The history of Great Britain is well-mined territory for many casual history readers with any interest in Europe through the ages. Two areas that I have missed in all of my reading, however, are Scotland and the English kings (and queen) after Elizabeth. Many (like me) stop with Elizabeth and don't delve any further. However, the Stuarts are an interesting family in themselves, especially James I (best known for the King James version of the Bible) who immediately succeeded Elizabeth. With The Royal Stuarts, Allan Massie takes a look not only at James and his post-Elizabeth version of Great Britain, but also the entire Stuart family from beginning to end. A welcome side effect is that the reader gets a nice (if somewhat superficial) history of Scotland as well.
The Stuart family’s origins lie in Brittany, and nothing is known about them before the eleventh century. They began life as Stewards and were stewards to the British king, but the name morphed to Stuart over time. The first Scottish King Stuart was Robert II in 1371, beginning a reign of Stuarts that lasted just over 300 years, first as kings and queens of Scotland and then all of Great Britain.
Massie allots each king or queen his or her own chapter, thus earlier chapters are much shorter than later ones where much more is known. The author brings all of these people to life effectively, at least as much as he's able given the limited original documentation for some of the earlier kings. He details their foibles and good qualities, as well as what eventually brought them down in the increasingly chaotic world of Scottish politics (especially as it relates to England).
The Royal Stuarts is intended to be a historical biography of the royal family, but it also delivers a great, if somewhat cursory, history of Scotland. The book deals mostly with foreign policy and Scottish relations with England, as well as how the kings and queens interacted with the noble families in Scotland. Little domestic policy is discussed other than how it pertained to the lords and the daily living of the nobility. We don't see how royal policies affected the country as a whole, which is mildly disappointing.
It is, also, beside the point of the book, which has whetted my appetite for a true history of Scotland that I must find and read soon. In the meantime, The Royal Stuarts does a great job with its intended subject matter. The relationships between the Stuarts and their noble families, especially when it comes to Scottish independence or absorption into Great Britain, is fascinating.
That combined with strong stands on religion (some staunchly Catholic, while
others were Protestant) was sometimes enough to bring the axe down on their heads or to send them into exile.
I most appreciate how Massie doesn't stop with Queen Anne but also carries forward with the king in exile, James III (VIII in Scotland), and his son Charles, the latter of whom would embark back to Scotland and attempt to sever Scotland from English rule and re-ascend to the throne there in 1745. James never would truly become king; it was sad to see just how desolate his life became as he realized he was a king without a country.
Massie concludes with a discussion on the historical Stuart lineage. The male line died out with James's other son, who became a cardinal in the church and never had any offspring. Charles died childless as well. Throughout the centuries, though, the Stuart family proliferated through illegitimate children. As Massie states in the final chapter, it has been said that 70% of English people are descended from Edward III. Massie supposes that something similar could be said of Scottish people and Robert I, the first Stuart king. The implications are almost staggering.
The Royal Stuarts is an intriguing read if you have any interest in Scotland whatsoever. It also covers a family that many casual history readers may have missed and is worth reading for that purpose alone. Massie has done an excellent job, and he makes you want to read more. That's the best thing you can say about any author.