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Henry, Rome's forgotten Stuart

Cardinal Henry Stuart, Duke of York was Bishop of Frascati, where he lived peacefully for many years - until the Stuart jinx caught up with him.

Many people are surprised to find, to the left of the entrance to Frascati cathedral in the hills south of Rome, a memorial to Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender (or Bonnie Prince Charlie to nostalgic ex-pat Scots), who tried unsuccessfully to re-conquer the British throne in 1746 at the battle of Cullodon.

Few know that Charles, who died in Rome at Palazzo Muti in 1788, was interred there for some years before his remains were transferred to the crypt of St Peter's in Rome, to join those of his father, the uncrowned James III, and his younger brother, Cardinal Henry Duke of York.

Henry himself had conducted Charles' funeral service in Frascati “with many tears” according to the inscription, in his capacity as Frascati's titular bishop.

Cardinal Henry Stuart then became the last direct heir of the Stewart (or Stuart in the French form of the name) dynasty which had ruled Scotland from the early 14th century until 1603, when James VI of Scotland, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, succeeded to the English throne as James I, thus leading to the formation of the United Kingdom.

Unlike his much-romanticised elder brother Charles, Henry is not celebrated in song and legend. His story is remembered mainly by historians and nostalgics of the Jacobite movement. It is, however, a tale full of unexpected revelations and adventures, in the best traditions of the long line of ill-fated Stuart kings.


For the greater part of his life, Henry led a peaceful life in Frascati, where he was affectionately known to his parishioners as Il Cardinale degli Organi (the Cardinal of the Organs), this being the nearest they could get to pronouncing his name, York. A much-loved bishop who administered his diocese with energetic efficiency and an ingrained spirit of humanity, he was loved for his good works and his interest in culture and progress.

Henry was born in Rome, where the Stuarts had settled after the deposition of James II, Henry's grandfather. In 1725, at the time of the prince's birth, hopes of a Stuart restoration, backed by both the pope and the King of France, still ran high. The boys were brought up as royal princes in anticipation of the restoration of the Stuart dynasty to the English throne.

The two brothers, who were baptised as Catholics, received the kind of education normally allotted to royal heirs. They learned the social graces, such as music and dancing, etiquette and good manners, the arts of fencing, hunting and shooting. British spies at the time, however, commented that they were not well educated. Whatever lapses there were on the cultural side, Henry made up for them later in life.

Battle of Culloden

A year after his brother's final and disastrous defeat in Scotland at the Battle of Culloden, Henry decided to enter holy orders. In June 1747 he was created a cardinal deacon by Pope Benedict XIV and assigned the titular church of S. Maria in Campitelli in Rome, and was ordained a priest the following year. This was a serious blow to the Stuart cause. Although his father eventually accepted his decision, Charles was furious and the two brothers were estranged for many years.

The Jacobites branded him a traitor to the cause and accused him of opportunism, but there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of his vocation. As a young boy he had been considered bright and lively, a good dancer and charming conversationist, but as an adolescent he became increasingly withdrawn, thoughtful and devout.

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Cardinal York became bishop of Frascati in 1761 and ruled the diocese for over 50 years, leaving a profound impact on the town. Among his most important achievements was the founding of a seminary which became a much acclaimed seat of learning, staffed by teachers and lecturers who were all experts in the various fields of philosophy, maths, science and literature. Henry took a great interest in the scientific developments of the time and installed a modern printing works inside the seminary where the students learned typesetting and copper-plating techniques.

The cardinal also equipped the college with modern comforts. The kitchen area had hot and cold running water and there were plumbed toilets installed on all the three floors. The boys were provided recreational facilities like pelota and billiards. He organised hunting trips in the surrounding countryside and during the carnival season he enjoyed watching the theatrical performances staged by the students.

The library was stocked with 12,000 volumes in many languages, the cardinal's collection included illuminated manuscripts and rare music scores. Unfortunately, both the seminary and the library suffered damage during the bombardments of world war two. The library contents were transferred to the Vatican where they remain today.

Acts of charity

The “Cardinal of the Organs” was also known for his charitable deeds. He modernised the mediaeval St Sebastian hospital at Frascati and set up an ambulance service, with coach and horses kept standing by to transport the sick or injured quickly to the hospital for treatment. His pastoral visits took in the poorest and most remote communities in the diocese, including the wretched settlement of itinerary workers at La Molara, below the Tusculum hill, where he built new houses, a school and a church (unfortunately destroyed during the Napoleonic invasion of Italy).

The cardinal was also a lavish host, who kept an open door and entertained extensively. He had a small dog, a stray that had attached itself to him one day in Rome, and he had it perform tricks on the dining table when the meal was over, a practice that did not meet everyone's favour.

The cardinal's portrait hangs in the sacristy of Frascati Cathedral, but his memory is best preserved in the episcopal palace, known as La Rocca, where he had his residence and which still stands in the heart of Frascati's centro storico. Henry took the building over when it was a virtually dilapidated old fortress and had it restored extensively. He commissioned the Polish artist Taddeo Kuntz to decorate the rooms according to the fashion of the time with grotesques and pastoral and mythological scenes in bright pastel colours. Sadly, the palace is not open to the public.

Only two negative incidents seemed to ruffle the surface of Cardinal Henry's long and peaceful ministry. One was a failed assassination attempt. The other was the unexpected collapse of the dining-room floor at La Rocca while the cardinal was entertaining. His distinguished guests were sent plummeting down into the coach-house below in a blinding shower of dust, splintering wood and masonry. Henry had a lucky escape because he landed on the roof of one of the carriages. This broke his fall, but others were not so fortunate and suffered serious injuries.


After the death of his brother Charles Edward in 1788, Henry adopted the title of Henry IX, King of England, Scotland and Ireland. He was well aware that he would never sit on the London throne but he maintained the outdated claim as a mark of respect for his ancient dynasty. His predecessors had not enjoyed his tranquil life. Most of the Stuarts had spent their lives fighting wars and rebellions and had met premature and violent deaths. However, the Stuart jinx was destined to catch up with the last of the line in the end.

In 1798, at the venerable age of 73, he was forced to abandon his home and flee before the Napoleonic invasion of the Papal States. Pope Pius VI was carried off in captivity to France and the panicking Roman clergy fled south to seek refuge in the Kingdom of Naples, which was under the protection of the British navy commanded by Horatio Nelson. Less than a year later, however, Napoleon's troops advanced on Naples and Cardinal Henry, along with the Neapolitan royal family, was forced to sail to Sicily. According to some biographers, they arrived after a terrifying three-week voyage, battling through what Nelson claimed was the worst storm he had ever encountered.

This was only the beginning of a series of adventures during a two-year flight that took him from Sicily to Corfu, where he landed just the day after Russian and Turkish troops had managed to oust the French after a four-month siege. He proceeded to Venice, where he arrived penniless, to attend a stormy conclave to elect Pius VII, the successor of Pius VI, who had died a prisoner in France in 1799. Cardinal Henry Stuart died in Frascati in 1807.

Margaret Stenhouse

The Flight of the last Stuart King by Margaret Stenhouse is available in the Anglo American Book Store in Rome and also on Amazon. This article was published in the October 2019 edition of Wanted in Rome magazine.

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Henry, Rome's forgotten Stuart

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