“Righteous Heir”: Mary, Queen of Scots and James, the duke of Albany and York, 1679-1682

In today’s blog, Dr Laura Doak (Charlotte Nicholson Fellow in History at the University of Glasgow) explores the parallels between Mary, Queen of Scots and her great-grandson, James, and discusses extra-literary or ‘performed’ cultural mediums used by both the crown and its opponents to argue their competing claims about legitimate political authority.

On 5 February 1681, Mary Queen of Scots’ great-grandson, James, visited her childhood home at Stirling Castle. The two Stuarts held much in common: problematically Catholic figures in a predominantly Protestant kingdom. As will be well-known to readers of this blog, the confessional factions that encircled Mary and her enforced abdication in 1567 left perceptions of Scotland’s constitutional foundations deeply divided. Some opposed the removal of a monarch they considered divinely appointed but were pacified by the fact her crown passed to her son and so continued a direct Stuart line of succession. Yet others attempted to use the end of Mary’s reign as evidence for a limited, contractual monarchy. James, meanwhile, as duke of Albany and York, found himself in Scotland between November 1679 and May 1682 in order to avoid the political heat of an ‘Exclusion Crisis’ generated by his conversion to Catholicism, which saw powerful factions at Westminster challenge his position as heir presumptive to his elder brother Charles II.

John Riley, James, duke of York and Albany (1660s). Photo: Public Domain.

James used his visit to promote his place in the succession by deliberately trading on the Stuarts’ ancient Scottish roots. (1) At Stirling, James was welcomed by local dignitaries who invoked the language and symbolism of past royal visits and presented him with the ceremonial keys to the burgh. James then walked Stirling’s processional route as residents “received His Royal Highness with great Shouts and Acclamations of Joy”. At the mercat cross, the duke delivered a speech that stressed his family’s “inherent and natural” “kindness” for the burgh. (2) Wherever he went, the duke was met by a literary fanfare of songs, poems, and addresses celebrating the “undoubted Successive Right” that accompanied his descent from a “most Ancient and uncontaminated[d]” “Royal Centurie” of Stuart monarchs. (3)

Photographer unknown, ‘The Ancient Key of Stirling’. Photo: Public Domain.
This ‘ancient key of Stirling’ was ceremonially delivered to James’ own grandson, Bonnie Prince Charlie, in 1746 during an attempted Jacobite uprising. It may well be the same key delivered to James in 1681.

Among the dramatis personae summoned by such imagery was Mary, Queen of Scots. Indeed, it was in Mary’s court that this Stuart preoccupation with an unbroken dynasty first emerged. (4) In 1566, Mary had chosen Stirling for an elaborate triumph to mark the baptism of her son, the future James VI. Humanist scholar George Buchanan penned Pompae Decorum Rusticorum for the occasion. Complimenting the entertainment, these Latin verses applauded Mary as Astraea, Greek goddess

of purity (5) and this theme re-emerged during James’s Scottish visit over a century later. Discourse Unto his Royal Highness, presented by “a Loyal Hand” in the early months of 1680, specifically tied literary imagery of Astraea to the idea that James’s presence in Scotland placed him in dialogue with his Stuart ancestors. Following a reference to Mary as “a most Glorious Saint”, the Discourse praised James’s “undoubted Successive Right” to the throne as a descendent of the “uncontaminate[d] Wreath” of Stuart monarchs before encouraging him to “regain Astrea and her Age of Gold”. The now-anonymous author also linked this stirring call with an open threat to the duke’s opponents by declaring that Scotland stood;

“readie Armed by Faithful Hearts, with bravest Courage, in a Think and Flaming Cloud of many Thousands brandish Swords, to do you Service… to cut, for You, the Way and Ingress to a Throne.” (6)

Mary, Queen of Scots. Detail from Aberdeen mercat cross, where she is depicted as part of the Stuart succession. Photo: Public Domain.

But alongside these positive depictions of unbroken ancestry, however, Mary could also cast an alternative shadow. James’s duchess – also named Mary – was installed in the Queen’s old apartments at Holyrood Palace, where the royal couple adopted Mary’s practice of taking private Mass. Outside these windows in 1561, Protestant reformer John Knox had led crowds to sing the 84th psalm. This psalm praised God as the “Lord of hosts” who acted as “a sun & shield” to faithful followers and was adopted as an anthem of protest. Now, militant critics of the Stuart monarchy

adopted this same psalm for the 22 June 1680 Sanquhar Declaration, which declared Charles II to have “forfaulted” his throne and denounced James as “a profest Papist” in order to “protest against his succeeding to the Crown”. (7) Those responsible justified the statement by explicitly linking it to Mary’s abdication, with extremist preacher Richard Cameron comparing it to the actions of those “worthies” who had “forced Queen marie to depose”. (8)

Across the British Isles, those critical of James’s prospective succession made sporadic reference to Mary as an example of a monarch justly removed. Christopher Petrakos has demonstrated how the Queen of Scots was used by Exclusionists like John Trenchard, who depicted Elizabeth I’s 1558 accession to the English throne over Mary’s arguably firmer claim as an act of constitutional “exclusion”. (9) One pamphlet, A Brief Account of the Several Plots, Conspiracies, and Hellish Attempts of the Bloody-minded Papists, placed Mary centre-stage of its anti-Catholic narrative, casting her as an irrepressible enemy of Protestant security. (10)


Willem Wissing, Mary of Modena (1658-1718), Consort of James VII and II; National Galleries of Scotland; Photo: Public Domain

In response, James’s supporters adopted Mary and her later execution – after Elizabeth signed her death warrant in February 1587 –as motifs of injustice and the regicidal tendencies of English Parliamentarians. (11) One English pamphlet even claimed that the succession of the duke’s grandfather, James VI, to the English throne after Elizabeth’s own death in 1603, was an act of divine intervention that rectified a wrong done to Mary but also proved God’s influence over her place in the succession, because it had led to the dynastic union of both kingdoms.(12) This idea was certainly fixed within James’s court at Holyrood Palace. Michael Livingston of Bantaskin, who acted as court poet throughout the duke’s time in Scotland, declared;

“The Royal Spring, let none be so malpert,

Out of its proper Channel to divert;

Nor the Succession Regal circumvent,

But settle in its Legal Right Descent.

Did not the sacred Pow’rs offended raze

The Pictish Natione [Scotland], ‘cause they [the English] did displace

The Righteous Heir, subverting the true Base.” (13)

The ideological fissures generated by Mary’s ‘abdication’ in 1567 thus remained visible within the cultural outputs generated by her great-grandson’s visit to Scotland between 1679 and 1682, and the debates that surrounded his own controversial succession. Mary was invoked as part of a legitimising dynastic lineage but, in contrast, she was also used by others to symbolise an alternative, contractual past. That Mary’s spectre could be resurrected in so many different guises, just less than a century following her death, shows how deep the Queen of Scots was already engraved upon Scotland’s culture and historical memory.

Laura Doak is a postdoctoral research at the University of Glasgow, convenor of the Economic & Social History Society for Scotland. and Editorial Intern at the University of East Anglia. You can follow her on Twitter at @lauraidoak.

(1) For more on this see: Laura I. Doak, ‘Progresses, Print, and ‘Politick Managers’: Performing the Succession of James II & VII, 1679-1682’, Royal Studies Journal, 8:1 (2021).

(2) A true and exact Relation of His Royal Highness, James Duke of York and Albany, His Progress from Edinburgh to Linlithgow, from thence to Stirling and back again (1681) 2.

(3) A Discourse Unto His Royal Highness James, Duke of Albany and York: When Intending from Scotland (1680) 3.

(4) Michael Lynch, ‘Queen Mary’s Triumph: the Baptismal Celebrations at Stirling in December 1566’, Scottish Historical Review, 187:1 (1990) 2.

(5) ibid, 12.

(6) A Discourse Unto His Royal Highness James, Duke of Albany and York: When Intending from Scotland (1680) 3, 5-6.

(7) ‘The Declaration and Testimony of the True-Presbyterian, Anti-prelatick, and Anti-Erastian Persecuted-party in Scotland’, in A True and Exact Copy of a Treasonable and Bloody-Paper called the Fanaticks New-Covenant (1680) 9-10.

(8) Glasgow University Library Special Collections, MS Gen 450v. The ideological roots of this argument were George Buchanan’s De jure regni apud Scotos (1579).

(9) Christopher Petrakos, “The Plot Writ the Association’: Mary, Queen of Scots and Parallel Histories of the Protestant Association during the Exclusion Crisis, 1679-1681’, Early Modern Culture 13 (2018) 56.

(10) A Brief Account of the Several Plots, Conspiracies, and Hellish Attempts of the Bloody-minded Papists (1679) 4-15.

(11) John D. Staines, The Tragic Histories of Mary Queen of Scots, 1560-1690 (2009) 226-228.

(12) Sir Roger L’Estrange, The State and Interest of the Nation, with respect to his Royal Highness the Duke of York (1680) 26-28.

(13) Michael Livingston of Bantaskin, Albion’s Congratulatory (1680) 8. Printed marginalia specifies the application of “Righteous Heir” to “Queen Mary”.

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