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.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own