The early Stuarts: marriage is power

Six James Stuarts: from left to right James I through to James VI Six James Stuarts: from left to right James I through to James VI

For more than 200 years, Scotland was ruled by monarchs of the Stuart dynasty who used diplomacy and marriage to consolidate their power; policies that would ultimately lead to the creation of Great Britain with a Scottish king on the throne.

The period of the early Stuarts, from the late 14th Century, saw Scotland wooed - sometimes violently - by two suitors. On one hand, England courted its old enemy in an attempt to control its northern borders. On the other, the European superpower, France, sought the allegiance of the Scots in an ongoing struggle with its enemy, England.

The six King James of Scotland

Scotland's Royal Standard

Live fast, die young: more about Scotland's Stuarts

Caught between the two, the ambitious and ruthless Stuarts sought to maximise the opportunities presented - endeavours that saw a Scottish queen on the throne of France and, ultimately, a Scottish king on the throne of England.

Old enemies and new friends

Centuries-old enmity between England and Scotland - from border skirmishes to full-blown invasions by both parties - came to a head in the early 14th century with the clash for control of Scotland between England's Edward I and Scotland's Robert the Bruce (with a helping hand by William Wallace).

Since referred to as the Scottish Wars of Independence the conflict introduced a new agent to the struggle for the isles - a Scottish alliance with England's enemy, France.

Known as the Auld Alliance, the agreement was a mutual aid pact whereby each nation promised aid of the other in the event of war with England. For English monarchs, the threat from the northern kingdom now had the added dimension of potential French invasion.

For the French, as Dr Clare Jackson identifies, alliance with Scotland "potentially offered an attractive 'back-door' into England, just as Ireland could often be regarded as a potential 'side-door' to an English invasion."

The agreement was not without cost for Scotland and in 1513 King James IV would become the last king to die in battle on British soil after honouring the Auld Alliance and meeting a bloody end at the Battle of Flodden.

The Scottish art of marrying well

Wedding rings
  • In 1436, Margaret, the daughter of James I, married the heir to the French throne
  • In 1537 James V married the daughter of Francis I of France
  • After Madeleine's death, James married the wealthy Mary of Guise
  • In 1558 Mary Queen of Scots, married the French dauphin, Francis. A year later she became Queen of France
Friends with benefits

For the ambitious Stuarts, the Auld Alliance, as Dr Jackson explains, also offered an opportunity for increased prestige and influence on the European stage.

"Since the alliance gave France and Scotland the opportunity to co-ordinate tactics in any war with England, it also increased Scotland's standing in Europe-wide diplomacy. More broadly, there were attractive economic benefits, such as access to French markets for Scottish exports."

The Stuarts approach to diplomacy involved managing a number of high-profile marriages, which they were able to do, says Dr Jackson, "because they were a well-established dynasty with no other rivals to the Scottish throne."

In their dealings with their English neighbour, and indeed with other Continental nations, it certainly did not hurt to have a European superpower as the in-laws.

A diplomatic marriage

Against this ongoing backdrop of Franco-Scots cordiality, attempts were made to improve relations with England.

In 1502, as part of the Treaty of Perpetual Peace, James IV married Margaret Tudor, daughter of King Henry VII and sister of the future Henry VIII.

For Dr Jackson, this union did not impinge fatally on the Auld Alliance:

"Although he engaged in extensive diplomacy to avoid having to choose between his traditional alliance with France and the terms of the Perpetual Peace treaty, he was presumably aware that if Henry VIII's war against France succeeded, the English king might then seek to incorporate Scotland within England."

Dr Jackson states, "it is important to appreciate that, in 1502, the chances that any offspring of the marriage of Margaret Tudor and James IV would, a century later, lead to the union of the Scottish and English crowns would doubtless have seemed very remote and unlikely."

While peace between Scotland and England proved optimistic, the fruits of the marriage had a more far-reaching legacy than glitzy French ceremonies as subsequent descendants of Stuart royalty thereby had a strong blood claim to the throne of England.

Family politics

In 1558 Mary Queen of Scots married the dauphin, Francis, heir of King Henry II of France and a year later she personified the continued success of the Auld Alliance by adding the French crown to her own Scottish one.

This was a considerable coup for the Stuarts as rulers of a small, impoverished nation on the fringes of Europe and marked a final high water mark in Franco-Scots diplomatic relations.

By the time Elizabeth I of England died in 1603, the tables had turned and it was England who enjoyed greater influence with the Scots.

In the intervening years, Scotland had embraced the Reformation and was now a Protestant ally of England, eager to shake off French control of its affairs.

The ultimate realisation of this change of allegiance - and another major coup for the Stuarts - came shortly after Elizabeth's death. Having died childless, her heir and successor was to be James VI of Scotland - the great-grandson of the Tudor-Stuart marriage of 1502.

In a move that would have been unthinkable decades earlier, a Scottish Stuart took up the throne of England and united the island under one dynasty.

The three-part series, The Stuarts is on Thursdays from 30 January 2014, BBC2 Scotland, 9pm or watch on iPlayer anywhere in the UK.

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