Wednesday, 13 April 2016

The Early Stewart Kings. Suggestions for reading.

Yesterday I received a tweet asking me to recommend books on James I, James II and James III, the Stewart kings of Scotland in the late Middle Ages. My friend had been inspired, like many others, by the “James Plays” by Rona Munro, which have recently caused quite a sensation in Scotland.

(I'd better admit straight away that I have not seen them. My car accident laid me up just when they were on in the Festival. I'm more or less better now, thanks)

Since I have never taught, nor studied in detail, this period, I have just been to the Library to check. There is no doubt that the serious enquirer who has the time and the energy should get hold of the three relevant volumes in the series “The Stewart Kings of Scotland”. They can be found in the Scottish Room of the Edinburgh public library, catalogued at XDA 783.

The declared aim of this series is: "to bring the rich potential heritage of late medieval and early modern Scotland before as wide a reading public as possible, with specialist authors writing for the general reader as well as for the student or academic”. There is: “James I” by Michael Brown; James II” by Christine McGladdery; and “James III” by Norman Macdougall”. I think their idea of “the reading public” is a bit exalted. They are serious works for the seriously interested. But I doubt if you will do better.

Be warned, though. Writing biographies of these monarchs is not like writing about Queen Victoria, or David Lloyd George, or Field Marshall Montgomery.  Far too little can be found out. I opened the book on James I at random five times, and I found speculative words on every one of the five pages: “probably”, “doubtless”, appears as”, “it seems that” and “apparently”. The opening paragraph of the Preface to the life of James III includes: “The known facts suggest that he enjoyed a measure of success”. This does not make these books less good history than works where there is a mass of evidence, but it does make a different sort of biography.

When the “James Plays” were on, and I was stretched on a couch, I did read about the early Stewart kings in the many general books of Scottish History that I possess. They were all good in different ways. Two that I would suggest are: “The New Penguin History of Scotland” - the section on Medieval Scotland is by David Ditchburn and Alastair J Macdonald; and “Tales of a Grandfather “ by Walter Scott. This does not, of course, have the advantage of recent research, but my goodness he tells a good story. The Penguin book, by the way, is very heavy to lift.

My friend asked about James IV too. I do know a bit about him. The series on the Stewart Kings continues with “James IV” by Norman Macdougall. The desperate shortage of sources no longer applies and the book is packed with fascinating information. It does require time and energy, though. It is a serious academic account.

If you are short of time and energy I cannot avoid giving the link to my own short e-book on James IV.

It is about the right length for a long commute and it really is aimed at “the general reader”.

I hope this is helpful.