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The royal family

The Stuarts: England’s new royal family

When Elizabeth I, the ‘virgin queen’, died in 1603, she left behind no obvious heir. The crown of England passed to her cousin, twice removed: the King of Scotland, James VI. Thus, the House of Tudor was supplanted by the House of Stuart, and the crowns of Scotland and England were joined.

King James moved to London with his wife, Anne of Denmark, and their three children: Henry (aged 9), Elizabeth (aged 7) and baby Charles. He was now known as James I of England and VI of Scotland. The period of his rule is called the Jacobean era (Jacobus is Latin for James).

Because the royal succession had been so uncertain during the reigns of Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I, the arrival of a king with two sons (‘an heir and a spare’) was a reassuring promise of a secure future. For the first time in half a century, England had a royal family.

Henry, Prince of Wales: future King of England

Prince Henry had been groomed as the future King of Scotland from birth, and now he was also destined for the English throne. In 1610, aged 16, he was made Prince of Wales – a title traditionally given to the king-in-waiting. The portraits of Henry and Elizabeth in this exhibition may have been made to mark that occasion, as Henry’s includes several heraldic emblems of that title.

As Prince of Wales, Henry was advised by a close circle of courtiers who helped to prepare him for kinghood and shape his public image. The young prince began to emerge as a powerful and erudite patron of the arts, sciences and exploration. His ambition in these areas was arguably unprecedented in the English monarchy. Energetic and athletic, Henry made a promising and inspiring king-to-be.

1612: a fateful year

England’s fate changed in October 1612, when Prince Henry fell gravely ill with fever (presumably typhoid). Within weeks, he was dead, aged only 18. The royal family fell into deep mourning, as did the nation – their fine prince and future king was lost. Thousands of weeping mourners attended his funeral procession, and a profusion of elegiac poetry and music, posthumous portraits and heroic biographies testified to the nation’s profound sense of loss.

In that same year, Henry’s devoted sister Princess Elizabeth was betrothed to Frederick V, Elector Palatine (ruler of the Palatinate, now part of Germany). After marrying in London, they settled in Heidelberg where they established a lavish court culture. But in 1619 they were unexpectedly installed as the new rulers of neighbouring Bohemia, where the Catholic king had been deposed by Protestant rebels. Within a year, continuing religious conflict forced them into exile – their brief reign earning them the nickname ‘the winter king and queen’.

From the House of Stuart to today

Prince Henry’s younger brother Charles inherited the thrones of Scotland and England in 1625. His rule was marked by civil war that led to his execution in 1649 and temporarily toppled the English monarchy. Historians continue to ponder what might have been had Henry Prince of Wales lived to become king in the turbulent 17th century.

It is Princess Elizabeth who provides the link between the 17th-century Stuarts and the present-day royal family. When the Stuart line ended in 1714, Elizabeth’s grandson King George I began the next royal dynasty, the House of Hanover.

Charles, the current Prince of Wales and heir to the throne, still uses the time-honoured symbols of office employed by his ancestors including Prince Henry.

Questions and activities

  • Create your family tree. Describe the journey your family has taken to be here in Australia today. Talk to family members to find accurate dates, names and significant places. How far back in your ancestry can you go? What did you know and what new things have you discovered about your family?
  • Create a 'royal’ portrait of someone in your family. Think about where the figure is placed as well as the environment and objects to be included to tell the story of this person. Display your portraits in a class exhibition. Invite the subject to view the work. What is their reaction?
  • Collect examples of royal portraits from different cultures throughout the ages to the present day (including portraits of the current Prince of Wales, Charles). What are the similarities and differences? Are these portraits a reflection of their place and time? Discuss.