The Life of Prince Henry St Clair

Templar Sailing ShipHenry St Clair was born in Roslin Castle near Edinburgh in 1345 to Sir William St Clair, the 8th Baron of Rosslyn, and the 16-year-old Isabella, daughter of the Norse Earl of Orkney. In a sense, this was keeping it in the family - some 500 years before Henry's Norse ancestor Einar had held the jarldom or Earldom of Orkney.

The St Clairs (later Sinclair) were originally the Viking Møre family - but then took their more modern name from the Norman town of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte where they settled in the 10th century. Several members of the family accompanied William the Conqueror to England in 1066, William de St Clair 'the Seemly' being granted the Roslin estate by the Scottish king two years later.

Map of VeniceThe St Clairs held a special and prominent place in the history of Scotland. Strong supporters of Robert Bruce, the 3rd Baron, Sir William, fought at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, along with two of his sons. Sir Henry St Clair, the 6th Baron - Prince Henry's grandfather - was one of the signatories of the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath that defiantly announced Scotland's independence from England. On Robert Bruce's death Sir Henry's son William was one of three Scottish knights who set out to take his heart to the Holy Land - only to be killed by the Moors in Spain in 1330.

Henry the Knight

In May 1358 Henry's father, Sir William St Clair (the 8th Baron), was one of the leaders of a Scottish contingent that went to fight with the Teutonic Knights, who were attempting to establish their own land in eastern Europe. Although William's death in battle - in Lithuania in 1357 - meant that technically Henry succeeded to the title at the tender age of 13, he could only become Sir Henry when he reached his majority at the age of 21 in 1365.

Through his mother Isabella, Henry was heir to the Earldom of Orkney - then a possession of the Kingdom of Norway. However, his entitlement was not clear-cut. Isabella's father, Malise Sparr, the Norse Earl of Orkney, had an elder daughter by a previous marriage. This was eventually clarified when he officially made Isabella heiress to the Earldom of Orkney on his deathbed in 1344.

The Norse title of Earl (Jarl) carried greater status than the Scottish or English equivalent, coming immediately below princes of the royal blood. In fact, the Orkney Earldom was the only one in the entire Kingdom of Norway - potentially making Henry very powerful indeed.

Although, according to the charter drawn up by Earl Malise, Henry was the legal heir to the Earldom of Orkney, there were other claimants. The Earldom was not necessarily inherited by birth, but was in the gift of the King of Norway, who could give it to anyone he wanted, regardless of precedence of birth or Earl Malise's wishes.

There were political dangers in Sir Henry's claim to the Earldom. While possession of Orkney was disputed by the Kings of Scotland and Norway, Sir Henry was primarily a Scottish noble, closely connected to the King and Court.

The Norwegian king Magnus II granted the title to one of the rivals, Erngisle Sunesson - husband of one of Earl Malise's other daughters - but stripped him of it in 1357 for intriguing against him.

When Henry went to Copenghagen in 1362 to press his claim with Haakon VI, King of Norway and Sweden, Haakon may have confirmed Henry's ownership of the land of Orkney - but he appointed a governor to administer Orkney. He did not uphold Henry's claim to the Earldom.

There is some evidence Henry was married to Haakon VI's sister (or possibly niece) around 1362; if so, she appears to have died soon afterwards before bearing him any children.

In 1365 the newly-knighted Sir Henry joined the Crusade called by Peter I, King of Cyprus. This assembled at Venice, and it is possible that is where he met the Zeno brothers - Venetian navigators whose account of an expedition to a 'new world' across the Atlantic in the service of Scottish prince is regarded by many as the best evidence of Henry's discovery. Certainly, the biographer of the eldest brother, Carlo Zeno, records his meeting with a Scottish nobleman Crusader at this time, but unfortunately fails to give his name.

Sir Henry fought in Egypt and then undertook a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (which earned him the nickname 'Henry the Holy' on his return to Scotland).

Once Henry was back home Robert II appointed him to several major positions including Lord Chief Justice and - in recognition of his exceptional seafaring - Admiral of the Seas.

Henry married Janet Halyburton, daughter of the lord of Dirleton Castle in East Lothian, by whom he had four sons and nine daughters.

The Orkney Dispute

The Orkney & Shetland Isles, just off the North-East county of Caithness, ScotlandIn 1375, Haakon VI removed the Orkneys from Sir Henry's possession and handed it over to another rival claimant, Alexander de Ard. However, a year later he was also removed, for incompetent administration. The Orkneys were in a lawless state by this time.

In August 1379 Sir Henry finally persuaded the Norwegian King to recognise him as Earl of Orkney on the promise that he could restore order and the King's authority. Henry managed a diplomatic coup a month after his investiture as Earl, persuading Robert II of Scotland to formally renounce any claim to Orkney and recognise it as a Norwegian possession.

Part of Henry's brief was to impose the King of Norway's authority on the lawless islands, and to reunite Orkney and Shetland for the Norwegian Crown. Frederick Pohl describes Orkney as a 'buffer state' between Scotland and Norway: Henry - a Scottish noble of Norse descent - being the perfect ruler of such a sensitive place.

According to the 17th-century biographer of the St Clairs of Rosslyn, Father Richard Hay:

He [Henry] was more honoured than any of his ancestors, for he had the power to cause stamp coin within his dominions, to make laws, to remit crimes; he had his sword of honour carried before him wheresoever he went; he had a crown in his [coat of] arms, bore a crown on his head when he constituted laws, and, in a word, subject to none, save only he held his lands of the King of Denmark, Sweden and Norway... In all those parts he was esteemed as a second person next to the King.

Because of his power, he became known as 'Prince' Henry, although never formally holding the title. It hardly mattered: his power in Orkney was almost that of a king.

The Orkney IslesHenry's importance is demonstrated by the fact that his signature came second on the 1388 document that confirmed the 5-year-old Eric of Pomerania as the new king of Norway (under the regency of Queen Margaret).

Although scattered over many islands, his lands in total covered just under 1,000 square miles, and their important fishing fleets were a source of great wealth.

Prince Henry fortified his possessions in Scotland - such as the formidable fortress at Kirkwall in Orkney - and built up a powerful fleet, before beginning the conquest of the Shetlands and other islands. In 1390-91 he conquered Shetland, during which he killed his rival Malise Sparre (son of old Earl Sparr's eldest daughter).

If the Zeno Narrative is authentic, it was during this campaign that Henry first met Nicolò Zeno - who had been shipwrecked on one of the islands - and who then entered his service.

In 1392 Henry secured a guarantee of safe conduct from Richard II to visit England. Why he wanted to do this is unknown - possibly he was representing the Queen of Norway, Margaret. He is recorded as attending the Scottish Parliament in 1392, 1393 and 1394.

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