Prince Rupert the Scientist

Few of the Garter knights have as dashing an historical reputation as Prince Rupert of the Rhine (1619-1682), Charles I’s German-born nephew.  A soldier from the age of just thirteen, he came to England in 1642 with his brother Prince Maurice (1621-1652) to support his uncle in the fight against Parliament.  In the battles of the first civil war (1642-46), his brave and daring cavalry charges marked him out as a soldier to be feared by the enemy, and with a little more luck he might just have won the war for the King.  Exiled in 1646, he later took to the sea, making privateering expeditions to the West Indies, where he narrowly escaped death in a hurricane in 1652.  His beloved brother Maurice was not so lucky, perishing when his ship was wrecked.  Having returned to England at the restoration of his cousin Charles II in 1660, Rupert was given command of the King’s navy, later fighting in two (albeit inglorious) naval wars against the Dutch.

Less well-known is Rupert’s interest in scientific invention and experiment, which he pursued with great enthusiasm in his later years.  It was a good time for science in general.  In 1660, the Royal Society was founded to promote scientific research and discussion, and in 1664 Rupert was made an honorary member, and contributed to its discussions and experiments.  Politically too, the times were more settled after years of civil war and republican experiment, so the climate was right for science to flourish.

Where did Rupert’s interest in science spring from?  From his youth, he had been blessed with a brilliant mathematical mind, allied to a fascination with all things mechanical.  As a man steeped in warfare from an early age, he was much concerned with the methods and weapons by which war is waged, and how they might be improved.  A prolonged period of warfare, such as occurred in the 1640s, will always throw up technical issues and problems which demand solutions.  And Rupert was, to use modern parlance, a good problem solver, as well as a risk taker.

Rupert was credited with many inventions and discoveries, although it has been said some of these were really the introduction of European inventions into England.  Amongst his military inventions were a new form of gunpowder eleven times normal strength, a gun which fired multiple rounds at high speed (an early type of machine gun), a handgun with rotating barrels, and a form of grapeshot for use by artillery.  His naval experience led him to invent a diving engine for retrieving objects from the ocean floor.  And his humanitarian concern with the wounds of war prompted him to give papers on the healing process (including treatment of burns) to the Royal Society.

From 1668 to 1682, Rupert was Governor of Windsor Castle, where he converted some apartments into a laboratory, complete with forges, instruments and a range of raw materials.  At Chelsea (on the site of the present Royal Hospital), he had another laboratory, and furnaces which he used to make plate glass.  This involved generating high temperatures, and Chelsea residents were wont to complain of the pollution from his ‘glass houses’.

Not surprisingly, Rupert was passionate about gunnery, and conducted experiments towards the improvement of iron cannon.  Having been granted a patent to manufacture his new cannon in 1671, he invested a good deal of his money in their production.  But as things turned out, the new guns were not much better than the cheaper standard variety, the enterprise failed, and Rupert did not recover his investment.

Whilst Rupert cannot be bracketed with the great names of British science, his scientific activities exemplify a new spirit of inquiry and innovation which, a century later, was to help spark Britain’s industrial revolution.  Prince Rupert died at his home near Whitehall on 29 November 1682, aged sixty-two.  After a state funeral he was interred in Henry VII’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey, a fitting resting place for a notable man of war and man of science.

Simon Harrison (Archives volunteer)

The Queen's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.