The Unlucky Royal Stewarts
by Peggy M. Baker
The tangled lives of the “Royal Stewarts” present a larger-than-life saga stuffed with passion, exhilaration and accomplishment but also with spectacular failures and, always, tragic losses.
Some of Scotland’s royal Stewarts were lucky in love. A few lived to a ripe old age. None, however, were lucky in both life and love!
The most romantic (and romantically effective) Stewart was, perhaps, James I. Imprisoned in England, thanks to the machinations of an evil uncle, James was released by his love for a beautiful maiden.
The story’s fairytale quality is heightened by a biographical poem, The King’s Quair, written by James himself. The fairytale ends with wedded bliss and the king’s return to his own kingdom. The story, however (like most Royal Stewart stories), ended in tragedy.
While James was the only royal Stewart (that we know of!) to compose love poetry, he was far from alone in living a tempestuous and tragic life. His ancestors and descendants alike experienced seismic sea changes of success and failure, happiness and tragedy. Indeed, their very presence on Scotland’s throne was due to the unlikely and turbulent story of their legendary ancestor, Robert the Bruce, and his two children.
The Scottish succession had been thrown into doubt when the young heiress, Margaret the Maid of Norway, died in 1290. The Scottish lords asked the assistance of King Edward I in judging among the various candidates for the throne (in effect, inviting an ambitious fox into an unprepared henhouse).
Edward chose John Balliol. When Scotland, under its new king, did not kowtow to Edward’s wishes, he attacked. He won several decisive battles, removing the Stone of Destiny from Scone to Westminster, and stripping Balliol of his crown.
The Scots gradually rallied to fight Edward. They were led, first, by William Wallace. After his death, Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick and heir of a great Norman-Scottish family, stepped forward to oppose Edward and fight in the cause of Scottish independence. In 1306, he was crowned King of the Scots.
In the early years of his reign, Robert suffered an endless series of defeats. His wife Elizabeth de Burgh, daughter of the English Earl of Ulster, and his 10-year old daughter Marjorie were captured by the English. They languished in isolation for some eight years.
By 1314, however, Robert had regained much of Scotland. He was finally able to ransom his women, both of whom immediately dove back into life. The year after her release, Marjorie married Walter Stewart, the 6th hereditary High Steward of Scotland (a title still held today by Charles, Prince of Wales). In 1316, a heavily pregnant Marjorie fell from her horse. Her baby, a boy named Robert, was born safely but Marjorie did not survive.
Elizabeth de Burgh, with her biological clock ticking, was also reproducing. After giving birth to two daughters, twin sons were born in 1324. One son, David, survived. Elizabeth herself died in 1327.
Two years later, the government of England’s new young king, Edward III, sought an end to the wars. The treaty was sealed by the marriage of Robert’s 4-year-old son David and Edward’s 6-year-old sister Joan. The next year, Robert the Bruce died.
David’s extreme youth presented England with the opportunity to, once again, meddle in Scotland’s affairs. David and Joan were forced to flee to France, where they remained for seven years.
In David’s absence, his nephew Robert Stewart, son of Marjorie Bruce, governed Scotland and continued to resist English encroachments. After changes in the international scene allowed their return, the 17-year-old king and his 20-year-old queen enjoyed only four peaceful years in Scotland.
Then the French, defeated by Edward III at the Battle of Crecy, called on David to attack England. And in a quixotic and foolish chivalric gesture, David did! He marched south, fought, lost, was captured and held a prisoner in England for ransom. During David’s absence, Robert Stewart once again held Scotland together.
King David spent eleven years as a prisoner of the English. When he returned to Scotland in 1357, Joan did not accompany him. She chose to remain in England, where she died in 1362.
The childless David, now free to make another marriage, chose Margaret Drummond Logie, the widow and daughter of a mere knight. After several years, David tired of her.
Prompted to action by a love affair with the nobly born Agnes Dunbar, he attempted divorce. Margaret fought back, appealing to the pope and dragging out the legal arguments. David died unexpectedly in 1371, still legally married to Margaret and still without children. He was succeeded by his nephew Robert.
This first Stewart monarch, who ruled as Robert II, was seven years older than his nephew David and had never expected to sit on Scotland’s throne. Now 55, he had already enjoyed a successful career as the head of a great aristocratic kindred and the father of an extraordinarily large family.
Robert’s first marriage to Elizabeth Mure brought four sons and five daughters. His second marriage to Euphemia Ross brought an additional two sons and two daughters. He also had, by assorted mistresses, at least eight additional illegitimate sons and uncounted daughters. In this superabundance of offspring, his two oldest surviving legitimate sons were of paramount importance. They were mature, powerful, and at odds with each other.
In 1384, the oldest son, John, staged a coup against his aged father. King Robert II struck back by plotting with his second son Robert, Duke of Albany. Albany was the more capable and ruthless of the two brothers. He succeeded in ousting his brother John and reinstating his father, King Robert. Robert, however, actually gained little. Albany kept all the real power for himself.
Nevertheless, when Robert died, Albany did not succeed to the throne. Instead, the crown was inherited by Robert’s oldest son John. John being a name of ill omen, he took the name Robert III – resulting in two competing brothers named Robert, one the King and the other the Duke of Albany. John/Robert was not an effective king and Albany still kept the power.
There were dangers, however, looming on Albany’s horizon. John/Robert had two healthy sons who could not be expected to defer to their uncle forever. Albany struck first at the older son David, incarcerating and then starving the young man. John/Robert’s only remaining son, James, was only a boy. Albany could bide his time.
Four years later, Robert decided to send James to safety in France. James’ ship was captured by pirates and James was taken to London. His ailing father died of grief. A regency was established on behalf of the captive James, now nominally king of Scotland. The Scottish regency was held, first, by James’ ambitious and power-hungry uncle Albany, and then by Albany’s son, Murdoch.
King James I spent eighteen years as an English captive before he was finally released in 1429. He returned home to Scotland with an English wife, Joan Beaufort. Theirs was a love match and James composed some heartbreakingly lovely poetry for her.
On his return to Scotland, James began a series of political maneuvers to regain control over his mighty and far-too independent barons. In the process, he created powerful enemies. James was assassinated in 1437.
James I was succeeded by his 6-year-old son, another James. When James II turned 19, he married Mary of Guelders, niece of Philip of Burgundy. During his reign, James completed the task, begun by his father, of establishing his authority over Scotland’s noble families.
In the culminating episode, an enraged James II (probably without premeditation) stabbed William Douglas, 8th Duke of Douglas, to death. Douglas’ brothers fled to England, leading once again to war. James, enthusiastic about modern artillery, anticipated with pleasure the prospect of trying out some new weaponry. One of his prized cannons exploded, killing him instantly. James II, who died in 1460, had personally ruled for only ten years.
James II’s 9-year-old son succeeded him as James III. The major positive achievement of his reign was his marriage to Margaret of Denmark. Theirs was not, and never would be, a love story but Margaret did bring Orkney and the Shetland Islands as part of her dowry.
The chilly, albeit proper and respectful, relationship between the two has variously been ascribed to James’ lustful heterosexuality, or to James’ underlying homosexuality, or to Margaret’s passion-quenching view of loving being appropriate only for procreation.
Unlike his royal Stewart ancestors, James III was a weak man and a weak king who favored the highly unpopular policy of peace with England! James’s two younger brothers, best known by their ominous-sounding dukedoms of Mars and Albany, followed in a long family tradition and rebelled. They lost.
Mars was executed and Albany fled to France. Then James switched sides, turning away from England and allying with France. Albany in turn switched sides and allied with England.
Attempting to claim the Scots throne for himself, Albany invaded with the assistance of an English army led by Edward IV’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester. James’ advisors refused to let him face Richard and imprisoned him to stop him from taking the field. This unprecedented situation ended with the unexpected death of Edward IV and the enthronement of the now-distracted Gloucester as Richard III.
Albany retreated once again to France, where he was killed in a tournament. James, with his brothers and rivals removed, became increasingly unstable. The Scottish barons convinced James’ young son (yet another James) to join in their opposition. The rebels, with Prince James as their rallying point, won a great victory in 1488.
In the aftermath of the battle, an unknown assassin murdered James III. The Prince, now James IV, was burdened by guilt for his share in his father’s death. A penitential air, however, formed no part of his persona. James was vigorous, capable, intelligent, energetic, a scholar who spoke several languages, a patron of education and literature and very, very appealing to the ladies. A bachelor into his late 20s, well beyond the usual, he had a succession of lovely, cheerful mistresses.
Dynastic and strategic needs eventually did intrude, however, and James made a political marriage to Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII and older sister of Henry VIII.
The marriage never stood a chance. Margaret was a self-centered and gloomy 13-year-old to James’ sophisticated and bon vivant 28. After a few years of growing-up time, James and Margaret did produce several children. Only one lived past infancy.
James IV died as a result of his poetic, valiant, foolish spirit. War had broken out again between England and France. Queen Anne, wife of Louis XII of France, personally called upon James to remember the “Auld Alliance” and come to her assistance, by advancing on England.
James was not deterred by the unfortunate outcome of David II’s earlier chivalric gesture. Instead, he saw no choice but to make a grand and noble gesture (one which his wife Margaret considered pig-headed and foolish). He invaded England. James IV and some ten thousand Scots were killed at the Battle of Flodden.
James V succeeded his father at the age of 18 months and personally assumed the government of Scotland at age 17. James was yet another romantic, given to wandering the countryside in disguise and breaking hearts right and left. He determined that nothing would do but that he should marry a French princess.
James journeyed to France and, offered his pick, fell in love with the fragile tubercular 16-year-old Princess Madeleine. The young couple stood firm in the face of opposition from King Francis I, who regarded his daughter as far too delicate for marriage and for life in Scotland. But, married they would be! And, in 1537, married they were in a sumptuous, lavish, colorful ceremony. The young couple embarked for Scotland, where, less than a year after her wedding, Madeleine died in her husband’s arms.
James still needed a queen and an heir, and he looked again to France. For his second wife, he chose the much-sturdier Mary of Guise, a nobly born young widow with a strong young son.
The young king now faced the usual conflicts with England. This time the foe was the Scots’ king’s uncle, Henry VIII. A battle loomed, but James was too ill to lead his troops. Instead, he sent his army forward under the generalship of Robert, Lord Maxwell. The Scots, however, were fatally touchy about matters of rank and status. They would follow no one but their king. Their army, in complete disarray, suffered a stunning defeat.
A few days later, the still-ailing James heard that his wife Mary had given birth to a daughter. He turned his head to the wall, saying, “It came with a lass [Marjorie Bruce] and it will go with a lass [his own infant daughter]”. Only 31, James is said to have died of grief and self-pity.
James V’s daughter was Mary Queen of Scots. She led a life so full and dramatic, that it cannot be briefly summarized. Her story encapsulated all of her ancestors’ successes and all of their heartbreaks. Married three times (and accused of murdering one of her husbands) and then forced to abdicate her throne, she was (like James I) imprisoned for eighteen years in England. The end of Mary’s story, however, was not a joyous homecoming. It was an execution.
Mary was succeeded by her son, James VI, but the child’s father had been a “Stuart,” descended from a cadet branch of the royal family. It is in Mary – doomed, romantic, beautiful, charismatic, passionate, brave and very foolish Mary – that we find the culmination and end of the unlucky “Royal Stewarts.”