Books: John Knox is alive and well

Dynasty: The Stuarts 1560-1807 by John Macleod Hodder pounds 20
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It is an oddity of English history since 1066 that its monarchs have come from foreign dynasties: first the Normans and the Angevin Plantagenets, then the Welsh Tudors and the Scots Stuarts, and finally the German line from George I onwards. The Stuarts have always attracted attention because of the almost supernatural ill-luck that forever attended them. Kings of Scotland since 1371, the Stuarts could record in their annals James I murdered, James II killed by accident, James III murdered, James IV killed at Flodden in 1513 and, more famously, Mary Queen of Scots beheaded and Darnley assassinated. When they became the Stuarts of England, their luck did not change. Charles I was beheaded, Charles II defeated at Worcester and driven into exile, and James II suffered two periods of banishment, the second (in 1688) permanent. Once relegated to the status of pretenders to the English throne, the later Stuarts suffered repeated debacles in the series of failed Jacobite risings.

A new synthesis, embracing all the published work on the Stuarts in the last 20 years, would be welcome, but John Macleod's purpose is simpler: to give us the edited highlights and regurgitate all the best anecdotes relating to this royal dynasty. His book is easy to read and contains many incidental delights for anyone with a sense of humour. The unusual portrait he reproduces of James I makes the "wisest fool in Christendom" look like a bizarre amalgam of the late Scottish actor Roddy MacMillan and the present Defence Secretary George Robertson. And although Macleod's style is fluent, it occasionally lurches unacceptably into the demotic. When he says that Mary Queen of Scots "had her flabber utterly ghasted", he sounds more like Frankie Howerd's gag writer than a serious historian.

Macleod's decision to start with Mary Queen of Scots and end with the Cardinal King, Henry IX, Cardinal York, is a sage one. But immediately one becomes aware of a major problem with this book: Macleod strongly dislikes the Stuarts and has no real sympathy for them. Following Jenny Wormald, he makes Mary Queen of Scots out to be a stupid, indecisive and treacherous woman when in truth she was more sinned against than sinning, caught as she was in a web of political chicanery it was beyond her poor powers to unravel. By contrast, his treatment of Elizabeth I, in many ways a darker personality even than her loathsome father Henry VIII, is absurdly hagiographic. As for the judgment that Mary "enjoyed" her encounters with the intemperate, fire-eating fanatic John Knox, who once notoriously reduced her to tears, this can most charitably be described as eccentric.

Similarly, Macleod is unfair to Charles I, a man mired in a mess mainly the making of the author's beloved Elizabeth, and is absurdly tolerant of the brutal Cromwell. One of the chapter headings reads: "Charles I: Moron". On the other hand, Charles II has usually been let off too lightly by his biographers and needs the corrective Macleod provides here, though talk of "evil" is stretching it. It is true that Charles II betrayed Montrose as surely as Charles I betrayed Strafford and yet we always hear of the latter case, rarely the former. Macleod also deals far too sketchily with the byzantine intrigues of the years 1658-60. In his narrative Cromwell dies and then, it seems, with one bound Charles II is restored; two years of plotting and counterplotting simply vanish at the stroke of a pen.

Macleod cannot make up his mind about using psychological perspectives to elucidate his cast of characters. At one moment he is happy to analyse Bonnie Prince Charlie in such terms, at another he talks scathingly of "people who have read too much Freud", leaving one to ponder what the correct dosage of Freudianism might be. He pokes fun at the idea of latent homosexuality and speaks of "putting the charge in a form to accommodate lack of proof". He then astounds the reader by not even putting in the qualifier "latent" when he roundly asserts that Bonnie Prince Charlie was at heart homosexual. As the author of the most complete study of that unhappy prince, I can only say there is not a scintilla of evidence for the suggestion.

Macleod's history of the Stuarts is odd in two distinct ways. The usual complaint about general British histories is that the Celtic fringes are neglected - as indeed they are in the newly published dual biography of Charles I and Cromwell by Derek Wilson. But in Macleod's book, Scotland becomes the centrepiece of the narrative even in the reign of Charles II. This argues a lack of proper perspective and may be linked to the other oddity of this book. Since the author is so hostile to the Stuarts and must have known this when he began his study, could it be that he is pursuing a personal agenda, using the story of the dynasty as a peg on which to hang some more general thoughts about Scottish history? The suspicion is deepened by the many instances when Macleod seems to feel religion is as much a burning issue today as in the 17th century. Usually historians claim that we cannot understand the 17th century from our vantage point because we simply cannot understand how people could take theological disputation seriously. Macleod's problem seems the polar opposite.

What, after all, can one make of the following outburst? "Subsequent Popes signed concordats with Hitler and Mussolini and turned a deaf ear - an utter silence - to the plight of European Jews in the Holocaust. Protestants have been persecuted in Spain, Austria and Quebec, and continue to be persecuted in some realms of Latin America. More recently the Church has been shaken by a succession of dreadful sexual and paedophiliac scandals, involving hundreds of clergy and thousands of women and children. There are still many, in our own day, who view Roman Catholicism with disquiet."

All this may well be true, but what is its relevance in a book devoted to the period 1560-1807? Is this not a glaring example of anachronistic history? It seems clear that Macleod is one of the disquieted folk he refers to. The spirit of John Knox, Mary's tormentor, is alive and well, it seems.