Wight Life

The Tragic Princess

by J A Viney

Picture of the tomb of the Tragic Princess

IN THE COLD LIGHT of an autumn day in 1793 a number of workmen in the Parish Church at Newport began, under the instructions of the sexton, to prepare a grave for a Mr Septimus Henry West. The place selected was in the Chancel near the altar, and after the stones of the paving had been removed and the first few impressions made with picks and shovels the men were surprised to find themselves striking into a hitherto unknown vault.

Work was halted and a closer inspection made. When more fully revealed the vault proved to be lined with coarse uneven bricks, unplastered, and containing a plain lead coffin, across the widest part of which on brass strips was an inscription 'Elizabeth, 2nd Daughter of ye Late King Charles. Decd Sept 8th, 1650'. No more than that.

The finding of such a tomb of course caused quite a stir and the sexton without delay referred the whole matter to a higher authority. Accordingly on October 24th, Thomas Orde, Governor of the Island, wrote from Carisbrooke Castle to the Rt Hon Henry Dundas, a minister with access to King George III, giving details of the finding of the vault. He enclosed with his letter a rubbing of the brass inscription and a sketch of the general layout of the vault showing its simplicity and generally rather hurried appearance. At the end of his letter he added:
'You may perhaps not think it improper to mention these circumstances to the King, and to receive any commands which it is possible that his Majy may be pleased to give in regard to them. I have thought it my duty in the meantime to order the vault to be temporarily closed, that no mischief may be done within the vault, in which indeed a very small person cannot stand upright. There is a small nick at the bottom of rough brick, in which there seems to have been placed something made of wood, which now Iyes there in many fragments wet and rotten. The coffin is perfect. It is my intention unless any other order shall be signified, to cause to be placed over the vault a large plain flat stone with a simple inscription in the manner of those of King Henry 6th and Edward 4th in the Cloister of St. George's Chapel at Windsor.'

So after 143 years of apparently being forgotten, the grave of the little princess who died, some said, of a broken heart was rediscovered and in due course closed again. After a further sixty odd years Queen Victoria learned the whole story of Elizabeth, and being touched by it, ordered a lasting monument for her which is still to be seen in the parish church. The simple carving by Marochetti perhaps best sums up the tragic princess.

Not a great deal is known about the short life of Elizabeth, the second daughter of Charles 1st and Queen Henrietta Maria. She was born in St James's Palace, London, on Holy Innocents Day, December 28th, 1635.

From her infancy there seems to have been little security for her, because when she was only a few weeks old she passed into the care of the Countess of Roxborough, and in her household spent her earliest years. Throughout the whole period of her childhood she was handed from one well-born family to another, constantly, like her brothers and sisters, a pawn in the game which was being played out between her father and Parliament for the highest stakes.

In fact it might be true to say that from her birth to her death she was little more than a prisoner. As she grew a little older her letters were opened before they reached their destination, her conversations were over-heard and every move whether of a suspicious nature or not was noted and reported upon.

Fortunately she was a studious child, much taken up with her books and the business of learning. Fortunate, because there would seem to have been little other diversion for her. Parliament must have been well enough satis- fied that she offered no immediate threat or risk because they now advocated a change of residence for the little princess, and after brief stays at St James's, Chelsea, and Whitehall, she moved to the care of the Earl and Countess of Northumberland.

At last came a brief respite from the constant supervision to which she had become accustomed. The move was obviously considered by Parliament to be a prudent one and she was thought safe enough for the time being. It was a great joy to Elizabeth to be allowed every now and then to write to her sister Mary who was now the wife of the Prince of Orange.

She must have longed to escape, and join in Mary's happy home across the sea in Holland, but the occasional letters which were permitted to pass between them helped make the situation in England easier for her to bear.

The position of Charles however, was anything but easy; negotiations between himself and Parliament had broken down and to most people it must have been fairly obvious that something in the nature of a miracle was needed if Charles was to win through. After a few more anxious weeks, the fate of the King was known to all, and many shared the sorrow which Elizabeth felt as this latest horror brought an end to what had been perhaps the happiest period of her life.

The Earl of Northumberland, in whose care she still was, was not the man to take such matters lightly. He was incensed by the action of Parliament in ridding themselves of their King and wrote a strongly worded letter to those concerned, which cost him the favour of Parliament and could have cost him much more. To say the least, things must now have become uncomfortable for the Earl and his family, not least on the financial side, for the cost of maintaining both Elizabeth and her brother Henry, Duke of Gloucester, in his house was an added strain on his resources.

Being quick to realise the situation, Elizabeth now attempted to grasp at any straw which might bring a happy conclusion for herself and her brother from the whole sorry business. She wrote to Parliament begging that they might allow her and Henry to join Mary, but the answer which came back was a firm refusal.

Parliament's embarrassment was somewhat eased when the Countess of Leicester stepped in with the offer of an alternative home for Elizabeth. Her offer was accepted, but with the strict proviso that the princess must be 'degraded of all princely honours and treated only as a member of her own house-hold.'

The conditions accepted, Elizabeth now moved to Penshurst Place, in Kent, but the suspicions of Parliament were not entirely laid. Diligent as ever, their agents made enquiries as to whether the details of the proviso were being carried out. As it turned out, their suspicions on this occasion were well enough founded, and they discovered that the stalwart Countess still behaved as if she had a princess in her house and was curtly reminded that 'the wisdom of Parliament had thought fit to abolish Kingship' and the scarcely veiled implications did not go un-noticed at Penshurst Place.

Obviously a parliament that had just managed to remove a King for their own convenience would find no difficulty in silencing one obstinate woman. However, on deeper consultation, they must have thought it would be best to remove the cause of the controversy, for orders were sent out that Elizabeth together with her brother Henry were to be taken to Carisbrooke for safe keeping.

This last move effectively closed the door on any chance of liberty for Elizabeth and the young Duke of Gloucester.

When they arrived at Carisbrooke, in August 1650, the year after their father's execution, they were prisoners just as surely as he had been.

For Elizabeth there would not be long in which to relive the dreadful memories that Carisbrooke surely held for her. Only a week or two elapsed before the incident which perhaps is the best known detail of her life. For recreation the children were allowed to play on the bowling green which had been constructed within the castle walls for Charles, and while they were thus occupied they were caught in a late summer downpour of rain. A few days later, Elizabeth took a heavy chill from the drenching and in the dankness of the castle it quickly undermined her health.

She died on September 8th, 1650 in the small room overlooking the courtyard which she had occupied since her arrival. There she was found with her father's last gift to her, a small Bible, close beside her. If she had lived until December she would have been 15.

(With thanks to Mr Stapleton of Holyrood Galleries, the present owner of the letter from Thos Orde to Henry Dundas, for access to its new information. Also to- Mr W Roberts.)