Robert III: I bet you think the Stuarts were an English dynasty!
James VI: Ah, but we only came to England when the crown belonged to me!
Mary, Queen of Scots: Our clan may hail from Scotland, but our tale's not a bonnie one, you'll see!
A Royal House of Scotland and later England and Ireland. Notable for the ascension to the throne of England of James VI of Scotland (thenceforth also James I of England) in 1603, following the death of his childless distant cousin Elizabeth I of The House Of Tudor
, thus creating the union of the crowns. Ruled until 1714, with a bit of a blip from 1649-1660 when first a Commonwealth (under the Rump Parliament) and then a Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell and briefly his son was in place instead, who for the sake of completeness are mentioned below.
The Stuarts traced their lineage to a 12th-century Norman-Breton
knight named Walter Fitzalan, who came to England and supported Empress Matilda
in the Anarchy
. When Matilda lost to Stephen, Walter moved to Scotland, as he had befriended Matilda's uncle, King David I of Scots. David liked Walter so much that he appointed him High Steward of Scotland, and made the position hereditary for Walter's descendants, who subsequently became known as the "Stewarts" (reflecting Scots pronunciation of the position); they intermarried with the various Scottish royal families over the generations, and in 1371 Robert Stewart inherited the throne (when David II, last male-line member of the House of Bruce, died) and became Robert II of Scots. Thus the dynasty was called Stewart until Mary Queen of Scots changed the spelling (her French in-laws kept mispronouncing it).
James IV (1488-1513)
His father was killed in a rebellion when he was fifteen, and he did penance each Lent for the rest of life as he felt indirectly responsible.
His wife was Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII of England, which gave his descendants a claim to the English throne.
An effective ruler and rather intellectual (he performed some surgery), he initially supported Perkin Warbeck, a male model who was a pretender to the English throne, before realising peace with his southern neighbour was better.
When the Italian Wars broke out (specifically the War of the League of Cambrai in 1508), Scotland had conflicting treaty obligations to both France and England. James eventually chose to support France and, taking advantage of Henry VIII's absence, invaded England.
He was beaten by a girl, or rather Catherine of Aragon's army, at the Battle of Flodden Field. His big weakness was some rather old-school tactics, such as informing your enemy of your invasion several months in advance and fighting on the front line along with his men. He died in that battle, the last British monarch to die in a war. His body passed around various nobles and his head was used as a plaything. Flodden Field was also the last real battle in Britain involving spears and arrows.
James is also the distant direct ancestor (via at least ten lines, by his wife and by various mistresses) of US politician Howard Dean.
James V (1513-1542)
Ascended to the throne when he was seventeen months old, after his father died at Flodden Field. Had many bastard children, including Lord John of Coldingham and James Stuart, Earl of Moray. His only surviving legitimate child was a daughter; at her birth, he is said to remarked, "[The Crown] came with a lass, and it will pass with a lass"
, referring to the marriage of Marjorie Bruce into the Stuart family. Mary averted this fate by marrying Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, her half-cousin through his mother (Lady Margaret Douglas) and a more distant cousin through his father (Matthew Stuart, Earl of Lennox).
Royal genetics are fun.
Mary I of Scotland, aka Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1567)
Became Queen at only six days old, when her father died of what was probably cholera, although the loss of the Battle of Solway Moss didn't help.
Having an infant as the leader of your country opens a lot of doors for less-than-honorable noblemen, so Mary's mother kept her little court safe in one of the harder to penetrate castles. About this time, Henry VIII
asked to have his great-niece betrothed to his son, Edward, and thus unite their crowns a generation early, but Mary's mother, being French, said no. Henry VIII was rather insulted by this, and, when his "Rough Wooings" (read: attacks) didn't work, he snubbed Mary in his will, passing over her lawful claim to the throne.
Mary instead married into the French royal family, the House of Valois, and spent a brief time as Queen-Consort of France. After her husband died, she returned to her own kingdom of Scotland. She remarried, this time to Lord Darnley, who then died in very suspicious circumstances, with Mary marrying the suspected killer.
While clever, Mary proved to be too impulsive and naive to deal with the factional politics in Scotland, was forced to abdicate in favor of her baby son (seeing a pattern here?) and eventually, as a perennial focus for Catholic conspiracies, was duly if reluctantly executed by her cousin, Elizabeth I.
James VI and I - 1603-1625 (Scotland 1567-1625)
Became King in Scotland at only 1 year old (his mother having been deposed) and had various regents, who may or may not have been Evil Chancellors
but who certainly were Evil Guardians
. Three child monarchs for Scotland in a row...
After becoming King of England he hardly ever returned to Scotland, enjoying a far more extravagant lifestyle at the wealthier English court. Angry Catholics, fearful of greater repression from the new king, tried to blow him up in 1605 in the Gunpowder Plot, which did not go well for them to say the least. James was liberal with money, running up massive debts, and was almost certainly involved in numerous homosexual relationships, which didn't help his popularity. (It also didn't help that he had virtually no relationships with women other than his wife Anne of Denmark, with whom he apparently was infatuated for a while, but of whom he soon tired.) Traditional interpretations were harsh, seeing him as irresponsible and doing little more than storing up trouble for his successor, but more recent analysis
highlights his commitment to European peace, studious nature and successful reign in Scotland. Culture flourished round about this time, especially with some chap named William Shakespeare
being around. And he commissioned a particular translation of The Bible
which today bears his name. Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in what is now the United States, was founded during his reign and named in his honor.
Had a fear that witches were trying to get him. Also wrote one of the first anti-smoking pamphlets
. No, really. In fact, that little pamphlet did more to damn him in the eyes of tobacco-addicted Whig historians than either his sexual orientation or his belief in the divine right of kings.
Charles I - 1625-1649
Had what might charitably be described as a difficult reign.
Physically unimpressive (he was a very short man) and cursed with a speech impediment, Charles had it tough to begin with. Having to deal with several kingdoms while plagued with money troubles and religious strife which began decades prior to his reign would not have been easy for anyone, but unfortunately Charles' character made things a lot worse. He believed (as did his father) in the divine right of kings to rule and quickly grew angry at attempts from Parliament to exact more power in exchange for finances. He levied fines without Parliament, in a highly unpopular move, for 11 years from 1629-1640, until his religious problems caused him to recall it.
All three kingdoms under his rule had different Christian denominations as the majority: England was by this time identifiably Anglican (with many internal disputes among Church members about what that should mean), while Scotland was solidly Presbyterian and Ireland was Catholic. Charles' attempt to impose uniformity on the Scottish church caused them to rebel in what are called the Bishops' Wars. Needing additional funds he called Parliament, who after 11 years were inclined to be bitchy. His having a Catholic wife (whom he faithfully loved) at a time when there were rumors of massacres of Protestants in Ireland (in truth around 2-3000 were likely killed in the Irish revolt but this was widely inflated) didn't help matters. They demanded their authority be confirmed and increased, sentenced the King's chief minister to death and generally both sides riled each other up, until...
Fed up with their presumption of power, Charles marched into a sitting Parliament with his guards and assumed the Speaker's chair. This was an extraordinary act — English monarchs had the legal power to do all this but they were expected, partly by custom and partly by their supposed understanding of the need to respect Parliament, to never do so. He attempted to arrest the ringleaders of the opposition cause, but they had escaped and he looked foolish, running away from London (which given Britain Is Only London
was a mistake) raising his standard at Nottingham in 1642 — so beginning the English Civil Wars
. Parliament, and the country, was split in half between his supporters and opponents.
- Since then, the monarch has been banned from entering the House of Commons. For the State Opening of Parliament, a messenger known as 'Black Rod' is sent. The door is ceremonially slammed in his face when he approaches, so he bangs on it with his titular big stick. Then he's let in and invites the MPs to the Queen's Speech. Since at least the 1980s, republican Labour MP Dennis Skinner has made a habit of making a snarky remark in response, to which everyone else will laugh heartily; it's unclear if someone else will make a tradition of it after he leaves Parliament. Then they all get up and stroll—not process, but stroll—across the way to the House of Lords, which, as a sign of their independence, they enter talking loudly and making jokes.
To cut a very long story short, Charles lost the First Civil War and was imprisoned (in comfort
) by 1646. As the victors tried to figure out what the hell to do next Charles refused to compromise (his Fatal Flaw
) continuing to play sides against each other, drawing the Scots (who had fought against him) to renew the fight against Parliament in 1648. He lost again, and this time he had convinced his enemies that he could not be trusted and must be killed or he would simply keep raising armies to fight more wars (his enemies referred to him as "that man of blood"). As the Parliamentary forces divided themselves over the issue, Charles was tried for Tyranny and High Treason and executed on 30th January 1649. Charles notably managed to show more dignity and presence during his trial (where he lost his habitual stutter and refused to recognize the legitimacy of the court) than at any other point, asking for another coat when he prepared for his execution, so that the crowd would not mistake his shivering for fear. Was made a saint by the later Church of England. Charles made a difficult situation worse with his Fatal Flaw
of refusing to accept the inevitable in the face of defeat, or compromise to head off trouble down the road. Like his father, he was an instinctive autocrat who had no intention of surrendering any of his power. Unlike his father, he had no understanding of how power actually worked, seemingly sincerely believing that the English people were required to succumb to his will.
Charles II - 1649 (de jure)/1660 (de facto)-1685
We have a pretty witty king,
And whose word no man relies on,
He never said a foolish thing,
And never did a wise one
— Charles Wilmot, Earl of Rochester
That's true, for my words are my own, but my actions are those of my ministers.
— Charles II
Declared in Scotland upon his father's death but not acknowledged elsewhere, Charles fought for his father's English throne but was defeated comprehensively at Worcester in 1651, famously having to hide in a tree to escape – from which incident many pubs in Britain are still named the 'Royal Oak' to this day. With Ireland also under the control of Parliament, he lived on the Continent for many years. After the collapse of the English government following the death of Oliver Cromwell, Charles was invited to take the throne
in 1660, in what is known as the Restoration of the Monarchy.
After his return he pardoned most of the rebels but executed the regicides of his father, even digging up those who had died and hanging their corpses.note
Oliver Cromwell was one of these; his severed head was originally placed on a spike as a warning to other 'traitors', and was eventually blown down. In a piece of (probably) accidental symbolism, this happened around 1688 when the Glorious Revolution forced King Charles II's successor, James II, from power. It changed hands a few times afterwards but has since been re-buried in the grounds of Cromwell's old college (Sidney Sussex) at Cambridge University.
Charles II was known as the Merry Monarch (a Boisterous Bruiser
perhaps) for his colourful reign, a stark contrast to the Puritan
regime that preceded him. He kept tensions in the Kingdoms under control to some extent, although the problems that had dethroned his father remained and he had some conflict with Parliament. Despite having at least thirteen children from five mistresses
, he left no legitimate issue. He may have converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, although conflicting reports had him in a coma at the time; certainly he flirted with the idea beforehand and promised to promote it secretly (though how serious he was we cannot know) in exchange for French money. His last words concerned taking care of Nell Gwyn, his favourite mistress.
Charles's popularity was in part attributed to him staying in London when the Great Fire of London hit in 1666 and helping out with the firefighting (similar to how the Royal Family gained respect when they stuck around for the Blitz in 1940). It didn't hurt that he played the Merry Monarch to such an extent that the entire country played along with him.
The playhouses, closed by the Puritans, reopened in Charles's time to a new audience hungry for frivolous entertainment. For the first time in English history women took the stage to acclaim, and the new genre of Restoration Comedy
vied with older plays by Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Davenant. John Milton, a Puritan and republican, wrote his master work Paradise Lost
during Charles's reign, and Samuel Pepys's diaries were written during this time period.
He was succeeded as king by his openly Catholic brother James.
James II and VII - 1685-1688 (-1690 in Ireland)
James's Catholicism was a serious problem for Britons raised on stories of Bloody Mary Tudor and the Protestant Martyrs. His reign was short and troublesome both in Great Britain and in Ireland. Both sides in The Troubles
tended to harp on about his campaign in Ireland; the Republicans saw James as a tragic hero, the rightful King victimised for his faith, while Unionists celebrated the victory of "good King Billy" over the Catholics and adopted orange (from the Dutch House of Orange) as their colour. But James's ingratitude and contempt towards his Irish followers (and his abandonment of the country after the Battle of the Boyne, earning him the unenviable nickname Seamus an Chaca
- 'James the Shit') has muddled his legacy. While nationalist history tends to emphasise the justness of his cause
, the focus is often less on James the man and more on the heroic Irish general Patrick Sarsfield, who kept up the fight for more than a year after James had fled.
The city of New York
was specifically named after him (when he was the Duke of York), rather than after the English city of York directly. He also tried to bring a form of united colonial governance to some of the American colonies, the "Dominion of New England", but this was never popular.
By 1688, the Protestant leadership of England and Scotland had had enough of him. The tipping point was probably the birth of a healthy son to his second wife, Mary of Modena, after years of trying and many stillbirths. With the prospect of an enduring Catholic dynasty in view, the leaders formally asked the Dutch stadtholder William of Orange to bring a Dutch army over to England and take over. James, recognizing the weakness of his position, left England soon after.
William III and Mary II - Joint rulers (Mary 1689-1694, William 1689-1702):
For the Protestant Religion and the Liberty of England I Will Maintain
— "I Will Maintain" being the motto of the House of Orange.
After James II fled England for safety at the court of King Louis of France, Parliament declared William and his wife Mary as co-monarchs. The reason for this unique co-monarchy lies in their tangled relationship as husband and wife, first cousins, and descendants of Charles I: Mary was James II's elder daughter, while William was his nephew by his sister, the Princess Royal. Strictly speaking, had current succession laws been in place at the time Mary would have been the sole monarch with Anne as her heiress presumptive and William heir after that, but as James had fled in part because William had brought over his army it was thought best that he co-reign with his wife and cousin.
The ouster of James eventually became known as the "Glorious Revolution" It also led to the English Bill of Rights, which in turn formed the basis for the (unwritten) British Constitution and ultimately inspired both the American Constitution and those of the future members of the Commonwealth of Nations, which, to quote our article on Australian Politics
, "got a free British Political System
" with independence.
As can be imagined, this "Glorious Revolution" didn't seem all that glorious to the supporters of James II. These Jacobites (from "Jacobus", the Latin for "James") refused to recognise William and Mary's precedence over what they considered the legitimate Stuart line. They were perhaps loudest after the accession of George I, but there are still Jacobites around today: the current Jacobite King, known as the "King over the Water" to true believers, is Franz, Duke of Bavaria, who maintains a neutral stance on the issue. (To be honest he probably doesn't care.)
William and Mary were childless. Nobody's sure quite why they had no liveborn children; one hypothesis is that the miscarriage Mary suffered shortly after their marriage led to an infection, while another supposes that their close relationship as first cousins was to blame. At any rate, Mary died in 1694 of smallpox, and William never remarried.
Anne - 1702-1714:
The Bill of Rights passed in 1689 had stipulated that Mary's sister Anne would succeed William and Mary to the throne should Mary die childless.note
William died of complications from a fall in 1702, and Anne was crowned shortly thereafter.
It was during her predecessor's reign that the Act of Settlement 1701 passed the English Parliament, ensuring that only Protestants could inherit the throne, thus officially de-legitimising Anne's younger half-brother (from her father's second marriage) James. This Act survives to this day and provoked controversy both in England and Scotland.note
More worrying, a failed Scottish scheme to set up a colony in Panama
raised the possibility that the Scots nobility might ally with France and bring back King James if they weren't compensated for their losses. This convinced England and Scotland to finally unite as a single country with a single Crown and Parliament pursuant to the Acts of Union, enacted in 1707. Anne is often said to be the last Queen of England, the last Queen of Scotland, and the first Queen of Great Britain.note
Many British patriotic songs and sea shanties date from her reign, mainly due to the War of the Spanish Succession, including Over the Hills and Far Away
and Spanish Ladies
She's mainly remembered for having been pregnant at least 18 times. Two of her children survived infancy, but neither reached adulthood; most of her pregnancies ended in stillbirths. As with Mary nobody's sure exactly why this happened, but the consensus as of 2013 is either that she suffered from some kind of infection (listeria and herpes being leading candidates) or that she had some kind of gynecological defect. No matter the reason, she died childless at the age of fifty, and was succeeded by her distant Protestant cousin George I of The House Of Hanover
The other memorable thing about Queen Anne is that she was the last ever British monarch to veto a law. note
At one point she was primarily famous for being dead; "Dead as Queen Anne" is a common expression in novels from the Victorian era
and The Edwardian Era
. Nowadays, she isn't even famous for that.
A less-known item from her reign is the Statute of Anne
, the first modern-type copyright protection (in which the intellectual property is assigned to the author—before, it had been assigned to the printer).
A few things are named for her. Annapolis, the capital of Maryland and location of the United States Naval Academy
, may have been named for her while she was still a princess (or it may have been named for Lord Baltimore's wife Anne Arundel); so was the plant Queen Anne's lace (unless it was named for her grandmother Anne of Denmark) and Blackbeard's pirate
ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge
(nobody's really sure why).
Depictions in fiction
- Part 2 of the mini-series Gunpowder, Treason and Plot charts James I's (played by Robert Carlyle) ascension to the English throne and climaxes with the Gunpowder plot.
- To Kill A King about the trial of Charles I, played by Rupert Everett. Tim Roth played Oliver Cromwell.
- As per the quote tag on his entry, Charles II has become one of the most popular characters on the BBC's historical sketch comedy series Horrible Histories.
- We get a glimpse of James I in the Elizabeth mini-series starring Helen Mirren.
- Charles I was played by Stephen Fry in the special Blackadder: The Cavalier Years in a thinly-veiled impression of the king's namesake, Prince Charles.
- In the first book of the Captain Alatriste series, Alatriste is offered money to assassinate a couple of Englishmen travelling through Madrid. One of them turns out to be a young Charles I, secretly in Spain to consider taking the Infanta Maria Anna for his bride.