The Stewarts

Stewart tartan

The Stewarts formed one of the most enduring and turbulent royal dynasties in Scottish history. Through war, policy and marriage they dragged Scotland from the margins of European affairs to centre stage and, almost incredibly, they took the crown of the old enemy – England.

Originating from Brittany, the family name had been Fitzalan. This was changed after Walter Fitzalan entered the service of David I of Scotland (reigning from 1124 – 1153) and was appointed High Steward of Scotland. Walter's great grandson later adopted the title as a surname and the family became the Stewarts.

Over the course of generations the family accrued honours and lands but it was not until 1315 that fortunes truly changed. That year Walter, 6th High Steward of Scotland married Marjory Bruce – daughter of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots. Importantly the children of this marriage would have a direct blood-line claim to the throne of Scotland.

The death David II, son of Robert the Bruce, in 1371 led to the crown passing to his cousin – Robert Stewart. Scotland had a new royal dynasty.

Successive Stewart monarchs tried to cement their grip on power – this involved taking on some of the most powerful clans in the country – the Douglases and MacDonalds.

The arrival of the Stewart dynasty coincided with the rise to prominence of the powerful MacDonalds – the 'Lords of the Isles'. As the strongest force of Gaelic Scotland the Macdonald's had an ambition to rival the Stewarts and the military power to pose a serious threat.

The first blow in the battle for power and influence was dealt by James I. In 1427 he arrested Alexander, chief of clan Donald. Alexander fought back by burning Inverness to the ground. This battle for supremecy was decided at Inverlochy in 1431.

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The defeat of a royal force by the MacDonalds fatally weakened James' grip on power. A few years later James' fragile reign ended with his assassination.

The fate of the MacDonald's, and the Lordship of the Isles, was eventually sealed during the reign of James III. Internal schism and a perceived lack of honour led to clan chief John MacDonald being ousted in a coup led by his own son, Angus Og. The internecine fighting effectively destroyed the power and unity of the Lordship. The end of this Gaelic power was symbolised in 1493 when even the title, Lord of the Isles, was stripped from the clan by another Stewart – James IV.

Another notable example of the Stewarts quest for power is provided by James II in his battle rid himself of the influence of the powerful Douglas clan. In 1452 James met with William, 8th Earl of Douglas, at Stirling Castle. After heated argument James stabbed Douglas to death. After a series of conflicts the Douglases exiled themselves to England.

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The Stewarts also pursued power and influence through more gentle methods. They had a gift for marrying well to further their cause and esteem. By 16th century, the Stewart dynasty was well established and recognised throughout Europe. The prestige they enjoyed was coveted by other royal lines seeking to legitimate their own tenure. The Tudors of England were one such royal line.

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In 1503 James IV married Margaret Tudor, daughter of King Henry VII of England. With the promise of a more peaceful relationship between the two old enemies, and also a claim to the English throne for any offspring, the marriage was a major coup for the Stewarts.

Another important marriage was that of James V to a French woman of a noble and powerful French family. In 1538 James V married Mary of Guise. Their child, Mary, was to go on to bring Scotland to civil war and to provide Tudor England with a Scottish Stewart heir.

Though forced to abdicate the crown of her own country and destined to be executed by her English cousin (Elizabeth I of England) Mary's son, James VI of Scotland, succeeded in a task that would have been unthinkable a few generations earlier. After the English queen died childless, James was handed the crown of England.

Centuries of warfare and enmity had resulted in the two kingdoms joined as equals under the same king. The seeds had been sown for the creation of a new entity – Great Britain.

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