Charles I – from a prince of Scotland to Prince of Wales

by Leanda de Lisle

Exclusive extract from The White King

Charles was born in Scotland on a day of gothic horror and of royal triumph. The 19th November 1600 began with the decomposing bodies of two Scottish noblemen being gibbeted and quartered at the Mercat - or Market - Cross near the High Kirk of St Giles in Edinburh[1]. The traitors’ heads were stuck on poles and their quarters were packed in salt and sent for public display in Dundee, Stirling and Perth.   

That night a messenger arrived from Fife with a further cause for the king to celebrate. Escorted through the grey stone courtyards of Holyrood palace, to the northwest Tower with its red framed windows he gave King James the news that his wife, Anna of Denmark, had delivered a son at eleven pm. Delighted James tipped the messenger £16.  When the sun came up canon were fired from Edinburgh castle in a mark of the nation’s joy and James set off for Dunfirmline Palace to see his ’Annie’ along with their new-born child[2].  

The heads of the twenty-two year old John Ruthven[3] 3rd Earl of Gowrie, and his twenty-year old brother, Alexander, would remain on view in Edinburgh through Charles’s lifetime. The noble brothers had been killed three months earlier, in August 1600, during what James believed was a kidnap attempt against him made in league with ministers of the Kirk. Their motive was the fear that James was poised to impose crown appointed bishops over the Kirk’s Calvinist councils - known as Presbyteries - and so place it under tight royal control. The brothers never had an opportunity to answer the kidnap charges, but their rotting bodies had been propped up in court, tried and found guilty of treason.  This had left James free to advertise his vengeance for insults to his crown dating back to the over-throw of his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots and to crush all remaining opposition to his rule.  

By the time James’s cousin, Elizabeth I of England, died on 24 March 1603 his notoriously violent kingdom was at peace. Nevertheless, it was said that James was as delighted to leave Scotland as if he had spent forty years in the wilderness and was now to enter a land of milk and honey: England was known to be as rich as Scotland was poor.  His wife and children were to follow him south – save for Charles, who had to be left behind.   

Charles had an elder sister, Elizabeth, who was four years his senior, born on 19th August 1596, and a brother, Henry, born on 19th February 1594, who was a full six years older.  A younger brother had died only months earlier and Charles’s health was also fragile. He had been born with a lingual deformity, possibly ankyloglossia or ‘tongue tie’.  This would have made feeding difficult and the two year-old Charles was undersized. It was only the following year, in 1604, and after James had sent a physician back to Scotland along with £100 for drugs and other medical necessities, that Charles was brought to his father’s new kingdom[4].  

A year later Charles had faced a threat to his life of a different kind.  On 1st November 1605 one of Charles’s servants, Agnes Fortun, was cross-questioned by a member of the royal ceremonial guard[5] who wanted to know about Charles' daily life, ‘the way into his chamber, when he rode abroad, how attended etc[6].  Four days later it emerged that this man was part of an extremist conspiracy.  A group of Catholics had planned to blow up the Palace of Westminster during the opening of parliament, killing King James, the eleven-year old Prince Henry, England’s peers and members of the House of Commons. They had then intended to kidnap the surviving royal children but feared it would be particularly difficult to smuggle Charles out of London. One plan was to inflict a non-fatal stabbing injury that would ensure he could not be moved before the Catholic take-over was complete. Happily the Gunpowder Plot had been foiled, and the would-be bombers were either killed or executed.  

Charles, meanwhile, had continued to struggle with his disabilities.  Some of his earliest memories must have been of trying to talk and communicate.  His garrulous father once threatened to have the tendons under his tongue cut to help him articulate. Besides the problems with his speech, Charles’s legs lacked strength and he had trouble walking.   With courage and determination, however, he came ‘through temperance and exercise to have as firm and strong a body as any[7]. In 1609 he was able to dance at the celebrations for his brother Henry’s installation as Prince of Wales and he soon walked so quickly it was said he almost ran. Charles also found singing lessons helped him control his stutter and he later advised other sufferers, that ‘the best and surest way is to take good deliberation first, and not to be too sudden in speech[8].  

Being a second son, in a hereditary monarchy, Charles had to grow used to being treated as second best. In 1606, when James spent £800 on a ‘chain of stone’ and an insignia of the Order of the Garter for Henry, he gave Charles a jewel worth only £130. In letters James wrote to Henry as ‘our dearest son’ and to Charles as merely his ‘dear son[9]. But Henry’s treatment reflected respect for rank as much as any emotional bond. Charles enjoyed security and family love such as his father had never known. He would remember his parents’ affection all his life and there were no signs of jealousy towards Henry. On the contrary, Charles admired and emulated his cleft chinned and martial brother. He played with soldiers and read enough about war to be complimented, aged nine, on his knowledge of military affairs. He also shared Henry’s passion for art.  

Britain had become something of an artistic backwater following the Reformation. For Calvinists all religious images, even crucifixes, were idolatrous, and in England and Scotland over 90% of religious art – which was most art – had been destroyed since the Reformation. Henry embodied the aspirations of a new era, collecting mannerists painting from Italy and the Netherlands, as well as Florentine bronzes. 

Charles was overseeing the preparations for a masque to celebrate Elizabeth’s forthcoming marriage when he was told that Prince Henry was ill.  It was October 1612 and Elizabeth had matured into a golden haired sixteen-year old, admired for a tenacious memory and discerning judgment[10].  Her groom was a contemporary, the Calvinist Frederick V, prince-elector of the Palatinate and, as such, already leader of a German military alliance known as the Protestant Union. Plans were being laid Prince Henry to be married as well, possibly as early as the following year. Catholic brides from France or Savoy were mooted. This, James hoped, would boost the role he aspired to as a peacemaker in Europe with his family acting as a bridge between religions.  Henry, however, was now in the last stages of typhoid fever. Charles dashed to see him and stayed at his brother’s bedside while doctors treated Henry by tying a dead pigeon to his head[11]. He was thirteen days short of his twelfth birthday when, on 6th November 1612, he watched Henry die [12].  

[1] At the Mercat [ie Market] Cross.
[2] Come the New Year James rewarded Anna (only he called her Annie) with a fabulous jewel worth £1333 Scottish pounds.   De Lisle After Elizabeth p 71 and notes.
[3] Pronounced ‘Rivven’.
[4] Thanks to Erin Griffey for this ref: Devon, Offices of the Exchequer (extracts of the Pell Records, Order Books of James) p. 10
[5] Thomas Percy was a Gentleman Pensioner
[6] CSPD 1603-1610 p 264
[7] Sir Philip Warwick
[8] Pauline Gregg Charles I (2000) p 295
[9] Thanks to Erin Griffey for this ref and info (Devon, Issues of the Exchequer, p. 48).
[10] Rosa T idea Jacobi 1608; Carola Oman The Winter Queen p 36
[11] Mark Kishlansky Charles I (2014) p 12
[12] Nearly thirty years later Charles still had a small bronze pacing horse that Henry had admired and which he had brought him on his death-bed to cheer him up.