What I’m Reading: The Stuarts

The Stuarts, by J.P. Kenyon, is a history covering the Stuarts, who became the ruling family of England after Elizabeth I of the Tudor dynasty died without an heir in 1603. The monarchs are James I (1603-25), Charles I (1625-49, and beheaded at the end of his reign), an interruption for the English Civil War and a brief republic, then Charles II (1660-85), James II (1685-88), the co-monarchs William III (1689-1702) and Mary II (1689-94), and finally, Anne (1702-1714).

I must say, I did not especially care for this book, but part of that may be that I went into it with false expectations. The Stuarts appeared to me to be a fairly thin paperback that would give a survey or overview of England in the 17th century, an era I feel a little weak on. In fact, the book turned out to be quite dense, in both literal words on the page and in facts, names, and concepts. Nor is it exactly a historical overview, but more a biography of the Stuart family (guess I should have taken the title more literally). Important historical events are certainly referred to, but their context is not explained except insofar as it directly involved the Stuart monarchs. For instance, the English Civil War in the 1650s is glossed over, since there was no English monarch at that time, though we do learn all about Prince Charles’s activities in France and the Netherlands during the civil war years.

Especially confusing is the author’s habit of changing the names he uses to refer to people as they gain titles so that, for instance, John Churchill becomes the Duke of Marlborough at one point and is afterward referred to as Marlborough. Perhaps this is correct in some technical way but it serves to make a text already packed with names even more complicated.

Another thing that struck me badly was that Kenyon seems to dislike his subjects. Nearly all the monarchs come off as disagreeable and petty. (James I especially gets it bad, described as an aging homosexual lecher who neglects the business of state to pursue his own liaisons.) But I don’t have the background to tell if that’s because the Stuarts themselves were a particularly nasty bunch, which is certainly possible, or if Kenyon simply has a sour view of human nature. I’m leaning toward the second option, since even the supporting characters–the various nobles and courtiers and mistresses–are written as grasping and self-serving. Of course, another possibility is that court life in general may bring out the worst, pettiest side of human nature.

Oddly enough, the one exception to this is James II, who had the shortest reign of any of the Stuart monarchs, and in Kenyon’s account is a bit simple-minded, but essentially loyal to his friends and sincere in his religion, which was unfortunately Catholicism. Unfortunate, because England was a firmly Protestant country and the various noble families wanted no part in a strengthening of Catholic religion, which James carried out as an official policy throughout his reign. They were prepared to wait James out, but when his wife, the Italian Catholic (doubly suspicious!) Queen Mary, gave birth to a son and heir in 1688, leading nobles started the shameful rumor that her pregnancy had been faked, and the baby boy was somebody else’s child who had been smuggled into the bedchamber in a warming pan. They send a letter to the Dutch King William (who was married to James’s niece, Mary), asking him to come to England with an armed force and “investigate” the matter of the baby’s parentage. Actually, this was an invitation to depose James, which William did successfully.

I’m afraid I do not recommend this book, except perhaps for readers already quite familiar with seventeenth-century English history who want to learn more details about the Stuart family in particular. It will be too scholarly, or at least too involved in obscure historical details, for most readers. And while I don’t care for hagiographies, I think the author’s nearly unrelenting negative tone toward his subjects may very well be unbalanced, reflecting his personal, jaundiced view of human nature. In any case, it makes for an unpleasant reading experience.

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