Survey three centuries of the kings and queens that saw Scotland rise above its clan divisions and move towards a future as rulers of the United Kingdom
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While in England the Stuart dynasty did not begin until the Union of the Crowns in 1603, the family ruled the Scots from 1371, which makes 2021 the 650th anniversary of Robert II’s founding of the supreme House of Stuart.
The son of Marjorie, the eldest daughter of Robert the Bruce, Robert Stewart ascended to the throne when Robert I’s only son, David II, died. The Stewarts, historically crucial Bruce allies, were the hereditary High Stewards of Scotland (first officers of the king), and it is thought the surname developed from this title. It was Mary, Queen of Scots who introduced the variant spelling ‘Stuart’, because the French language rarely used the letter ‘w’; there are at least 20 spellings in use today.
The establishment of the Stewarts on the Scottish throne in the 14th century was the beginning of an epic royal line that saw assassination, rebellion, betrayal, incarceration, execution, and thankfully, a couple of altogether happier reigns that enjoyed relative peace and stability. Over their cumulative 343 years of reign, the Stuarts oversaw increased centralisation of the Scottish government through James I, the Renaissance ushered in by James IV, the Union of the Crowns under James VI and eventually a united Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain under Queen Anne.
By way of introduction to a new series spotlighting some of Scotland’s most illustrious and intriguing Stuart monarchs, here we present the royal line in full, beginning with Robert II and ending with the death of Queen Anne in 1714.
A difficult birth at Paisley Abbey, west of Glasgow, sadly led to Robert’s mother Marjorie’s death. It is also thought to have been the cause of the future king’s visual impairment, for which he was nicknamed ‘King Blearie’. Nevertheless, he grew into a charming man that attracted many love interests; Robert had about 21 children to two wives and numerous mistresses. Though many were illegitimate, his prolificacy did much to strengthen the position of the family within Scotland, with the Stewarts holding more than half of the nation’s earldoms during his reign.
Made High Steward of Scotland at just 10 years old after the death of his father, Walter, Robert wasn’t made king until he was 54, when David II died aged 46. In the end his was a nominal kingship. His sons took the reigns while his daughters were strategically married off to powerful families; Isabella to a Douglas and Margaret to the Lord of the Isles. Robert died aged 74 and his eldest son John succeeded him.
At 53, John Stewart became King Robert III, changing his first name because of its association with the unpopular King John Balliol of Scotland. Two years prior to his coronation, John was involved in a riding accident that left him lame and possibly damaged his mental state too. He struggled with clan rivalries over his 16-year reign, during which he was rarely the real ruler of the country. One notable clash occurred at the 1396 Battle of North Inch in Perth, when Robert III suggested a 30-man team of champions from the so-called Chattan and Quhele clans fight it out to the death. The last Quhele man standing swam across the Tay to safety, leaving the Chattan fighters victorious and relative peace in the area.
Meanwhile the king’s nearest and dearest were causing problems. His brother, Robert, Earl of Fife, created Duke of Albany in 1398, governed throughout most of his reign, except for three years (1399–1402) when Robert III’s eldest son, David, Duke of Rothesay, took his place. A disgraced Rothesay was imprisoned by Albany in Falkland Palace in 1402 – he died there under suspicious circumstances. The king’s second surviving son, James, was sent to France to save him from Albany’s clutches. Unfortunately, he was captured by English pirates, possibly with help from Albany’s men – the king died shortly after receiving this devastating news.
Though James had a rocky start, he certainly pulled his weight later in his reign. From the age of 12 James was prisoner and then ‘guest’ of Kings Henry IV and V in England until 1424. His extended exile was likely due to his uncle, the Duke of Albany’s, deliberate delay to pay his ransom – Albany was Regent in Scotland during most of James I’s absence. While the king waited, he became fluent in Latin and French and wrote his own poetry such as The Kingis Quair, a poem supposedly narrating the love story of James’s marriage to Joan Beaufort that is often attributed to the king.
However, between 1424-37 King James I was able to put into practice some of the other talents he had learned in England. A strong leader, James restored order to the Scottish government by taking power from the nobility (sometimes beheading them to be on the safe side). Popular during his reign, having improved the justice system for the common people, unfortunately it was not enough to avoid brutal assassination in his own quarters by a group of conspirators.
This is an extract. Read the full feature in the September/October 2021 issue of Scotland, out on 20th August.
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