The Stewart Society Magazine

A Review of “The Challenge to the Crown” by The Stewart Society

The Stewart Society Magazine‘The Challenge to the Crown’ was recently reviewed in ‘The Stewarts’ (Vol. 24 No3 2014), the magazine of the The Stewart Society. It was reviewed by Geordie Burnett Stuart, a Past President, and is reproduced in full below:

“This book, and its sequel, can rightly claim to be among the definitive accounts of the most written about and turbulent periods of Scottish history.

Robert Stedall claims to be an amateur historian but his attention to detail and use of original sources is astonishing. He joins a long list of more recent writers, beginning with Stephan Zweig, whose sympathy for Mary, Queen of Scots indulges our modern need for a victim. The story bears no repeating but he gives it a new twist and fresh resonance. For this alone the book is well worth reading.

Aged just 19 Mary came to Scotland as a sophisticated French girl who loved dancing, music and her four ‘Marys’. She never met the Virgin Queen, although it nearly happened a few times, and she never saw her son, James VI and I, again after he was a year old. It is a truly awful story.

The book can feel at times like a litany of names of the Scottish nobility, all battling for supremacy in a world of darkness, daggers, dastardly deeds and death. To paraphrase Antonia Fraser in her 1969 work, the Scottish Nobles saw no point in pursuing any point of principle once it no longer served their purpose – even if they were being bribed to do so.

What the book convincingly succeeds in doing is to prove that the two grinding stones of Scottish Protestantism and the English Crown’s battle for supremacy with France meant that there was never room for an independent Scottish Foreign policy.

Stedall gives the four ‘Marys’ (Beaton, Seton, Livingstone and Fleming) more influence than is customary. He is good on the motives but less so on the characters of a large cast of ghastly, brutal and romantic players. Mary herself appears in all her frail naivety, as a mere pawn in the high stakes of European politics. She always picked the wrong men, but she never lacked for bravery, style and loyalty. For this she unquestionably deserves her very special place in Scotland’s history.

Volume I ends with her incarceration on Loch Leven (the castle there was much bigger than today) without her music or her clothes and without the income from her French Royal Estates. Forced to abdicate in favour of her son, but giving power to the ever present, ambiguous figure of her half-brother, Lord James Stewart, Earl of Moray. Stedall suggests that the Regent was always pro-English as well as Protestant and his victory was our victory i.e. a victory for the Protestant Union of the Crowns. This of course is the inevitable culmination of Stedall’s masterly second volume. This complex political dance continues into the 21“ century, with yet another opportunity/attempt to reverse history in September 2014.”