The Death of Prince Henry and the Succession Crisis of 1612-1614

The sudden death of Henry, Prince of Wales from typhoid fever on 6 November 1612 sent shock waves through the Court of James VI and I. The unexpected death at the age of eighteen of the heir to the thrones of England and Scotland was a major blow to the Stuart dynasty, just as the equally sudden death of the fifteen year old Arthur, Prince of Wales in April 1502 had been to the first of the Tudors, Henry VII. James’s dynastic hopes now rested on the shoulders of a single surviving son, Charles, Duke of York, just as Henry VII’s focus had necessarily shifted to Arthur’s only brother. However, whereas the future Henry VIII had been a robust young man, Charles was a physically poor specimen: his legs and ankles were so weak that as an infant he preferred to crawl, and as a child he had been required to wear specially made reinforced iron boots. His condition was almost certainly hereditary, since his father had not learned to walk until he was five. Many contemporaries clearly expected that Charles, who was not quite eleven when his brother died, would not survive to reach manhood let alone marry and produce heirs of his own.

There was little likelihood that James himself would father another son. Although aged only forty-six his wife, Anne of Denmark, was thirty-eight and so unlikely to bear him any more children.  Even had he attempted to do so – and it seems unlikely that James continued to enjoy physical relations with his wife by this date – the risks were severe. When Henry VII tried to father another son in the wake of Prince Arthur’s death the result proved fatal, both to his thirty-seven year old wife, Elizabeth of York, and to the baby. 

In the wake of Henry’s death, the Stuart dynasty was faced with the frightening prospect of imminent extinction in the immediate male line. Were James and Charles to die within the next few years, the thrones of England and Scotland would pass to James’s sole surviving daughter Elizabeth, whose marriage at the age of sixteen in February 1613 to the Elector Palatine Frederick V raised the prospect of a foreign succession. The possibility of a Wittelsbach succession was considered as early as Elizabeth’s marriage, when it was agreed that Elizabeth and her husband would return from the Palatinate in the autumn and remain in England until Charles grew stronger (or died). In the event this did not happen, as Elizabeth quickly became pregnant. Instead, in April 1614 a bill expressing the right of the Elector, his wife and their children to inherit was laid before the Westminster Parliament. Though never enacted (the Parliament was dissolved without any bills becoming law) it passed both Houses with little modification, even though it appears to have covered Scotland, over which the Westminster Parliament had no jurisdiction, as well as England.

Extinction in the immediate male line was not the only possibility which confronted James in the aftermath of the death of Prince Henry. There was also the possibility that James, who did not enjoy the best of health, would die while Charles was still a minor, necessitating the formation of a regency government. It was probably with this scenario in mind that in April 1613, following Princess Elizabeth’s departure for the Palatinate, the king’s closest male relative, Ludovic Stuart, 2nd duke of Lennox, proposed that he should be created either Earl or Duke of Richmond. Lennox was already a member of the English Privy Council, but unless he held an English peerage he would be unable to sit in the Westminster Parliament, a distinct disadvantage if he were to play a leading role in any regency administration. His proposal initially encountered strenuous opposition, both from the king’s Scottish favourite, Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, who felt threatened, and from hispanophile members of the Privy Council, who regarded the pro-French Lennox with deep suspicion. However, Somerset was eventually won over, and in October 1613 Lennox was created Earl of Richmond.

Perhaps the most surprising feature of the succession crisis that followed the death of Prince Henry is that it was so short-lived. The 1614 bill to settle the succession on Princess Elizabeth, her husband and their children is the last recorded sign of its existence, even though Charles remained a minor and unmarried. No contemporary commentator ever seems to have remarked upon this striking disappearance, but fears for the succession almost certainly receded because of dramatic improvements in Charles’s physical fitness. Following the death of his brother, Charles exhibited a steely determination to overcome his disability, imposing upon himself a strict physical regimen. Over the winter of 1614/15, for instance, he took to running around the grounds of St. James’s Palace with a dozen or so of his servants, most of whom proved unable to keep up with him or finish the course. Strenuous exercise such as this paid dividends, for as early as April 1613 the Venetian ambassador noticed a marked improvement in Charles’s physique since Henry’s death, only five months earlier. It was therefore not long before Charles’s survival was taken for granted as much as Henry’s once had been. Indeed, when Parliament met again in 1621, no attempt was made to reintroduce the succession bill of 1614, even though James had recently suffered an illness that had almost resulted in his death. However, just as one fear vanished so another took its place: the fear that Charles might soon be married to a Spanish Catholic princess.

Author: Andrew Thrush