by Andrea Zuvich
When Elizabeth I had her beautiful cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire, in 1587, could anyone have guessed that beheading would prove so tragically common with her descendants? Who would have thought that sickliness, unhappiness and infertility would plague them? The Stuarts had so many instances of doom that it is no surprise that it sometimes seems that they were cursed!
Mary’s son with the profligate Lord Darnley, James, eventually became the last Tudor queen’s heir and began the English line of Stuart kings. But James had potentially dangerous beliefs – beliefs that would ultimately prove fatal for his son and eventual heir, Charles I. The belief they so strongly adhered to was that they had been chosen by God to rule and therefore no one could question their governance of the kingdoms. James and his wife, Anne of Denmark, had a few children, the eldest son and heir, Henry, was the best and the brightest of them all. Sadly, Henry was cut down before his time and he died, aged only 18, from what was probably typhoid.
And so the younger son, Charles, eventually succeeded to his father’s throne. Alas, he was a stubborn man – a common characteristic of the Stuarts – and under his rule the country was plunged into Civil War, which caused widespread devastation. The outcome of all the horrors of war resulted in a Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell and Charles, just like his grandmother, Mary, was beheaded, but this outside the beautiful English Palladian style Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace. The nation’s pendulum then swung from what some perceived as the Stuart oppression to fresh tyranny under Cromwell. Years passed and the Lord Protector died, and Charles’s eldest son returned to England triumphantly as King Charles II and the Restoration of the monarchy was welcomed with joy.
Future troubles began to take root at this time. Charles’s brother, James, Duke of York eventually became openly Catholic and he and his first wife, Anne Hyde, welcomed two daughters into the world – Mary and Anne. These girls would become very important towards the latter part of the century. King Charles II married the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza, but they were unable to have children together, though Charles had over a dozen children with his many mistresses. One of his earliest mistresses was Lucy Walter, with whom he had a son, James Crofts (later Scott), who became the famous and rebellious Duke of Monmouth. Monmouth, a popular Protestant figure, was extremely handsome, athletic, and an excellent soldier and dancer, a favourite of the ladies, but very malleable.
I was so fascinated by Monmouth’s story, that I wrote my first book about the last ten years of his life and his relationship with Henrietta Wentworth, His Last Mistress.
“Dismal Jimmy” James II eventually became so unpopular a king that seven of the most influential men of the time, now called the Immortal Seven, wrote an invitation to James’s daughter, Mary, and her Dutch husband, William of Orange, to come and take the throne in what is referred to as the Glorious Revolution of 1688/89.
This was a pivotal moment in English, and British, history because never before or since, has there been a joint monarchy, a diarchy. William and Mary were offered the throne but with new limitations and under them we have the Bill of Rights, the founding of the Bank of England, and major events such as the Battle of the Boyne, the Glencoe Massacre, and the founding of the American College of William and Mary. The new limitations meant that England now had a constitutional monarchy of sorts, a very different situation than what their mutual great-grandfather had experienced.
Though William and Mary seem to have loved each other deeply, they had the tragedy of childlessness. Shortly after these first cousins were wed, Mary got pregnant but ended up suffering a very bad miscarriage, which perhaps was not dealt with properly, leaving her unable to carry a child to term. She had at least one other miscarriage and her memoirs show that she longed for a child, for she loved William dearly and also, it was her duty. Life being what it is, they did not have children, and in late December, 1694, Mary, aged 32 died from hemorrhagic smallpox. Her husband and the nation were devastated. Mary had been much beloved, except by the Jacobites, those who supported her now-exiled father, King James II. William, who himself was chronically asthmatic and ill, never remarried and died in 1702, leaving the throne to the last of the Stuarts, Anne.
Anne was an unhealthy woman, especially after eighteen difficult pregnancies, which resulted in only one boy living until the age of eleven. All the others perished even younger and so for the third time in Stuart history, having viable offspring proved impossible. Laden down by obesity and gout and perhaps a bit of an over-fondness for the brandy bottle, Anne died in 1714.
Almost all of the Stuarts had incredibly tragic lives, the most painful of deaths, the greatest of emotional sufferings despite their more wealthy and comfortable circumstances and the power they had. It’s hard to believe that any family could have such misery, but perhaps this element of misfortune (which is perhaps the case with several historical families) is why there is an increasing surge of interest in this lesser-known 17th-century dynasty.