Review – Dynasty: The Stuarts John MacLeod (and a potted history of the Stuarts)

Dynasty – The Stuarts

By John MacLeod

2 stars

I rarely rate a book this low, and if I do I have usually stopped reading it.  I like history, and this was a turbulent time in British History. In fact, it was the only time Britain has been a republic (only for a few years), and it changed the British monarchy forever.

The Stuarts were far more interesting than this author makes out – and more varied so here’s a potted history.

Mary, Queen of Scots: infant queen regnant (most unusual as women rarely came to the throne on their own account); wife to the French Dauphin and would have been Queen of France had her young and sickly hubby not died; married a totally unsuitable nobleman – Lord Darnley (not royalty – shocking for the time); possibly complicit in his murder (which was shoddily done); watched her probable lover murdered in front of her eyes; third equally unsuitable husband Lord Bothwell (he kidnapped and raped her, forcing her into a marriage); deposed; exiled; executed by her cousin for being involved with a treasonous plot to bring back Catholism and usurp the English throne.

James I (and VI):  son of Mary and first husband Lord Darnley (probably); first king of England, Ireland and Scotland (sorry Wales you were already under the English then); King for 57 years in Scotland and 21 years in England. Also came to the throne as a baby – after his mother was deposed. Inherited a realm divided by religion and governed during his minority by 4 different regents; intelligent, and a good scholar he is perhaps best known for the King James Bible – which was translated and produced in English during his reign. He was obsessed with witches and witchcraft – but not in a good way and many people were executed for this ‘crime’ during his reign.

James was probably gay, or at least enjoyed gay relationships with various men at court – although he did his duty and married to produce an heir.  His ‘favourites’ were often rather unscrupulous (by today’s standards) and he was manipulated by them – much to the annoyance of parliament – who wanted to do it. He was married to a 14-year-old Danish Princess (Anne of Denmark). His eldest child died of typhoid, his daughter married to become the ill-fated Elizabeth Queen of Bohemia, and his son Charles succeeded him. Yes, that’s the Charles who annoyed parliament so much they chopped off his head….

Charles I:  Poor old Charles I. He wasn’t a bad man, but he wasn’t a good king. Or at least Parliament didn’t think so. He married a Catholic (and a bossy one) – which did not go down well in the largely Protestant Britain, and kept asking for money to fight costly and unpopular wars. He believed in the Divine Right of Kings – basically the King answered to no one but God Almighty. Parliament also had issues with this, funnily enough. The English Civil War went on for 9 awful years and the country was left rather in chaos during this time. Largely it was a religious war but it was also a conflict of a stubborn king who refused to concede any power and a miffed parliament who thought the king and his Catholic cronies had far too much.  It’s possible that over a 190000 died in England from a population of just 5 million from causes related to the war (sickness, wounds, death in battle) and many more were exiled.  In the end the Roundheads were victorious and the King was executed. I think this was the only time an English monarch has been executed by the state (excepting falling in battle, or by a foreign power, or dubious circumstances whilst in exile/imprisonment).  Charles managed to protect his family – they fled to the continent and had a difficult decade living in exile from the goodwell of various foreign lords and princes.

I will miss out Oliver Cromwell and the Commonweath – only because they weren’t Stuart blood but if you want to learn more this is a good place to start.Oliver Cromwell

Charles II : Charles II was handsome, charming and a darn sight smarter than his old man.  He made concessions when he had to and was smart enough to let Parliament have some power. He was also an inveterate womaniser – his official bastard progeny numbered 14 and there were probably lots more. Unfortunately, legitimate issue was 0 surviving – his Queen had a number of miscarriages and was unable to have a child. Despite legions of mistresses Charles stuck by his barren queen, even though he was urged to discard her.

Charles was keen on the arts, was a bit of a rogue but brought an air of jolity back after the rather dismal years of the protectorate.  He was also tolerant of religion but was careful in his dealings with Catholics (who were still deeply mistrusted). He converted on his deathbed.

He was succeeded by his brother James II, VII…. not a popular king. James was rather arrogant, an obvious Catholic, and probably suffered from some serious mental issues (not surprising really as his father was executed for treason). He married Anne Hyde (also not royalty) and then tried to shirk off the marriage. His two daughters would become Queens in their own right, but his second marriage to a Catholic Princess (Mary of Modena) was the final straw. James was far more intolerant than his brother, and less of a statesman. Eventually he was deposed in favour of his son-in-law and nephew, and his daughter (who married her cousin…) – they would jointly reign as Mary II and William III.

He survived rebellions, plots and although he was finally deposed (by his own daughters) he kept his head (unlike his father).

No one wanted civil war again and so when William and Mary were ‘invited’ to take the crown it was done surprisingly bloodlessly.  Trouble in Ireland (that was reflected to the present day) marred the reign, and they were sometimes held to be usurpers (James and his faction would try and regain the throne for James, and his heirs for many years to come, causing turmoil and bloodshed aplenty particularly in Scotland).

William fought the French (England was at war with our neighbours across the channel on and off for nearly a thousand years until the peace which came after the second world war) and was often absent. Wars were costly (and unpopular – nothing changes much).

He may also have had homosexual relationships with courtiers and favourites, but he was deeply upset when Mary died of smallpox. He died after a fall from his horse and the dubious medicine of the time.

Queen Anne was perhaps the most tragic of the Stuart monarchs, and she was the last (depending on who you ask… Jacobites looking at you). She had many health problems, including mental health (as did most of her line) and lost seventeen babies and infants. Which did nothing to help either her physical or mental wellbeing. She had problems with her sight, and later in life became obese (her coffin was nearly square), with the associated problems of being overweight. She also oversaw the Act of Settlement – which finally united Scotland, Ireland and England into Great Britain and not seperate countries. (Some would argue this wasn’t a good thing and the countries would be better off running themselves but that’s a debate for another day).

Anne was not the brightest bulb in the chandelier but she was, by many accounts, kind, dutiful and did her utmost to be a good queen. She was also passionate  and emotional- and her various intense friendships with women, including the Duchess of Marlborough (who was quite unkind about her later). She survived Jacobite plots to put a half-brother on the throne and the aftermath of the War of Spanish Succession.

So anyway… about the book….

I was quite disappointed by this book. Way too much of the author’s own opinion in this. I found it rather anti.. well everyone really.

No one came out of it well (although to be fair the history of the Stuarts is not the most glorious) but there was a rather anti-gay, anti-catholic, tone to the book.  In one place he described homosexuality as a ‘sin’. Technically it was then – but that was not the context of the sentence, or at least didn’t seem to be. There had been previous mentions about the various alleged and supported gay relationships of the monarchs but these were generally portrayed in a negative way. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be like that but it came across that way.

The subject matter is interesting, but it reads a bit like a sensationalist newspaper. I’d have liked more on Queen Anne, she was the last Stuart monarch and barely got much of a mention. What was said was basically she was stupid, dull a bit of a non-entity.

It wasn’t all bad – there was an element of amusement in some places, and the author is passionate about the subject (opinions aside). The chapter on Mary Queen of Scots was interesting. It was also interesting to see the history from the Scots perspective.

I’m sorry but I wouldn’t recommend this to history lovers – there are better and less biased books on the market.