top of page

The Reel Stuarts

Updated: Feb 28

(Heads up - MQS means Mary Stuart, Mary Queen of Scots.)

Last month we had another death anniversary of Charles I - 375 years since he was beheaded outside of Banqueting House at Whitehall. It got me thinking about the Stuarts. Then again, few things don't get me thinking about the Stuarts...

Equestrian Statue of Charles I
Equestrian Statue of Charles I

When it comes to popular history, Stuarts aren't as popular as well as they should be, which is a shame, because at the end of the day, it's their 'fault' that England and Scotland came together under the one crown (for better or for worse). There was only one century of Stuart rule in England (1603-1714), yet Scotland had had them for two hundred years before that. It's nothing to be sniffed at, and they definitely beat many other dynasties when it comes to longevity.

In fact, the first Stuart can be traced all the way back to the Norman Conquest when a man from Brittany moved to England, in order to accompany a Scottish King to Scotland, and there to establish a line of the Stewards of Scotland. Then one of them married a daughter of the very unlikely future King... and the rest was history...

They went from Stewards to Stewarts to Stuarts (when MQS lived in France and the French had a problem with the 'w').

There aren't many mainstream series or feature films that are set in this period, comparing to the Tudors on screen. To Kill a King (2003), The Last King (2003), Stage Beauty (2004), Gunpowder, Treason and Plot (2004), The Devil's Whore (2008), Gunpowder (2017) and The Favourite (2018) and several episodes from Horrible Histories (2009-2014) are some of my favourite Stuarts-on-screen dramas, but there aren't too many to choose from to begin with. Add Cromwell (1970), Restoration (1995), Libertine (2004), New Worlds (2014), and a small list of MQS films and TV shows, and that's pretty much a full list. There are films and TV shows that are set not in Blighty in the Stuart era, e.g. The Scarlet Letter (1995) and every Musketeer film. Seriously.

Banqueting House ceiling
Banqueting House ceiling, celebrating the Divine Right of Kings

The Three Musketeers features James I's favourite The Duke of Buckingham's assassination, and Twenty Years Later has Charles I's execution as one of its plot points. The threequel, i.e. Ten Years Later has among its dramatis personnae the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, as well as Henrietta Anne (Charles I's youngest daughter). Restoration is the name of the game (at least for the early chapters) for the musketeers who are resolved to help Charles II regain his throne. If I had to write about the Tudors, this paragraph would be thrice as long.

Queen's House built for James I's Consort
Queen's House built for James I's Consort

The Stuarts don't even have many documentaries about them - obviously Gunpowder as a topic warranted a few, but even fewer are made about other Stuart issues, which is again a great shame, because this era included not only the Gunpowder Plot, but also the witch hunts, a Civil War between three countries, Regicide, England as a Republic (which we regularly gloss over as a nation), the beginning of science in Britain, the significant reduction of royal power, the Glorious Revolution, the joint monarchy between a King and a Queen, the beginning of a professional army, the development of the professional theatre, and the rebuild of London following the Great Fire of London. There is so much to be said and filmed about this century - it simply breaks my heart that the filmmakers and documentarians seldom choose from any of these, preferring to focus on Henry VIII and his wives, year in, year out. Don't get me wrong - they're wonderful and insightful and I enjoyed them all. I'm just sad that none of the Stuarts get the same honours.

Banqueting House
Banqueting House

You're probably thinking - what about MQS? She gets a lot of attention...boy, does she. She did in life, as she very much does now in death. She's very famous as far as popular history is concerned, but she still doesn't beat Anne Boleyn on the amount of celluloid ab/used on her. The thing with Mary, is that most screen adaptations of her life usually feature Elizabeth I as her rival, and deservedly so. This makes it a Tudor piece much more than a Stuart one.

The great exception is the Academy Award winning The Favourite (2018) which turned our attention to Queen Anne a.k.a. the last of the Stuart line, and thanks to the film and its publicity, people have now heard of her.

Hatfield House, a Jacobean mansion, heavily featured in 'The Favourite' (2018)
Hatfield House, a Jacobean mansion, heavily featured in 'The Favourite' (2018)

The tide does seem to be turning.

More and more popular history events are dedicated to the Stuarts, e.g. I attended one in late 2022 in Museum of London Docklands, where notable historians Leanda de Lisle and Jessie Childs were joined by the creator of the grime musical Thabo Stuck, and the theme of the evening was 'Why don't we talk about the Stuarts more?'.

There's an upcoming Stuarts History Festival to take place at the end of March 2024, with many historians ready to talk all things 17th century for a whole weekend. No Tudors.

A new Jacobean series is upon us as well - Mary and George (2024), where Julianne Moore plays the mother to the (future) 1st Duke of Buckingham, and the court of James I is shown in all its sexy glory. There are a few documentaries in the works for the Stuarts, too. Royal Kill List is a new docu-drama on Sky History, launching on 12th March. To be honest, I'm quite fond of the idea of brining the Stuarts into the modern age of this new genre. Think Blood, Sex and Royalty (2022), but about Charles II hunting his father's regicides. And Charles II if nothing else, means party... Unless he's digging up Olly Cromwell's corpse and fillet-ing it... so it's a lot of sex, a lot of blood, and a lot of royalty...

There may be hope for Stuarts on screen after all.

Banqueting House windows, outside of which Charles I was executed in 1649
Banqueting House windows, outside of which Charles I was executed in 1649

The NBs:

N.B. Curious thing about Charles II and James II - their recent family history included not just the execution of their father, but also the attempted assassination of their grandfather James I, execution of their great-grandmother Mary Queen of Scots and the successful assassination of their great-grandfather Henry, Lord Darnley... If you go futher into the Scottish Stewarts' history, you'll find that all the regnal Jameses pre-MQS died young.

This bloody line-up reminds me of that 90's TaleSpin episode The Balooest of the Bluebloods - where Baloo finds out he's from a long line of Barons, yet his forefathers had all suffered a gruesome fate.

booj by Andrea Zuvich

N.B.2. Horrible Histories (2009-2014) - This is probably the only time in the annals of screen history, when grandfather/ son/ grandson trio of James I / Charles I / Charles II were all played by the same actor, i.e. the multi-talented Mathew Baynton.

Rupert Everett played the two Charleses (To Kill a King in 2003 & Stage Beauty in 2004), but never James I. He's also supposed to be descended from them...

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page