The Power of Pedigree: The Stewart Dynasty and the Foundations of Royal Authority (Katie Stevenson)

King John, his crown and sceptre symbolically broken as depicted in the 1562 Forman Armorial, produced for Mary, Queen of Scots (source: wikimedia commons)

King John, his crown and sceptre symbolically broken as depicted in the 1562 Forman Armorial, produced for Mary, Queen of Scots (source: wikimedia commons)

This project provides a new understanding of the ways in which history was created and utilised in late medieval Scotland  – a key period in the nation’s past, when it was fully independent and a significant power in Europe. It concentrates on the period between the accession of the first Stewart king in 1371 and 1562, shortly after the return to Scotland of Mary Queen of Scots. The project focuses on the development and propagation of the myth of dynasty created by the royal house of Stewart, which rested on key moments in the nation’s past in order to exercise power and authority in the kingdom and beyond. The project draws on sources that have hitherto been largely neglected by scholars – particularly visual and material culture – and develops the wider disciplinary argument that iconography and symbols of sovereignty provided a mode of communication through which authority could be maintained during periods of constitutional crisis, as well as in the normal day-to-day running of the kingdom.

It is striking that our understanding of Scotland’s early history has been almost entirely shaped by commentators on and propagandists for the Stewart dynasty from 1371 onwards, and yet this has not been subjected to sustained historical enquiry. The medieval pantheon – amongst whom we find Robert the Bruce and William Wallace – was a creation of the Stewart-sanctioned view of the world, and the creation of a Scottish literary canon that championed the new heroes of an independent Scotland (in particular, John Barbour’s Bruce, written in the 1370s, and Blind Harry’s Wallace, written in the 1470s) were produced for Stewart audiences. This project considers the ways in which lineage and history were used in the foundation of the dynastic myths of the royal house of Stewart from 1371.

The research, however, is not simply about the written word found in the epic poetry and chronicles of the period. Instead, The Power of Pedigree is principally concerned with the combination of textual and visual modes of communication in the late medieval world. The family trees, pedigrees, coats of arms, iconography and even scribal doodles that either accompany the written word or else stand alone as sources in and of themselves contribute the principal source base for the project. Late medieval Scotland supported a rich visual culture: a society that communicated ideas principally through a system of imagery was bound to express its relationships visually as well. In this way, my approach provides a new, interdisciplinary methodology and framework for Scottish historical studies in this period.

The principal source base of this project is formed not only from extant manuscript chronicles, but also genealogical tables, king lists and – perhaps most significantly – heraldic armorials (single collections of coats of arms strategically arranged), a resource that has been almost entirely overlooked by scholars who are by and large insufficiently skilled in handling them. Heraldry was a pan-European common language that transcended literacy, dialect and linguistic barriers and was comprehensible to all, from elite to commoner. At once, heraldry conveyed complex ideas of lineage, pedigree, genealogy, status, entitlement, political ambition, territorial ambition, succession, inheritance, myth, history, loyalty, alliance and hostility. A single coat of arms was thus an incredibly powerful mode of communication. For the Stewarts, lineage, myth, genealogy and history were wrapped up in a carefully constructed dynasticism.

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