There are two kinds of Scottish King and Queens in the popular imagination. There are the larger than life figures who have passed into legend such as MacBeth, St. Margaret, Robert the Bruce and Mary, Queen of Scots. Then, there are the monarchs considered forgettable or ineffectual, ascending to the throne as children, fighting losing battles against the English or their own rebellious nobles and often dying violently in the prime of life. In The Kings & Queens of Scotland, Dr. Timothy Venning, author of The Kings & Queens of Wales and The Kings & Queens of Anglo-Saxon England, places Scotland’s legendary monarchs in their proper historical context and reassesses the lesser known King and Queens, revealing their achievements as well as their challenges before the Union of Crowns in 1603.
The strongest chapters of the book deal with the five successive Stewart Kings named James who reigned from 1406 until the ascension of the six day old, Mary, Queen of Scots in 1542. In contrast to their more shadowy predecessors, there is more surviving source material about Stewart Kings and the emerge as distinct personalities as well as political figures. James I of Scotland was a Renaissance man, who read classical philosophy, composed love poetry to his future wife, Joan Beaufort while a prisoner in the Tower of London and introduced tennis to the British Isles. His son James II introduced new military technologies to his kingdom, losing his life when one of his new cannons misfired during a siege.
James III was an anglophile who relied heavily on the advice of his mother, Mary of Guelders, one of Scotland’s most capable regent Queens, and pursued interests in literature, music and architecture. In contrast, James IV befriended the enemies of the Tudor dynasty, supporting rebellious Irish magnates and Perkin Warbeck, the most significant figure to claim to be one of the “Princes in the Tower.” James’s marriage to Henry VII’s daughter, however, gave his descendants a strong claim to the English throne.
Mary, Queen of Scots’ father, James V, was known as the “People’s Prince” and might have enjoyed a successful reign if he had not died at the age of thirty. Venning considers each reign within the broader context of Scottish history, revealing how some of the seemingly obscure or ineffectual monarchs contributed to the centralization of the state, legal reform and cultural patronage. Even, Mary, Queen of Scots, who is better known for her failures than her successes on the throne emerges in Venning’s book as “a competent and adroit sovereign” during her first years as an adult Queen in Scotland. Venning blames her second and third marriages for her her ultimate downfall.
Unfortunately, the opening of The Kings & Queens of Scotland is densely written and may not have as much appeal for general readers. Venning devotes the first chapter to the convoluted genealogies of the Kings of the Picts, Dal Riada and Strathclyde. Although there are clear family trees included revealing the complicated rotations between different ruling families and the significance of female descent, this early history is difficult to follow and readers may want to begin with chapter two and rise of the House of Dunkeld. The early chapters also focus quite narrowly on the relations between each monarch and his nobles. More detail about how royal decisions affected ordinary Scotsmen and women would enhance Venning’s analysis of the successive monarchs.
Venning concludes the book with the 1707 Act of Union that created “Great Britain” from the formerly distinct kingdoms of England and Scotland. Charles I was the last Stuart King to have a separate coronation in Edinburgh and the later Stuarts paid little attention to their northern kingdom. Venning ends with “the extinction of one [Stuart] line and the rigid Francophile Catholicism of others” but it would have been interesting to read subsequent chapters about the revival of the monarchy’s interest in Scotland during the reigns of King George IV and Queen Victoria and the effect that devolution may have on the current Queen’s relationship with Scotland. The Kings & Queens of Scotland is an excellent introduction to Scottish royal history that will leave readers interested in learning more about Scotland’s monarchs.