Book review: A hero in search of Trafalgar

PRINCE RUPERT: Admiral and General-at-Sea by Frank Kitson, Constable pounds 20

PRINCE RUPERT of the Rhine is best known for his intrepid command of the Royalist cavalry during the English Civil War. He was just 22 when his uncle, Charles I, made him General of Horse at the start of the conflict in 1642. During the next 18 months, his fast- moving troops had an unbroken run of success; but a narrow defeat at Marston Moor in 1644, and a more comprehensive one at Naseby the following year (by which time he had been promoted to Commander-in-Chief), ensured ultimate victory for the Parliamentarians.

These dramatic events were the subject of the first instalment of Kitson's two-volume life, subtitled "Portrait of a Soldier" and published in 1994. A distinguished soldier and an expert in low-intensity warfare, the author is particularly well qualified to assess Rupert's merits as a field commander. This concluding volume, however, deals with Rupert's lesser-known achievements at sea.

The son of the Protestant Elector Palatine and Princess Elizabeth, the beautiful daughter of James I, Rupert was less than a year old when his parents - recently crowned King and Queen of Bohemia - were driven from Prague in 1620 by the troops of the Catholic League. Most of his youth was spent in exile in the United Provinces (now Holland); in 1648 - when this story begins - he returned there to take command of the small Royalist fleet on behalf of his cousin, the Prince of Wales (soon to become Charles II on the execution of his father).

Over the next four and a half years, despite a constant rate of attrition from sea battles and storms, Rupert kept the Royalist navy afloat by sheer bloodyminded determination. On one occasion, he used his imposing physique (he was 6ft 4ins tall) to stifle an incipient mutiny by holding the ringleader over the side of his ship, hauling him to safety only when the crew agreed to obey orders.

Kitson is of the opinion that Rupert quickly "grasped the connection between seamanship and tactics that was indispensable to operational success at sea". However this knowledge did not prevent him from making amateurish mistakes. Like when, in the autumn of 1650, he ignored the warning signs and allowed a fleet of the new English Republic - known as the Commonwealth - to sneak up on his own divided force in the Mediterranean. He escaped with just two ships.

Nor had his epic voyage achieved much by the time he anchored his one remaining ship and four prizes off St Nazaire in the spring of 1653. "It did not," admits Kitson, "influence the outcome of operations in Ireland or succeed in sinking or capturing any Commonwealth warships ... Equally, it failed to coordinate or prolong the defence of Royalist interests in the West Indies." On the other hand, Rupert did manage to capture a number of prizes, and some of the proceeds were used to sustain the Royalist cause elsewhere.

With the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Rupert returned to England and a pension of pounds 4,000 a year. Five years later, as trading disputes resulted in war with the United Provinces (the second Dutch War), he was made Admiral of the White and played a prominent part in the great naval victory over the Dutch, known as the Battle of Lowestoft that summer. But his finest moment came in July the following year, at the St James's Day Battle, when his novel tactics put a superior Dutch force to flight, inflicting 7,000 casualties in the process (the English lost just 1,200).

Kitson's conclusion is that had Rupert been killed in this battle, like Nelson was at Trafalgar, "he would probably have been remembered as one of the greatest of England's fighting admirals". Instead he survived to command the fleet again in 1673 (during the third Dutch War), and fought out a disappointing draw at the Battle of the Texel.

There is no doubt that Rupert was almost as daring on the high seas as he had been in the saddle: his breaking of the Dutch line from the leeward position during the Four Days' Battle in June 1666 has been acclaimed as an innovative manoeuvre of genius. But to compare - even obliquely - his victory in the St James's Day Battle to Nelson's at Trafalgar is probably a little extravagant. In the former engagement the enemy lost just two ships, though many were badly damaged; in the latter, 18 were captured or sunk. Furthermore, Rupert's victory was due in part to the fleet's joint commander, the Duke of Albemarle.

Kitson admits that he has not "unearthed any startling new material", which is hardly surprising given that he seems to have relied solely on printed sources. Nevertheless, his description of naval warfare in the 17th century is fascinating, though a somewhat dry text could have benefited from more direct quotation, not least of the subject himself. We are left with an intriguing portrait of Rupert the Admiral; but of Rupert the Man there is less evidence.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent