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A Royal Family Divided: The Nephews of Charles I and the First English Civil War

19 July 2023, Thomas Pert

Almost every dynasty to hold the English (later, British) throne has experienced considerable family disunity. This has ranged from personal disagreements - such as the well-documented disputes between successive Hanoverian kings and their sons throughout the 18th century – to open warfare. The ‘Anarchy’ of 1138-53 saw Empress Matilda fight her cousin Stephen of Blois for the English crown; the ‘Wars of the Roses’ tore the Plantagenet dynasty apart; and Mary II and Anne acquiesced in the overthrow of their father James II in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688-9. However, there is one instance of such a schism which is not only largely forgotten, but is also perhaps the most surprising.

Shortly after the outbreak of the First English Civil War in 1642, Charles I’s nephews, Rupert and Maurice, arrived in England and distinguished themselves as royalist commanders. However, they were not the only nephews of the king to journey to England during the civil war. In late summer 1644, their elder brother, Karl Ludwig, travelled from The Hague to London, where he would reside in royal palaces as a guest of Parliament until early 1649, following the trial and execution of his uncle. Karl Ludwig had spent the two years before his arrival publicly distancing himself from the actions of his royalist brothers, and, once in England, he presented the House of Lords with a document openly professing his support for parliament and the Scots Covenanters.

Successive generations of historians portrayed Karl Ludwig as a disloyal opportunist who travelled to England in the middle of the civil war to present himself as a potential replacement for Charles I. However, more recent scholars have abandoned this interpretation, placing his loyalties in the broader context of the ongoing Thirty Years’ War and his position as an exiled ruler within the Holy Roman Empire. The example of Karl Ludwig’s actions in the 1640s therefore not only demonstrates the importance of viewing even supposedly geographically-contained ‘British’ historical events in their European contexts; it also provides an intriguing insight into the experiences of exile and the limits of family loyalty in early modern Europe.

Born on New Years’ Day 1618 to Elector Frederick V of the Palatinate and Princess Elizabeth Stuart, Karl Ludwig was scarcely six months old when the Thirty Years’ War broke out following the Defenestration of Prague on 23 May. This event had seen a minority of Protestant noblemen rebel against the rule of the militantly Catholic Ferdinand of Styria - who had been elected King of Bohemia in 1617 and was also a cousin of the ailing Holy Roman Emperor Matthias. In mid-1619, the rebels made Karl Ludwig’s father an offer he could not refuse – the throne of Bohemia. However, Frederick’s reign in Prague came to an end a year later, following the Battle of the White Mountain on 8 November 1620, in which his army was crushed by the forces of the Empire and the Bavarian-led Catholic League.

In addition to losing his newly acquired kingdom, Frederick also saw his hereditary lands in Germany invaded and occupied by imperial, Spanish, and Bavarian armies. Ferdinand, who had been elected Holy Roman Emperor in August 1619 after Matthias’s death, avenged himself against the usurper of his Bohemian throne by stripping Frederick of all his hereditary titles and offices, reducing him from one of the most senior princes of the Holy Roman Empire to a landless, penniless outlaw. Whilst Frederick, Elizabeth, and their growing brood of children set up a court-in-exile at The Hague, Ferdinand bestowed Frederick’s prestigious electoral title, as well as much of his hereditary lands, on Duke Maximilian of Bavaria.

Family connections, religious concerns, and fears of Habsburg political hegemony allowed the exiled ‘Palatine Family’ to attract support from various powers throughout the unfolding Thirty Years’ War, including Britain, Denmark, the Dutch Republic, Sweden, and France. After Frederick’s death in November 1632, Karl Ludwig worked tirelessly to recover the Palatine family’s lands and titles but to no avail. He emptied the family coffers to pay for an ultimately short-lived military expedition, which ended ignominiously after a single battle in late 1638. He was arrested in France in October 1639 and imprisoned for ten months to prevent him assuming command of a mercenary army. The Bishops’ Wars of 1639-40 and the Irish Rebellion of October 1641 prevented him from receiving assistance from his uncle’s realms. Finally, the outbreak of the First English Civil War in mid-1642 worsened his already-precarious position in Europe. By the early 1640s, the chances of regaining the family’s lands and titles appeared remote.

Around the time, as Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham and declared war on Parliament, peace negotiations to bring the European war to a close got underway. There was a palpable risk that Karl Ludwig and his family would be excluded from any general peace treaty between the main belligerents. After all, Bavarian possession of his family’s lands and titles had been recognised in the Peace of Prague, an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to end the war in 1635. Karl Ludwig had to perform a delicate balancing act. He needed the diplomatic weight that Charles I could potentially bring to the Westphalian negotiations, but his family’s already precarious financial position was worsened by the need to finance delegations to the negotiating cities of Münster and Osnabrück. As a result, he desperately needed to avoid alienating parliament, who now controlled the revenues which financed the Palatine family’s pensions – which were now much in arrears.

Karl Ludwig hoped for a reconciliation between Charles I and Parliament so that, together, they could provide diplomatic and military support for the ‘Palatine Cause’, just as had happened following the Second Bishops’ War. In mid to late 1641, Charles consulted Parliament on a manifesto to send to the Imperial Diet at Regensburg, and the Parliament of Scotland pledged 10,000 soldiers to Karl Ludwig’s service (although these were later diverted to put down the Irish Rebellion). Peace terms presented by Parliament to Charles earlier in the civil war had also included demands for intervention in Europe on the young prince’s behalf. The intervention of the Scots Covenanters on the parliamentarian side from 1643 and the crushing royalist defeat at Marston Moor on 2 July 1644 undoubtedly convinced Karl Ludwig that his uncle would soon be forced to make peace with Parliament. These events, combined with the his family’s dire finances and his past success receiving assistance when presenting his case in person, explain his decision to travel to England and publicly side with Parliament in late-summer 1644.

Although the British Isles continued to be mired in conflict and therefore contributed nothing to Karl Ludwig’s partial restoration under the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, this lack of support was not an inevitability in August 1644. Karl Ludwig hoped that a public declaration for Parliament would result in much-needed financial support for his family whilst they waited for a peace settlement to be negotiated between Charles I and his opponents. Nevertheless, the king accused him of cynically siding with Parliament simply to receive financial assistance to pursue his cause on the Continent. Following a meeting between the uncle and the nephew at Hampton Court in 1647, Karl Ludwig reported that Charles said it would have been ‘a design more worthy his [Nephew], if I had gonne about to have taken his Crowne from his Head’ rather than to have ‘complied wth the [Parliament]…to have only one chickin more in my dish’. However, the reality was that Karl Ludwig had no alternatives in mid 1644. The generous pension he was awarded by Parliament in October 1645 was a financial lifeline which not only helped to fund his delegations to the Westphalian peace negotiations, but was also vital for his everyday subsistence. To publicly support the king or even to remain neutral in mid 1644 ran the risk of condemning him and his family to penury and permanent exclusion from their lands and titles.

Dr Pert’s first monograph The Palatine Family and the Thirty Years’ War: Experiences of Exile in Early Modern Europe, 1632-1648 is being published by Oxford University Press in July 2023.


The Palatine Family and the Thirty Years' WarLink opens in a new window

Portrait of Karl Ludwig

by Anthony van Dyck