IN this latest in a series of columns on the powers behind the Scottish throne through the ages, I have reached a man about whom I have written before in connection to other kings and events, but whose own life and career I have not previously chronicled.

Robert Stewart, the 1st Duke of Albany, falls into the category of those Machiavellian intriguers – there were several – who really did covet the Scottish throne. He was never quite able to take it, despite almost certainly murdering his own nephew and heir to the throne, David, Duke of Rothesay, to move himself closer to kingship. As we shall see, however, he never quite managed to become king – though he was effectively the monarch for more than 30 years in all as regent, guardian and governor of Scotland.

Albany has come down to us through time as one of the most rapacious, double-dealing and downright nasty nobles in all Scottish history, of which there have been plenty. He was undoubtedly all of these, but there is also no doubt that for most of his time in charge, he was an effective ruler of Scotland who kept the English at bay and mostly managed to control the warring Scottish aristocracy.

The National: Lithograph of the reverse of the 1413 seal of Robert Stewart as Governor of Scotland. Robert Stewart, Duke of AlbanyLithograph of the reverse of the 1413 seal of Robert Stewart as Governor of Scotland. Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany

Robert Stewart – I will use that spelling as that was how the family wrote their name at the time – was born sometime around 1340, and like so many figures from that era we do not know his exact birthdate. He was born the third son of Robert Stewart, then the High Steward of Scotland and former guardian, and Elizabeth née Mure of Rowallan. They had contracted a marriage that the church did not recognise and thus their 10 children were tinged with illegitimacy until Pope Clement VI issued a dispensation at Avignon in 1347 that allowed the couple to marry properly in 1349 and thus their children were legitimated, though political rivals down the years claimed that Robert and his siblings were still illegitimate and thus could not gain the throne.

When King David II died without a legitimate heir in 1371, High Steward Robert became King Robert II as agreed by the Scottish Parliament, beginning the reigns of the House of Stewart that would last into the 1700s. Robert II was 55 and already in poor health when he became king, and the job of running the country largely fell to his sons. In order of birth they were John, made the Earl of Carrick; Walter, Lord of Fife who died aged 24 or 25 in 1362; Robert junior, who became Earl of Fife and Menteith; and Alexander, Lord of Badenoch and later Earl of Buchan – he was the notorious Wolf of Badenoch who gave the rest of his family a lot of trouble. In addition, King Robert II had three other sons by his second wife Euphemia de Ross: David, later Earl of Caithness; Walter, the Earl of Atholl; and Thomas, who would become Bishop of St Andrews.

As you can see, King Robert cast the Stewart net over a large part of the country, but he seems to have allowed other nobles to largely maintain their rule over their territories. He also seems to have been a Lowland Scot who appreciated the different culture of the Highlands, and though some historians feel he was a weak king, he did keep England away and Scotland enjoyed prosperity during his reign.

As with so many clans, Highland and Lowland, the Stewarts extended their lands through marriage and, sometimes, through conquest. Robert Stewart gained the earldoms of Fife and Menteith through his marriage to Margaret Graham, Countess of Menteith in her own right and a very wealthy woman. It was her fourth marriage and despite having been divorced by Thomas, the 9th Earl of Mar, on grounds that she could not have children, she proceeded to have at least six with Robert Stewart, five of them daughters who all made advantageous marriages – advantageous to the Stewarts, that is. Margaret died before 1380 and is buried at Inchmahome Priory in her Menteith homeland.

It was in this area that Robert Stewart created what became his stronghold and great monument, Doune Castle, which readers may recall seeing in Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which exterior and interior scenes were set. It has also featured in films such as Ivanhoe (1952) and both Game of Thrones and Outlander.

By 1381, Doune Castle may have been his home, but from his thirties onwards, Robert Stewart had been involved in the government of all of Scotland as he and his elder brother John, Earl of Carrick, were given increasing control of the country by their infirm father King Robert II.

As Earl of Fife, Robert was appointed High Chamberlain in 1382 which made him both the nation’s treasurer and justice minister as we would call the role today. With Robert II clearly ailing, Carrick and Fife were the most important men in the kingdom, but they had a major problem – their brother Alexander, the Wolf of Badenoch, whom I once described in The National as “the baddest man in Scottish history” with no one disagreeing.

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Appointed Justiciar of the North, the Earl of Buchan, as he had become, had an interesting way of upholding the law – he burned entire villages and grabbed land across the Highlands at the point of a sword. Meanwhile, in 1384, Carrick and Fife jointly carried out what was effectively a palace coup d’état, sidelining their father and taking full control – doing so on grounds that King Robert could not control their brother the Wolf.

All this time, Scotland and England were at war via many skirmishes and battles in the Borders, including Otterburn in 1388 in which the earls of Douglas and Moray led the Scots to a crushing victory over Sir Henry “Hotspur” Percy’s much larger army. Douglas was killed during the battle and the heir to the throne, the Earl of Carrick, thus lost a major friend and ally. Worse was to come for him that year when Carrick was seriously injured by a kick from a horse. It soon became clear that his injuries were life-altering, and his brother Robert was ready to step in.

As Earl of Fife, Robert also had powerful Douglas friends, particularly Sir Archibald Douglas, Lord of Galloway, and they ensured that Robert became Guardian of Scotland in late 1388.

The decree survives: “Considering that there are, and have been now for a considerable time, great and numerous defects in the governing of the kingdom by reason of the king’s disposition, both by reason of age and for other reasons, and the infirmity of the lord his first born son ... have amicably chosen Sir [Robert Stewart], Earl of Fife, second-born son of the king, and brother german of the same lord the first born son, Guardian of the kingdom under the king ... for putting into effect justice and keeping the law internally, and for the defence of the kingdom with the king’s force, as set out before, against those attempting to rise up as enemies.”

King Robert II died in 1390 and the Earl of Carrick became King Robert III, John Stewart having chosen this regnal name to avoid comparisons with the previous King John, Toom Tabard Balliol. One can only imagine how his brother Robert felt at the appropriation of his name.

The Wolf of Badenoch had one last outrage to commit, razing Elgin Cathedral, and his brother the king and Robert acted to oust him from his office and subdue him for good, with Robert’s son Murdoch Stewart taking over as Justiciar of the North.

In 1398, the heir to the throne, David, Earl of Carrick, was made the Duke of Rothesay – still the senior Scottish title of the heir to the British throne – while his uncle Robert became the Duke of Albany, which were the first two dukedoms in Scotland. In January 1399, the Scottish “government”, the Council, decreed that King Robert III should end his personal rule on the grounds of his incapacity and “misgovernance of the realm and default of the keeping of the common law”. As heir to the throne, the Council installed Rothesay to be lieutenant of the nation in his father’s place.

Albany and Rothesay had been friendly at first, but the two dukes fell out over the English invasion of Scotland that had been inspired by Rothesay’s bizarre marital conduct – he had married Mary Douglas while technically still being married and thus lost his allies, and annoyed many more noble families with his “unbridled lust” – as one record stated – for their wives and daughters.

The English army marched all the way to Edinburgh and the Lieutenant had been unable to repel them. A year later in 1402 came the event which has sullied Albany’s memory ever since. As soon as Rothesay’s lieutenancy had expired, Albany had his nephew Rothesay arrested and confined in the pit of Falkland Palace in Fife.

Much later the writer Boece penned a chronicle of what happened next: “The duk of Albany…tuk the duk of Rothesay betwixt Dunde and Sauct Androis, and brocht him to Falkland, and inclusit (enclosed) him in the tour thairof, but (without) ony meit or drink. It is said, ane woman, havand commiseratioun on this duk, leit meill (meal) fall down throw the loftis of the toure; be quilkis, his life wes certane dayis savit. This woman, fra it wes knawin, wes put to deith. On the same maner, ane othir woman gaif him milk of hir paup (breast) throw ane lang reid; and wes slane with gret cruelte, fra it wes knawin. Than wes the duk destitute of all mortall supplie; and brocht, finalie, to sa miserable and hungry-appetite, that he eit, nocht allanerlie (not only) the filth of the toure quhare he wes, bit his awin fingaris; to his great marterdome. His body wes beryit in Lundoris (Lindores Abbey), and kithit miraklis mony yeris eftir; quhil (till), at last King James the First began to punis his slayeris; and fra that time furth, the miraclis ceissit.”

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Apart from the fanciful “miracles” at the end, that is a fair account of Rothesay’s murder by starvation. Albany was cleared of the killing by a general council which stated “by divine providence and not otherwise, it is discerned that he [Duke Rothesay] departed from this life”.

Albany was duly made governor and regent as Rothesay’s brother James was heir to the throne at the age of just seven. It was James who would feature in Albany’s other loss of reputation. Fearing for the safety of the young prince, in 1406 the by now decrepit King Robert III ordered him to go into safety in France, only for James to be captured at sea by the English, the king dying of grief a few days later.

Albany was supposed to entreat with England’s King Henry IV for the release of Scotland’s monarch, but while he did negotiate, it was only slowly and with no good grace. Meanwhile, he extended his control over Scotland, renewing the Auld Alliance with France in 1407, and seeing his nephew Alexander Stewart, the Earl of Mar, put an end to the expansionist ambitions of Clan Donald at the bloody Battle of Harlaw in 1411.

The first Duke of Albany apparently ruled Scotland well until his death at the age of 80 in 1420. His son Murdoch succeeded to the title and the governorship but when King James I returned from exile in 1424, Murdoch was soon tried and executed for treason. The name Albany, however, will occur again in this series.