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Prince Rupert of the Rhine

Prince Rupert of the Rhine

The oldest name on our list of ‘Famous People who Canadian Places are Named After’ is that of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the namesake of Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and of the vast district once controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company: Rupert’s Land.

The Winter Prince

Prince Rupert of the Rhine was born in the city of Prague on December 17, 1619. His mother, Elizabeth Stuart, was the daughter of King James I of England, Scotland, and Ireland, while his father, Frederick V of the Palatinate, was a German noble who ruled the Rhenish Palatinate- a territory in the Holy Roman Empire.

Prince Rupert’s parents.

In the years preceding Rupert’s birth, there was considerable tension between Catholics and Protestants all throughout Europe. One particularly volatile region was Bohemia, a kingdom in a loose confederation of Germanic states called the Holy Roman Empire. At that time, Holy Roman Emperor Matthias I appointed Ferdinand II (a member of the powerful House of Habsburg) the heir apparent to the Bohemian throne. Although both Matthias and Ferdinand were staunch Catholics, most of Bohemia’s nobles were Protestant. Fearful that Ferdinand might force them to renounce their religion once he came into power, these nobles decided to put their own Protestant King on the Bohemian throne. They offered the crown to Frederick V of the Palatinate, who accepted at the behest of his wife, the heavily pregnant Elizabeth Stuart.

Prince Rupert of the Rhine was born a month after his father’s coronation. The great celebration that accompanied his birth was shadowed by the looming spectre of war; while the Bohemians toasted the birth of their new prince, an angry Ferdinand II was mustering an army with which to oust the Protestant usurper.

The Battle of White Mountain.

Before Rupert’s first birthday, the seasoned armies of Ferdinand II and Matthias I clashed with a ragtag mercenary army that Frederick had managed to muster in what is known as the Battle of White Mountain. The Bohemian army was soundly defeated, and Frederick and his family were forced to flee to The Hague, the capital of the Dutch Republic (a Protestant country). Rupert spent his earliest years living in Holland as an exiled prince with parents and many siblings, the former having been styled the “Winter King and Queen” by their detractors for their short reign in Bohemia. Meanwhile, Rupert’s birthplace, the Holy Roman Empire, descended into a devastating religious conflict called the Thirty Years’ War.

The Eighty Years’ War

Young Prince Rupert.

At the insistence of his father, Prince Rupert received a rigorous Classical education in The Hague. Despite displaying a mischievous streak, he proved to be an exceptional student, excelling in both the arts and the sciences.

Promising as it was, Prince Rupert’s scholarly education was cut short with his introduction into military life at the age of 14. In 1633, the young German prince fought alongside Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange (the Dutch monarch), at the Siege of Rheinberg (a German city controlled at that time by the Spanish, with whom the Dutch had been at war for decades in a conflict that would come to be known as the Eighty Years’ War). Four years later, he participated in the Siege of Breda (another battle against the Spanish, fought in the Netherlands), during which he earned himself a reputation for courage, diligence, and high spirits in battle.

The Palatinate Campaign

King Charles I of England and Scotland.

Ever since the death of Rupert’s father in 1632, Rupert’s uncle, King Charles I of England (who had ruled since the death of his own father, James I, in 1625) had kept in close contact with his bereaved sister, Elizabeth Stuart (Rupert’s mother). In 1637, Charles I allowed Elizabeth’s eldest living son, Charles Louis, to raise money in England for a military expedition to take back his father’s old domain, the Rhenish Palatinate. Prince Rupert joined his elder brother’s campaign as commander of a cavalry regiment.

On October 17, 1638, Charles Louis’ army clashed with a force fielded by the Holy Roman Empire in a narrow valley not far from the Weser River. In order to protect his brothers’ slow-moving artillery and baggage train from a squadron of Imperial cavalry, Prince Rupert led his own cavalry regiment in a daring charge down the valley towards the advancing Imperialists. Although Rupert and his troopers successfully drove the enemy cavalry from the battlefield, the prince himself was later captured by Imperial forces.

The First English Civil War

A painting of Prince Rupert’s poodle, Boy.

Following this so-called ‘Battle of Vlotho’, which ended Charles Louis’ campaign to reclaim the Palatinate, Prince Rupert was imprisoned in an Imperial fortress at the town of Linz, Austria. Aside from their repeated attempts to gain his allegiance and convert him to Catholicism, his captors treated him well, taking him on hunting trips and gifting him a white hunting poodle, which he named “Boy”. After four years of imprisonment, Prince Rupert was released on the condition that he vow to never again take up arms against the Holy Roman Emperor.

The Quintessential Cavalier

Following his emancipation, Prince Rupert immediately made his way to England, where his uncle, King Charles I, was preparing for a war against a rebel army led by members of the English Parliament. This brutal conflict, called the First English Civil War, pitted Charles’ aristocratic Anglican Royalists- nicknamed “Cavaliers” for their resemblance to the flashy, ringlet-wearing Caballeros (knights) of Catholic Spain- against zealous, low-born Puritans- nicknamed “Roundheads” for their close-cropped hair. Charles I promptly appointed Rupert ‘General of Horse’- an esteemed position in the Royalist army. After recruiting and training a cavalry force of 3,000 horsemen, Prince Rupert rode off to war.

Prince Rupert’s first skirmish against Parliamentarian forces was the Battle of Powick Bridge, the first significant cavalry engagement of the First English Civil War. On September 23, 1642, while en route to the city of Worcester to liberate a Royalist garrison under siege, Rupert allowed his troops to dismount and stretch their legs. During this spell of vulnerability, Prince Rupert spotted a column of cavalry in the distance- the vanguard of the larger Parliamentarian army. The hot-headed commander immediately leaped into his saddle, drew his sword, and ordered his squadron to charge. Without waiting for his men to mount, Prince Rupert galloped headlong towards the Parliamentarian cavalry, his poodle, Boy, following at his horse’s heels. Rupert’s panicked troopers followed suit as quickly as they could.

Prince Rupert and his troops caught the Parliamentarians by surprise and utterly routed them. Although nearly all of Rupert’s officers were injured in the ensuing skirmish, the Battle of Powick Bridge was a solid victory for the Royalists.

Strategically, the Battle of Powick Bridge was of little importance. Far more impactful than the victory itself, however, was the propaganda material it furnished for both the Royalists and the Parliamentarians. Prince Rupert’s apparent fearlessness, coupled with the dashing figure he struck charging into battle ahead of his men, made him a hero amongst his troopers. In no time, the Rhenish prince came to represent the quintessential Cavalier, while his poodle, Boy, became the unofficial mascot of the Royalist army. Parliamentarian propagandists, on the other hand, attempted to exploit this image and brand Rupert as a villain by claiming that Boy was a ‘familiar spirit’- a demonic minion summoned through Rupert’s practicing black magic.

Contemporary Parliamentarian depiction of Prince Rupert of the Rhine with his poodle,, Boy.

The Battle of Edgehill

Prince Rupert’s second major military engagement in the First English Civil War was the Battle of Edgehill, the first major battle fought between the main Royalist and Parliamentarian armies and a victory for the King. During this fight, Rupert commanded King Charles I’s cavalry, leading a number of charges and surprise attacks. He also quarrelled with fellow general Robert Bertie, the commander of the Royalist infantry, by challenging one of his tactical decisions. Such disagreements would gradually earn Prince Rupert many enemies among the Royalist aristocracy.

A painting depicting the eve of the Battle of Edgehill. King Charles I is the man standing with the hat, while Prince Rupert is the man sitting to his right (our left).

The Battle of Marston Moor

Prince Rupert of the Rhine.

Prince Rupert won many more victories for the Royalists throughout the First English Civil War, making use of speed and surprise on the battlefield. The brilliant young commander finally met his match at the Battle of Marston Moor, however, when he and a number of generals led a Royalist army to relieve the besieged city of York. On a field outside the city, the Royalists were attacked by a larger force of Parliamentarians and Covenanters (Covenanters being Scottish Presbyterians who had warred with England four years prior, and whom the Parliamentarians had convinced to fight alongside them). Prince Rupert’s horsemen clashed with troopers commanded Parliamentarian general Oliver Cromwell- disciplined, lowborn, devoutly Puritan cavalrymen known as ‘Ironsides’. Cromwell’s Ironsides managed to hold their own against Rupert’s Cavaliers, giving the Covenanter cavalry an opportunity to flank them. Rupert’s cavalry was routed, and the prince himself was forced to hide in a bean field. His dog, Boy, was famously killed by a Parliamentarian musketeer while racing to defend his master.

The Battle of Marston Moor.

Prince Rupert of the Rhine.

Following the battle, Prince Rupert and his cavalry rode south to join King Charles I’s main army. Despite his defeat on the Moor, he was soon appointed General of the entire Royalist Army. He fought several more battles for the King, all the while combatting the dissent of his fellow commanders who were jealous of his position and resentful of his disregard for courtly etiquette. After suffering his second defeat at the Battle of Naseby- a battle which he had vainly implored King Charles I to avoid entering- Prince Rupert came to believe that the Royalists would not be able to win the war. Rupert implored the King to sue for peace with Parliament, but to no avail. After surrendering an important Royalist stronghold to the Parliamentarians, Rupert was dismissed from the King’s service.

In defiance of his dismissal, Prince Rupert of the Rhine fought his way across enemy territory to the town of Newark, where Charles I had taken up residence. He muscled his way through the royal guard into the King’s court and convinced his uncle to have him court-martialed. A reluctant Charles I ultimately concluded that Rupert had conducted himself honourably, whereupon the prince resigned from the Royalist army. When he failed to find employment in Europe, he made amends with King Charles I and resumed his service, fighting for the King until the end of the First English Civil War. In the summer of 1646, when the Parliamentarians finally seized power and captured King Charles I, Rupert was banished from England.

The Franco-Spanish War

The exiled Prince Rupert travelled to France, where he became a brigadier general in the army of young King Louis XIV. Under the command of a Gascon military commander, Rupert fought against the Spanish in what is known as the Franco-Spanish War- a consequence of France’s involvement in the Thirty Years’ War. After successfully retaking a French fortress that the Spanish had occupied, Rupert’s regiment was ambushed by a party of Spanish musketeers. Rupert was shot in the head, while his commander was mortally wounded. Despite his serious injury, Rupert survived the ordeal and was allowed to recover in the exiled English court, which had taken up residence in the palace of St. Germaine, located a short ride from Paris.

The palace of St. Germain, France, home of the exiled English court.

The Second and Third English Civil Wars

Prince Rupert of the Rhine.

In 1648, the captive King Charles I convinced his old enemies, the Scottish Covenanters, to turn against their old allies, the Parliamentarians, and invade England with the intention of restoring the monarchy. Thus, the Second English Civil War broke out. At the beginning of this conflict, many sailors of the Parliament navy mutinied against their officers and decided to fight for the King. Prince Rupert, now sufficiently recovered, became an officer of this new Royalist navy and worked his way up the ranks until he became its admiral.

“The Great Executioner”, a mezzotint by Prince Rupert depicting the beheading of John the Baptist.

No sooner had Rupert taken command of the Royalist navy than he and his fleet were attacked by the larger Parliamentarian naval force. Unable or unwilling to face this navy in battle, Prince Rupert led his ships down the Iberian coast and into the Mediterranean Sea, capturing and looting English vessels as he went. After evading his pursuers, Rupert sailed back through the Strait of Gibraltar, down the west coast of Africa and across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, where he hoped to capture Spanish treasure with which to support a rescue effort for King Charles I. When the piracy expedition proved more disastrous than profitable, Rupert sailed back to the Old World, where he learned that the Parliamentarians had beheaded King Charles I for high treason. Weary and bitter, Rupert spent the next few years travelling throughout France and Germany, where he spent his time engaged in artistic pursuits (one of which was the supposed invention of a printmaking process called “mezzotint”), and in organizing a failed assassination attempt of Oliver Cromwell, who now ruled as dictator in England.

The Restoration

King Charles II.

In 1660, the late King Charles I’s son, named Charles II, sailed to England with a Royalist army and reclaimed the throne from the crumbling English Commonwealth established by Oliver Cromwell (who had died of a kidney infection two years prior). Prince Rupert subsequently returned to England, and as a reward for the services he rendered to Charles I during the First English Civil War, was granted a large pension and high positions in Charles II’s court and military.

During Oliver Cromwell’s reign, England had warred with its old Protestant ally, the Dutch Republic, which had become its trading rival in India. Although hostilities between the Dutch and English had ceased by the time Charles II came to power in England, both nations were engaged in aggressive mercantilist policies against one another.

In 1665, Charles II, prompted by his brother, James, declared war on the Dutch Republic, and thus the Second Anglo-Dutch War began. Prince Rupert of the Rhine, once again a high-ranking naval commander, led his fleet in a number of naval battles against the Dutch, pitting himself against a brilliant Dutch admiral named Michiel de Ruyter. He performed similar duties during the subsequent Third Anglo-Dutch War, during which he made use of the “Rupertinoe”- an advanced naval cannon of his own design.

The Founding of the Hudson’s Bay Company

Prior to the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Dutch War, two rugged French frontiersmen were presented to the English court. These woodsmen, named Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Medard des Groseilliers, had spent most of their lives in the wilderness of New France, the vast and wild French colony across the Atlantic. The Frenchmen told the English aristocrats that the natives of New France often spoke of a great “frozen sea” to the north, the shores of which abounded with fur-bearing animals. This was a tantalizing notion, as furs were rare commodities in high demand in Europe at the time. Radisson and Groseillier reasoned that the “frozen sea” was probably Hudson Bay, and asked the Englishmen to finance their exploration of the area (members of French royal court had already rejected a similar proposal). Prince Rupert of the Rhine expressed an interest in Radisson and Groseillier’s proposition and asked the Frenchman to appeal to him again at the conclusion of the Second Anglo-Dutch War.

Radisson and Groseillier in New France.

The frontiersmen did as the prince requested, and in 1667, Prince Rupert supplied Radisson and Groseillier with two ships with which to carry out their expedition. Sure enough, the Frenchmen returned from the Canadian wilderness in 1669 with a load of premium furs valued at 1,400 pounds sterling. The following year, King Charles II allowed Rupert and his associates to form the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC)- a fur trading syndicate which he granted the exclusive right to trade for furs in Hudson Bay watershed. He named this territory “Rupert’s Land” in honour of the HBC’s royal connection, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, and appointed Rupert its first Governor.

Scientific Exploits

In 1674, 55-year-old Prince Rupert retired from military life and began to dedicate more of his time to scientific research- a pursuit in which he took a great interest. Back in 1660, he had helped found the Royal Society, the oldest national scientific institution in the world. Shortly after the Society’s founding, Prince Rupert demonstrated the strange properties of objects known today as “Prince Rupert’s drops” to King Charles II and the Society’s members. Formed by dripping molten glass into cold water, these tadpole-like glass tears can withstand the strongest hammer blow on their bulbous ends, but spontaneously explode into dust when any part of their tails are cracked.

Prince Rupert’s drops.

Prince Rupert of the Rhine.

Upon his retirement from the English military, Prince Rupert made a number of interesting scientific discoveries and inventions, including a recipe for permanent marble stain, a new device for lifting water, a brass alloy used as imitation gold (sometimes called “Prince Rupert’s metal”), and geometrical concept of “Prince Rupert’s cube” (the notion that a cube can be cut with a hole large enough to accommodate an identical cube). He also invented a number of weapons, including a handgun with rotating barrels, a proto machine gun, and a recipe for superior gunpowder.

Prince Rupert of the Rhine died in his English home on November 29, 1682, succumbing to a lung infection. Today, a city in Northwestern British Columbia; a neighbourhood in Edmonton, Alberta; and a river in Quebec bear his name.


Prince Rupert, British Columbia, named after Prince Rupert of the Rhine.


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I'm a Western Canadian writer, carver, and fiddler who has a special place in his heart for history and the unexplained.

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2 Responses to “Prince Rupert of the Rhine”

By Gerry Burnie - 1 January 2019 Reply

Another great story, Hammerson. What a fascinating country we live in … Who knew? And that’s the point. If it weren’t for the efforts and dedication people like you, we wouldn’t.

My work-in-progress novel “The Boy Who Makes Wooden Box Sing” is set in Rupert’s Land/Assiniboia (Red River Settlement) in 1855 – 56. That, in itself, is a fascinating story in Canada’s development.

Wishing you much success in 2019.

By Hammerson Peters - 1 January 2019 Reply

Thank you very much, Gerry. Same to you!