Back in July I posted a “review” of the Ladybird book Oliver Cromwell: An Adventure from History. One of the strange, interesting, and almost certainly untrue stories in it was that Cromwell and Charles I had a fight when they were small boys:
Oliver’s uncle, Sir Oliver Cromwell, was an important man, and lived on an estate much larger than the farm belonging to Oliver’s father. He was in fact so important in the county that on more than one occasion he was visited by the King, James I. On one of these visits the King was accompanied by his son Charles, and whilst Sir Oliver was entertaining the King, the two boys, Oliver Cromwell and Prince Charles, were sent into the garden to play. According to the story, the boys quarrelled and fought, and Oliver was the winner.
As I mentioned, one of the suspicious things about this story is the complete absence of Henry Prince of Wales, Charles’s older, more militaristic, and more Calvinist brother. That led me to believe that the story must have originated after Henry (who died as a teenager leaving Charles as heir to the throne) had faded from popular memory.
Now I’ve found a new lead. I’ve been reading Vernon Snow’s Essex the Rebel, a biography of the third Earl of Essex. During my PhD I read the bits about the civil war but skipped the rest. Now I’m going through the whole thing because I’m interested in all of Essex’s life. Page 43 mentions that at some time from 1609 to 1611 (dates are surprisingly vague in this book) Essex had an argument with Prince Henry while they were playing tennis. Henry called him “the son of a traitor”, and he responded by hitting the prince on the head with a tennis racket! James I seems to have Stoically accepted the assault on his son, telling him that “He who did strike him then, would be sure, with more violent blows, to strike his enemy in times to come”. This prophecy didn’t quite come true, as Essex became the military leader of the armed rebellion against Charles I in 1642. Like Prince Henry, Essex the Lord General has largely faded from popular memory. Just as Henry was overshadowed by Charles, Essex was overshadowed by Cromwell. If the tennis court incident is one of the influences on the story of Charles and Oliver fighting each other, this could be yet another case of Cromwell stealing Essex’s thunder.