aunt?”

“No. I forestalled Parliament by moving to arraign the seditious members.”

“And were they arraigned?”

“The Lords were determined to put obstacles in the way -- I decided to arrest them.”

And were they arrested? To Mary’s mind, that question hung in the air like a challenge, and she could almost see it forming on the prince’s lips.

“But at midday,” Charles went on, “before I attended the House, unbeknown to me the five members boarded a City barge and escaped by the Thames. The moment I heard that, I knew my family could never with safety inhabit London while Parliament was present.”

The prince sat straighter. She could feel this hit him, as it had hit her when her husband had come to tell her that they must scour Whitehall, and strip it of everything portable, and that the old, rambling warren of beautiful dwellings was no longer to be the palace of kings. Henceforth, everything in it and about it would be disposed of by Westminster.

“Parliament was in session when you left?”

“Yes.”

Prince Rupert’s deep brown eyes were hooded when he made the next pronouncement, so no one could see to whom it was addressed. “Then they have London.”

       

THE PUBLIC audience over, the king took Prince Rupert to his apartments for a private talk, after which the prince was to visit the queen in hers. Henrietta-Maria took her ladies back up to her rooms and invited Mary alone to the great chamber while the others were asked to gather in another, some distance along a gallery, that they had christened the blue room. Once alone with the queen, Mary heard the overflow of feeling that the prince’s coming inspired. Then Henrietta-Maria retired into her own chamber to kneel at her prie-dieu and give thanks for his safety and for the succour he brought the king, leaving Mary in the sumptuous room.

It must be the most comfortable in the massive castle, for it was crammed, indeed bulging, with an eclectic set of furnishings gleaned from its finest corners. Positioned on the ocean side and with a vast outlook over the harbour and the Channel far below, it was hung with tapestries on the inner walls, which almost totally masked the chilly, ancient stonework. All the scenes depicted woods or gentle verdant landscapes, and standing at the window was like viewing the sea from a forest glade on a mountaintop. With this vantage, Henrietta-Maria could have followed the morning’s cavalcade as it breasted the high ground and passed under Constable’s Gate to enter the castle precincts. With a soft shock of regret, Mary suddenly wished she could go back and repeat that slow ascent, and drink in to the full the nearness of the man who had ridden beside her, for there were gaps in the event, during which she had been too dazed under this new experience to do anything but force her eyes away and pretend interest in what passed elsewhere.

The queen soon returned, smoothing the creased satin of her nacre-coloured gown with delicate hands as she stood in the centre of the room, smiling quizzically. “Now, where shall we be seated? There are chairs for a multitude.”

A great fire roared within the tall, carved marble chimney piece at the end of the room but Mary knew the queen disliked intense heat. “You have chosen well where you are, madam. If I am not mistaken the chairs at that table are of the highest quality -- carried all the way from the Armour Room.”

“You’re right; very fine.” The queen sat facing the door and gestured for Mary to join her at a small polished table of indeterminate origin supported on stout oak legs. “I have asked the other ladies to wait in the blue room,” she went on, “because I have something to explain to you.”

Mary had a swift, terrible sensation that her reaction to Prince Rupert had attracted instant notice.

The queen put out a hand. “You look stricken. Know that I shall never ask of you anything you do not feel fit to perform. Richmond has generously given his assent to your going. But the sacrifice -- if you should consider it so -- you are free to refuse.”

Mary whispered, “Sacrifice? Where am I to go?”

“The king cannot live with his anxiety on my behalf. I cannot live in England while my presence is considered a reproach to its monarch and a danger to his sovereignty. For the love of my husband and children, I choose to leave for Europe.” Mary exclaimed, but Henrietta-Maria put out her hand again, the intricate lace of her full cuff drifting across the tabletop. “Not for long, perhaps, and I shall not be idle. My crusade will be to enlist the support of all the rulers of state sympathetic to His Majesty’s cause. I shall not return empty-handed.” She put both hands on the table and leaned forward, her eyes glowing. “Will you come, Mall? May I beg you to accompany me on this great journey? I shall be lonely, heaven knows, but lonelier still without you to encourage me and keep me strong.”

Mary had to swallow hard and put a hand to her bare throat to stop from crying out. So this was how the day of Prince Rupert’s coming ended. Just as he arrived in England to stay, she was to go. The king, the queen and her husband Richmond were in league for it; there was no hope of reprieve. She fumbled for words. “Could you think for a moment, madam, that I would refuse you in your troubles?”

The queen looked at her shrewdly; it was not quite the reply she had expected. Then she resorted to emotion. “You of all people must know how it hurts me to go.” She gave a tragic smile. “But whilst I remain, I am considered a provocation to Parliament.”

“I thought,” Mary said, “that the king still hoped for reconciliation?”

“He does. Hence the wisdom -- and the agony -- of my departure. By the grace of God, the removal of all provocations that can be removed will promote that reconciliation between the king and his Parliament.” The queen leaned forward again. “I sail first for Holland, to the Queen of Bohemia, Rupert’s mother. We go to the dearest friends; you will be quite safe with me.” Without waiting for a reply the queen rose, arms raised from the elbows. “I must not press you. I must allow you to think on this, in your fond heart.” And without waiting for Mary to rise, she glided from the room and closed the door behind her.

“Oh!” Mary’s pent-up breath expelled the sound into the room. She rose and the chair teetered behind her as the legs caught on the rush matting beneath. She moved away, her gown brushing the floor, but she heard only the roar of the fire and a loud pulse that rushed in her ears. They had wrenched her from Whitehall, and now they wanted to send her from these temporary quarters, this mockery of a home, to lodge with the queen in exile. Her quick steps took her to the other side of the room and she put her hands flat on the tapestry there, pressing the green and white threadwork to the wall, and her forehead to her crossed hands.

This was no plan to get her away from the court, and her fleeting weakness over Prince Rupert remained her secret. They did it without thought, without malice. It was simply fitting for the Duchess of Richmond to take ship with her queen.

She went to the window furthest from the fire, and from the curtained embrasure looked down at the sea. It was gunmetal grey under a lowering sky, and France was not visible. Why not France first? But she knew why: Charles was wary of the changeable policies of Cardinal Richelieu. And if Henrietta-Maria went to a catholic court, even though it was that of her birth, it would seal the enmity against her in England.

Mary’s hands crept up the curtain at her side, and she bent her head into the thick fabric, her face still turned to the windowpanes but her eyes closed. Yes, she hated Dover, because it was not London. But she hated still more to leave it now.

She heard the door open but did not look over or step back into the room; she was fighting for composure.

Then it shut with a crash. “Gott!”

She looked, and started. Prince Rupert stood with his back to the door, his weight still forcefully against it, his hands lifted to the level of his shoulders and clenched in front of him.

“Tonnerre de dieu!” The second exclamation was less carrying but more vehement, uttered between his teeth, and his face was distorted in fury. He had not noticed Mary and was staring blindly before him, his brows knotted, his lips curled in bitterness, his eyes burning with a devilish light.

He took a step into the room and with the movement half-turned his back to her, which brought him closer to the fire and a pace from the chair in which she had been sitting a few minutes before. He stood there, oblivious of everything around him, his shoulders rising and falling as though he needed deep breaths simply to stand under the crushing weight of his wrath, and then he came out with a string of curses in French and German too fast for her to recognise, and lashed out with his boot, sending the chair flying like a missile against the chimney-piece.

There was a splintering crash and the chair, in two pieces, fell onto the hearth. 

Mary stepped straight out into the room and instinctively he turned.

She gazed at him, and a coldness stole through her stomach as she looked at his contorted face. She said in clear, wintry tones, “That, Your Highness, is the queen’s favourite chair.”

He glared at her, the anger still blazing in his eyes, then marched to the hearth and picked up the heaviest piece to swing it backhanded over his shoulder. It thundered into the immense grate in a storm of sparks. A second time he lifted and swung, and the rest rattled and splintered against the bricks at the back of the chimney, sending the fire leaping and crackling in a gout of flames and flying soot. “Now it’s firewood.” And like a whirlwind he strode out.

She stayed where she was, while the coldness crept up through her breast to her neck and face. She felt as obdurate as a statue. Even when a door opened further off, and there was a bustle of excited questions and nervous exclamations underscored by a rustle of skirts coming her way, she remained still, looking at the fire.

The queen appeared in the doorway, backed by her ladies, the same avid astonishment on every face. “Bon Dieu, what in heaven is going on?”

Mary raised a steady hand towards the fireplace, and the queen stepped inside to look. “Prince Rupert found fault with the furniture.”

The queen gave a gasp, took a faltering step and collapsed onto the remaining chair by the table in the centre of the room. Then, caught at the climax of this momentous and trying day, she gave way to hiccups, and to peals of laughter so near hysteria that the others crowded in to kneel around her.

Mary surveyed them, her face revealing nothing. She had regained her composure.