WE are shortly approaching the 650th anniversary of the start of the Royal House of Stewart, which ruled Scotland for 343 years – with the last 111 of those years reigning as the Stuart monarchs of England, too.

Robert Stewart, the seventh hereditary High Steward of Scotland, became the second King of Scots of that name on February 22, 1371, following the sudden death of his uncle, David II, son of Robert the Bruce.

He was already 55 and had four legitimate sons, unlike David II who had no heir. The sons of Robert were John, Earl of Carrick, the future King Robert III; Walter, Lord of Fife; Robert, later Duke of Albany; and Alexander, Earl of Buchan. As I explained a fortnight ago, all four had been illegitimate in the eyes of the church, which did not recognise the marriage of their father and Elizabeth Mure as they were too closely related. With the aid of the King of France, Robert successfully petitioned the Pope for a declaration that his marriage was legitimate. His sons and daughters by Elizabeth were then legitimated, and that meant they could succeed their father as king of Scots.

Last week I told the story of the youngest of the four legitimated sons, Alexander, Earl of Buchan, who is better known as the Wolf of Badenoch. Today I will deal with the rest of the sons of Robert II, and though none of the trio were in the same badness league as the Wolf, two of them were rather unsavoury characters in their own right.

The eldest, John, was born sometime around 1337. It is important to note that at that time his father was then the heir presumptive to the Scottish throne, and would assume the role of Guardian of Scotland while John was still a babe in arms. David II was in exile in France but returned in 1341 to begin his own reign at the age of 17.

John was just 10 when his father became Guardian again after the capture of David II at the Battle of Neville’s Cross. As heir to the heir presumptive and Guardian, John was the highest-ranked teenager in the land, and his father’s successful petition made him legitimate and thus second in line to the Scottish throne, as long as King David II continued to have no heir. As such, he was trained in all aspects of knightly pursuits, and it is known that he commanded troops in the military attempts to expel the English from parts of the south of Scotland. In the mid-1360s, as Lord of Kyle, he joined his father in his rebellion against David II, which was largely caused by the growing influence of the Drummond family at court where the king was set on marrying Margaret Drummond.

Robert Stewart would make a career out of securing dynastic marriages for his children – four boys and six girls – and thus John found himself married in 1366 to Anabella Drummond, niece of Margaret the Queen Consort, thus ending the disputes between the Stewarts and Drummonds. Dynastic their marriage may have been, but the couple must have had some happiness together, for they had seven children in all.

John was given the Earldom of Atholl by his father, and King David made him Earl of Carrick in 1368, effectively recognising John’s position as second in line to the throne. Carrick, as we shall call him, was also forging strong alliances with the powerful Douglas family, and he was increasingly recognised as a powerful magnate.

On King David II’s sudden death in 1371, Robert became king and set about carving up his kingdom in favour of his three remaining sons, Walter, Lord of Fife, having died in 1362. John, as Earl of Carrick, was given extensive ancestral Stewart lands around the Firth of Clyde and the title of High Steward of Scotland.

His brother Robert was already Earl of Monteith by dint of marriage and as we saw last week, Alexander was given control of the north, so that the Stewart king’s sons controlled much of Scotland.

In 1381, Carrick formally joined his father’s council, the Government of Scotland, but he became increasingly frustrated as his father aged and did not cede real power to his sons. Robert II was also not in favour of war with England, so when machinations began for the sidelining of the king, Carrick was heavily involved from the outset. A meeting of the King’s Council was called for at Holyrood Abbey in November 1384, when a whole series of charges were laid against the king, most notably his failure to control his son Alexander. In effect it was a coup d’etat by the son against his father.

Carrick and his brother Robert were now in control of Scotland, the latter – not Walter as I wrote last week – being now the Earl of Fife and High Chamberlain of Scotland. Robert led raids into England but it was Carrick who fought in and won the Battle of Otterburn in August 1388. It was a pyrrhic victory, for his great ally, James the 2nd Earl of Douglas, was killed during the battle in which the Scots beat an army three times its size.

THE loss of Douglas combined with a devastating injury to Carrick, said to have been inflicted by a horse’s kick, rendered him unfit to govern, according to his own brother Robert, Earl of Fife. On December 1, 1388, Fife moved decisively to supplant his brother and become Guardian himself, effectively making him ruler of Scotland under the weakening Robert II.

The decision is recorded in the records of Scotland: “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.”

Robert soon formed an alliance with the Douglases, and stripped his brother Alexander, Earl of Buchan of his justiciar role, which was one of the provocations that led him to rampage across the north.

When Robert II died at Dundonald Castle in April 1390, Carrick became King Robert III – his own name was too associated with that of the failure King John Balliol, so parliament allowed him to chose Robert as his regnal name. Confusing, as his brother Robert was still extant and would become the Duke of Albany – the name we shall refer to him from now on.

Historians argue to this day about the kingships of both Robert II and III. The former sought peace with England, and the latter was hamstrung from the outset by his own infirmity. Yet they both managed to impose a short period of peaceful government, though Robert III was unable to prevent lawlessness in the Highlands in particular, even after his brother the Wolf of Badenoch died in 1394.

Robert III even hit on a novel way to stop lawlessness by the clans. In 1396 he oversaw the infamous Battle of the North Inch in Perth in which the clans Chattan and Kay chose a limited number of men who fought to the death in front of the king and an invited audience.

Albany moved against his brother the king in 1398. Robert had made his son David the Earl of Carrick and then the Duke of Rothesay – the Scottish title which the heir to the throne holds to his day. Rothesay and Albany clashed when the former became lieutenant for his father. Rothesay angered just about every cleric in the country by raiding church monies and possessions, and that may have been the excuse Albany and his powerful Douglas allies needed to act. As soon as his lieutenancy expired, Albany arrested Rothesay and flung him into the dungeons of Falkland Castle where the Duke expired, apparently of starvation, two months later.

THE writer Boece poetically chronicled the legends that grew up around these events, writing: “Be quhais deith, succedit gret displeseir to hir son, David, duk of Rothesay; for, during hir life, he wes haldin in virtews and honest occupatioun, eftir hir deith, he began to rage in all maner of insolence; and fulyeit virginis, matronis, and nunnis, be his unbridillit lust. At last, King Robert, informit of his young and insolent maneris, send letteris to his brothir, the duk of Albany, to intertene his said son, the duk of Rothesay, and to leir (learn) him honest and civill maneris. The duk of Albany, glaid of thir writtingis, 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 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, 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, bot his awin fingaris; to his great marterdome. His body wes beryit in Lundoris, 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.”

There was a huge outcry, but the inquiry into his death found that Albany had died “through the divine dispensation and not otherwise”.

Robert III was now concerned that his son, James, would not succeed him and he made plans for the youngster to go to France. The young prince was captured by the English and taken as a prisoner to their court.

On hearing the news, King Robert III is said to have turned his face to the wall and died. He apparently penned his won epitaph, thus: “Let those men who strive in this world for the pleasures of honour have shining monuments. I on the other hand should prefer to be buried at the bottom of a midden, so that my soul may be saved in the day of the lord. Bury me therefore, I beg you, in a midden, and write for my epitaph: Here lies the worst of kings and the most wretched of men in the whole kingdom.”

It is probably that own judgement that makes people consider him to be a bad king, but it has to be said that the second Stewart king suffered considerable bad luck in his life.

With James in captivity in England, Albany now assumed total control of Scotland, appointed as Governor and Regent by the Scottish Parliament. One of his duties was to negotiate the release of young King James I – not surprisingly, he was very slow about it.

That being said, Albany made a decent job of running the country. He tried to pacify the Highlands and his Stewart relatives won the Battle of Harlaw in 1411 against the MacDonalds.

He ruled Scotland with an iron fist until his death at Stirling Castle in September 1420, aged 80 or 81. His son Murdoch succeeded him as Duke, but on his return to Scotland in 1425, James I had Murdoch and other members of the family executed for treason.