Join historian Steve Roberts on a light-hearted and insightful ramble round the countryside exploring the history of the Stuart royal family and their century (or more) with their hands on the Crown.
The Gunpowder Plot, the execution of King Charles I, the Glorious Revolution, and the dashing character of Bonnie Prince Charlie - the Stuart reign is packed with key tales from British history. Historian and family historian Steve Roberts believes that a solid understanding on history makes for a much better appreciation of the times that our ancestors once lived through.
Starting at Westerham, Kent
The Stuart dynasty lasted from 1603 (the accession of James I) to 1714 (the death of Queen Anne). Well, the Stuarts didn’t really start in 1603. The Stuarts were a long-standing Scottish royal family, so James I (of England) was actually James VI (of Scotland). He was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, who had fallen victim to an English axe for her continual plotting against Elizabeth I. It was when Elizabeth, the so-called ‘Virgin Queen’ died childless, that James got the invite to come down to London and accept the English throne.
This was just the beginning of a rather fascinating story. It's funny how what goes around comes around. In 1714 the last of the Stuart monarchs, Queen Anne, was also to die without leaving an heir. It wasn’t for the lack of trying as she’d suffered numerous pregnancies. Crucially, however, there was no living heir. In that curious way that the succession has of occasionally being bandied about like ‘pass the parcel’ it was now heading the way of the Hanoverians (George I, George II et al). It was the end of the Stuarts as far as our throne was concerned. Or was it?
Well, the Stuarts did try to reclaim their lost inheritance, courtesy of James Stuart (the ‘Old Pretender’) and Charles Stuart (the ‘Young Pretender’). You might know the latter as ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. Their attempts to reclaim the throne became known as the Jacobite Rebellions (from ‘Jacobus’ the Latin for James).
The final bust-up came at Culloden Moor, near Inverness, where Bonnie Prince Charlie was defeated by a royal army in April 1746. Fighting on the side of the Hanoverian king was a gentleman named James Wolfe (1727-59), born after the death of Queen Anne, and yet very much part of this story. Wolfe is most famous for his denouement in 1759 when he was killed in the act of taking Quebec off the French. It was a truly Nelsonian ending. In 1746, however, when he was aged just 19, he played his part in denying the Stuarts a happy homecoming. Wolfe was born and brought up in Westerham and the home that he knew as a child is today dubbed ‘Quebec House’ in honour of the triumph that was both his finest and his last.
Roundway Down, Wiltshire
A few months earlier I had been in Wiltshire, exploring battlefields (as you do). Now, James I (1566-1625) managed to die in his bed, which is not a bad ending. It almost wasn’t so, as the infamous Gunpowder Plotters of 1605 had a decent bash at blowing him to smithereens with their ‘firework’. It is, of course, an event that we recall every November. (The 2016 event was memorable in my neighbourhood for the cannonade launched by my friend next door, which shook my house. James I got off lightly it seems to me.)
Charles I (1600-49) was not so fortunate. A believer in the ‘Divine Right of Kings’ it was his fate to tussle with Parliament in the English Civil War. Up on the hills in Wiltshire I was yomping across a battlefield (Roundway Down) where Charles’ forces had given the Parliamentarians a bloody nose in July 1643. It was early in the Civil War and the King’s side was doing well. It was a beautiful day in the heart of England and I had just an information board, a spectacular vista and the odd dog walker for company. I mused on why so many Brits seem to think they have to get on a plane to have a holiday, when we have all this right here. Give me England in the spring every time.
Those early royalist successes would peter out, of course, as Parliament got itself organised, courtesy of its New Model Army and a wart by the name of Oliver Cromwell. The King’s days were well and truly numbered. I pondered some more before heading off to find that ironically-named thing called civilisation.
Carisbrooke, Isle of Wight
A year earlier, Mrs Steve and I had sojourned on the Isle of Wight for a few days, so couldn’t pass up the opportunity to re-visit Carisbrooke Castle. The most famous ‘resident’ of the castle was Charles I, who was brought here in November 1647. Victories had given way to defeats and he ended up on the island, firstly as a guest, then as a prisoner. The tightening up was due to Charles’ tendency to try and escape. Apparently he attempted to scarper three times. On one occasion he was thwarted in his attempt to vamoosh via a window. I found myself looking up at said window and feeling somewhat sad for the man. This is very human history, with tragedy looming.
Carisbrooke is an atmospheric place. Its steep staircases, battlemented walks, high motte and lofty gatehouse sit cheek by jowl with a pretty chapel, formal garden and well house, where pampered donkeys still deign to turn their donkey wheel when called upon. It’s easy to forget the children of a king once he’s fallen from grace. Two of Charles’ youngsters, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Henry were actually kept at Carisbrooke after their father’s execution and the young Elizabeth was fated to die here in September 1650 of pneumonia. She was 15 years of age.
Walking around the walls, we overlooked the so-called bowling green, which was reputedly used by Charles during his captivity. Funny that, as his father, James I, had a real downer on bowls, and had done his level best to have it banned. Like father, like son? Well, perhaps not entirely. I’m glad they let Charles have a bit of recreation. He was here 14 months and that time must have weighed heavy. I’m beginning to feel for the man.
England’s abandonment of Roman Catholicism and embracing of Protestantism began with Henry VIII. I won’t re-tell the whole story here, as we’re talking Stuarts, not Tudors. Let’s just add that by the time of the Civil War there was a breed of Protestant (the Puritan) who believed in a very straight-laced approach to religion, and, well, just about everything else.
In Exeter, the Puritans were in charge, so having fun (mucking about on the Sabbath, gambling, getting drunk, swearing, loose morals etc) got you in very deep water with the mayor and his cronies. As well as battles, there were also sieges in the Civil War, and Exeter was one community that came under siege. As the Parliamentarians and their Puritan ‘morals-police’ held out, I wonder whether any of the citizens were secretly hoping for a Royalist victory. It may have been their best chance of a knees-up.
Exeter fell to the king in September 1643. We know he was here in person in June 1644 because he was acquainted with his new-born daughter, Princess Henrietta, who came into the world in this city. I found a plaque telling me where she had first breathed. In the same year that the king first became a prisoner, little Henrietta fled England with her governess. My tear ducts were beginning to activate as I contemplated the fate of Charles’ little children. His fall from grace meant he could no longer protect them; they were among the collateral damage of the Civil War.
Meanwhile, in Exeter, citizens either had to swear loyalty to their king, or shove off. Some 500 departed the city. Those who remained broke out the booze and partied long into the night. As the war turned against the king, however, the citizens had to down their tankards and gather up their muskets and pikes. Exeter would come under siege again, and in April 1646, changed hands once more, back to the Parliamentarians. I strolled around the city looking at some of the places the Royalists had fortified for that final siege and considered the bitterness as brother fought brother and the Puritans took over once more. The party season was over. I headed into a boozer for a pint, a game of dominoes and the odd bit of swearing.
Wind back four months and I was in Hungerford for nothing more taxing than a football match. Funny how the Stuarts follow me about though. When I arrived at ‘The Bear’ (my hostelry for the night) I was delighted to find a plaque on the front of the building. ‘On 7th December 1688 William of Orange arrived at The Bear on his march from Torbay to London …’ No way.
I’ve talked a lot about the English Civil War in my blog, nine years of internecine warfare that split communities and families down the middle. When the next big convulsion came around it was an entirely different affair.
After we’d lopped Charles I’s head off (1649), we tried to manage without a king, before abandoning that experiment in 1660. Another Charlie was then invited to take the throne (Charles II), but it was his younger brother (James II) who pressed the self-destruct button by appearing too keen to embrace Roman Catholicism. Tut-tut.
The plaque in Hungerford recalls our Protestant saviour, William of Orange, who landed with an army, at Brixham, then headed for London to claim the throne. The Bear was a convenient stopover, as it was for me. This time the booting out of a monarch was largely bloodless as James’s support melted away like a lolly on a hot day. Our Protestant nation was safe. It’s no wonder it became known as ‘The Glorious Revolution’.
It’s a good place to end. Oh, and what about my football I hear you ask? Well, it was a match of very few highlights, which petered out into a 0-0 draw. It could have been a sly commentary on the reign of James II, which went out with a whimper, rather than a bang.
Read Steve Roberts’ detailed account of the Stuart dynasty on the throne of England and Scotland in the March 2018
issue of Family Tree.
Watch Steve Roberts’ video discussing the Stuarts on the Family Tree YouTube channel