The Thistle and the Rose by David McNicoll

Posted by A69143a5 tiny Jen Messier on apr 9, 2020 under Blog Post

We're excited to present this guest blog post by David McNicoll, longtime Brainery teacher and author of the Language of Whisky Book (2020), available on Amazon. Join David for an online version of his popular History of Royal Scotland class on April 14th! 

Read on for a sneak peek! 



by David McNicoll

On Saturday 8th of August 1503, in a gala ceremony presided over by the Archbishop of Glasgow and the Archbishop of York amid the ancient walls of the Abbey of Holyrood in Edinburgh, King James IV of Scotland officially married Margaret Tudor, daughter of the English king, Henry VII. Spectacular and colourful as I’m sure it was, and dynastically important given the hundreds of years of strife between the two small kingdoms occupying the island of Great Britain, it was still a fairly straight forward, albeit royal, wedding. But history spins on a sixpence.

James Stewart was 30, and had been king since he was 14, following the slaying of his father at the Battle of Sauchieburn in which the young prince was partially involved, albeit as his mother’s pawn. Although a bystander really, he would never truly forgive himself for any role played in the regicide. Margaret was 13 when the wedding took place, and while arranged for political reasons her father cautiously saw in the union an outside possibility of bringing the crowns of England and Scotland together and was warned by advisors about bringing the Stewarts into the English royal succession. But with an adult heir in his son Henry he felt that it was unlikely. And, even if it did transpire then it would surely be smaller Scotland that would be subsumed into a greater England. Working the field of European politics, he also played continental dynastic matchmaker, marrying off Margaret’s younger sister Mary to the king of France. The future of all three countries would be interwoven for a century to come.


Margaret Tudor

Henry Tudor, who was of Welsh stock was a direct descendant of the late Medieval English king, Edward III through a line known as the House of Lancaster, but it was a weak connection. However, in an agreement with her mother, Henry agreed to marry Elizabeth of the rival House of York in the event he could usurp her uncle, Richard III and unite the two dynasties. At the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 Henry took the field, Richard was killed, and he claimed the throne on the spot. A year later as per the agreement, he married Elizabeth establishing the Royal House of Tudor and brought an end to the bloody War of the Roses that had ripped England apart for the past three decades. He swiftly took control of England and brought it under his absolute rule; and in marrying off his daughters he looked to shore up any external threats from immediate neighbours including Scotland. A strong willed and at times overbearing man, he was a shrewd operator and laid the foundations of England’s future success and rise in power.

The Stewart’s own rise to power was a little more straightforward than that of the Tudors, but no less meteoric. Walter Fitz-Alan had began life as a 12th century mediocre mid-rank English nobleman, but came north to Scotland with the development of the feudal system and managed to work his way up through the court to the lofty title of Lord High Steward under the ruling Canmore monarchy. This was one of the highest offices of state and essentially made him caretaker of the kingdom, bringing the family money, lands and prestige. The position became hereditary and they changed their name to Stewart in recognition of this. In 1315 the 6th High Steward, another Walter, married Marjorie Bruce daughter of the famous king Robert the Bruce, the victor over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn. They would have one son, who would in 1371 after the death of his uncle David become King Robert II, first of the Royal House of Stewart. From here, this successful dynasty would govern Scotland for the next 340 years until the death of Queen Anne in 1714. Ruling Scotland was one thing, but the eye would ultimately rest on a bigger prize.

While the English seemed to be constantly at war with either the French or just themselves, the Scots had this unbroken line of kings, each following his father onto the throne: a seemingly perfect recipe for stability and peace. It was far from the case, for one simple reason: they all came to the throne by sheer coincidence as children. This necessitated a series of regents to rule in their stead, generation after generation. Thus, the real power lay behind the throne, and a never-ending legion of high-ranking nobles fought each other incessantly for control over the boy kings. The Stewarts also had to deal with a strong-willed prince on their western fringe: the MacDonald Lords of the Isles. So, on paper it appeared business as usual, but behind the scenes there was plenty of strife and blood spilled. Also, the king in Scotland was referred to as ‘king of Scots’ rather than ‘king of Scotland’ – a first among equals and kept in check by a strong aristocracy. Additionally, the king had no standing army unlike most of his contemporaries and relied on these nobles along with his fierce Highland clan chiefs to muster forces when needed. It meant any strategy depended on their loyalty and willingness to fight. And in 1513 all of this was needed. James IV was one of the more intellectually gifted of 16th century monarchs, a real Renaissance Man with an eye to the arts as well as governance. He was a political force to be reckoned with and fearless in battle, but he was an aching romantic and yearned for the days of chivalry and gleaming knights on chargers. It would prove his undoing.

His brother-in-law, Henry VIII invaded France in June of 1513, and as ally to the French James VI launched a counterattack into England. By 1500, squabbles between the Scots and the English amounted to little more than border skirmishes with only a few hundred combatants on each side, unlike the great battles of early centuries and the Wars of Independence, so for James to raise an army of around 30,000 men this was a serious operation, a signal of intent: a true invasion of England. It all went horribly wrong. On the 9th of September on the field of Flodden in northern England, the Scottish army was cut to ribbons, with over 10,000 killed including the king himself, with the English losses marked in hundreds only. The after-affects were shattering. The Battle of Flodden is the darkest day in Scottish history, and one the nation has never fully recovered from. But, as he left Edinburgh to face his destiny he left behind a very different legacy: his six-month-old son, who was immediately proclaimed James V. Yet another child king. In the aftermath of her husband’s death Margaret acted as regent to her son, and then in 1514 she remarried, this time Archibald Douglas, the earl of Douglas. They had a daughter, Margaret who in turn married a man called Matthew Stuart. This would have lasting consequences.

In due course James V unshackled himself from the yoke of various regents and took control of the kingdom. He also married the very powerful French noblewoman, Marie de Guise, who bore him a baby daughter, Mary. And just in the nick of time too. In 1542, at only the age of 30 James died suddenly and yet another in the succession of cradle monarchs came to the throne: the six-day-old Mary Queen of Scots. Mary is undoubtably the most famous of all Scottish kings and queens internationally, as much for her stunning looks as for the almost comic tragedy of her life. I won’t go into it in any length here, but from the get-go it was stormy waters ahead for the young queen.

Her mad uncle, Henry VIII was determined to marry her to his own son, the future Edward VI but neither the dowager queen, Mary of Guise nor the leading nobles were having anything to do with this plan. So, true to form he invaded in what is called the ‘Rough Wooing’, and laid waste to southern Scotland in a brutal series of raids. At five years old, and for her own safety and crafty politicking by her mother she was smuggled out of the country and sent to live with the Guise family in France. At 15 years of age she married the prince dauphin of France, and when he became king, she became the queen consort of France. It would now seem inevitable that the crowns of Scotland and France would unite as one and the two countries head down the same trajectory. It was not to be. The king died suddenly and now a teenage widow she came back to Scotland. She picked up the reins of power, but was up against it from the start – railed at from all directions, especially the newly established Protestant Church led by the rabid firebrand preacher John Knox, and from the political machinations of her ambitious and devious half-brother, James Stuart, earl of Moray. To shore up her precarious situation as a Catholic, female monarch in a very testosterone-fueled, fanatically Protestant nation she re-married – with mixed results.

Her choice was a tall, handsome, socially well-connected man of the court who was also a Protestant. These ticked most of the boxes, but there was another major element – her choice was her first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Remember Margaret Tudor and her second marriage to the earl of Douglas and their daughter, Margaret? Well, this second Margaret was Darnley’s mother. Therefore, both Mary and her new husband were grandchildren of Margaret Tudor and by extension great-grandchildren of King Henry VII of England. Indeed, Lord Darnley was Mary’s heir from both sides of his family, and this was a dangerous game, for by the time of their nuptials in 1565 all that stood between the ruthlessly determined Darnley and the throne of Scotland was his wife, and then only the unmarried Elizabeth I and the glittering crown of England itself. Behind the thin veneer of charm and sophistication Henry Stuart was a vain, violent lothario of a man; rarely sober and criminally brutal. When he stabbed Mary’s private secretary to death in front of her he may have had more sinister thoughts in mind. He had to go.

In the early hours of the 10th February 1567, and barely a year after the wedding the house he was living in just off Edinburgh’s Royal Mile blew up with gunpowder. But he was not in the building, he was found in the morning some yards away in the garden, naked and strangled. To this day we do not know the reason for the gunpowder (the queen herself may have been the target), nor do we know who killed Darnley. It remains one of the greatest murder-mysteries in Scottish history. At the time it was believed to have been Lord Bothwell. Not only did he hate Darnley, but he was the queen’s lover. Not long after the murder they married. That was the end for Mary’s rule in Scotland, and she was forced to abdicate to the Protestant nobles who took power and fled to England. As Elizabeth’s heir and living in England she was a tangible threat, and secondly as a Catholic she was a true focus for forces against Elizabeth. So for 19 years the English queen locked her cousin away under house arrest, before finally chopping her head off in 1587. However, as she went to the block, Mary famously said: “In my end is my beginning”. It was a prophecy, and it came true – for although she was about to die, she would leave a legacy.

In their short marriage, Darnley had managed to do one thing right: he got Mary pregnant, and in June 1566 she gave birth to Prince James. When she was forced to abdicate the crown was gifted to the baby prince, thus continuing the tradition of child monarchs in Scotland. But this one had a very different future. As it became increasingly apparent that the aging Elizabeth I was not going to marry and produce offspring an heir had to be secured; and while others threw their hats into the ring, James VI of Scotland as he now was, was the only true candidate. Importantly, he was a protestant and even more importantly he was the senior living descendant of Henry VII on both his mother and his father’s side. It was a formidable royal pedigree. Yet, the old queen kept her cards close. The lure of the English throne was enough to keep James in check and keep the Scots quiet on her northern border – the whiff of English gold succeeded where English swords had failed. It is said the only thing that can tame a unicorn is a virgin – well, the symbol of the Scottish monarchy is the unicorn, and it was now tamed by the Virgin Queen. Even when she executed his mother, James didn’t lift a finger. Although she never publicly proclaimed him, she let it be known at court that he was the successor and left it to her right-hand-man Robert Cecil to ensure a smooth transition when it came. Towards the end she furnished James with a generous pension, and from there he just ran down the clock.


King James VI

On Thursday the 24th of March 1603, Elizabeth I of England finally breathed her last. Henry Tudor had snapped up the crown in 1485 amid the heat of battle and four of his name would succeed him, but on that cold spring morning with her last breath, the Royal House of Tudor came to an end peacefully and in its sleep. Three hundred miles away and 60 hours later a messenger arrived at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh to tell James that his cousin had died, and that he was now the undoubted and accepted King of England. The Stewarts had come a long way from minion of the Canmore Courts of the late middle ages to kings of both Scotland and England, and with it, Ireland and Wales. James called his new united realm: “Great Britain”, and therefore he is known to history as King James VI of Scotland & I of Great Britain. The present queen is his direct descendant. History does indeed spin upon a sixpence: the British royal house, that once sat at the apex of the world, owes its very existence to an unremarkable wedding in Edinburgh five hundred years ago when the Thistle and the Rose were bound together.  


Tagged with scotland history

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