Henry Benedict Stuart

Written by Aidan Matheson

Fifth year Seminarian of the Diocese of Aberdeen

October 17, 2022

The story of the exiled Stuarts and the subsequent Jacobite Cause have excited imaginations for centuries. The ill-fated quest of Charles Edward Stuart, affectionately known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, has been immortalised through art, poetry and music. At the heart of this is a deep love for the Bonnie Prince himself, who was known for his charm, good looks, and proficiency in the ballroom. Though not all were in favour of the Stuart cause, there was no doubt Prince struck a fine figure and had attracted not a small amount of attention from Europe’s nobility by the time he had reached his twenties. I’m willing to bet these opening sentences alone have been enough to spark up chivalric images of Charles, ready to fight for his father’s crown and lead the clans into battle; images perhaps not unlike this one.

For years, this image has summed up the sentiments of the ‘45, led by Prince Charles himself. The righteousness of the Stuart cause; refined, respectable, but ready to fight. This painting represents many things, but unfortunately Charles is not one of them. The portrait simply isn’t of him. This revelation occurred only in 2009, when British art historian Bendor Grosvenor made the case for its misattribution. It is in fact a pastel of Charles Edward’s younger brother, Henry Benedict Stuart. Apart from the fact that the image could no longer be displayed on shortbread tins, not to mention in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, it made the nation reconsider their romantic notions of Charles and perhaps consider for the first time the lesser-known of the two Stuart princes, Henry.

Henry, unlike his older brother, would never set foot on British soil. He would have certainly been prepared for the prospect, however faint it was in reality. When the defeated Charles returned to Italy he also returned to a changed younger brother. 

In 1747, Henry made the decision to embrace the ecclesiastical state as a cardinal, nominated by Pope Benedict XIV. His decision infuriated Charles for several reasons, the major one being the heavy blow that he perceived this would deal to “the cause”, especially when one considers the Anglican supporters who were loyal to the Stuarts. The fact that such a serious decision had seemed to come from nowhere made it much harder for Charles to accept, and he was deeply offended. In a letter sent from the princes’ father, James, in an attempt to explain Henry’s sudden change of state to Charles, he describes the situation and demonstrates his paternal charity towards both his sons:

“I soon found that his chief motive…was to discourse with me fully and freely on the vocation he had long had to embrace the ecclesiastical state, and which he had so long concealed from me, and kept to himself, with a view, no doubt, of having it in his power of being of some use to you in the late conjectures. But the case is now altered: and as I am fully convinced of the sincerity and solidity of his vocation, I should consider it a resisting the Will of God, and acting directly against my conscience, if I should pretend to constrain him in a manner which so nearly concerns him.”

There is no doubt that Charles’ experiences of the failed uprising in Scotland just two years before were still very raw, and would haunt him for the rest of his life. Perhaps this decision of Henry’s to effectively renounce the crown for the Stuarts, even if it were to be reclaimed, was just too much for him to take, so soon after his crushing defeat to the Government troops at the Battle of Culloden. Unfortunately, it would be years before the two princes re-established their relationship.

Henry Benedict Stuart (often styled “Cardinal Duke of York”, or even Henry IX) went on to live an industrious life as a Bishop, most notably in his beloved Frascati, where the admiration of the people towards him there is comparable only to that of the Scottish people for his older brother. While he was a great patron of the arts, and no stranger to the pleasantries that came with life as a cardinal, Henry was ever concerned for the welfare of those in his diocese, such that the English Cardinal Wiseman remarked of him, “whatever else may have been wanting for his title, to a royal heart he was no pretender. His charities were without bounds: poverty and distress were unknown in his see”.

There are many more notable and intriguing events in the life of Henry Stuart to share. Relics of his life are scattered all across Rome, Lazio and beyond, which those who are interested in the life of the “Cardinal King” can still find today. These deserve an article in themselves, but for now let this serve to prove that Henry Stuart’s story merits a higher place in history than simply in the shadow of his older brother.