Saturday, 15 October 2011

The Royal Stuarts by Allan Massie: Jonathan Cape :A Review

The Royal Stuarts by Allan Massie is an excellent portrait of one of the most influential families in British history but whether they were a family that “shaped Britain” is very much open to challenge. Quite logically Massie starts at the beginning of the Stewarts reign. The spelling of the surname was changed to 'Stuart’ by Mary, Queen of Scots, to “stop the French mispronouncing it”.

The Stuarts began life as very wealthy landowners from Brittany, France before moving to Scotland where they acquired the hereditary office of 'steward ’to the Scottish kings. Massie is correct when he gives such a broad sweep to a family that did span a considerable range of British history, to be exact from the Middle Ages to the Napoleonic period.
The book is far from an academic account of the Stuarts although having said that this is no Mills & Boon approach to historical writing according to one reviewer “he has the novelist’s ability to conjure up context and background in a brief sketch, the journalist’s knack of summarizing arguments and issues, and the storyteller’s gift for picking out those key actions or remarks that bring a person’s character to life”.

The book has the feel of a novel, but Massie is a good enough writer to document his text with a generous use of footnotes. His use of sources comes from older historians and writers rather than modern day ones. He cites, John Buchan, Lord Macaulay and Sir Walter Scott.Massie is not a professional historian, and this has led to some historians bemoaning the fact that it seems to have no original use of primary sources or that any manuscripts were consulted.

But there is nothing wrong citing other creative writer’s opinion on his chosen subject. In saying that students studying this book should also do some independent research.The book does have its share of mistakes it has been pointed out that Charles I ‘find refuge’ in Carisbrooke Castle, this is not strictly accurate as he was in reality held under armed parliamentary guard. Massie asserts Charles 'almost certainly’ did not read Hobbes’s Leviathan. But this is contradicted by the fact that was given a manuscript copy by Hobbes himself.

Perhaps, more importantly, the book does have several weaknesses. Massie seems to follow in the footsteps of recent historiography in fact little mention of the vast economic changes that covered the reign of the Stuart family. Nothing is learnt of the close connection of the Stuarts to the section of the growing mercantile class that grew up in the 15th and 16th centuries and played no small role in the English Revolution.

From my standpoint, the most important chapter in the book is Charles 1 The Martyr King. In this part of the book, Massie clearly indicates sympathy for his subject. For Massie Charles is not a “man of blood”. The chapter also lacks certain objectivity, and Massie’s Tory proclivities shine through.  He takes on board some revisionist arguments. Charles was not responsible for the civil war it was nasty parliaments fault. Massie uncritically presents the counterfactual argument If Charles had not been so stubborn then things might have not developed into a civil war. There is a downplaying of social and economic factors.

I am not critical of Massie’s choice of the Stuarts as a study but readers should bear in mind Massie’s “is well known for advocating a Tory viewpoint” as one writer pointed out correctly that the “Stuarts are meat and drink to conservative revisionist historians because their complex personalities and the shifting, premodern nature of their kingdoms (plural after 1603) made them unusually susceptible to interpretative spin. Stuart reputations go up and down like the stock market”.

Perhaps one of the weaknesses of the Marxist historians was so little work was done counter the revisionist's view of the Stuarts with a historical materialist viewpoint.

To conclude Massie is an excellent writer and his approach throughout the book is intelligent and does not talk down to the reader. The pace of the book is fast and deals with a significant amount of material. Massie who is a writer with a wealth of experience which makes this a book well worth reading and a good introduction to the subject.

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