Dynasties

Antonia Fraser

  • The House of Stuart by Maurice Ashley
    Dent, 237 pp, £9.95, January 1980, ISBN 0 460 04458 3

Why should anyone wish to write the history of a Royal house? On one level, the answer to that question is easy: most of us learnt history in childhood in terms of Angevins, Plantaganets and so forth, and these convenient groupings gave shape to what was often so dauntingly shapeless. Patterns inculcated early in life tend to leave a permanent impression, especially on those who take no more than a superficial interest in the subject. For these groupings are in themselves essentially superficial. Where the characters of the individual monarchs are sufficiently imposing, one seldom talks so glibly about the composite nature of the Royal house. What, for example, were the ‘Tudor’ characteristics – those possessed in common by Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I? Ruthlessness? At first, that seems a promising answer. After all, even Edward VI before his premature death managed to exhibit his father’s notorious ‘frown’. Unfortunately, the generalisation will not bear closer examination. It is simply not accurate to describe Mary Tudor as ruthless. Suppose, following her popular nickname, one substituted ‘bloodthirsty’ for ‘ruthless’ – or at least ‘fanatical’? This merely leaves one with the problem of Elizabeth, who, arguably ruthless, was certainly not bloodthirsty – the very reverse – nor indeed fanatical. The truth is that Elizabeth probably owed more than we generally realise to her mother. The portraits are strikingly similar, except for the colour of the hair: but as Anne Boleyn died young, and in popular disgrace, it is difficult to estimate how she might have turned out. Nevertheless, a comparison between Mary and Elizabeth, daughters of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn respectively, neatly demonstrates the strength of the maternal gene.

If we turn to the Stuarts, the difficulty of finding a common denominator between them which is genuinely ‘Stuart’ is even more acute. For the House of Stuart was constantly enriched by marriages to people of interesting and, as it turned out, dominant blood. James V of Scotland, for example – now there was a Tudor, if anyone can be said to justify the epithet. The grandson of Henry VII, the nephew of Henry VIII (his mother was the Tudor Princess Margaret), he began his personal rule by polishing off the enemies of his house, real or imagined, in a burst of destruction, executing or burning to death with enthusiasm. Again, it is impossible to understand the character of Mary Queen of Scots without appreciating the strong influence of her French inheritance through her mother Mary of Guise, sister of those two amibitious politicians the Duke and the Cardinal of Guise. The monarch with the best claim to embody the ‘Stuart’ qualities, for better or for worse, has to be King James VI and I. This is because he enjoyed a double dose of Stuart blood due to his mother’s marrying her step-first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley: thus, incidentally, introducing the Anglo-French spelling of the name to the Royal house (although Mary Queen of Scots’s frequent anagiams of her own name are always based on ‘Stuart’, not ‘Stewart’). Yet who would instinctively pick the shambling, canny Scottish Jamie, with his fear of physical danger and his greedy (male) favourites, as the incarnation of the typical Stuart or Stewart monarch? The half-French Mary or the half-Sobieski Bonnie Prince Charlie come far more readily to mind.

Surely, then, it is a very difficult task to write the history of a House. There are two possibilities. One is to devise, discover or impose a unifying theme, at the risk of fitting the Stuarts into a historical Procrustean bed, lopping off the inconvenient limbs. Themes which might be interesting to pursue would include the extravagance of the Stuarts – or were they merely under-financed? (But James VI was not extravagant in Scotland.) Their physical courage (but James VI, once more, is the exception). Or their marital misfortunes: the barrenness of Catherine of Braganza, Anne Hyde’s inability to produce a son, and the imprudent character of Henrietta Maria. Once again it is inconvenient that James VI and I made a good choice, as royal brides go, in Anne of Denmark, and produced a large family.

The alternative is to tell a straight forward narrative from the arrival of the first Breton Steward in Britain in the 12th century, down to the death of the Cardinal of York in 1807. Dr Ashley, tireless labourer in the field of the Stuarts, has chosen the latter method in his latest book The House of Stuart. And he disarms criticism by stating his motives in a foreword: first, everyone, from Louis XVI downwards, has always wanted to read about the Stuarts and still does. (An unlucky family, Louis XVI termed them: but they have been lucky to their biographers.) Secondly, Dr Ashley wanted to enlarge his own knowledge of the Scottish Stewarts, having studied the English variety for so long: he has enjoyed his researches, and the reader will certainly enjoy the result. He has a dramatic tale to tell, and tells it well, with his customary clarity of style, which, as so often in the past, enables him to disentangle complicated series of events with great skill. Moreover, any step by an English historian to interest himself in matters over the Border is to be welcomed. The House of Stuart does not quite have the authority of Caroline Bingham’s excellent The Stewart Kingdom of Scotland 1371-1603, published in 1974, but its range is wider. Caroline Bingham’s The Kings and Queens of Scotland takes the story down to ‘the Kings across the water’, as the Pretenders were known, and includes an interesting appendix on the Stewarts as poets: but it is shorter, and, as its title indicates, oriented towards the north.

Sometimes Dr Ashley seems to strain his parallels, as when he compares the court of the pious, abstemious James IV of Scotland to that of Charles II in Whitehall. He is occasionally far-fetched in his treatment of heredity: why should Charles I have inherited his taste from his great-grandfather James V, when his mother Anne of Denmark had strong artistic taste? It was she who initiated those famous masques perfected by her son and daughter-in-law. Inigo Jones’s ‘Bel Anna’ is surely the real clue to Charles I’s artistic perception. Occasionally, too, Dr Ashley’s own material betrays him – as when he comments that the Stuarts were ungrateful to their servants, before discussing Queen Anne’s exceptional loyalty to Harley.

But Dr Ashley is too honest a scholar to stray very far down these tempting paths: it is typical of this honesty that he admits Charles II and James II (two monarchs he has studied in detail) had nothing in common but an obsessive love of sex.

It is a little disappointing to find that he gives as a reason for the fall of the House of Stuart the fact that ‘the direct line’ died out. (I assume he means the direct male line, for the Catholic representative of the direct female line – descended from the sister of Charles II – is alive and well and living somewhere in Europe, while the Protestant representative – descended from the sister of Charles I – is equally alive and well and sitting on the English throne.) This, after all, is the way most Royal houses, and non-royal ones, come to an end. Let us hope, however, that Dr Ashley, having discovered the delights of Scottish history, will pursue another theme involving both countries.

One further Anglo-Scottish point: the battle of Culloden was not fought on ‘a spring day’, as Dr Ashley suggests, at least not in the way that term is generally understood. It is true that the date was 16 April, and that would be spring in England: in Scotland, however, there was snow and sleet. It is relevant to the defeat of the Scottish army that they had to sleep out the night before the battle in icy conditions.