Stewarts on the dole

Rosalind Mitchison

  • Bonnie Prince Charlie by Rosalind Marshall
    HMSO, 208 pp, £8.50, April 1988, ISBN 0 11 493420 7
  • Bonnie Prince Charlie: A Biography by Susan Maclean Kybett
    Unwin Hyman, 343 pp, £12.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 04 440213 9
  • Charles Edward Stuart: A Tragedy in Many Acts by Frank McLynn
    Routledge, 640 pp, £24.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 415 00272 9
  • Mary Queen of Scots: A Study in Failure by Jenny Wormald
    George Philip, 206 pp, £14.95, March 1988, ISBN 0 540 01131 2
  • Mary Stewart: Queen in Three Kingdoms edited by Michael Lynch
    Blackwell, 238 pp, £25.00, July 1988, ISBN 0 631 15263 6
  • The Shadow of a Crown: The Life Story of James II of England and VII of Scotland by Meriol Trevor
    Constable, 320 pp, £15.00, June 1988, ISBN 0 09 467850 2
  • The Scottish Tory Party: A History by Gerald Warner
    Weidenfeld, 247 pp, £12.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 297 79101 X
  • The Elgins, 1766-1917: A Tale of Aristocrats, Proconsuls and their Wives by Sydney Checkland
    Aberdeen University Press, 303 pp, £25.00, April 1988, ISBN 0 08 036395 4

Recent anniversaries for Scotland have been encouraging the simplified version of its history that obtains in most English minds. Two topics are sufficiently dramatic to break through cultural isolationism: the reign of Mary Queen of Scots and the Jacobite risings. The more sophisticated English absorbers of history may also entertain an uneasy recollection that the Scots had something to do with the English Civil Wars, and may even have an impression of outbreaks of Presbyterian intransigence in the 19th century: but for most people in England Scottish history means Mary and Prince Charles Edward, whose deaths, one of which was directly caused by England, are associated with ’87 and ’88. This setting in time is unfair on those of us who try to show that Scottish society had its own interesting line of development, a topic which neither of these known figures paid any attention to. A theme which unites the central figures of these anniversaries is their marked lack of interest in Scotland.

Still, there is a contemporary ground for sympathy with the problems of Prince Charles Edward, the Young Pretender, in our current recognition of the personal and social problems produced by unemployment. Psychiatrists, doctors and social workers are all today faced with the human inability to adjust to the absence of a function in the economy and with the likelihood that the unemployed will take to drink and wife-beating, as did Charles Edward. Indeed, who can be more unemployed than members of a royal family in exile? There may be work for a claimant to a throne, in organising a court and intrigue, but there is very little for the rest of the family to do. Dr Marshall suggests that Charles Edward’s mother’s anorexia and his own alcoholism had a common root, and both may have been the result of unwillingness to admit to uselessness. A royal claimant or his heir cannot settle to alternative work: their significance lies wholly in who they are by birth. They cannot even, as contemporaries sometimes urged, drop part of the claim. Elizabeth of England tried to make Mary give up her claim to the English throne – understandably, since it was a better one than her own – and many of Charles Edward’s Scottish supporters urged him to settle for Scotland only. But a dynasty’s claims, if real, cannot be split up or abandoned. Royalty has to base its position on the totality of hereditary right: only God can make an heir.

Given the assured position of leader, monarchs or pseudo-monarchs can reduce their state, but they are usually not allowed to by their supporters. Both Charles Edward and Mary could rough it when required: the Prince’s cheerful stamina is one of his few really attractive features. Susan Kybett appears to grudge the fact that the Prince would be better supplied than other people whenever possible, but this preferential treatment was an essential part of the recognition of monarchy. It was truly shocking when, for a time, Mary was in neglect and danger on Loch Leven, and as a refugee her indignation against Elizabeth for being mean in sending clothes to her was justified. Monarchy was always to be seen as different from common humanity, even if it chose, as did the later Stewarts, to play the difference down. Monarchy was a necessary feature of legitimate government, though by the 18th century the dynastic claims on which foreign war was pursued were simply cover. The unwillingness of some writers in a more egalitarian world to recognise the sense of superiority by birth is a handicap to their historical understanding, though it is also a reminder of how little we wish to return to that earlier world.

A striking feature of the historiography of Charles Edward is how different are the firsthand accounts of him. This point sustained a learned work by A.J. Youngson, The Prince and the Pretender a few years ago, which built up opposing narratives. Those who felt that legitimate expectations had been frustrated attempted to put the blame on the leading figure, while those who had regarded the hopes as fairly remote would continue to feel gratification at having known the Prince. Different modern evaluations are shown in the three books on Charles. Dr Marshall is to some degree writing an establishment history, and where possible taking the Prince’s side, but she does so cautiously, for she has a scholar’s good judgment. Her book will be particularly valued by the tourist industry, for it is enriched with splendid and relevant illustrations. Though the scholarly equipment does not run to an index, there is a useful account of the main sources.

Susan Kybett is in the weaker position of being hostile to her subject, always a handicap to a biographer. She has handicaps of an even more serious nature, the most conspicuous being a blank mind on periodisation. Confidence on the part of the reader is not enhanced by a sentence on the second page of the preface, where the author sets out the documentation used. Letters, she claims ‘were purchased in batches by Queen Victoria, who had a fondness for Scotland between 1804 and 1816’. This is not the only howler in dating, and it raises a question about the academic competence of the publishers. The blurb claims that this is ‘the definitive biography’, but would an editor who is apparently unable to use standard reference works have grounds for such a judgment?

Author and publisher assert that there has been research into new material. The author seems to think that research means simply pursuing some manuscripts and re-telling their content. Her indifference to anyone else’s work is shown by the systematic ignoring of anything written in the last twenty years, which means that she is unaware of a major sexual liaison. She suffers from the belief that what she knows is bound to be more important than what she doesn’t, and should have its importance displayed by repetition. Great stress is laid on the idea that the Prince suffered from scurvy. It was almost exactly at the time of the ’45 that Anson’s voyage round the world was to produce a devastating example of this scourge, so the disease certainly should not be discounted. The potato, which was to end it for all but fussy eaters, still awaited general adoption. But James Lind, in his definitive work on the causation of the disease, a work to which the author refers, points out the error of what she is here doing, a common medical sin of his day – that of attributing to it almost every type of lesion. Highlanders had a reputation for scurvy in the 18th century, yes, but also for the itch, and there is no reason to hold that these ills were not known apart. Susan Kybett’s other claim for a novel view, that the French had no intention of supporting the Jacobite campaign, is also overstated: that government would have come in at once if things had clearly been going well.

A latecomer to this commemorative year is Frank McLynn’s biography a thorough study supported by the full range of sources. McLynn may seem to some over-inclined to use the dogmas of psychology to explore the Prince’s fragile personality, but his emphasis on the insecurity and occasional paranoia that the Prince showed, joined to a warm appreciation of his talents and charm, does much to explain the contradictory accounts left us of the man. He could be resilient, humanitarian and lively; he could also be morose, suspicious and brutal. McLynn argues that his childhood, by royal standards not particularly traumatic, left devastating injuries to his personality. He is as much on the side of the Prince in his various disputes, particularly his breach with his father, as a realistic understanding of events makes possible. For instance, he fully supports the Prince’s view that in allowing his brother Henry to become a cardinal his father had betrayed both him and the Stuart cause. A more important historical contribution is McLynn’s unsentimental analysis of the actions of the Jacobite clans. In many cases, the manpower of the clan joined the Forty-Five but the leaders did not, a strong point against any idea of long standing dynastic loyalty. To McLynn the turnabout at Derby was a gross error. Given the ramshackle structure of British government, a dash for London could have brought down the financial system and invalidated the Parliamentary guarantee of the National Debt, so tumbling the whole charmless Hanoverian monarchy. Unfortunately for the Prince, his concepts of strategy, valid in the vacuum of power that existed in Britain, were outfaced by the orthodox military principles proclaimed by Lord George Murray and accepted by the Jacobite leaders.

Dr Wormald’s attack on Mary Queen of Scots must be taken very seriously. The chapter which sets out the reality of Scottish politics and society on the eve of the Queen’s birth is a brilliant piece of historical writing which no other scholar could produce. Her main theme is that not only did Mary know very little of her native kingdom: she was not interested in it. It was a come-down to be Queen Regnant there after being Queen Consort in France. She had not studied Scotland, and she was not prepared to work at governing it. She could have done much more to preserve and protect the Catholic element; at least she could have modified the extreme form of Calvinism to which Scotland became dedicated. To Dr Wormald, Mary’s reign was a series of chances missed through idleness or ignorance. Mary could respond very rapidly and skilfully when her mistakes led to crisis, but she had no real policy and little sense of what she, as a monarch, should be doing. By cool reasoning Dr Wormald is convinced that she knew of the plan to murder the man we still call ‘Darnley’, by which we show our refusal to recognise him as King Henry. Perhaps Dr Wormald does not appreciate how some women, and almost all politicians, can conceal from themselves the inevitable consequences of their actions. But all historians of Scotland who value the work of James VI as he picked up the pieces and made a success of governing Scotland are bound to have very little time for the activities of his mother.

Another investigation of the Queen of Scots, that by Michael Lynch and his team, is not aimed at the general reader, for it assumes a firm grasp of the main events of her life. It explores areas of less common interest: her court, her library, her use of her French jointure, her policy towards the house of Huntly. There is, though, a common theme through several of the essays – the overwhelming importance to her of dynastic issues. This is not, of course, new, for it was stressed over ninety years ago in Seeley’s Growth of British Policy: but then the emphasis was on European issues, whereas here it is on Mary’s own priorities. She made herself much more a martyr to the Stewart dynasty than to Catholicism. The dual needs of dynastic interest, rendered unusually intense by the low fertility of most royal families of this period, were the protection and assertion of her claim to the English succession and her need to marry and produce a legitimate heir. Efforts to get the succession acknowledged by Elizabeth by letting the English Queen advise on the marriage proved impractical. Mary cut the Gordian knot by choosing impulsively and disastrously for herself. The authors here do not attempt to show her policy as wise or successful, but they give a new emphasis to her main story, as well as taking the reader into interesting byways.

The other royal biography here, one notes with some relief, does not relate to an anniversary. Meriol Trevor writes a sympathetic but supremely boring account of James II and VII’s life, in the way that she might study a minor country gentleman, with no appreciation of what it was like to rule in a century witnessing a major change from one kind of monarchy to another. James was an active Lord High Admiral, took his exiled secondment to Scotland fairly seriously (though the author is unaware that there is a case for its economic significance to be made), became a devout Catholic, breached the rules of that Church systematically in adulterous relationships, and sincerely desired religious toleration. As Meriol Trevor says, he was no politician: this negative feature is shared by the author, who fails to note that James in England was doing what his father had done in Scotland, setting out to destroy the advantage of the dominant political group in favour of the interests of other sections of society which were not strong enough to give him support of value. That James has had his reputation blacked by Whig historiography is undoubtedly true: that the way to restore it is to follow him in ignoring the political realities of kingship in his day and country is more doubtful. And there are still some black spots not explained away. In spite of the subtitle of the book, the author pays so little attention to James’s position in Scotland that she fails to note that it was his dilatoriness which gave the opportunity for the massacre of Glencoe.

Gerald Warner’s book also ignores large parts of historical reality, but deliberately, and in a more sophisticated way. He has decided to find in the modern Tory Party a lineal succession from the miscellaneous discontent of 18th-century Scotland, some of which was specifically Jacobite, and other parts of which chose to treat the monarchic regime as an open question. His is a tenable position provided it is recognised, as here it is not, that party organisation was on so small a scale that it is misleading to write in terms of national parties. The present state of conservatism in Scotland makes the book appear a 20th-century token similar to the Jacobite emblems illustrated by Dr Marshall – badges which might help to hold the scattered faithful together, but were of no practical bearing.

There are problems for a writer setting out to examine part only of the political system. What is to be used as material when the wrong lot are in power? The late Sir Keith Feiling, facing this many years ago, could draw on wide historical knowledge and use it to relate events not dominated by the party to developments within it. Gerald Warner’s cruder solution is simply to leave things out. This makes for a fairly thin trickle of politics between 1846 and 1918: the second Reform Act scrapes in, but not the third, nor the movement for votes for women. Some topics are left out even when Tories were in power: for instance, presumably because the topic is difficult, there is no mention of the bullion issue of 1810, though leading propagandists were Scots. The author’s acquaintance with the work of others is patchy. He thinks that it is a new discovery that Lord Liverpool’s regime was not a period of reactionary stagnation. Perhaps because of more sustained Conservative success, his touch is surer in the 20th century than in the 19th, and the modern section of the book has some careful consideration of political change. Elsewhere the technique is to present accurate and rather dull accounts of party representation and affairs within Scotland, alternating with sneers at the other side. We have, for instance, a sympathetic assessment of the career of Henry Dundas, followed by the comment on 1806: ‘The Whigs stampeded into government like drunken sailors invading a grog shop.’ Most historians, whether or not they know anything about marine catering facilities, will translate that into ‘the Whigs took office.’ The book’s most interesting statement is in the preface by Mrs Thatcher, where she calls it ‘scholarly’.

The late Sydney Checkland’s study of the earls of Elgin is a sympathetic blend of political and economic understanding. Over-indulgence in improvement in the 18th century left a heavy burden of debt on the estate, which meant that a series of careerist and intelligent earls had to make their mark not at Westminster but overseas. The debt was eased by a pension from the Crown; doles for the rich were then selective in their impact. Even so, the combination of large families and a great house to keep up set the earls to work. The seventh increased the debt by looting the statues of the Parthenon. Large sums had to be expended on their care and transport, and even so some were lost at sea. The earl was aided in his project by the enthusiasm of some antiquaries and the laxness of Turkish officials. Though he was at no point as illegal or ruthless as Sir Aurel Stein in cultural piracy, the rights and wrongs of the matter have made him the most famous member of the family. His son pursued a proconsular career of great significance for Canada, with less panache and more hard work, though he, too, managed to leave his mark as a destroyer in China. His grandson, also in the viceroy stakes, seems to have held to the belief that the House of Lords is a very old building, not ready for change. The different intellectual interests of the seventh and the eighth earls represented a generational change. The seventh went overboard on antiquity: culture was ancient Greece. The eighth spent many years cogitating on the basic principles of government. If he had had the money, he would have had an interesting career in home politics, for his active career spanned the mid-century decades when personality was more important than party. Still, in bringing responsible government to Canada, his life was probably more useful overseas. It was as a Canadian that Checkland was drawn to him, and this book is a reminder of Checkland’s skill in holding together different strands of history. It also reminds that history has not simply been made by monarchs, least of all by failed ones.

Prosopography is not the only manifestation of new Scottish historical writing. A welcome development is the new Sunday Mail series, The Story of Scotland,[*] coming out weekly for a year. The main articles in it have not yet got to the modern age, and so have not had to handle the misguided appeal of exiled monarchs, but there is a welcome touch of authenticity in the articles by some younger historians. These bound up together would make a good general history of the country, and the time is ripe for one. Elsewhere in the issues some ancient or, more probably, 19th-century myth is allowed, only faintly disparaged by remarks such as ‘legend has it that ... ’ Legend still has too much of it altogether, but at least it has to share its place with some realistic attention to Scottish society of the past.

[*] Edited by Gordon Donaldson. Archie Duncan and Dorothy Dunnett. £1 each part.