Stuart Dynasty

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Stuart Dynasty

The Stuart dynasty—a succession of rulers from the same line of descent—occupied the thrones of Scotland and England during the Renaissance. Its turbulent history included civil wars, international intrigues, religious controversies, and the death by violence of six Stuart monarchs.

The family originated in Scotland as the Stewarts, who rose to power after half a century of Scottish civil war. The man who became King Robert II of Scotland in 1371 was the founder of the dynasty. Although some disputed his claim to the throne, many of his 21 children became nobles or married into noble families. By the time Robert's son was crowned King James I of Scotland in 1406, the dynasty's hold on the throne was secure. Ruling Scotland was, however, a dangerous occupation. James I was murdered, the next three kings (all Jameses) died in battle; and two Stuart monarchs were executed for treason.

The fortunes of Scotland and England were joined in 1503 when James IV of Scotland wed the daughter of King Henry VII of England. The marriage was designed to seal a peace treaty between the two kingdoms. For a hundred years the Stuarts (as they now spelled their name) continued to rule their northern kingdom. Scotland was far smaller than England in both size and population, and its political and economic systems were less developed than those of England. Despite the peace treaty, the Scots felt threatened by their larger and more powerful neighbor to the south. To protect their country from England, the Stuarts built relationships with other nations by marrying into European ruling families. They also formed military alliances with France. As a result, in 1513 and 1542 Scotland became involved in conflicts between France and England, and it launched failed attacks on northern England.

These disasters forced Scots to consider the long-term future of their country. Some saw Scotland as a province of England, others as a colony of France. This difference turned into a religious divide. England became officially Protestant in 1559, and the Scots who favored England also became Protestants. But although Scotland adopted Protestantism as the official religion in 1560, those who sided with France—including the Stuarts—remained Roman Catholic.

Meanwhile, the English throne passed to Henry VIII (ruled 1509–1547) and eventually to Henry's daughter, Elizabeth I (ruled 1558–1603). During Elizabeth's reign, Mary Stuart inherited the Scottish throne. Mary spent many years in France before returning to Scotland to rule in 1561. But six years later her controversial actions led to an uprising and the loss of her throne. She fled to England, where her cousin Elizabeth imprisoned her and in 1587 authorized her execution. Elizabeth later died childless. The closest heir was James VI of Scotland, Mary Stuart's son. While remaining king of Scotland, he became James I of England in 1603.

James's son, Charles I, believed that it was his god-given right as king to rule with absolute authority, without regard to Parliament. He was also determined to reverse some aspects of the Protestant Reformation in England. These policies plunged the kingdoms into civil war and led to Charles's trial and execution. The Scots, however, crowned his son Charles II as their king in 1651. Nine years later the monarchy and the Stuart dynasty were restored in England when Charles II came to the English throne. Charles died without an heir, and his brother became King James II.

A Catholic, James wanted to change England's constitution to guarantee civil and religious rights for Catholics. This policy alarmed the majority of the English, who wanted a Protestant king and kingdom. William of Orange, a Protestant ruler from Europe, was James's nephew and son-in-law, which gave him a claim on the throne. After a son was born to the elderly James in 1688, William arrived in England with an army to protect that claim. James fled, and William and his wife, Mary, became monarchs. For 20 years, James and later his son and his grandson (known respectively as the Old Pretender and the Young Pretender) tried to reclaim the thrones of England and Scotland. Despite support in the Scottish Highlands and parts of Ireland, and encouragement from France and other enemies of England, they failed, and the Stuart dynasty came to an end.

(See alsoScotland. )

Stuart Monarchs

James IV
ruled Scotland 1488–1513

James V
ruled Scotland 1513–1542

Mary Stuart
ruled Scotland 1542–1587

James VI
ruled Scotland 1587–1625, ruled England 1603–1625 as James I

Charles I
ruled Scotland and England 1625–1649