Re-assessing Mary Stewart in Jacobitism: Sir James Steuart’s notes on David Hume’s History of England

In today’s blog Cailean Gallagher, a PhD student in eighteenth century political economy at the University of St Andrews, shares his current research examining Mary’s place in the minds and hearts of Jacobites, focussing on notes made by Sir James Steuart in his commentary on David Hume’s History of England (1759).

Is it any wonder that Scottish Jacobites, stalwarts of the Stuart cause, fought for the memory of Mary Queen of Scots long after the 45 rebellion? This was no mere nostalgia. Loyalty to her legacy sprung from Jacobites’ enduring dreams of a sovereign Scotland free from self-serving, Anglo-allied dynasts. 

Sir James Steuart (1712-1780), scion of one of Scotland’s leading legal families, forsook the law for the rebels’ cause and in 1745 surreptitiously joined Charles Edward Stuart’s Holyrood court as a strategist and propagandist. During the long exile this earned him, Steuart turned his energy to writing. Alongside his major treatise, The Principles of Political Oeconomy, he wrote a thick commentary on David Hume’s History of England soon after its publication in 1759. The bulk of these Notes aimed to defend Mary Stuart’s character and political capabilities from the gross ‘calumnies’ that Hume had hurled against her.

Although Sir James revised the Notes time and again, he never had them sent to the press, and they remained unpublished until this year.

Coltness House, Steuart’s Lanarkshire home which Hume visited on a number of occasions (now demolished)

After his return to Scotland in 1765, Steuart did show the sections on Mary to Hume at his Coltness home. Hume’s ribaldry did not conceal his bitterness:

‘Trouth Sir James, ye’re very severe: I did’na think ye could have been said d—d ill natured; I see ye think me very credulous’.[1]

When it came to Mary, the great philosopher was not open-minded.

David Hume Blasting the ‘Old Strumpet’

Mary’s guilt proved to be a constant controversy in Scottish historical circles after the 1745 rising, and Hume was determined to clear the Marian party from the field. Mary’s complicity in the murder of her husband Darnley was the crucial question. The legitimacy of Mary’s deposition rested on proving it.

Hume fiercely maintained his opinion of her guilt. In the 1750s, Hume was Keeper of the Library of the Faculty of Advocates, which later became the National Library of Scotland. As he was assembling his case against Mary, his colleague Walter Goodall was working to vindicate her. One apocryphal day, Goodall fell asleep on his manuscripts (he was ‘seldom sober’), and Hume, bending to his ear, boomed: ‘Queen Mary was a whore and had murdered her husband!’[2] For Hume, Mary was a promising ruler until she fell foul of all the temptations of womanhood. Passionate, pious, but politically feeble, she was easily cajoled by cleverer rivals into committing a series of crimes that brought her infamy and public scorn.

The same crass misogynist attitude crops up in Hume’s letters to Lord Elibank, a sumptuous writer with Jacobite sympathies who, Hume complained to his fellow anti-Marian historian William Robertson, had vowed to ‘wash Mary white’[3]. Hume then wrote to tell Elibank that he would sever their friendship if he dared write about the ‘old Strumpet, who has been dead and rotten near two hundred Years’.[4] The threats hit home. Elibank’s restricted his published writing on Mary to modest details, such as which sonnets she wrote and whether her courtier David Rizzio was pretty.

The first two volumes of Hume’s History were published in 1759

For all his famous good nature, Hume’s determination took him to the verge of intellectual tyranny. When another vindication of Mary by William Tytler was acclaimed in the late 1760s, Hume was seething. In a bitter footnote appended to a new edition of his History, he carped: ‘a Scotch Jacobite, who maintains the innocence of queen Mary, must be considered … beyond the reach of argument or reason, and must be left to their prejudices’.[5] Hume doubtless had in mind his old friend Sir James.

Steuart’s Mary

What was at stake in the battle over Mary’s memory? If Mary was innocent, her fall was the result of a pernicious plot that undermined the sovereignty of Scotland. And if Scotland’s government could be brought down by any self-interested segment of the country with the money and means to engineer a coup – sponsored by its priesthood and its larger imperial neighbour – then how could the country every be governed for the good of all its classes?

Steuart took issue with almost every line of Hume’s account. Where Hume presents the queen losing confidence of the people and nobility, Steuart describes how self-regarding factions whipped up populism and fanaticism to topple her. Steuart unpicks the web of lies woven by the poet and statesman George Buchanan to snare Mary in court and accuses Hume of blackening her character with the very same lies.

Steuart regarded the plot to remove Mary as violent, abusive and cruel. On Hume’s account, Mary fell for Lord Darnley, cajoled him to sleep with her to smooth the path to marriage, then realised that the match was ill-advised and decided to get rid of him. For Steuart, all the evidence pointed to a rape, arranged by selfish nobles, and carried out by Darnley to force a marriage that would lead to Mary’s downfall. In this case, the benefit of Steuart’s doubt all lay with Mary:

to ascribe her conduct to a sense of her own Infamy, is not only deciding as to the guilt, but producing the motive of the action by pretending to dive into the repository of Mary’s soul, upon no other authority than the grossest Calumnies of her Enemies.[6]

By reappraising the sexual violence against Mary, Steuart was exposing an old wound to new currents of thought that challenged the tendency to lay heavy judgments against the supposedly weaker sex. He was frankly associating Hume with the misogyny of the likes of John Knox and George Buchanan, whose tracts presented Mary as licentious, lusty, and deserving of her downfall. Later on, Steuart declares:

If the universal clamour against the queen as a murderer be attended to, the same clamour had long before declared her to be a Gezabel or a Harlot from the form of her petticoat[7]

Hume was starting to craft the enduring story of a hapless, whimsical, womanly queen unable to resist the powerful men and their popular priests that were taking Scotland into the stream of British commercial progress. Hume was ready to generate sympathy for Mary, so long as her memory lost political potency.

Steuart, no friend of the Union during the 1745, studied the way that the common good depends on centralised state intervention. Scotland lacked a sovereign with power to rule in the country’s interest, and the Jacobite cause was committed to restoring to Scotland the powers wrested from Mary, its Queen.

A Marian Moment?

This is not the unionist story that David Hume wanted to tell, or Walter Scott after him. Unsurprisingly, not many Jacobites published anything about the connection between Mary and their political motives. After their exiles Jacobites had to be obedient citizens in a republic of letters whose Edinburgh elite were ready to smother all dissent. But Colin Kidd is wrong that ‘after mid-century … the sub-genre of Marian history lost its partisan role, but survived as part of a sterile historiography of local colour and romance.’[8] Despite what many historians still say, post-1745 Jacobite political thought had its Marian moment.

Frances Steuart’s dedication to Andrew Hay in a posthumous copy of the Notes

Steuart’s Notes helped to keep the political legacy of Mary Stuart alive, and his propagandistic spirit even outlived him. After he died, one of his oldest Jacobite friends, Andrew Hay of Leith Hall, asked Steuart’s wife Frances to send him, in memoriam, a copy of the Notes. Inside the bound book, simply entitled Queen Mary, Frances wrote that the request ‘Enlivened to her Recollection Those Valuable Sentiments Which formed the basis on which that Friendship was built and Mutually Subsisted’.[9] These steady friends, and Stuart stalwarts, were staunch Marians to the very end.

For Steuart’s text, see ‘Notes on Hume’s History’. For a history and commentary upon them, see my article ‘Lies, Liberty and the fall of the Stuarts: James Steuart’s Commentary on Hume’s History of England.


[1] Montagu, Mary Wortley. The Letters and Works of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (London: 1861), p.142

[2] E. C. Mossner, The Life of David Hume (Oxford: 1954), p.252

[3] The North Briton, Vol. 1 and 2 pp. 217–222 (London, 1764)

[4] New Hume Letters to Lord Elibank (Austin: 1962), 456

[5] David Hume, History of England (Indianapolis edn, 1983), iv, p.395

[6] James Steuart, ‘Notes on Hume’s History’, ed. Cailean Gallagher (History of European Ideas, 2020), p.37

[7] ibid, p.53

[8] Colin Kidd, Subverting Scotland’s Past, p.4

[9] ‘Queen Mary’, National Trust for Scotland, Leith Hall, 77.8160, Dedication page

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