IN all the long history of the Stuart dynasty there are many tragic figures such as Mary, Queen of Scots and King Charles I, but surely there can be no more hapless and lamentable bearer of the name than the first prince to ever carry the title of the Duke of Rothesay.

David Stewart – I will adopt the convention of using that spelling as that was how the family wrote their name – was the heir to the throne of Scotland at the end of the 14th century until he lost his claim to kingship, and his life, at the behest of his own uncle. His death occurred in the strangest of circumstances in this week of 1402.

It was a time of great jostling for power within the Stewart clan and their fellow Scottish aristocrats. David was born on October 24, 1378, as the son of John, Earl of Carrick, the heir to the Scottish throne, and his wife Countess Anabella nee Drummond.

John Stewart was the son of King Robert II, who himself was the grandson of Robert the Bruce. Robert II was thus the founder of the House of Stewart.

When the king lost power, John Stewart took over the running of the country in the role of Lieutenant and in 1390 he ascended to the throne when his father died, taking the name Robert III because his own name John had unfortunate associations with King John Balliol of a century before.

Robert III had been kicked by a horse two years before his coronation and as well as physical injury he suffered from melancholia, or depression as we know it.

His younger brother, confusingly also called Robert, was the Earl of Fife who had assumed the Lieutenancy and taken control of the governance of Scotland in the early part of Robert III’s reign.

Both Fife and 19-year-old David Stewart were created Dukes, the first in Scotland, in 1398 after David was knighted at the Great Tournament of Edinburgh arranged by his mother. Fife became Duke of Albany and David became Duke of Rothesay, the title which has passed down to the heirs to the Scottish throne – Prince Charles is the current holder.

Albany’s grip on power had seemed secure at first but as her husband’s health deteriorated, Queen Anabella began to take more control, and she also pushed the cause of her son David as the heir, arranging for him to become the Lieutenant in 1399. The problem was David’s personality – he was a self-indulgent wild child, who grew increasingly debauched as his teens wore on.

He was also arrogant to a fault, and despite being engaged and probably married to Elizabeth Dunbar, daughter of the Earl of March, he decided for dynastic reasons to marry Mary Douglas, daughter of the hugely powerful 3rd earl of Douglas, known as Archibald the Grim.

The Earl of March was furious and switched allegiance to King Henry IV of England who promptly invaded Scotland but had to go home when Edinburgh Castle thwarted his siege. Poor David got the blame for the invasion and his already sagging popularity hit a new low.

When both Archibald the Grim and his mother died in 1401, the Duke of Rothesay was in a very vulnerable position as his uncle Albany moved to complete his control of the kingdom. Albany was assisted in this by Archibald, 4th Earl of Douglas who greatly disliked Rothesay.

Early in 1402, Albany moved to consolidate his power by conspiring with Archibald Douglas to have his nephew David arrested and imprisoned in Albany’s Falkland Palace in Fife on trumped up charges.

It was there that David died on March 26, 1402, most probably from starvation. Whether he was murdered or not is unknown. The official verdict was that Rothesay died of natural causes but the circumstances said otherwise.

His father, the virtually insane King Robert III, presided over a council of enquiry and had to put his name to a document which exonerated Albany and Douglas.

The King wrote: “We consider as excused the aforementioned Robert and Archibald, and anyone who took part in this affair with them, that is any who arrested, detained, guarded, gave them advice, and all others who gave them counsel, help or support, or executed their order or command in any way whatsoever, and in our said council we openly and publicly declared, pronounced and determined definitively and by the tenor of this our present document declare, pronounce, and by this definitive sentence judge them and each of them to be innocent, harmless, blameless, quit, free and immune completely in all respects.”

Robert even ordered the end to malignant rumours: “Wherefore we strictly order and command all and singular our subjects, of whatever standing or condition they be, that they do not slander the said Robert and Archibald and their participants, accomplices or adherents in this deed, as aforesaid, by word or action, nor murmur against them in any way whereby their good reputation is hurt or any prejudice is generated, under all penalty which may be applicable hereafter in any way by law.”

The opposition silenced, Albany was in complete control and remained so even after Robert III died in 1406, when David Stewart’s younger brother James became King. But having fled from the marauding Douglases, young James was at that time in the custody of the English court and would remain an exile for 18 years.