The Royal Stuarts: A History of the Family that Shaped Britain

Roger Mason enjoys a pacy account of Britain’s most successful royal dynasty that eventually ended in exile in Rome

royal_stuarts-67b4195

Reviewed by: Roger Mason
Author: Allan Massie
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Price (RRP): £20

Advertisement

 At the end of his highly readable chronicle of the lives and loves of the Stuart family, arguably Britain’s most successful royal dynasty, Allan Massie concludes: “It was a long journey from the salt-marshes of Brittany to the gloom of the Palazzo Muti.” Originating among the Anglo-Breton aristocracy who settled in Scotland at the invitation of the crown in the 12th century, the family took its name from the hereditary title ‘High Steward’ bestowed upon Walter Fitzalan by King David I. 

Several generations later, his direct descendant, Walter Stewart, married Marjorie, daughter of Robert Bruce, and it was their son who came to the Scottish throne as Robert II when the main Bruce line failed in 1371. For the next 150 years, Stewart son followed Stewart father until the death of James V in 1542, leaving as his sole legitimate heir a six-day-old daughter, Mary Queen of Scots. 

That Mary succeeded unchallenged is testimony to how deep-rooted the principle of primogeniture had become in Scotland, where the antiquity and continuity of the royal dynasty was seen as a symbol and guarantor of the kingdom’s independence. As an adult, of course, Mary tested Scottish political conservatism to the limits – and well beyond. Yet by marrying a member of a cadet branch of the family, Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, and bearing him a son, James, Mary did at least ensure the future of the dynasty, albeit now under the Frenchified form of the name, Stuart. Not only that, but despite Mary’s execution at the hands of Elizabeth for conspiring to oust the Tudors, in 1603 her son became King James I of England and Ireland as well as James VI of Scotland. 

For the next century and a half the Stuart family dominated the politics of Britain and Ireland, whether as reigning monarchs struggling (and, in the case of Charles I, spectacularly failing) to maintain control of their composite monarchy or as Jacobite ‘pretenders’ to the throne following the overthrow of James VII and II in 1688 amidst fears that this Catholic king had ensured a Catholic succession.

Spanning well over three centuries, and with a cast of compelling characters, the story of the Stuarts is an entertaining family saga that combines high political drama with low personal farce. But it is also a story that can be told as a constitutional history of Britain in what was a formative period in its development, characterised not only by the union of the Anglo-Scottish crowns and parliaments, but also by the rise and fall of monarchical absolutism. All the more surprising therefore that it is a story that has been so seldom chronicled in full. 

And all the more welcome that a writer of Allan Massie’s undoubted talents should rise to the challenge. Better known as a novelist, Massie’s interest in history is long-standing and, like his fellow borderer Sir Walter Scott, with whom he clearly identifies, he possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge as well as intuitive understanding of the past. This he brings to bear to good effect in writing a pacy and often pungent narrative that brings the Stuarts individually to life while weaving around their dynastic story a broader history of Scotland before the union of 1603 and of Britain thereafter.

Overall, though always readable, the book is weakest on Stuart kings like James III and James V, where Massie too readily falls back on stories culled verbatim from Scott’s Tales of a Grandfather. It is at its best in dealing with Charles I and Charles II, where a compelling contrast between the two kings is developed in the context of civil war, interregnum and restoration. Perhaps inevitably these chapters are essentially Anglocentric, but the British dimension reasserts itself in the reigns of William and Anne during which the parliamentary union was effected and the old Stuart composite monarchy was transformed into the new British monarchical state. 

Only a diehard Whig would leave it at that, however, and Massie well knows that the dispossessed Stuarts continued to pose a very real threat long after the Glorious Revolution. Fittingly his story ends with a sprightly account of the Jacobite rebellions which, if notably free of Scott’s sentimental romanticism, remains nonetheless sympathetic to the plight of the exiled Stuarts, acutely conscious of their royal heritage, but increasingly aware that their cause had little resonance beyond the faded glory of their residence the Palazzo Muti in Rome.

Advertisement

Roger Mason is professor of Scottish history at the University of St Andrews