A former Scottish Journalist of the Year conflates the history of his nation’s unhappy dynasty of “incompetent, untrustworthy, spectacularly unfortunate” monarchs and royal pretenders—from Mary Queen of Scots to Bonnie Prince Charlie.
“The Stuarts began with a queen and her second husband. She grew tired of him and, probably, was part of a successful plot to blow him up. . . . Their glamour endures.” With a journalist’s eye for telling detail, witty characterizations, and breezy simplification, Glasgow Herald columnist MacLeod (Highlanders, not reviewed) wrings as much gossip, sex, violence, ineptitude, and wretched excess (with a few moments of glory) as are to be found in any three centuries of British (or, more accurately, Scottish) history. He traces the Stuarts back to a Breton courtier named Flaald, whose great grandson emigrated to England and had the rare good fortune of backing Henry I in his claim to the throne. Appointed High Steward to the king, the ambitious Flaald changed his name to Stewart and married into the royal Bruce line. Eventually, his descendant Robert Stewart (who “lacked either steel, self-discipline or any evident ability”) inherited the throne in the 14th century. Subsequent Stewarts tended to be manic-depressive ne’er-do-wells given to making bad deals with England and siring too many illegitimate offspring. The Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, the (legitimate) daughter of James V and Mary of Guise, became a threat to the authority of Elizabeth I and the Protestant cause and was promptly beheaded. Her son, the oafish James VI (James I of England) was almost blown up in the Gunpowder Plot. MacLeod has little admiration for Charles I, beheaded during the English Civil War, or the dissolute Charles II. James II “was a dull fellow, humorless, hard to like.” The line ended officially with the perpetually pregnant Queen Anne (“a monstrous figure”), whose numerous offspring died before she did—although a few pretenders (among them Bonnie Prince Charlie) lingered about to make as much mischief as they could.
A sublimely entertaining history. (14 b&w illustrations, not seen)