His Highness Prince Rupert by Studio of Anthony van Dyck, n.d. - Oil on canvas

His Highness Prince Rupert by Studio of Anthony van Dyck, n.d.
Oil on canvas

Count Palatine of the Rhine, Duke of Bavaria, Duke of Cumberland, Earl of Holderness, "Our Dear and Entirely Beloved Cousin" - these are just a few of the titles and honorifics belonging to the first Governor of Hudson's Bay Company, Prince Rupert.

Rupert of the Rhine - or Ruprecht von Wittelsbach, to give him his German name - was the third son of Frederick V, the Elector Palatine, and his wife Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I of England and sister of King Charles I. He was born in Prague, the capital of Bohemia, on December 17th, 1619; barely six weeks earlier his parents had been crowned King and Queen of Bohemia.

Since he was a Protestant the Protestant nobles of Bohemia had urged Frederick to accept the Crown. Despite the risk personified by his powerful Catholic neighbour, Hapsburg Emperor Ferdinand II, Frederick accepted. This incident sparked what would become known as The Thirty Years' War. In the spring of the following year Ferdinand ordered the monarchs to leave Bohemia and mustered an army of Catholic supporters to force them out. Despite a small English force sent by King James to assist them, they were decisively defeated in November 1620 and fled into exile. Forever afterwards they were known as the Winter King and Queen.

As a result Prince Rupert grew up with his family in exile in the Netherlands. At the age of fourteen he began his first career as a soldier, fighting for the Protestant Prince of Orange at the siege of Rheinberg, 1633 and later at Breda in 1637. In between, in 1636, he visited his English relatives where the 16 year-old favourably impressed his uncle, King Charles I. In 1638 he joined the Swedish army, but was captured by the Emperor's forces and held captive in Linz, Austria, for nearly three years. He spent his years of captivity studying military textbooks and manuals and was finally released in 1641 on condition that he would never again bear arms against the Emperor.

Prince Rupert, engraving by R. Dunkarton (after portrait by Sir Peter Lely), 1813 - HBCA P-173

Prince Rupert, engraving by R. Dunkarton (after portrait by Sir Peter Lely), 1813
HBCA P-173

A year later the English Civil War broke out. Rupert returned to London to support the Royalist cause and King Charles I named him his General of Horse, or chief cavalry officer. Early successes at Powick Bridge (1642), Edgehill and Bristol (1643) established his reputation as a brilliant tactician. The King recognized his achievements by naming him commander-in-chief. But the tides of war changed and in 1645 Rupert was forced to surrender Bristol to the Parliamentarians. The King, urged on by courtiers and advisers who were antagonistic to the foreign prince, abruptly dismissed him. Rupert was banished from England by Parliament in 1646.

Despite his treatment by the King, by 1648 Rupert was based in Kinsale in Ireland, where he began his naval career commanding a squadron of Royalist ships which harassed Commonwealth shipping in the English Channel. Defeated in 1649 by Admiral Sir Robert Blake he went first to the Mediterranean, then to the West Indies. By this time King Charles I was dead, having been executed by Parliament. Yet Rupert maintained his devoted service to his Stuart relatives, continuing his activities as a privateer in support of the Royalist cause until returning to Europe in 1652.

For a few years Rupert was part of the court-in-exile of his cousin, King Charles II. But the two quarreled and Rupert went to Germany, settling in Mainz in 1654. For the next 6 years or so Rupert pursued his abiding interest in art and science, particularly chemistry and mezzotint engraving, which he later introduced to England.

The Restoration of the Stuart monarchy took place in 1660. Rupert returned to England at the invitation King Charles II who granted him an annuity, appointed him to the Privy Council, and named him Admiral of the Fleet. He held naval commands in the second and third Dutch Wars of 1665-7 and 1672-4 and was first Lord of the Admiralty 1673-9.

Continuing his interest in scientific experiments, Rupert became a founding member of the Royal Society. He experimented with the manufacture of gunpowder, the boring of guns and the casting of shot, and invented a modified form of brass called "prince's metal." He is also supposed to have invented "Prince Rupert's Drops", droplets of molten glass, consolidated by falling into water. These are considered by some to be an early precursor of bullet-proof glass.

It was largely Rupert's interest in science which led him to commercial investments overseas in the Carolinas and Africa. His wide-ranging interests, combined with his desire to see England and the Stuarts on a strong footing, made the proposals of Radisson and des Groseilliers particularly attractive. He was instrumental in introducing the two and their financial backers to his cousin the King and others of the Royal Court who eventually coalesced as the original syndicate that underwrote the speculative voyage of the Nonsuch in 1668.

Here Rupert's naval connections proved extremely valuable. He was able to get King Charles to agree to lease the Eaglet and was to arrange for the purchase of the former Royal Navy vessel Nonsuch from her subsequent owner. By a special warrant dated July 21, 1682, Rupert, in his capacity as Admiral, granted the Company permission to use the modified Naval Ensign at its forts and on its ships entering Hudson Strait. No other private concern was ever granted such a privilege.

By the terms of the Royal Charter of May 2nd, 1670, King Charles II appointed Rupert - "Our dear and Entirely Beloved Cousin" - first Governor of Hudson's Bay Company. It was an appointment subsequently upheld by the Committee and Rupert held the position until his death in 1682, just short of his sixty-third birthday.