FEBRUARY was a cruel month if your name was Stewart or Stuart and you were part of that extraordinary dynasty which held the throne of Scotland for more than 340 years.
The line began with King Robert II in 1371, and despite numerous attempts at coups, the Stewarts reigned over Scotland through six kings and a queen before the Scottish Stuart monarchs also became kings and queens of England, Wales and Ireland in 1603 following James VI of Scotland becoming James I of those countries. The dynasty ended “wi a lass” as had once been predicted when Queen Anne died on August 1, 1714. Despite the machinations to restore her half-brother James Francis Edward Stuart, the Old Pretender, to the British throne, including the 1715 Uprising, Anne was succeeded by the House of Hanover in the person of George I and the Stewart/Stuart royal line was no more.
Many people ask about the problem with the spelling of the Stewart/Stuart name, which is down to Mary, Queen of Scots, as she adopted the French spelling of Stuart and her successors maintained that style. So that’s why in this piece, every king before Mary is termed Stewart and every monarch from her onwards is a Stuart.
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So why should they have feared February? It just happens to be the month of the year when a lot of untoward things happened to, or were caused to happen by, the royal descendants of the High Steward of Scotland.
It was on February 22, 1371, that the Stewarts gained the Scottish throne. It happened because King David II, son of Robert the Bruce, died at Edinburgh Castle aged 46. He had been through two childless marriages and was planning to marry Agnes Dunbar, who had children by her first marriage and was therefore deemed fertile, when he died suddenly.
That brought Robert Stewart to the throne. He was the son of Walter, High Steward of Scotland, and the tragic Marjorie Bruce, killed in a riding accident in 1316 at the age of just 19 or 20 when she was in an advanced state of pregnancy – Robert was delivered by caesarean section.
Before that February day, Robert did not think he would ever really be king, even though he had been named as heir presumptive because David II had no children and his descent from Robert the Bruce made him next in line. There were not a few Stewarts after him who regretted that their house ever became a royal dynasty.
King James I of Scotland only came to regret his kingship on his dying day – February 21, 1437.
The son of King Robert III, James I’s childhood was marked by an event that also happened in February. With the troublesome Duke of Albany agitating to take young James into his “security” as he coveted the throne, King Robert sent his 12-year-old son into “safe” exile in France in February 1406, only for the royal prince to be captured by English pirates. King Robert III’s already weak health collapsed when he heard the news and he died just a few weeks later.
King James I, as he now was, was held prisoner by Henry IV of England, but learned much at the English court. Having been ransomed for £40,000, he married the impressive Lady Joan Beaufort in February 1424 before he returned to Scotland as king regnant to be properly crowned at Scone.
James had been a poet and a charmer as a youth, but soon grew dissolute and helped himself to the wealth of others. A church diplomat, Aeneas Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II, sent a despatch to the Vatican describing the king as “very fat, greedy and vindictive”. The king clamped down on the powerful nobles who were such a force for trouble in Scotland in the Middle Ages, but not hard enough. He took his court to Perth for Christmas, 1436, and they were still there in February, housed in the Dominican friary known as Blackfriars after the distinctive robes of the order.
Meanwhile a plot had been concocted to kill the king who many nobles now saw as a tyrant and who had executed their peers and relatives. The names of all those involved have never been completely known, but the Earl of Atholl was the instigator along with Sir Robert Graham who had tried to have the king arrested the previous October after the royal failure of the siege of the English-held Roxburgh Castle.
By January of 1437, the plotters were openly discussing what to do as it appeared that James was ready to strike them down. Atholl, who was the king’s uncle, and Graham decided they would have to kill the king and queen if they were to live. Sir Robert Stewart, the king’s own chamberlain, was in on the plot and exactly 580 years ago today, he enabled a force of a dozen bloodthirsty plotters to gain entrance to the royal chambers by leaving the bar for the main door out of its retaining staples.
One of the great stories of Scottish history now happened, allegedly. Lady Catherine Douglas, one of the queen’s courtiers, put her arm through the staples to bar the door in place of the wooden bar removed by the treacherous chamberlain. The conspirators piled against the door, breaking her arm and gaining entry – Catherine Douglas was known as Kate Barlass from then on, or so the story goes.
What undoubtedly is fact is that James tried to escape but was cornered in the drain off a tennis court that he himself had ordered to be blocked as he kept losing balls down it. He managed to fight off two attackers but Sir Robert Graham struck him down and when the royal corpse was discovered it was found to have 16 fatal stab and hack wounds.
The February conspiracy failed, however, because even though she was wounded, Queen Joan escaped with her son, the future James II, and soon gathered forces that enabled her to take revenge on the the conspirators – they died most gruesomely.
James II also had reason to remember a February. His early years saw the powerful nobles of the Douglas and Crichton families vie for power, and even after he took the throne in his own right, the Douglases in particular did not back down.
Eventually James summoned James, Earl of Douglas, to meet him at Stirling Castle on February 22, 1452, apparently to find out what Douglas was up to. It ended very badly, with the king killing Douglas by stabbing him 26 times and defenestrating him – literally so as James flung the corpse out of the window.
The king’s reputation was sullied forever. The murder led to a prolonged period of civil war between the king’s faction and the Douglases which only ended with the Battle of Arkinholm in 1455 when the power of the Douglas family was finally broken.
James II’s son James III also had trouble with rebellious nobles and on February 2, 1488 – that month again – his son, the future James IV, was turned over to the rebel faction which numbered some of Scotland’s most powerful families from the south of the country. War was inevitable, especially as James III soon learned that his own son had been made the figurehead of the rebellion against him.
The Battle of Sauchieburn later that year was a victory for the rebel nobles and James III was promptly killed while escaping, allegedly by a soldier pretending to be a priest that would hear his confession. His son became James IV and never quite forgave himself for his part in his father’s death.
King James IV suffered joy and tragedy in the month of February. On February 21, 1507, his wife, Margaret Tudor, daughter of King Henry VII of England, gave birth to their first child James, but he died a year and six days later on February 27, 1508.
James IV’s granddaughter Mary, Queen of Scots, married Henry Darnley. He was infamously assassinated at Kirk O’Field in Edinburgh on 10 February, 1567. Mary herself was executed on February 8, 1587 – her death warrant had been signed and dated by Queen Elizabeth of England on February 1.
If we translate the old Julian Calendar into the modern Gregorian Calendar that was adopted in Britain in 1750, we can even say that Mary’s grandson King Charles I, who was crowned on February 2, 1626, was a February victim. For he was executed by Oliver Cromwell’s new government on January 30, 1649 – in the new calendar’s reckoning that would be February 10. On the old calendar he was buried on February 9 at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, his head having been sewn back on to his body.
King Charles II was declared King of Scots on February 5, 1649, so that meant the Stuart occupancy of the Scottish throne was never broken as it was in England during the years of Cromwell’s Commonwealth. February was not kind to the restored monarch, however. He sustained a massive epileptic fit on the morning of February 2, 1685, and died four days later.
His brother duly became King James II, and his reign lasted four years, officially ending on February 13, 1689, when the Convention Parliament decided that James had abdicated and proclaimed William III and Mary Stuart to be the new joint monarchs.
They would have a February date that haunts their memory to this day – William signed the order that caused the Massacre of Glencoe on February 13, 1692. Their successor Queen Anne lost two infant children in February 1687, 18-month-old Mary and Anne Sophia, just eight-months-old, both dying of smallpox.
James Stuart, the Old Pretender, who would have been King James III of England and VIII of Scotland, came to Scotland in 1715 for the uprising that bore his name – Jacobite. It ended dismally on February 5, 1716, when James sailed away from Montrose into exile in France. Possibly the most famous Stuart of them all, Bonnie Prince Charlie, was not a February victim – he died on January 31, 1788.
With his death ended any chance of the Stewart/Stuart house ever reigning again in Scotland and the United Kingdom as a whole.