James I: The Key Will Keep the Lock; James II: Day of the Innocents; James III: The True Mirror
Rona Munro’s epic survey of the reigns of three fifteenth century Stewart kings suggests a certain view of her country’s history and its peculiar identity. James I evolves from politically impotent poet to repressive king. As child and adolescent he is a prisoner of the English court, taunted by a thuggish Henry V for his peaceful ways. A lover of beauty and author of the celebrated The Kingis Quair, he recoils. Once on the throne, he discovers that only pitiless government is feasible: he must rule alone and harshly. This however provokes a violent reaction and his eventual murder by threatened nobles.
Enter James II, child-witness to the butchery of his father, pitched into kingship before his time, haunted by blood. This play pivots on the murders of two Earls of Douglas – Scotland’s second highest family. William the sixth earl is killed by regents in the king’s name: James does not instigate, but certainly acquiesces. When king in his own right he himself stabs William the eighth earl (a childhood friend) in full view of the Court. A curious feature of this, the least successful play, is that William provokes James to his own murder, clearly understanding that one of them must fall. By finally wielding the knife, James – a timid fearful figure – endorses this view of kingship. His act is explicitly blessed by the murdered 6th earl’s widow.
The real James II was blown up by one of his own cannon, another violent death – if accidental – heralding another minority ruler, the eight-year old James III. The first two Jameses act as tyrants after exhausting all other possibilities. James III asserts absolute right from the outset: he is indifferent to financial, political or moral constraints. Like his father and grandfather he is an aesthete – we see him luxuriating in music, appreciating poetry, yearning to build a cathedral, considering a pilgrimage. But he will not brook contradiction and this finally provokes a rebellion supported by his own son and death on the battlefield.
This third play is dramatically the most successful, perhaps because the plot turns not just on the personality of the king but also on that of his consort. Each James married a foreign princess – English, French, Danish. The first two do not appear as real players, but Margaret of Denmark was a highly political figure who probably delayed the final fatal uprising against her husband and ultimately secured the succession for her eldest son, the future James IV. It is Margaret who comes closest to drawing explicit political lessons from the impasse between feckless king and truculent nobles. ‘You’ve got fuck all except attitude’ she tells them.
Politically this is the most troubling aspect of the trilogy. The first two plays appear to suggest the only way to govern turbulent medieval Scotland was via a brutal tyranny. The king cannot be first among equals, whatever his nobles think. They are an unlovely lot who must be brought to recognise the royal will without driving them into rebellion.
It is further implied that a monarchy is intrinsic to Scotland’s identity. There is evidence for this in the country’s royalism during the 17th Commonwealth: Scots were prepared (like the medieval nobility) to resist a Stewart king but they rose against a republic, later restoring a Union of Crowns to England as well as Scotland. In the next century, restoration of the Stewart line was the only programme of the three Jacobite revolts. Come up to date and last month’s referendum campaign: only smaller parties advocated a republic. Perhaps this was not merely a tactic as some supposed?
The James Plays depict a distinct Scots identity that predates Union of Crown and Union. The historical Scotland was hard to govern, perhaps because the nobility (we scarcely see the common people) had an enhanced sense of right. Their monarch was ‘King of Scots’, very different from the English version resting on feudal landed right. One is left wondering how the Union has lasted as long as it has.