All families, so it is said, have closeted skeletons, crazy uncles, less than savory in-laws, and ancestral behavior of questionable repute. Britain’s Stuarts, the dynasty which produced King James, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Bonnie Prince Charlie, were certainly no exception. A Royal House of Ireland and Scotland, and finally of Great Britain, their original name was Stewart, changed by the aforementioned Mary based on her long residence in France to Stuart. The French influence, and their adoption of Catholicism, rendered them suspect by the House of Tudor, despite the families being linked by marriage.
The Stuarts ruled Scotland for nearly two and a half centuries before adding the throne of England and Ireland to their realms. When their monarchy was deposed by an act of Parliament the Royal line passed to the House of Hanover. The Stuarts continued to call themselves the rightful heirs to the throne for generations. Their supporters were the Jacobites, and though they ceased attempts to regain the throne of Great Britain, their line continues to the present day, to the Duke of Bavaria, and the 8th Earl Castle Stewart (note the return of the original spelling). Here are some facts about the Stuarts, one of the several former Royal Houses of the United Kingdom.
10. They were the first to reign as monarchs of the United Kingdom
The descendants of Robert II, King of Scotland, 1371-1390, spelled their name as Stewart. The name itself came from the office of High Steward of Scotland, held by the family for several centuries. The family became linked via marriage to the House of Tudor when James IV of Scotland wed Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII of England, in 1503. She was a sister of Henry VIII, and thus an aunt to England’s long reigning Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I. The linking of the two Houses led to longstanding rifts regarding the rightful claimants of the throne of England which emerged during the reign of Elizabeth, and continued for centuries following her death.
Following Elizabeth’s death, the great-grandson of Margaret Tudor Stewart ascended to the throne of England as James I. He already held the throne of Scotland as James VI, and thus is recorded in British history as James the VI and I. He was the first to rule over a United Kingdom of Ireland, Scotland, and England. By the time James ascended to the throne, the family name was rendered as Stuart, due to its connection, as will be seen later, with France. James reign as King of Scotland lasted nearly 58 years, largely successfully, though his rule over England was a period of serious domestic strife, and of considerably shorter duration, just over two decades in length.
9. They demonstrated a propensity for losing their heads
The Stuarts were largely Catholic. Following Henry VIII’s split with Rome and creation of the Church of England, with the English monarch as its titular head, Catholics came under considerable suspicion in England. They were widely believed to be beholden to the Pope in Rome, and more dangerously to the Catholic monarchs of Spain and France. They also subscribed to the theory of the divine right of kings, giving the monarch supreme authority over such devices as parliaments and common law. Several members of the House of Stuart and their allies paid for such beliefs with their heads, though accused of treason as a means of obtaining legal justification.
Mary Stuart, known to posterity as Mary, Queen of Scots, was one such victim. A cousin of Queen Elizabeth, Mary claimed to be the rightful Queen of England and Scotland, and as a Catholic gained the support of English believers in the Church of Rome as well as France and Spain. Elizabeth eventually had her beheaded on trumped up charges of high treason. Charles Stuart reigned as Charles I of England before his autocratic ways led to the English Civil War and defeat of his armies by those of Cromwell and Parliament. He too was executed for high treason after refusing to accept a reduced role as a constitutional monarch. With his death the monarchy was abolished, though it was later restored with the ascension to the throne of Charles II, another in the line of Stuart kings.
8. Their rule saw the monarchy abolished, and then restored
Following the execution of Charles I, his son Charles ascended to the throne of Scotland, supported by the Scottish Parliament. He also claimed to be the rightful King of England, an opinion unacceptable to Oliver Cromwell and his supporters. After Cromwell’s armies defeated the Scots in September, 1651, they persuaded the leaders of the clans to withdraw their support of the King, and Charles fled to sanctuary in Europe, first in France, and later in Catholic Spain and the Low Countries. The Stuarts had a long-standing tradition of exile in the Catholic realms, one of the reasons they excited suspicion among English protestants.
Cromwell ruled England as a near dictator until his death, bearing the title of Lord Protector. Following Cromwell’s death and subsequent changes in English laws and Parliaments, Charles negotiated to return to England, accepting the throne as a constitutional monarch. He promised religious freedom and a general amnesty for the majority of Cromwell’s former supporters, though in reality several were imprisoned, tortured, and executed. Cromwell’s body was exhumed so that it could be publicly beheaded, as were some of his most loyal supporters. Charles reigned as Charles II, King of Ireland, Scotland, and England, from the Restoration in 1660 to his death in 1685. His son, James II and VII, succeeded him and was, to date, the last Catholic Monarch of the United Kingdom.
7. The Guy Fawkes conspiracy occurred during their reign
Although James I and VI was born of Catholic parents and baptized into the faith, his childhood and education was centered on Protestant beliefs in Scotland. He carried his Protestantism to the combined thrones of Scotland and England; during his reign he commissioned the work known today as the King James Bible. English Catholics opposed his reign, with many scheming to eliminate the heretic king, as they saw him, with the support of Spain and France. One such schemer was Guy Fawkes. Fawkes and his co-conspirators, led by Robert Catesby, planned to eliminate the King and the majority of his Protestant supporters in the House of Lords by blowing them up, in an event known as the Gunpowder Plot, celebrated in Britain as Guy Fawkes Day.
On the night of November 4-5, Guy Fawkes was found in a vault beneath the House of Lords, where 36 barrels of gunpowder had been placed. Detonation planned for the following day, after the arrival of the King, was thus averted. James later commented the intention of the plot was the destruction of his person, his family, and the “whole body of the state in general.” Fawkes was tried and convicted, sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. In the end he cheated the hangman, falling from the scaffold before the rope was placed around his neck. His neck broken, Fawkes nonetheless had his lifeless body drawn and quartered, as his sentence decreed.
6. So did the Great Fire of London
On the night of September 2, 1666, a small fire broke out in a bakery in central London. Fanned by the winds and unimpeded at first by an indecisive Lord Mayor, it raged for several days, eventually destroying over 13,000 buildings, among them Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Charles II, in his Whitehall Palace at the time, found his personal safety as well as those of his court threatened first by the fire, and later by those the conflagration had displaced. About 70,000 residents were rendered homeless by the fire, which did not come under control until September 6. The Lord Mayor, Thomas Bloodworth, proved incapable of issuing the orders needed to control the fire, which consisted mainly of creating firebreaks by destroying structures in the fire’s path. Charles ordered the creation of firebreaks, placed his brother James in command, and monitored events from his barge on the Thames.
In the aftermath of the fire, which burned five days before it finally came under control, accusations of arson flew among Catholics and Protestants alike. Charles II came under suspicion from Protestants in government and among his subjects. The mobs of homeless people in the remains of London raised the King’s concern over civil unrest and outright rebellion. Charles urged people to relocate out of the city, and issued edicts directing other towns to receive and support them, regardless of faith. Charles directed the erection of a monument to the victims of the fire, which contained a reference to “Popish frenzy which wrought such horrors” added in 1668.
5. The Stuarts reigned during the Great Plague 0f 1665
The Great Fire of 1666 is considered by many historians to have ended the series of plague epidemics in London, having destroyed a large portion of the rodent population and the dwellings in which they resided. The theory is supported by the Museum of London. The preceding year, London suffered its worst plague epidemic, and to date its last. London of the time was a walled city, bordered on the south by the Thames. Within its walls were packed neighborhoods and teeming slums, as well as Royal Palaces, keeps, fortifications, churches, schools, shops, and narrow, crooked streets. Open sewers drained into the Thames. It was a perfect petri dish for spreading infectious diseases.
As calls of “bring out your dead” rang out through the city during the warm months of 1665, Charles II and his court fled to Salisbury, then Oxford, to wait out the outbreak. Many of the poorer residents of the city sought to follow His Majesty’s example, but by midsummer outlying towns refused to allow passage through their limits to those fleeing from London. The following year, after the fire leveled much of the city, Charles II spearheaded efforts to rebuild. He founded both the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, and the Royal Society, which drew academic and artistic talent to the capital, among them Sir Isaac Newton.
4. The Stuarts led Great Britain into Civil War
The English Civil War was actually a series of wars to determine the manner in which England and eventually the United Kingdom would be governed. Religious freedom and practice were side issues, though a major factor in the fighting. The war began with Protestant and Parliamentarian forces, the Roundheads, fighting the Catholic Royalists, which supported Charles I and the House of Stuart. The first phase of the war ended with the defeat of Charles I, who was deposed and executed for refusing to accept a constitutional monarchy. The Stuarts were removed from the line of succession to the combined thrones, and the monarchy abolished. Technically the Commonwealth of Ireland, Scotland, and England became a republic. In practice, Oliver Cromwell held supreme authority as a dictator.
Following the period of Cromwell’s rule, and the brief rule of his son Richard following Oliver’s death, the monarchy was restored when Charles II accepted the idea of his rule being subject to Parliamentary consent. The Stuarts returned to the throne as the Royal Family of the United Kingdom. Charles II left behind no legitimate heir to the throne, upon his death his brother ascended to the throne as James II and VII. James, a Catholic, increased the size of his army, appointed Catholics to high office, and suspended Parliament, choosing to rule by royal decree. His reign ended when he was deposed in 1688, following the Glorious Revolution, though he made several attempts to regain his thrones, before his defeat at the Battle of Boyne in 1690. He remained in exile in France for the rest of his life.
3. The Pilgrims fled to America during the Stuart Dynasty
The Catholic influences of the Stuarts appeared in the Church of England during their long period of occupying the thrones. This alarmed many Protestants, who saw the influence of Roman Catholicism affecting the liturgy and teaching of the Church, which the monarch was duty bound to defend. Many protestant congregations sought to purify their theology from Catholic influence, following closely the teaching of Calvinism. The reformed theology they accepted and practiced became known as Puritanism, itself divided into several differing sects. Following the Restoration in 1660, nearly all of the Puritan clergy in England left the Anglican Church entirely.
Puritans supported and were supported in turn by Oliver Cromwell during the Civil War and ensuing Interregnum. Under the Stuarts they were often persecuted for their beliefs. Before and after the Civil War many had left England entirely, first settling in the Netherlands, and later in the New World, where they established colonies at Plymouth (1620), Massachusetts Bay (1628), and Rhode Island (1636). Puritanism gradually faded in Great Britain during the late 17th century, but it continued to influence the settlement of New England for well into the 18th century. In many cases, especially blue laws, it continues to affect communities in the United States today. Few are aware that the Catholic Stuarts had considerable influence on the shaping of American society nearly 400 years later, though such influence was substantial.
2. The Merry Monarch restored the theater and denounced Puritanism
Charles II is often referred to as the Merry Monarch. The term is applied to his court as a reference to his hedonistic behavior. A man who enjoyed his luxuries, he spent more time on personal entertainment than to affairs of state. After the rigid control of all aspects of life demonstrated by the Puritan Cromwell, his flaunting of entertainment in all forms served as a relief to his subjects, who followed his example where they could. Charles denounced Puritanism, with its bans on theater, music, games, and other open enjoyment of leisure. He had no children with his wife, Catherine of Braganza. Yet his various mistresses produced a least a dozen which he acknowledged during his lifetime. There were likely more.
To the children of mistresses he granted noble ranks, some of which have descended in an unbroken line to the present day. Two such illegitimate sons were Henry Fitzroy, whom he made 1st Duke of Grafton, and Charles Lennox, 1st Duke of Richmond. Among their descendants was Diana Spencer, who married Prince Charles and produced two sons with him, Princes William and Harry. If and when Prince William ascends to the throne of the United Kingdom, a descendant of the Merry Monarch will again reign as king.
1. The last Stuart monarch endured 17 pregnancies, but no children survived to adulthood
On March 8, 1702, Anne Stuart, daughter of James II and VII, ascended to the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland. In 1707 the thrones of Scotland and England were combined into one through the Act of Union, creating the throne of Great Britain. Between 1684 and 1700, Anne tried valiantly to produce an heir to continue the Stuart hold on the royal thrones. She was deemed pregnant 17 different times during the period, suffering seven miscarriages, and five stillborn births. The five children born alive all died while quite young, some within hours of birth. One son, William, lived to the age of 11, the longest of any of Anne’s children.
The Act of Settlement enacted by Parliament in 1701 recognized the House of Hanover as the legitimate claimant to the throne, should Anne die without an heir. She did so in 1714. George of Hanover became George I of Great Britain and Ireland, though he spoke not a word of English. Several branches of the Stuart family made claims to being the legitimate Royal House over the ensuing years. Their supporters became known as Jacobites, and Jacobite plots and rebellions occurred, including in 1745, when Bonnie Prince Charlie invaded Scotland and attempted to restore the Stuarts to power. He failed. Claims of the House of Stuart to the throne finally ended in the 19th century, when the Royal branch of the line died out.