The House of Stuart ruled England, Scotland and Ireland from 1603 to 1714, a period spanning the only execution of an English monarch, a foray into republicanism, a revolution, the union of England and Scotland and the ultimate domination of Parliament over the monarch. But who were the men and women at the head of this time of change?
James became King James VI of Scotland at just over a year old, following the forced abdication and imprisonment of his mother Mary. Regents ruled in his place until 1578, and James became King of England and Ireland following the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603 – as a great-great-grandson of King Henry VII, James had a relatively strong claim to the English throne.
Following his coronation as King of England, James styled himself as King of Great Britain and Ireland, and based himself in England: he returned to Scotland only once in the rest of his life.
A keen patron of the arts, writers such as Shakespeare, John Donne and Francis Bacon continued to produce works and the theatre remained a key part of court life. Like Elizabeth, James was a devoted Protestant, and wrote the philosophical treatise Daemonologie (1597). He also sponsored an English translation of the Bible – one still often used today.
James’ reputation has often been tarred by the epithet that he was ‘the wisest fool in Christendom’: however, his desire to avoid expensive foreign wars, maintain peace with much of Europe, and unite England and Scotland all contributed to his reign being a relatively peaceful and prosperous time.
Known as the only English king to have been executed, Charles exacerbated tensions between the crown and Parliament to the extent that relations completely broke down. Charles was a firm believer in the Divine Right of Kings – the notion that the monarch was accountable to God alone.
Ruling for 11 years without Parliament, many perceived his actions as increasingly autocratic and tyrannical. This was compounded by a dislike of his religious policies: as a high church Anglican, Charles’ policies looked suspiciously like Catholicism to many Protestants.
Although he lacked his father’s diplomacy and political skill, Charles inherited his passion for the arts. During his reign, he amassed one of the best art collections in Europe at the time, as well as regularly hosting court masques and plays.
Attempts to force the Scottish Kirk to accept his new Book of Common Prayer ended in war, which eventually resulted in civil war. Charles raised his royal standard in Nottingham in 1642, and seven years of skirmishes and battles ensued, with increasingly weakened Royalist forces pitted against the fearsome New Model Army.
Charles was eventually arrested and held at Carisbrooke Castle, Hurst Castle and Windsor Castle. Parliament were keen to negotiate with the King, but following Pride’s Purge (effectively a military coup in which many Royalist sympathisers were prevented from entering Parliament), the Commons voted to indict Charles on a charge of treason. He was found guilty, and executed at Whitehall in January 1649.
Charles II was restored to the English throne in 1660, and he was popularly nicknamed the Merry Monarch for his hedonistic court and decadent lifestyle. Beyond his penchant for luxury and his many mistresses, Charles also proved a relatively adept monarch.
Despite his own belief in religious tolerance, he accepted the Clarendon Code (four acts passed between 1661 and 1665 which sought to ensure the supremacy of Anglicanism) in the belief that this would best help bring around peace and stability.
Charles married the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza in 1661 – Portugal was a Catholic country and this move was not widely popular at home. Compounded by the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars and a generally friendly attitude to France, Charles’ foreign policy brought him into conflict with Parliament, who were suspicious of Charles’ intentions.
A keen patron of the arts and sciences, theatres re-opened and a golden age of bawdy Restoration comedies flourished. Charles died aged 54, with no legitimate children, leaving the crown to his brother James.
James inherited the throne in 1685 from his brother Charles. Despite his Catholicism, his hereditary right to the throne meant his accession had widespread support from Parliament. This support was quickly squandered when James attempted to push through legislation which would allow for more religious tolerance.
Whilst Parliament did not like his religious beliefs, his attempts to circumvent Parliament by using Royal decree proved fatal to his reign.
James’ second wife, Mary of Modena, was also a devout Catholic and the birth of a son and heir, James Frances Edward Stuart gave rise to fears that James would create a Catholic dynasty.
In June 1688, seven Protestant nobles wrote to James’ son-in-law, the Protestant William of Orange, inviting him to take the English throne. Known as the Glorious Revolution, James never fought William, instead fleeing into exile in France.
Mary II & William of Orange
Mary II, the eldest daughter of James II, had married William of Orange in 1677: both were Protestant, making them popular candidates for rulers. Shortly after their accession, the Bill of Rights was passed – one of the most important constitutional documents in English history – cementing Parliament’s authority over the Crown.
Whilst William was away on military campaigns, Mary proved herself a firm and relatively adept ruler. She died from smallpox in 1692, at the age of 32. William was said to be heartbroken, and his popularity considerably lessened in England following his wife’s death. Much of William’s time and energy was spent trying to contain French expansion under Louis XIV, and these efforts continued after his death.
Mary’s younger sister Anne oversaw the 1707 Acts of Union, which united the kingdoms of England and Scotland into the single state of Great Britain, as well as the greater development of party factions within the British political system.
Anne favoured the Tories, who were more supportive of the Anglican Church, whereas the Whigs tended to have more tolerance towards Anglican dissenters. The parties also had differing views on foreign and domestic policy: Anne’s favouring of the Tories proved tricky to manouevre politically.
She remained keenly interested in affairs of state, and attended more cabinet meetings than any of her predecessors (or successors, for that matter).
Plagued by poor health, including 17 pregnancies with only one child surviving to the age of 11, Anne is also known for her close friendship with Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, who proved to be extremely influential at court thanks to her relationship with Anne.
Sarah’s husband John, Duke of Marlborough, led British and Allied forces to four major victories in the War of Spanish Succession, but as the war dragged on, it lost popularity and the Churchills’ influence waned. Anne died in 1714, with no surviving heirs.