What was Stuart Britain? by Andrea Zuvich
Stuart Britain was a remarkable period in British history – a period which followed fast upon the heels of the ever-popular Tudor dynasty. There is sometimes confusion over the time period and geographical region “Stuart Britain” encompasses. This confusion invariably leads to irrational offense being taken by some who think Scotland is being slighted by what they perceive to be the disregard of the events and people who made up the whole Stewart dynasty. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
To clarify, although the Stewart (Stuart) family reigned over Scotland since 1371, Stuart Britain, by contrast, refers specifically to the time period in which that family ruled over both Scotland and England (Ireland and Wales). This period began from the death of the last Tudor monarch, Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, when James VI of Scotland became King James I of England until 1714, when his great-great-granddaughter Queen Anne died. Had James remained in Scotland to rule over the Three Kingdoms, this period would naturally have had more of a focus on Scotland. He chose to move his family (his wife, Anna of Denmark and their children Henry Frederick, Elizabeth, and Charles) to England, and therefore the focus rests more on England since that was the base from which the Stuarts reigned.
The Stuarts who ruled from 1603 to 1714 remain a truly controversial dynasty, not least because their reigns witnessed some very historic events. James I’s reign included the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, for example, and the death of his eldest son and heir, Henry Frederick in 1612. As a result of the latter circumstance, his surviving son, Charles, became Charles I upon James’s death in 1625, and Charles’s reputation is usually that of either a tyrant or martyr – though as usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle. The bloody English Civil Wars, which began during his reign in 1642 (there were three civil wars, ending finally in 1651) led to his public execution in 1649.
This major event was followed by the Interregnum and Cromwellian Protectorate, which in turn was followed by the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 with King Charles II, who has become more famous for his love life than for the politics of his reign – the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London of 1666 occurred during his time. Although Charles II had numerous offspring with his many mistresses, he and his wife, Catherine of Braganza, had such trouble in bringing their children to term that by the time of his death in 1685 there was no heir. Charles’s brother, James Duke of York, ascended the throne as King James II – but the political landscape was such that several factors led to his exile and the ‘Glorious Revolution’ which saw the Dutchman William III of Orange successfully invade Britain and reign with his Stuart wife, Mary II, until her death in 1694, at which point he ruled alone until his death in 1702.
It was this diarchy of William and Mary which has arguably proved most controversial. James II and his wife Mary of Modena had a legitimate male heir, and to this day, there are those (the Jacobites) who maintain that James and his son’s line were illegally taken from them because of their religion: James, you see, was a devout Catholic, and William a staunch Protestant (a Calvinist, in fact). Rulers had lost their thrones in the past, certainly, but that a sovereign and his legitimate descendants could be stripped from the line of succession because of their religion was extraordinary.
Royal family drama aside, great changes occurred during the seventeenth century, in particular during the 1640s, when radical new political and religious ideologies spread – resulting in the formation of new groups such as the Quakers, the Diggers, the Levellers, and more. Rightly or wrongly, some people questioned the authority of the monarch, parliament fought for more power by reducing that of the sovereign. The power held by parliament increased substantially during the Stuart period, ultimately creating a constitutional monarchy in which the sovereign’s powers were greatly diminished.
It was during the era of Stuart Britain that some of the greatest names in literature flourished, including Shakespeare, Donne, and Dryden. Brilliant architecture was also created during this time, designed by the talented Inigo Jones (Banqueting House, the Queen’s House, etc) and Christopher Wren (St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Old Royal Naval College, etc). Art reached heights of sublime majesty and beauty with the works of Rubens, van Dyck, and Verrio, among others. Music transitioned from the late Renaissance into Baroque, which peaked in the latter half of the period with Henry Purcell.
Stuart Britain has something for every history lover. So come join me and learn about A Year in the Life of Stuart Britain!
Andrea Zuvich's new book A Year in the Life of Stuart Britain is available for purchase now.