Part six of Nothing
Prince Rupert’s monkey was not supernatural, as the enemy claimed, but when it wasn’t being amusing, it must have been offensively annoying to its own side. There is no record (as far as I know) of what happened to the monkey, whether it survived the first civil war to go on Rupert’s further adventures as a soldier in Europe and pirate of the Caribbean, or if it died of natural causes in England.
Rupert didn’t become a pirate for fun – Royalist fortunes were at their lowest point in the early 1650s when England was doing very well as a republic for the only time in history – so far – and his exiled cousin, Charles II, was desperately short of money.
Rupert lost something far more precious than the booty he gained on the expedition: Moritz, his closest brother and best friend, his second-in-command and comrade-in-arms was drowned. “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.”
Gijsbrechts, Trompe l’Oeil with Trumpet, Celestial Globe and Proclamation by Frederik III of Denmark, 1670, oil on canvas. Collection and image: SMK – Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
The symbols of temporal political power and global commerce are piled up like forgotten booty, or modern window display of a luxury boutique for people who have everything, in front of Gijbrechts’ usual background of plain wood.
Rupert’s personality and exploits swept him away from historic battlefields into Stuart myth, biography, novels, and most dubiously of all, blogs, which, while romanticising him, have detracted from his tangible achievements.
There are two Ruperts, a figment of other people’s imagination, an object of desire or envy, and a real man who, when he settled in his adopted country of England after the Restoration, contributed in a very realistic, practical way to British artistic and scientific progress and overseas commercial exploration.
He is the sardonic action hero with brains and, when he was young, beauty, the darkly brooding antithesis to Rochester’s merry lord of misrule.
Circle of Honthorst Portrait of Prince Rupert, in Classical dress, with Red Scarf, oil on canvas 1640s. Collection: Bolton Museum and Archive Service. Image: vads (the online resource for visual arts).
Rochester was the type of humourist who could “move wild laughter in the throat of death” (Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost); Rupert had been too near the throat of death, and pushed too many other men into it, to laugh about it.
Neither of them had sentimental illusions. Their characters and minds were shaped by the same trauma of civil war which made Hobbes’ conclude that life was “nasty, brutish and short”. Rupert arrived as a stranger to English political conflict, but his life, ever since he was born, had been determined by the ideological and dynastic wars in Europe which dislocated his family along with thousands of less privileged refugees.
Rochester, the atheist, believed in a metaphysical Nothing, in the futility and corruption of all men’s actions and in the freedom to pursue all his loves and desires, but always went back home, exhausted, to one woman.
Rupert, a conventional Lutheran Protestant, believed in the use of force to restore order to chaos, in practical sciences and applied arts, in experiment and exploration; loyalty to his principles and to the few people he loved was his true religion.
He was not always right, but he was morally and physically courageous, the imperfect classical hero, without fear, but with his human share of reproach.