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The Early Stewart Kings: Robert II and Robert III, 1371-1406 (Stewart Dynasty in Scotland) Paperback – 1 Apr 1996
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About the Author
Stephen Boardman is a Reader in Scottish History at the University of Edinburgh. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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In his foreword, the series’s editor Norman Macdougall states the book is “the first scholarly study of the early Stewart kings.” Why this should be so is elaborated upon by the book’s author, Stephen Boardman. In his preface he explains why these two founding fathers of the Stewart reign have inspired only “a perennial lack of interest” but he hopes his book will lead to a re-assessment of them, “so long synonymous with inadequacy and failure.” (Indeed, Neil Oliver, in his ‘History of Scotland’ gives the whole period covered by this book a mere few paragraphs.)
Boardman’s book has ten chapters that take us through the two reigns in chronological order. His is a history of the kings and the powerful magnates of the realm, rather than of the realm itself and its times. I précis the subject matter of each chapter below to give the potential purchaser an idea of what to expect, and why also this period is worthy of appreciation if only for the pure family drama that is played out. Shakespeare would have done it proud had he been Scottish.
Chapter one tracks the reign of David II with the Stewarts not always being acknowledged as heirs apparent. Chapter two describes how conditions allowed for a smooth transfer of power and how Robert II consolidated his hold. Boardman writes how, “Much of the negative imagery surrounding Robert II’s political control over his kingdom in fact stemmed from the activities of his sons, especially Alexander and Walter, after the king’s death.”
The third chapter addresses Robert’s extension of power in the north through is grants of lands and powers to his many sons, especially to Alexander, more notoriously known as ‘the wolf of Badenoch’. Meanwhile, the fourth goes south to the Borders, where the king’s eldest son John, the heir to the throne (and the future Robert III), has manipulated events and local loyalties to successfully challenge his father.
Chapter five covers the years 1384-88, the period of the heir’s primacy over the government of the kingdom until challenged by his own younger brother Robert, Earl of Fife (and the future Duke of Albany). Thus at this stage we have an elderly king (Robert II), nominally reigning but increasingly sidelined in favour of his middle-aged eldest son, who himself is increasingly sidelined by his younger brother. For the remainder of the book it is Fife/Albany who effectively governs Scotland, although the next youngest brother, the ‘wolf’ holds sway in the north.
And it is the actions taken by Fife/Albany to contain ‘the wolf’ by force and by alliance that are covered in chapter six together with his supreme skill in maintaining governance over the kingdom even when his father dies and is succeeded by his elder brother as Robert III. However, chapter seven sees Robert III re-assert control through his young first-born, David, entitled Duke of Rothesay.
But Boardman shows how within a few years “the young prince had been transformed from a symbol of the king’s success to an agent of his downfall,” for having allied with Fife/Albany to sideline his father, David starts to act like a king rather than a king-in-waiting. But within two years, David is arrested by Fife/Albany, and probably murdered by him too. Fife/Albany goes from strength to strength but the country maintains a fragile uncertainty about its future.
With David dead, Robert III’s heir is the boy James. In the final chapter Boardman postulates causes for James’s sudden flight to France, noting how traditional descriptions from contemporary source do not add up. Nevertheless, his narrative concludes with the cliff-hanging remark that “the senior line of the Stewart dynasty established in 1371 was, by the end of Robert III’s life, hanging by a thread.”
Boardman’s writing is a serious work of scholarship – there are twelve pages of bibliography – but the events themselves cannot help but lend themselves to drama. Boardman stays cool and does not let his style succumb to the temptation to sensationalise. Whilst his text can, therefore, often lack inspiration, the events themselves supply the reader himself with a powerful performance.
So, If the period has suffered from “a perennial lack of interest” because of its lack of glory, it is nevertheless a rollercoaster ride of internal family squabbling, murder, and power-broking worthy of a soap-opera or ‘The Godfather’ and deserves to be better known.
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