The fact that the Stewarts claimed the throne of Scotland is not in contention. Why they achieved it against all the odds and then kept it is however something of a mystery.
James I was the first King of the Scots to use the Stewart/Stuart name. As a little boy, his older brother having been murdered, he was sent to France for safety only English pirates captured him and he remained in custody of the English for eighteen years. Scotland being managed by the Dukes of Albany and the Lords of the Isles, no attempt was made to ransom James.
On the English throne, Henry IV was succeeded by his son Henry V, in the final campaign in France Henry, having contracted dysentery or possible lung fever, realised that he needed peace with Scotland because he was leaving his son, Henry VI as a minor, with a Regency managed by his brothers John, Duke of Bedford and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. His “cunning plan” was to marry his prisoner, James Stewart to his cousin Joan Beaufort, the granddaughter of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford, her father being John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset – legitimized but barred from the royal succession and to declare James Stewart King of Scotland.
After a tricky start as King, James I became what amounts to a reasonable lawgiver, poet, thinker and strategic planner but with a fatal greed for money and land. On the way to this stability, he had by fair means or foul, neutralized the opposition. It was his personal campaign against the Dukes of Albany, and his annihilation of the heads of the household that displayed his implacable power.
In the end though, he was killed leaving his son, aged six as King James II. James II reaches his majority and proves to be a reasonable if uninspiring king. He has many daughters and twin sons, the older son Alexander dies in infancy, leaving according to the play’s version of events, a large strawberry mark upon his face. Often commented upon during the play, but explained away differently each time. James II is killed by an exploding cannon, leaving James III an infant. Once reaching his majority, James III tries to drag Scotland into the Renaissance, showing an interest in buildings, furnishings and such trappings, sadly he had favourites and in favouring them annoyed his lairds and earls and in the end he left the throne, Margaret his Queen took control, but died of the plague and then the Three Estates took up arms against James and he was killed on the battle field by his own son, James, who then became James IV.
In the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of The James Plays by Rona Munro now showing at the National Theatre in London, this complex history is covered in three plays of about three hours long. With an in-the-round presentation, miked-up players and quite a lot of stamping, singing and running about, not to mention plenty of executions, mercifully mostly off-stage.
Part One – James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock we see the dying English King (Jamie Sives) hand over the keys to the Kingdom of Scotland to James I (James McArdle) and with one passionate speech James expresses his love of Scotland, his ambition and his kingship. The Earls and Lords of the Isles, grudgingly accept. The marriage, which actually took place in St Saviour and St Mary Ovarie Church in Southwark, sees him united with Joan Beaufort (Stephanie Hyam), whom he has loved from his days in prison when he saw her playing on the lawns at Windsor Castle, and for whom his is supposed to have written his most famous poem The Kingis Quair. The play ends with James’ destruction of the House of Albany.
Part Two – James II: Day of the Innocents starts after the assassination of James I. With a beautifully nuanced use of a puppet and the voice of the adult actor playing James II (Andrew Rothney), we follow the power struggle between the two leading men the Crichton of Stirling Castle (Ali Craig) and Livingston of Edinburgh Castle (Gordon Kennedy). James II marries Mary of Gueldres (Stephanie Hyam in a different wig and with a French accent). With Balvenie – the landless Earl (Peter Forbes) gradually gaining land and power, ultimately to become Earl of Douglas after the brutal murder of the two legitimate heirs at what became know as the Black Dinner. This play ends when James II takes on the full mantle of kingship, both Crichton and Livingston are executed for treason and William (Mark Rowley), who has now succeeded his father as Earl of Douglas, is sent off as a Papal Envoy to Italy. On his return, he provokes James II into killing him.
Part Three – James III: The True Mirror we are well into the reign of James III (Jamie Sives) and his Danish Queen Margaret (Sofie Gråbøl). They already have three sons, James, Ross and Alexander. There are some elegantly staged moments of intimacy in this play, and some clever staging of the Three Estates Parliament, which James III found tedious, he was not the least interested in government and left a lot of the “coin counting” to his wife. Towards the end of their lives they were estranged, Margaret lived in Stirling Castle and James went to Edinburgh. Like Edward II of England, he was a known bisexual, he has affairs indiscriminately with the nobility and with the house servants, his ending was inevitable once Margaret was dead. James IV (Daniel Cahill) incidentally, marries Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry Tudor and Elizabeth Plantagenet.
This trilogy worked well providing you kept up with the history, for which the programme gave ample opportunity, being full of scholarly essays, a timetable of events in the play and what was going on elsewhere and a cast list showing where different actors were placed in each of the plays. There was some interesting doubling up and there were some excellent parts for women. Personally, I have no patience with an audience that is still wondering “where Mary, Queen of Scots fits into all this”. The early kings of Scotland many be obscure, but if you are going to the plays why not look up the history – what else is Google for?