Collage of images of Prince RupertTop: The Great Executioner. Mezzotint by Prince Rupert of the Rhine, 1658. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of New York.
Bottom: Prince Rupert, first Duke of Cumberland and Count Palatine of the Rhine. Painting by Gerard van Honthorst, 1642, courtesy of the Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum Hannover.

Tell Me More: Prince Rupert’s March

By Graham Christian

The first readers of John Playford’s English Dancing Master in 1651 could have turned to the 57th page (misprinted as another 55) of that pioneering volume and found a dance that playfully imitated soldiers’ marching maneuvers entitled “Prince Ruperts March.” In the second and third editions, however, they might have been dismayed to find it gone, replaced by “Lord of Carnarvan’s Jigg.” It returned in the fourth edition of 1670 and continued to the end of the series in 1728. The disappearance and reappearance of a single dance say much about the remarkable life and varied talents of an extraordinary man, Prince Rupert, Count Palatine (1619-1682).

Rupert was the fourth child of Frederick, Count Palatine of the Rhine (1596-1632) and Elizabeth Stuart (1596-1662), who was the eldest child of King James I of England (1567-1625). His parents were seen as the hope of Protestant Europe; Rupert was born a month after Frederick’s coronation as the King of Bohemia, but their joy was short-lived—less than a year later, Frederick was violently ejected from his throne, and Rupert, almost left behind in his parents’ hasty flight, was launched on his career of near-statelessness, hardship, and intermittent poverty.

In his family’s often-uncomfortable exile in The Hague, Rupert showed himself to be an able student, excelling particularly in modern languages, mathematics, and the fine arts—Gerard von Honthorst (1592-1656) was his drawing tutor. By the age of 18, he was already an experienced soldier, a veteran of the battlefields of Rheinberg and Breda, and he stood a towering six feet four inches tall. The following year, he was captured by his father’s enemy Emperor Ferdinand III and detained for three years, during which he had a love affair with his jailer’s daughter (of course), and received the gift of a white poodle he named Boy, who was to accompany him to England and the civil war raging there.

Liberated at the cost of a promise never to raise arms against Ferdinand again, Rupert hastened to England to take up the cause of his beleaguered uncle, King Charles I (1600-1649), who immediately made Rupert General of Horse. Rupert’s trained cavalry of 3,000 soon scored an impressive victory at Powick Bridge. For the next few years, Rupert dazzled the army with his courage and military skill, but among Charles’ counselors and generals, he could be tactless, sarcastic, and abrasive. When, concluding that the royal cause was lost, he surrendered Bristol to the Parliamentary forces in 1645, Charles dismissed him from service, and the two were only rather warily reconciled by 1646, when Rupert lost control of the city of Oxford and was banished from England with his brother, Maurice. The poodle Boy, a soldier to the end, had died in battle at Marston Moor in 1644.

Indefatigable, Rupert took control of the Royalist Navy from the safety of the Continent, and although his campaigns had little effect, he dabbled in piracy, and ventured as far as the Virgin Islands. He was too choleric and too controversial a figure, however, to remain long in the service of the royal court in exile; he went on to the court of his brother Charles Louis, where, after a few years, they quarreled over money (of course) and women (of course).

Somehow, Rupert found time to invent, or some say to refine and popularize, the printmaking technique of mezzotint, which, by use of a special tool called a “rocker,” allowed for the creation of far subtler tones and shades than had been possible before. It is certain, however, that Rupert introduced mezzotint to England upon his return at the restoration of his cousin Charles to that throne in 1660, and it is widely agreed that Rupert’s largest mezzotint, an interpretation of a painting by the Spaniard Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652), is a masterpiece of the method.

Charles II, always more grateful to Rupert than his father, made his cousin Constable of Windsor Castle, and Rupert returned to military service during the Anglo-Dutch Wars, crowning a career of almost 40 years as a commander on land and sea with a victory at the battle of Texel. Rupert’s energies, however, were far from exhausted. In the later 1670s, he created a private syndicate that would eventually become the Hudson’s Bay Company, of which he was the first governor; Rupert’s Land, a vast swatch of land around Hudson Bay, was so named for him.

Prince Rupert's DropPrince Rupert’s Drop, from The Art of Glass by Antonio Neri (d. 1614), translated and enlarged by Christopher Merret (1614-1695).Rupert, long fascinated by the practical applications of science, converted some of his lodgings at Windsor Castle into laboratories, including forges, and he was the third founding member of The Royal Society. It was to this group, along with the King, that he demonstrated what became known at once as Prince Rupert’s Drop, long-tailed teardrops created by dropping molten glass into cold water; these drops have the curious property of being all but indestructible when struck at the wider end, but shattering almost to powder if the tail is touched. He was an inventor, creating a water pump, an improved torpedo, a form of grapeshot, and a new brass alloy that became a useful substitute for gold in military decorations, known as “Prince’s metal.”

During his years in England, his chief comfort was a woman who had her own claims to distinction, the beautiful Margaret (Peg) Hughes (1645-1719), who was almost certainly the first woman to act on stage in public in England (as Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello in 1660). She was a skilled actress as well as, according to diarist Samuel Pepys, “a mighty pretty woman”; she originated or interpreted roles in plays by the great talents of the day, including John Dryden and Aphra Behn. Her involvement with Rupert seems to have begun in the later 1660s; she bore him a daughter called Ruperta in 1673, and he supported them in fine style, indulging

Hughes’s fondness for jewels, until his death. Afterward, to settle her gambling debts, Hughes sold the grand house in Hammersmith he had left her, as well as earrings that had belonged to his unhappy mother, the “Winter Queen” of Bohemia.

So it was that the name and report of Prince Rupert can hardly have been far from the minds of John Playford’s first dancers, and it must have given them pleasure to remember his gallantry in the dance. And Playford had never disguised his allegiance to the royal cause. At the time of the first edition, however, Prince Rupert was vexing the Parliamentary Navy as he had troubled the New Model Army a few years earlier, and Playford may have been advised to keep his convictions to himself. His response was just short of provocation—instead of a dance for the living prince, why not a dance dedicated to the memory of the slain cavalier Robert Dormer, first Earl of Carnarvon (1610-1643), shifted from its spot on the 44th page of the first edition? In 1670, “Prince Rupert’s March” returned to the pages of The Dancing Master, and outlasted its namesake by another 42 years.

Prince Rupert's March musicThe English Dancing Master (first edition of The Dancing Master), 1651, complete with the now-mystifying instruction, "open and close."Prince Rupert's March musicFourth edition of The Dancing Master.

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