Alcoholics, depressives and homosexuals: that's the Stuarts for you, says Phil Hoad
Dynasty: The Stuarts 1560-1807 by John MacLeod, Hodder & Stoughton £20
iF THE GODS WERE the first soap opera, then Royal families were close on their winged heels. We're currently glued to the final episodes of the English version of this drama: a banal narrative, scripted by half-rate hacks. To confirm this, check out some past instalments. The House of Stuart is a fine example, jam-packed with murder, treachery and corking examples of inept monarchy.
James I and his four successors were unlucky enough to reign over the last period before parliamentary sovereignty made regal blundering impossible. MacLeod never says whether the Stuarts provoked the crises or simply fell victim to an unstable situation. But he does flesh out a compelling picture of a dynasty that consistently spawned monarchs as contrary as the times: brave but unfortunate, idealistic but crass.
Originally, the Stuarts were descended from one Flaad, seneschal at the Breton court. After the family emigrated to England in the 11th century, one branch curried favour in Scotland. Their hour came in 1371, when David II died childless: his High Steward, a Stewart (the Scottish spelling), was crowned Robert II. Though an elderly and unremarkable ruler, Robert did lay down two important
precedents that many Stuart successors were apparently Providence-bound to follow. He was libidinous in the extreme (at least ensuring that he did have successors) and prone to depression. Later Stuart sovereigns displayed these traits, as well as a tendency to gravitate like moths towards violence and premature deaths. Successive Stuart kings tried, with varying degrees of success, to pacify their wild, fractured kingdom.
The four Stuart kings of England found life no easier. Not only did they all display an alarming resemblance to Queen guitar czar Brian May, but more damaging traits continued to resurface.
It started well, at least: James I displayed far more acumen than his mum Mary, Queen of Scots. His muted reaction to her execution in 1587 suggests he possessed the necessary political sang-froid from an early stage. Circumspection was his byword in English affairs. Crude manners bred in the Scottish court and his love of fondling his genitals offended almost everyone; but he proved a learned, able monarch in a difficult time.
His son Charles I, censorious and dogmatic, attempted to impose his High Anglicanism across his kingdom, laying himself open to both religious dissent and parliamentary fears of "arbitrary government". He alienated the bulk of his people within 15 years; the results are well documented. Charles II restored some semblance of order, but was never a strong, successful leader in the mould of Elizabeth. He was succeeded by his brother James II, a blockhead so tactless that he was forced from his throne after three years. The monarchy passed to the Hanoverians after his daughters died heirless.
MacLeod consigns the frustrated hopes of the remaining Stuart flotsam to a perfunctory last chapter. James H's son lacked the drive to regain his throne. Charles Edward Stuart foundered at Culloden in 1745 and, inconsolable, didn't stay bonny for long; despair and alcoholism took him to his Maker. His brother Henry, a homosexual cardinal, reduced the Stuart claims to souvenir status; tourists in Rome amused themselves by seeking an audience with the English "king" in exile. The Stuarts became, as MacLeod's jacket blurb tartly notes, the faces that launched a million shortbread tins.
MacLeod's characterisation of the dynasty is a robust effort. Sometimes he focuses on the kings at the expense of period detail the picky little groups and complex twists of the religious drama unfolding beneath them get seriously confusing somewhere after the Queen of Scots. Dynasty, as a whole doesn't favour laboured analysis; MacLeod often dismisses academic hot potatoes with a gruff "Whatever" and gets on with the yam. But his crisp style, peppered with laconic asides, aids swift reading and Dynasty is a welloiled gateway to an understanding of the period.