What the heck is a steward? you may ask. Put quite simply, it is somebody put in charge of a household or estate. Royalty was awash with these people and every royal house has some form of steward. They are rather like overglorified butlers except they usually were related to the nobility or royal family. Oh, they also didn't really do any butler work. For the most part, a steward watches over the property of a sovereign while the sovereign is away, busy, doesn't want to deal with it, recently died, has a tummy ache, or is just generally "distant".
If the term sounds slightly familiar, a British chap named John Tolkien included one of these people into the third portion of his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Denethor II was his name. According to Middle Earth mythology, Denethor's ancestors had served the kings of Gondor (the southern kingdom of Dúnedain) until their line ran dry. They then maintained their hereditary position of steward until the "Return of the King". In other words, they were regents (see last week's blog) as well as stewards.
To bring us back to the point, the Scottish kings also had stewards. In the 1100s, a man named Alan FitzFlaad came to England from Brittany, France, where he had held the title High Steward of Dol. His family became well established in Shropshire where a branch of the family became shire reeves (sheriffs) and later the English earls of Arundel. But no one really cares about that branch because they never took the name Stewart. Around 1150, a member of the family named Walter FitzAlan used his position to support the claims of Matilda, daughter of Henry I, over Stephen of Blois to the kingship of England. Stephen won, but Matilda's uncle was the king of Scotland and thought pretty highly of Walter. When Walter fled England (because Stephen was angry, of course), King David I of Scotland granted him lands and the title of Lord High Steward of Scotland. David's successor, Malcolm IV, made that title hereditary.
Things went pretty well for the Stewarts for the next hundred and fifty years. Each steward was already an adult when his father died. They were all respected military commanders and councilors. Then the royal line died out, leaving a questionable succession in 1290. Alexander Stewart, foreshadowing later developments, sided with Robert Bruce (the famous king's grandfather) during the royal election. When John Baliol was overthrown and Edward I of England took direct control of Scotland, Alexander joined with William Wallace's rebellion (see Braveheart) and continued to support the Bruce claim to the throne. Two decades later, after Robert the Bruce had become Robert I of Scotland, Alexander's son, Walter, distinguished himself so well to the king that he was given young Marjorie Bruce, the king's daughter, as his bride. Marjorie died two years later but left a son, Robert, who would spawn the subsequent royal dynasty.
The Royal House of Stewart begins with tragedy, defeat, pain, misery, and death. And this trend pretty much continues all the way to 1807. Put simply, the Stewarts are a very sad house. It started well enough. Robert II seems to have been a decent king — he allowed his lords to attack English properties in Scotland — but his reluctance to declare outright war with England prompted two palace coups by his sons. Robert III was kicked by a horse a few years before he became king. It showed. His son took over as lieutenant (regent) until he was killed mysteriously. A few years later, Robert III died leaving his only son, James I, to lead from imprisonment in England.
I said the family was really messed up! James I was imprisoned for 18 years. When he returned from England, he seemed more English than Scottish, liked centralized rule a là the House of Lancaster, and so was assassinated by dissident nobles. The only good thing he did was give all his daughters to important English nobles and European royalty. His son, James II, was only a kid when he became king. After ten years of regent-rule, James II came of age and fought the powerful Douglas family until his advisers thought he had gone power crazed. He fought and fought and fought until a cannon exploded killing him. James III, his son, was also a kid when he became king and nothing really improved from there. He preferred English to Scottish politics which got him imprisoned by his own nobility for a year. Once out, he went as power crazed as his ol' man and his own nobles killed him at the Battle of Sauchieburn in 1488. The fourth James felt bad for helping kill his dad and, despite being underage, forewent his regency and decided to make peace with England. Things went very Renaissance-y for the next decade until the English invaded due to past grievances. James IV died in the Battle of Flodden Field, the last British monarch to ever die in combat, leaving yet another niño on the throne. His only long-lasting achievement was the fact that his son was born to Margaret Tudor, eldest daughter of Henry VII of England. James V was a worthless king. The first seventeen years of his reign were ruled by regents. Like pretty much all his ancestors, he declared war on England, got sick from depression (he lost a battle), and dropped dead leaving Scotland in the hands of an infant girl, Mary.
Up to this point, most people probably weren't that familiar with the history of the Stewart family. Mary I, Queen of Scots, is the turning point. She had a long and tumultuous reign that spanned from a regency to a marriage to the king of France, François I, to his death and her subsequent marriage to her cousin Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley. Following his mysterious murder and her marriage to his murderer, even the Spanish who supported her claim to the English throne after Mary I of England's death in 1588 started to question things. In 1567, Mary was deposed by her nobles, fled to England, imprisoned by the English for nineteen years, and finally beheaded in 1587 after three attempts at assassinating Queen Elizabeth I. Her legacy was her son, James VI, who was the spawn of the two senior lines to the English throne after the Tudors died out in 1603. With Elizabeth's death that year, the Stuarts became the first royal family to rule both England and Scotland in a personal union.
Most people don't notice the oddity that Mary Stuart died yet the Stuart name lived on. When Mary was the Queen consort of France, she re-stylized her surname as Stuart due to the French spelling of the word "steward". When she returned to Scotland, she mandated the change across her family. Her second husband, Lord Darnley, was also a member of the House of Stewart. His line descended far back into the 1300s from one of Alexander Stewart's younger sons. For the past few generations, Darnley's ancestors had been earls of Lennox. Darnley's grandfather married Margaret Tudor after her first husband, James IV, had died. Thus Darnley was second-in-line to the English throne after Mary. When they married, the Stuarts had consolidated their claim to the throne in the form of their joint son, James. Despite Darnley's later death and Mary's exile and execution, James survived to rule first in Scotland, taking power only a few years before his mother's execution, and later in England until 1627.
The English Stuarts were a slightly better designed family but they really couldn't get over the Catholic-Anglican problem. James was a staunch Presbyterian (in Scotland) and Anglican (in England) whose tenets were almost all Catholic. Charles I, his son, was mostly Anglican (which got the Scots mad) but not very good at it (which got the English mad), especially since he appeared more Catholic than anything (which made the Puritans mad). He had to fight a civil war for much of his reign, ending in his execution in 1649. His son, Charles II, fled to Scotland, failed to lead an uprising, fled to France, failed to restore his throne, and then was given it back by Parliament in 1660. The remainder of his reign saw a strong increase in Parliamentary power while Charles did little more than produce illegitimate children. His brother, James II, proved the most problematic English Stuart of all, declaring himself Catholic, of all things. After only two years in power, his nephew, William of Orange, tromped on over from the Netherlands (Dutch Republic) and took control. William was married to James II's daughter, Mary II, and the two of them ruled England and Scotland thereafter. William didn't really care much about Britain, though, and left it in control of the Parliament as per agreed in the "Glorious Revolution" settlement of 1689. When Willie died, Mary's sister Anne took over but she had been viewed as more of a drama queen than a good politician. After that, a scion (pronounced sigh-on; it means a branch) of James VI (of Scotland) or I (of England) became king of Great Britain as George I and the story of the Stuarts ended...
Okay, that's mostly true. Starting almost immediately after James II was overthrown, a movement of Jacobites (pro-James-ites) formed that sought the restoration of the senior Stuarts. James died in 1701 leaving his son, James the Old Pretender, to try and reclaim the throne. James let his own son, Bonnie Prince Charles, do most the fighting but, honestly, none of the Stuarts had much going for them. After 1745, the Stuarts slowly drifted into obscurity. Charlie died in 1788 leaving his brother, Cardinal Henry, as the pretender. But Henry really didn't have the fighting spirit of his predecessors. In fact, King George III even paid him a pension during the French Revolutionary Wars. When Henry died in 1807, the Jacobites were over, even if the pretenders continued. Various branches of the Stuarts and Stewarts still exist today in Scotland, Ireland, and the United States and Canada, but they won't be claiming the British throne anytime soon.
The Stuarts are viewed quite deservedly as one of the most depressing royal families in European history. Their successes were short-lived and their defeats were deeply felt. In the end, they were overthrown by one of their own who then made sure that they never returned again. Rather. Sad. Indeed.