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Memorial to a Royal Child: Princess Elizabeth (1635-1650)

In St. Thomas’ Church, Newport on the Isle of Wight, stands an extraordinary monument, touching in its simplicity. It was erected over the tomb of Princess Elizabeth, daughter of Charles I (1635-1650). This beloved royal child was immortalized as such by Van Dyck in his great portrait of the five children of Charles I, in which the future Charles II stands at the centre, his left hand resting majestically on the head of a mastiff almost as large as himself. Princess Elizabeth is the child to the right of Charles, solemnly supporting the infant Princess Anne, who avoids Van Dyck’s gaze in tender deference to her baby sister’s needs. The chubby, rosy delight of this baby princess is thrown into tragic relief by the later account of her death shortly afterwards, as the words were spoken over her ‘Lighten mine eyes, o Lord’. (Antonia Fraser, King Charles II, Pg 17). Princess Elizabeth survived childhood in contrast to the little Princess Anne, but unlike her other siblings in Van Dyck’s portrait, she did not live into adulthood.

Princess Elizabeth was born on 28 December 1635, on the day when the church traditionally celebrated the Feast of the Holy Innocents. It was an apt day for her to be born in some ways, for she remained a sensitive child and died before reaching maturity. She would come to be known as ‘Temperance’ by her siblings. Shortly after the Restoration, Charles II rewarded among other loyal Stuart retainers, the four ‘rockers’ who had in turn rocked the cradles of his dead sisters, Princesses Elizabeth and Anne. (Ibid, Pg 243). Elizabeth was an important, English name of course, not least because of the great Tudor queen; Elizabeth had also been the name of James I’s daughter, the legendary ‘Winter Queen’ of Bohemia.

During the period of the Civil War, Princess Elizabeth was placed with her infant brother, Henry, Duke of Gloucester, under the protection of the English Parliament, an early example of their pairing as siblings; the most important occasion this happened was on what was almost certainly, the most harrowing day of their lives. They spent two days with the King, together with their brother, Prince James, Duke of York, in 1647.

The young Princess was brought to her father, King Charles I, together with Prince Henry, on the last morning of his life. The King was at St. James’s Palace – Elizabeth’s birthplace and place of baptism – in readiness for his imminent execution at Whitehall in 1649; it was a heart-breaking meeting between a royal father and his two young children, giving an almost theatrical quality to the scene of unthinkable grief. What lent this interview a particular pain was the fact that Princess Elizabeth and Prince Henry had not seen their father during their fifteen months of captivity in London; now they were reunited with him, only to bid farewell again – and for ever. Elizabeth wept violently and clung to the King, which made Prince Henry also start crying. It was a vignette both harrowing and horrifying in equal measure. Princess Elizabeth was entreated by her father to tell her mother, his beloved Queen Henrietta Maria, ‘that his thoughts had never strayed from her, and that his love should be the same to the last’. (Ibid, Pg 95).

Princess Elizabeth wrote a detailed account of her father’s last morning of life, in which she recounted that meeting as an aid towards the King’s veneration, which remains active to this day, chiefly promulgated by the activities of the Society of King Charles the Martyr. This in turn, very much supported the effect wrought by the publication of the so-called ‘Eikon Basilike’, a collection of the King’s thoughts, prayers and reflections, printed just days after his death and becoming an immediate bestseller. Indeed, the frontispiece of this extraordinary book depicts King Charles as a Christian martyr. Princess Elizabeth’s own words underpinned all this: ‘He desired me not to grieve for Him, for He should die a Martyr’. (op cit, Sophia Dicks, The King’s Blood, Pg 3, 2010). This letter appropriately, was included in a version of the Eikon Basilike, with selections from Eikonoklastes, published in Toronto, in 2006. (Ibid, Pg 29).

During the Interregnum, Elizabeth was taken to Penshurst Place in Kent, but was moved again in 1650, to the Isle of Wight, escorted by the English royal courtier, Anthony Mildmay, who had been gentleman usher and carver to Charles I and who had attended the King during his captivity.

Elizabeth would remain in captivity for the rest of her short life, being held at Carisbrooke Castle, on the Isle of Wight. With the cruelty of such timings, she would die of consumption at Carisbrooke, two days prior to the arrival of a document passed by Parliament that allowed her release. At the moment of her death on 8 September 1650, at the age of fourteen, it was fitting that her beloved father Charles I, was present in her thoughts; the young Princess died with her cheek upon the Bible which her father gave her the morning before he was executed. Importantly too, her own father had been imprisoned at Carisbrooke, prior to his trial.

It would be up to another Queen to honour her memory with due dignity. Queen Victoria erected a fine monument of white marble designed by the great sculptor Baron Marochetti, to Princess Elizabeth; the Queen always having a sensitive desire to pay respects to the dead, memorialising family members and moments down to the smallest detail, remaining obsessive about anniversaries in particular. The Queen would in fact, have a similar, recumbent monument erected to her own daughter, Princess Alice Grand Duchess of Hesse, sculpted by Marochetti and placed in the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore; a beautifully affecting monument, it shows Princess Alice, holding her youngest child, the four year old Princess Marie, both asleep.

It is important to remember of course, that Queen Victoria had also lost a father too early; Edward, Duke of Kent died when she was not even one years old, in January 1820.

Queen Victoria had of course, acquired Osborne with Prince Albert as a private residence for themselves and their family, on the Isle of Wight in 1845; her daughter, Princess Beatrice in particular became closely associated with Carisbrooke Castle, living there in later years in addition to her apartment at Kensington Palace; Beatrice would marry at St. Mildred’s Church, Whippingham on the Isle of Wight in 1885 and would later be buried there, alongside her husband, Prince Henry of Battenberg. Beatrice later wanted to acquire an organ which had been played by Princess Elizabeth at Carisbrooke Castle, which was being sold for £400; the sum was raised and Princess Beatrice donated the organ spontaneously to Carisbrooke. (Matthew Dennison, The Last Princess, Pg 256, 2007).

The Queen was careful with the design of Princess Elizabeth’s monument, considering it an honour that she was able to erect it in the young princess’ memory. In this, Queen Victoria was very much continuing the Hanoverian fascination with the Stuarts which was certainly shared by her uncle, King George IV, who was intensely interested in King Charles I in particular, having his coffin opened at St. George’s Chapel in 1813 and taking several ‘relics’ of the dead King, such as locks of his hair.

The child Princess Elizabeth of Clarence, daughter of the future William IV – Queen Victoria’s uncle – and Queen Adelaide, who died in infancy, was similarly sculpted in sleep.

Queen Victoria, with typical care for the metaphors she chose, had the sculpture of Elizabeth show the young Stuart princess in a long robe and asleep, with her cheek rested on the Bible given to her by the King. She was shown, with bars in front of her tomb on the upper half only; this was no grille, but meant to symbolize her ultimate freedom through death, from all captivity. The words were simple but like many of the Queen’s inscriptions, all the more poignant: ‘Erected as a token of respect for her virtues and sympathy for her misfortunes by Victoria R’. Queen Victoria’s journal records personally taking a select few to see the monument and equally records the construction of the memorial which she had built, to the dead Stuart princess when the church was rebuilt in 1854-56. John Jeremiah Daniel wrote of Queen Victoria’s deed in his book of 1866, Lays of the English Cavaliers: ‘Go, read that Royal Martyr’s woe in lines the world reveres; And see the tomb of Charles’s child wet with Victoria’s tears’.

The tomb of Princess Elizabeth remains at the Minster Church of St. Thomas’, Newport; arresting for its visual power. It is far from that of her beloved father, King Charles I – who rests in the vault of Henry VIII at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor – as it is also from that of her elder brother Charles II, at Westminster Abbey.

Another epitaph for her was the contemporary lament composed to her memory by Henry Vaughan: ‘A rose-bud born in snow… sprung to bow/To headless tempests and the rage/Of an incensed, stormy age’. (Fraser, Pg 121).

Of Elizabeth it could truly be said, that she was ever, her father’s daughter.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018.

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.