The End of the Tudors – Birth of the Stuart Era
March, 1603 … End of an Era
All good things come to an end. The great Elizabeth I lay dying at Richmond Palace. Rumours trickled out beyond the palace walls. The queen’s devoted, but psychologically and financially exhausted people waited, with growing anxiety. One man said they ‘were very weary of an old woman’s government.’ England was still locked into the Armada war with Spain after 15 draining years. On top of that, for the last nine years, we have been embroiled in war with Ireland. Stretching England’s resources even further, in 1584, Elizabeth’s government put boots on the ground in continental Europe, to support the Protestant Dutch Provinces in their rebellion against Spanish Catholic rule. They were still there. In other words, Elizabeth’s England has been the bulwark of European Protestantism for decades.
Would the fall out from those wars bring pretenders to fight over Elizabeth’s thrones and war into the green hills and valleys of ‘this sceptre’d Isle’? Three hundred and fifty miles north, in Edinburgh a middle aged Scottish King wondered the same thing.
James VI of Scotland & I of England
James VI of Scotland, Queen Elizabeth’s cousin and closest male heir, was at war with no-one. A distinctly pro-European dynasty, in their dealings with fellow Europeans the Stuarts preferred to make love not war. They carried out foreign policy via the royal marriage bed. They habitually married into great ruling houses of Europe. James’s grandmother, Mary of Guise was French. His mother, Mary, Queen of Scots married the heir to the French throne.
James VI married Anne of Denmark, daughter of a northern European powerhouse of a dynasty. The Stuarts’ blood relatives connected them to half the rulers of Christendom, Catholic and Protestant.
The security of the commonwealth – which often meant deciding when to make war, or when and how to keep peace – is the business of monarchy in 1600. So, these blood bonds could be very useful. Security created the conditions for peace and prosperity for the people. No-one liked unstable, changeable times. ‘May you live in interesting times’ is a curse, not a blessing.
The Stuarts are fated to live in the most explosively interesting times (see left, the cartoon of the 1640s). But this dramatic political change ushers in an era that starts out full of hope and relief.
Given the business of monarchy, the ability to produce heirs who will make more strategic marital alliances, was a priceless asset to a monarch and their country. Heirs often prevented the messy uncertainty hanging over the dying Elizabeth. James VI and Anne of Denmark had 3 thriving children in 1603. The Stuart couple had lost 3 more to miscarriage and infant mortality, but their fertility carried its own promise of peace, security and prosperity. The Tudors struggled to make satisfactory marriages, or to marry at all, or breed, or to maintain civil family relationships.
In the blink of an eye, and the sigh of a death rattle, none of it mattered a jot. The Tudors’ day in the sun ended on the evening of 24 March. Gloriana, that wonderful, imperious, leonine redhead went out like a lamb. King James VI of Scotland gathered his closest friends and advisers. The most intelligent, canny king to sit on the throne of Scotland prepared to grasp the thrones of England and Wales, and Ireland.
The New Royal Family
It is an astounding turning point in history. For centuries, England tried to woo, bludgeon, menace and court Scotland into accepting a union with England – which really came down to submission to England’s overlordship.
Turning that situation on its head, in 1603 the English establishment offered the crowns of the Tudor England to the Scottish Stuarts – which came down to a Scottish takeover of the English monarchy. It was a peaceful coup. Up and down the land, people breathed a sigh of relief, and threw themselves into huge parties. James’s ancestor, Robert the Bruce must have laughed for joy in his grave. Albeit nervously. At the end of March, James took the high road to England.
Queen Anne of Denmark
James Stuart waited years for this day. But how can you really prepare for it? Deaths are nearly always shocking. James hesitated to trust the intelligence at first. When he did, he became a man on a mission. He issued hurried orders. His heirs must stay and grow up in Scotland, living behind their different castle walls, safe from kidnap and assassination plots. This was not remotely what the English believed they had bargained for. Fully half the attraction of the Stuarts were their lively royal nurseries. James settled the present succession crisis – but at 37, he was well into middle age. He could die any day.
James did not care about that. He kissed his (once more) pregnant wife in front of the cheering crowds outside St Giles Cathedral. And told her to follow him as soon as she felt able. Anne of Denmark felt very able, but had other ideas. She waited until the king had left the country, then galloped to Stirling Castle, home of her firstborn child, Henry Frederick Stuart.
Anne caused the first crisis of the new age, before the Stuarts even had the bigger crown on their heads. She refused to leave Scotland without her children. I don’t blame her. The conventions of royal child-rearing practice meant she had been deprived of one after another at birth. Realpolitik forced her to watch them being fostered out to her political enemies. She got no say over who would be their guardians. It had been agony. She did not submit without a fight. Even when her husband threatened to lock her up, as her scheming took her close to treason. Her fury caused a faction to form round her at Court. The queen acted against her husband for ten years, never giving up on her desire to become guardian of the households of the royal children.
A princess in her own right – the daughter of a mighty king, the wife of a king – Anne possessed a formidable sense of regal self. But James thwarted her. However, Elizabeth’s death handed Anne a God given opportunity to change all that. The king was out of the country, with his closest allies.
The crisis nearly killed her. I’ll write about this dramatic event in another post.
At great cost to her health, she won the battle. By June 1603, Queen Anne was sweeping into England, the image of everything the English had hoped to see. Her two oldest children rode on horseback beside her. Her dead foetus lay in a coffin in a carriage. The Scots’ Lords promised that her youngest would follow when he was strong enough. Who were the Royal Stuart children?
The children of James VI & I and Anne of Denmark: Henry Frederick Stuart, Prince of Wales
Henry Frederick Stuart, son and heir of James VI & I. Almost unknown to history now, in his heyday, Henry was a celebrity across Europe. Offspring of the union of crowns, in 1603, Henry is the kingdoms united. What he does then, and what he is preparing for at his untimely death suggest he would have been one of the greatest kings we never had. I’ll write about him later. Follow the link to find out more about this stellar Prince of Wales, The Prince Who would be King (HarperCollins 2017)
Princess Elizabeth Stuart, future Queen of Bohemia, known to history as ‘The Winter Queen’
Princess Elizabeth. Devoted to her older brother Henry. Their letters reveal their affection, and their common outlook on life – devout, Puritan minded Protestant, cultured, sociable. She is her older brother’s ideological heir. Modelling herself on Elizabeth I, she even copied the Tudor legend’s signature, until it was a double of Elizabeth I’s.
She is known to history as Elizabeth of Bohemia, The Winter Queen. in 1618, Elizabeth and her husband will go on to ignite the longest, bloodiest conflict in Europe until World War I. More about her to follow in later posts.
Charles Stuart, the future Charles I
Prince Charles, the youngest child. Born in 1600, he was a nice, but weedy bairn in 1603. The most bookish of James’s children, he was thoughtful, secretive, and adored his older brother, often borrowing his horses and dogs and people to go hunting when Henry was away from his principal homes. A good family man, but aloof and secretive with those outside his immediate circle. He carries his people into the brutal civil wars in the 1640s.
Executed in January 1649, he destroyed the monarchy he held in such reverence. More to follow on him.
This, then is the family applauded and cheered south in the summer of 1603. After the myth of the Virgin Queen, the Stuarts arrived.
At once, poets and artists colluded to start building up a myth of the Holy Family around them – the mystique of the Royal family. Could the Stuarts live up to the hype – and could they fill Elizabeth’s impressive boots? To be continued …