The Stuart dynasty immediately succeeded the Tudors, lasting from 1603 to 1714. The period witnessed some of the most monumentally changeable times in British history – civil war, rebellion, the beheading of a king, plague outbreaks, the Great Fire of London and a successful foreign invasion. There were seven Stuart monarchs of Britain: James VI and I (1566–1625); Charles I (1600–1649); Charles II (1630–1685); James II and VII (1633–1701); William III and II (1650–1702); Mary II (1662–1694); and Anne (1665–1714). Two lord protectors interrupted this dynastic line in the middle of the 17th century: Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658), followed by his son, Richard (1626–1712). But how much do you know about the Stuarts?
Here, writing for History Extra, Andrea Zuvich shares 12 lesser-known facts about the Stuart dynasty…
The Stuarts had a nasty habit of losing their heads
Mary, Queen of Scots, was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire, in 1587. She was Queen Elizabeth I’s cousin, and when Mary was found guilty of treason [after being accused of involvement in a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth], the English queen agonised over the signing of the execution warrant.
Mary was not the only Stuart to lose her head. Her grandson, Charles I, lost his to the executioner’s axe in the winter of 1649 after two devastating civil wars. Charles I’s grandson, the dashing but doomed Duke of Monmouth, was the eldest illegitimate son of Charles II. In 1685, he led an invasion of England, seeking to overthrow his uncle King James II, in order to take the throne for himself.
Monmouth’s rag-tag army suffered a substantial defeat in early July, when their leader was captured, brought to London and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Monmouth’s grisly execution was botched, and remains one of the ghastliest in British history: the executioner’s axe was said to have struck several times before Monmouth’s head was severed.
And it wasn’t just the executioner’s axe that cost leading Stuarts their heads – Monmouth’s cousin, James FitzJames, Duke of Berwick, was decapitated by a cannonball at the Siege of Philipsburg (aka Philippsburg) in 1734.
Witchcraft was a serious matter, but science and reason began to take hold
In the 17th century, a substantial portion of the population believed that witchcraft was real and dangerous. The hysteria surrounding the Salem witch trials in 1692 Massachusetts is undoubtedly the best-known example of this, but there were many other notable events. King James I, whom historian Tracy Borman refers to in her book Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts as “one of the most famous witch hunters in history”, was indeed very much concerned with witchcraft and demonology.
It was during James I’s reign, in 1612, that two important witch trials took place: that of the Samlesbury Witches and the Pendle Witches. Throughout the chaos of the Civil Wars in the 1640s, Matthew Hopkins, the self-appointed ‘witchfinder general’, terrorised East Anglia with the cruel methods he used to ‘find’ witches: according to some sources he would fling the accused bound into water to see if they would float or sink (a witch, having denied his or her baptism, would be repelled by the water so that he or she would float). Another test was to “force the accused to walk about all night, because only when at rest could a witch summon his or her familiars, who would terrify the accusers away”.
Yet at around the same time, science was progressing to amazing new heights. William Harvey discovered that blood circulated around the body – an astonishing leap for medical science – and later in the period mathematicians and scientists such as Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle and other gifted men formed the Royal Society.
The extremes of both superstition and scientific endeavour during the Stuart age made for a remarkable dichotomy.
The Stuart era coincided with a period of global cooling known as the ‘Little Ice Age’. As such, winters were incredibly cold, and the river Thames sometimes became so frozen solid that people were able to go out onto the ice and take part in frost fairs. These must have been magnificent, for there would have been ice-skating, music playing and hot food being sold and eaten on the ice.
Theatres were very popular in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, but were done away with under Oliver Cromwell. At the restoration of the monarchy, however, theatres were re-opened, and then something even more remarkable happened – women were allowed to act on stage, and the first actresses (Elizabeth Barry, Peg Hughes, Nell Gwynn, Moll Davis etc) stole the show.
Executions were another popular entertainment of the day: vast crowds of people would gather to see a nobleman beheaded or a common thief hanged from the Tyburn tree. Akin to, say, a football match today, street vendors would sell food, and people would cheer.
The monarchy was abolished, but then restored
In 2015, Britain saw Queen Elizabeth II break the record set by her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, to become the longest-serving monarch in British history. Although we have a constitutional monarchy (in which the sovereign is mostly a ceremonial figurehead), the fact that Britain has a monarchy at all was something that might not have been possible had the ‘Roundheads’ continued to have their way.
By 1649, Parliament had won: Charles I was executed, and the monarchy and the House of Lords were abolished. It transpired, however, that living under a Cromwellian Protectorate was less than ideal. After Oliver Cromwell died in 1658, his son Richard became the second lord protector, and to cut a long story short, he was not very good at the job.
Soon after, General Monck invaded London at the head of the army, and it was decided that England would welcome King Charles II from his exile. Upon the Restoration in 1660, and then much more substantially at the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 when William of Orange invaded and seized James II’s throne, monarchy changed from the absolute version to something more constitutional.
There were three Mary Stuarts you should know about
From the late 16th century to the end of the Stuart dynasty in 1714, there were three royal ladies with the name of Mary Stuart. The most famous of these was, of course, Mary, Queen of Scots, who lived from 1542 until her execution in 1587 (after nearly 20 years of imprisonment). Mary’s son would be the sixth King James of Scotland, but the first of England.
Next, there was Mary Stuart, Princess Royal, the eldest daughter of King Charles I of England and Queen Henrietta Maria of France. At a very young age, Mary was betrothed and married to Prince Willem II of Orange, with whom she had a son (who became King William III of England/II of Scotland). Sadly for the young family, Willem II contracted smallpox and died about a week before his son’s birth. Mary herself followed her husband to the grave 10 years later, again from smallpox.
Finally, there was Mary Stuart, daughter of James II, then Duke of York, and his first wife, Anne Hyde. Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, it was this Mary who became Queen Mary II and ruled together with her husband, the aforementioned William III.
Britain was successfully invaded by a foreign power, again
The best-known successful invasion by a foreign power was the Norman Conquest of 1066, which saw William the Conqueror seize power. Fast-forward to 1688, and Britain was once again successfully invaded – this time by the Dutch, and by invitation.
Prince William of Orange, Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic, had a reputation for being one of the great heroes of Protestant Europe. He was always battling it out with his arch nemesis, King Louis XIV of France, whose megalomaniacal attempts to conquer more territories made him a constant force to be reckoned with.
When Louis’ cousin, King James II of England (James VII of Scotland), became king following the death of his elder brother Charles II, concern spread that the new king would return his kingdoms to Roman Catholicism. When his wife, Mary of Modena, gave birth to a healthy son in the summer of 1688, rumours and fears of a Catholic succession pushed the kingdom to the verge of rebellion.
The so-called ‘Immortal Seven’ – seven of the most powerful men in the kingdom – invited William of Orange to invade England. Why? William had royal blood connections (his mother was a Stuart) and he was married to James’s eldest daughter, Mary. William landed in Torbay in November 1688 (pictured below), James II fled, and in early 1689, William and Mary became the first diarchy [a form of government in which two individuals – diarchs – are joint heads of state] in British history.
We tend to forget about the consorts
With the exception of Henrietta Maria, Charles I’s strong-willed consort (who remains a controversial figure), many tend to forget about the other royal consorts.
Anne of Denmark, James I’s wife, was a stylish Catholic woman whose tastes influenced pastimes such as masques – the formal entertainments so beloved by the Stuarts. Meanwhile, Catherine of Braganza, Charles II’s wife, a Portuguese princess famed for putting up with her husband’s public adulteries, is often credited with making tea fashionable.
Mary of Modena, James II’s wife, was a highly educated Italian princess who was, if her Catholic religion could be overlooked, the perfect queen consort. When James went into exile, she followed, and under the patronage of Louis XIV, they retained an exiled court at the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye.
Although all of the aforementioned consorts were women, there was one male consort: Queen Anne’s husband was Prince George of Denmark. George was devoted to his wife, but has retained a somewhat boorish reputation. Charles II is believed to have said of him: “I’ve tried him drunk and I’ve tried him sober and there’s nothing in him.”
The Stuart monarchs were rarely faithful
King James I is known for his male favourites (rumoured to have been his lovers), especially Robert Carr and, most infamously, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. James’s son, Charles I, although having been the soul of fidelity for the many years of his marriage to Henrietta Maria, ended up seeking physical solace in the arms of Jane Whorwood, a loyalist conspirator, during his imprisonment.
Charles II, meanwhile, is better known for his bevy of mistresses (Nell Gwynn, Barbara Villiers, Louise de Kerouaille etc) than any of his actual policies – with perhaps the exception of the 1670 Treaty of Dover [a pact by which Charles promised to support French policy in Europe in return for a French subsidy that would free him from financial dependence on parliament].
James II, Charles’s brother, engaged in adultery but then was saddled by a guilty conscience. This, however, did not stop him from carrying on long-term affairs with several women, most notably Arabella Churchill and Catherine Sedley.
James’s nephew and son-in-law, William III, had a mistress as well, though he was much more private about it than his uncles. His wife, Mary II, was considered to be one of the most beautiful women of her time, but William sought the stimulating intellectual companionship (and perhaps more) of his wife’s lady-in-waiting, Elizabeth Villiers. William only broke up with Betty after Mary’s death, for that was what the latter had asked of him on her deathbed.
Samuel Pepys published one thing in his life, and it wasn’t his diary
While his diary is the work with which Samuel Pepys is most associated, it was not published during his lifetime. Of course, being a diary, it was intensely private – so much so it was written in what at first appears to be undecipherable code. In reality, this code was actually shorthand (created by Thomas Shelton in the early 1600s). Shorthand not only kept things private, but also made writing faster – once you got the hang of how to use it.
Pepys did, however, publish what we know as the Memoires Relating to the State of the Royal Navy of England. This was because there had been accusations of negligence in relation to ships during his time as secretary of the Admiralty. The Memoires, published in 1690 during the reign of William and Mary, was Pepys’ way of fighting back against his accusers.
Historian JD Davies, writing in the introduction to a 2010 publication of this work, states that the Memoires provide not only “a vivid insight into the state of the navy in the 1680s, but…(is) one of the best memorials to the ingenuity and sheer political cunning” of Pepys.
The Stuarts knew the value of propaganda
Several days after Charles I was executed on a bitterly cold January morning in 1649, a royalist work was printed. Eikon Basilike was an extremely popular piece, and the deceased king became seen by some as a martyr. This work, however, was countered by parliamentarian propaganda from the very able hand of John Milton in the form of Eikonoklastes.
During the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, William III sent his propaganda printers ahead of him, and they printed his manifesto and circulated it widely. Propaganda wasn’t just limited to the printed word, though. William gave due consideration to his image as well. Although he was physically rather puny and sickly, most of the images depicting him have a strong, martial air about them. In William III’s state apartments in Hampton Court Palace, William chose to identify with the mythological hero Hercules, and the glorious staircase that leads to his apartments, painted by Antonio Verrio, powerfully convey this imagery.
Is it Stewart or Stuart?
Often a source of some very heated debate in online history groups, the spelling of this surname is rather contentious, to say the least. There are some who swear it must be spelled Stewart, as it comes from the word “steward”, while others insist it must be spelled Stuart. So, which is correct?
Truth be told, they are both acceptable, but it makes it easier to stick to the Gallicised (French) version to help differentiate between the Stewart line in Scotland, and those Stewarts who became monarchs over both England and Scotland, beginning in 1603.
Mary, Queen of Scots used Stuart, and she was both a queen of Scotland and a queen of France, so using the Gallicised spelling makes sense because the letter ‘W’ is rarely found in French. Since it was her son, James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England, this continued usage of this spelling is appropriate.
That being said, on the death warrant for James’s son, King Charles I, in 1649, his name was written “Charles Stewart”. The early modern period, in which the Stuart era firmly lies, was significantly more relaxed when it came to spelling than it is in the present day.
It wasn’t always safe to be the ‘favourite’
Throughout British history, the royal favourite was lavished with titles, estates, money and above all, power. These things would, unsurprisingly, arouse envy and hostility in those who were not the favourite.
George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, did just that when he was initially King James I’s favourite, and then the favourite of King Charles I. He became so hated a public figure that when he was eventually assassinated by John Felton in 1628, the general population seemed to have been very well pleased, and they spat and cheered as his coffin was wheeled to Westminster Abbey.
English courtiers at William III’s court became resentful when the Dutch-born Arnold Joost van Keppel became the king’s favourite. Van Keppel, although a blatant womaniser, was the subject of rumours involving him with the king. During the reign of Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch, Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, had become used to treating Anne badly. Sarah thought her position of power would last, but Anne rightly put her in her place after Sarah publicly told her to “be quiet!”, leading to a row at Kensington Palace and an end to a lifelong friendship.