Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Promise and the Curse of Dynasty: A Stuart Tragedy

by Linda Root

The Tragic Deaths of the Sons of King James Charles Stuart:

James I and VI
Seventeenth Century Britain was a society in which children were often regarded as commodities. In agrarian societies, numbers were important, especially if the counted heads were male.  Daughters were tolerable as long as there were not too many to be marketable. With the decline of female monasticism in England, the alternative of a nunnery was no longer viable. Even the highest levels of society suffered failed dynastic plans, not the least of which involved the Royal House of Stuart, even before James Charles Stuart VI, King of Scotland, ascended the English Throne as James I in 1603.
He was shortly followed from Scotland by the entourage of his Danish consort, Anne of Denmark, who traveled with their firstborn son and heir, Prince Henry Frederick, who was the image of everything a royal heir should  be.  

On instructions from the king's advisers, the second son was left in Fife. Ostensibly, he was too frail to travel. Or, perhaps his parents considered him an embarrassment likely to detract from the joy brought by the first Royal Family to grace England since the reign of Henry VIII. 


And thus, when the Stuart royals arrived in London, they brought with them the son and heir whom many were less impressed by the parents than their child, who was considered to be the Hope of England.

Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales

Meanwhile,  the not-yet-three-year-old Prince Charles, who did not walk, and when he spoke, stuttered, was left behind in a cloistered environment in Dunfermline in the household of the Scottish Chancellor, Catholic Alexander Seton. Finally Lord Robert Carey was sent to England to check on rumors of some improvement, and Seton was ordered to deliver Charles to London, where he was given the title Duke of York.  But even then, his liabilities prompted James to suggested his legs be encased in iron boots until Carey's wife, the redoubtable Dame Robert, tucked Baby Charlie under her wing and cajoled and bullied him into recovery.

Perhaps the earliest portrait of the future Charles I

Nine years later, on November 6, 1612, they saw the promise dashed when Henry Frederick, Price of Wales, died of what most likely was typhoid. When one considers its ultimate outcome, Henry Frederick's death may  be the most significant event in  17th Century English history. Upon his death, the Venetian Ambassador to England remarked: 'His authority was great... His designs were vast; his temper was grave, severe, reserved, brief in speech. All the hopes of these kingdoms were built on his high qualities."

A partial list of the attributes for which the prince was known and which his younger brother Charles lacked is portentous:

1. Prince Henry Frederick was a staunch protestant, but possessed a profound understanding of the theological issues of the day. His personal religious beliefs smacked of Puritanism, but his intellect was cosmopolitan.

2. His behavior and writings suggest he was not a Divine Right monarchist.

3. His thinking was mature beyond his years.

4. He was a sportsman and an athlete, and cultivated such an image of himself in art.

5. He enjoyed a personal correspondence with European royals not limited to members of his mother's Danish Royal Family, and including among others, Henri IV, King of France.

6. He was admired and respected by leaders in the Stuart government such as the powerful Earl of Salisbury, Lord Robert Cecil, some of whom had misgivings concern Scots in general and King James in particular.

7. He was no one's puppet, and there is evidence his father was afraid of him.

8. Physically, he was handsome and robust until illness struck him down, with the stature of his grandfather Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley and his grandmother Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots, both grandchildren of  Henry VII, and both near or over six-feet in height.


At the time of his brother's death, the future Charles I had overcome most outward manifestations of his childhood.  He had struggled to overcome his lameness and learned to control his stutter. But he never filled the image of his brother. By the time he succeeded his father  he favored a high Episcopal form of worship and was suspected to be a closet Catholic.  He married a Catholic French princess, Henrietta Maria,  three months after his ascension in 1625. He was a Divine Right monarch who made a habit of dismissing Parliament when it disagreed with him before he permanently disbanded it in 1629. Scores of historians who document his fall differ widely as to what kind of man he was and whether he was an anachronism or a charlatan, a victim of his unfortunate childhood or simply blind to change.

Whatever the diagnosis of the short-comings on Charles I, he was ill-equipped to rule a country on the brink of a Civil War unlikely to have happened had his brother lived. If he was successful at anything, it was as a family man. He begin his public life in England in an unpopular relationship with the Duke of Buckingham, and his marriage to a Catholic French princess placed him at odds with his father. His estrangement of his parliament clinched it. There are volumes written dealing with his fall. One could advance an argument that his attitude toward kingship killed him. He was executed outside the Banqueting House at Whitehall on January 30, 1649.  In any case, his execution created a hiatus in Stuart Rule.

A contrary argument can be advanced claiming the dynasty did not suffered from his death, since two of his son's survived to ascend the throne. However, the Stuart restoration can be chalked up to Dumb Luck rather than Divine Intervention. The military strategist and orthodox Puritan who managed England after the King's execution, Protector Oliver Cromwell, suffered a similar curse in leaving an ill-equipped and disinterested son  Richard Cromwell, to succeed him. The documents of government in effect at the time of Oliver Cromwell's death specified he should be the one to name his successor. With that in mind, he had been governing his son for years, with mixed results and much reservation as to his ability to lead the people and control the army.  His doubts were well founded and in 1659, with little hesitation on Richard Cromwell's part, he signed articles of Abdication on terms requiring the government to pay his debts and award him a pension. He received neither. But when the monarchy was restored the following year, he remained unmolested and resumed his former quiet life as a country gentleman. At that point, the English were tired of Puritan austerity and enthusiastically invited the Bishops back and the Stuart's home. There is no question the dynastic ills that cursed the Stuarts was with them both when they returned.


Without dwelling on the period of English history known as the Interregnum, a topic worthy of volumes, not a paragraph in a post, suffice it to say that England did not fare well without a sovereign. Scottish Parliament proclaimed the dead king's eldest surviving son Charles as Charles II in 1651. The English, in the hands of the Puritans, did no such thing. Following the defeat of Charles’s Royalist forces by Cromwell’s Model Army, Charles fled Britain.  He remained in exile in Europe for nine years until Oliver Cromwell's death resulted in a power vacuum and he was invited back to come home and take his crown.   He returned to London on his birthday in 1660 to rule as The Merry Monarch, an intensely popular king during his early reign, especially with the ladies.  Although known to have sired numerous bastards, some from one-night stands with nameless whores, he sired none to his unpopular wife, the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza. And thus, the Stuarts faced the next dynastic crisis.  When Charles II died without legitimate issue at Whitehall Palace in February 1685, having asked those who attended him on his deathbed to deal generously with his mistresses, the crown passed to his younger brother James, who was proclaimed James VII of Scotland first, and soon thereafter, as James II of England, and, who by comparison, was no fun at all.

When Charles II died, James, Duke of York became King James II, for lack of a viable, Protestant alternative.  James II and VII was the last Catholic King to rule the British kingdoms.  The Scots, who knew him from his time spent there, were known to refer to him as Dismal Jimmie.  He was not a bright man, nor was he pleasant, in some ways the most tragic of the surviving victims of the English Civil War.  Although he was hardly intuitive, he was possessed of an integrity which his brother lacked.  If he mastered anything, it was the balance sheet.  He ran his own life with great frugality.  He had inherited his executed father’s obstinacy and stutter.  And worse, by the time of his ascension, he was no longer a closet Catholic. His first wife Anne Hyde had died leaving two daughters surviving of her brood of seven.

When Anne Hyde, left, Duchess of York died in 1671, Charles II still ruled England, with no legitimate offspring to take the throne. All his brother had were daughters, Mary and Anne. In one of his last acts to assure a Stuart succession,  the Merry Monarch set out to find a proper protestant second wife for his younger brother, who would have none of it. James would do his own shopping, thank you very much! His qualifications for a wife were two: she must be Catholic, and  she must be beautiful. In the adolescent Princess Mary of Modena, above right, he found both. Unfortunately there had been no  stipulation requiring her to be fruitful.

On the day James, then Duke of York, brought his fifteen-year-old consort to meet his daughters, he introduced her as their new play-fellow. While the young bride was repulsed by her much older and unattractive husband at first, she came to cherish him.  The marriage lasted longer than James II’s brief occupation of the British throne.

A early portrait of William and Mary
He was not a bright man, nor was he pleasant.  Although he was hardly intuitive, he was possessed of an integrity which his brother lacked.  On a personal note, if he mastered anything, it was the balance sheet. He ran his own household with considerable frugality and his life with little wit. Unlike his brother’s union with Catherine of Braganza who was blamed for Charles II’s suspected deathbed conversion, it was James, then Duke of York, who had instigated his first wife’s Anne Hyde's conversion to the Catholic faith. By the time of his ascension, his own Catholicism was an ill-kept secret. What was worse, his youthful second wife was rumored to be the daughter of the Pope. When his bride landed in England, effigies of the pope were torched along their parade route. Just when it appeared as if the British monarchy could be in no greater jeopardy, it became obvious his  consort was barren, and his son-in-law William was ready to take up arms against him.


The events that brought an end to Stuart Rule through the male line is filled with intrigue and conspiracies far beyond the limits of this post. By 1689, events in England tone on a tone echoed in the New World colonies in 1776.  The king had broken his covenant with his people. Having done so, he fled to France and thus, was deemed to have abdicated. Those who governed in his absence fashioned laws placing limitations on the monarchy, and with that detail out of the way, they invited the King's Dutch son-in-law William and his daughter Mary to come to England to claim their crowns. The rulership passed to William and Mary.  There is a legend that on his flight from England, James II dropped the Great Seal of England in the Thames. It is also reported that after his arrival in France, the wise said, ‘When you listen to him, you understand why he is here.’

Yet, his forced abdication does not end the story nor give credibility to the curse, but the place of the position of the  Stuart Dynasty in the English monarchy is no longer as direct as it was after the male line failed. James II's daughter Anne succeeded when  her sister Queen Mary's spouse and co-ruler died. In 1714, Queen Anne died childless. Debates range as to exactly when the Stuart Dynasty ended, but the Act of Settlement of 1701, settling the succession on the House of Hanover upon Anne's death is as good a date as any, or if one is a die-hard romantic, upon the death of the last Stuart Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1788. In a certain sense, it never did.

It is noteworthy that Prince George and Princess Charlotte are the fourteenth great-grandchildren of Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots. And thus, while dynasty eludes the Stuarts after 1701, the bloodline extends forward to the present day, and back through Marie Stuart’s paternal grandmother Mary Tudor to Owen Tudor’s bloodline, and through her Stuart ancestors, as far back as The Bruce.

Notes:  Photos are in the public domain.  Art is PD -Art, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, via Creative Commons and GNU.  Credit and accolades go to John Macleod's highly entertaining history, DYNASTY The Stuarts 1560-1807, St Martin's Press, 1999, to The Scotsman, The Guardian, and Wikipedia.

Linda Fetterly Root is a historical novelist living in the Morongo Basin area of the Southern California Hi-Desert, with numerous animals, both wild and tamed.  She is a member of the Marie Stuart Society, and of the Bars of the State of California and the United States Supreme Court.  She is a retired major crimes prosecutor who is is currently working on her eighth historical novel, this one set in 17th Century England in the aftermath of the  Gunpowder Treason.



  1. This was a fascinating reminder of Henry Frederick: I'd forgotten about him and thus I can now indulge in that magnificent reverie of "what would have happened if...."
    I believe it's a common human trait to try to reimagine how the world may have turned out if just one man had survived or not. More mundanely, if James II had stood his ground,fought William and defeated him then who knows the consequences? A very long and even more violent Second Civil War would not have been unexpected. And I think mischief makers usually point out here that the current rightful king of England is the Duke of Bavaria....
    This was a particularly enthralling post with terrific illustrations; I'd like to thank you for the time you've taken to put this together.

  2. Mary of Modena was not barren, she had four children, two of whom survived to adulthood. It was the birth of their son James (The Old Pretender) in 1688 which prompted the invitation to William of Orange and his wife, James II older daughter Mary, to take the throne in the "Glorious Revolution" as the English lords did not want another Catholic King after James II.

  3. I understand there is a negative post pending that does not appear here yet, indicating that I mistakenly indicated Mary of Modena was barren. I do not see any such reference, but indicated that in the king's list of qualifications for a wife, he did not include 'fruitful.' A lack of fruitfulness is not the same as being barren--it indicates something less than a prodigious yield. While some of the King's circle worried she might be barren, hence the controversy that led to The Bedpan myth and poetry after she gave birth to a son some people think was smuggled into her bedchamber, I do not address that topic in my post. And that entire discussion is material for another posting, and not by me.

  4. I stand corrected. I did use the word barren, which Marie of Modena was obviously not,since she apparently conceived 12 times, six of which ended in miscarriage or stillbirths, and all but two ended in death in infancy or early childhood. The fear that her pregnancy in 1687 spiked fear of the birth of a Catholic heir, as occurred in 1688 probably provoked the Glorious Revolution.


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