The Stuarts and The Stuarts in Exile (BBC DVD) Back

This BBC documentary is a collection of two mini-series aired in 2014 and 2015 and produced by Richard Downes for BBC 2. The box contains two DVDs, the first being the three episodes of The Stuarts, created for the 300th anniversary of the death of Queen Anne. The second DVD is the sequel The Stuarts in Exile broadcast 300 years after the 1715 Jacobite rebellion. For this DVD release, the episodes have been organised chronologically from the beginning of the Stuarts’ reign in 1603 to the end of the Jacobite threat; they are all presented with great clarity by Dr Clare Jackson from Trinity Hall, Cambridge.  “And I Will Make Them One Again” introduces us to the attempts James VI and I made at unifying Scotland and England. “A King without a Crown”, then details the troubles of the War of the Three Kingdoms, which led to the beheading of Charles I. Finally, “A Family at War” explores the reasons behind the 1688 “Glorious Revolution” and clarifies the motives of the 1707 Act of Union. The first episode of Disc number two – “A Game of Crowns” – describes the exile of James II to St Germain before expounding on the preparation and unravelling of the 1715 rebellion. “A New Hope” follows Bonnie Prince Charlie’s adventure and the international intrigues, which were strongly linked to the often over-romanticised 1745 rebellion, to end with the death of The Old Pretender and the reluctance of Henry Benedict Stuart to claim the British throne. More importantly, Dr Jackson argues that the Stuarts were Britain’s defining royal family and that the troubles they faced in the 17th and 18th century are very relevant to contemporary audiences. The purpose of the five documentaries is to enlighten many dark corners of British history to deliver a better understanding of modern Britain.

Dr Jackson begins episode one by making an interesting parallel between the myth of King Arthur and James I as the camera presents a long shot of Arthur’s seat in Edinburgh. This is one striking example of how well-written Jackson’s script is. She uses a lot of intriguing rhetorical questions to catch the audience’s attention and often starts her explanations with rumours to deconstruct them and help the viewer discriminate between historical truth and popular belief. For instance, in “A King without a Crown” she starts with “what you’ve heard” about the opposition between Charles I and the Covenanters to then explain that the opposition was in fact due to a lack of understanding between both parties. Crucially, Jackson explicates how this incomprehension led to the King’s beheading and the rise of Cromwell. In episode five, Jackson demystifies the over-emphasis of the ’45 over the ’15. She also succeeds in bringing a European dimension to British History when she underlines the international dimension of the Williamite war. For her, the History of the Stuarts was “not a Scottish story, not a British story but a European history”. In order to support Dr Jackson’s statement, the producer of the series has summoned an impressive array of world-leading specialists to interact with the main host. Among others, Professor Tony Claydon is there to describe William’s position as Staadthoulder, Nicholas Canny comments on the 1641 Irish Rebellion, and Daniel Szechi exposes the reasons for and consequences of the 1715 uprising. The appearance of Darren Layne enables Jackson to exhibit interesting details about the importance of arts in Jacobite lives, noticeably the fact that the would-be James III had three boxes at the Roman Opera representing his three kingdoms as recognised by Pope Clement XI. The interview of Lucien Bely in Paris allows for the insertion of some appealing shots like the one of Jackson entering a Parisian pub called “The Auld Alliance” right after purchasing a caricature of Bonnie Prince Charlie in Montmartre and before talking about the French involvement in his cause. The directors have made laudable efforts to interleave Jackson’s interventions with enjoyable filming effects such as the reflection of a stunning Spanish palace in a glass of red wine. Another example of that would be Dr Jackson roaming the twists and turns of a labyrinth of hedges while unravelling the story of the convoluted Titus Oates plot.

The producer, Richard Downes, makes the most of the sequel documentary by showing the never-before-seen interior of the Palazzo Del Re in Roma while Jackson interviews Edward Corp. Downes definitely aimed at emphasizing the European dimension of early Stuart politics as well as the peregrination of the Jacobites after that. In episode one and two, Jackson sometimes assumes the role of a tour guide while she walks us through Carisbrooke castle and London or elucidates the signification of the ceiling frescoes in Stirling and Edinburgh. Moreover, we often follow her outside the UK to Spain, France, Italy and even Germany. Noticeably, a strong emphasis is placed on the pictorial representations of the Stuart monarchs. Not only can we see many paintings from the British Museum or the National Galleries of Scotland and England, but also depictions of the Stuarts created abroad, such as the portrait of James II painted in St Germain by Pierre Mignard in 1694. At the same time, the amateur historian is familiarised with the material culture surrounding the Stuart dynasty such as the coinage of money under James I’s rule to spread his idea of the union of the rose and the thistle. The intricate political intrigues surrounding the secret treaty of Dover are presented via the discovery of the famous transportable paper cabinet of the first Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, now in Versailles. The use of primary materials is indeed at the centre of the documentaries since the viewer is constantly exposed to original documents. One can see Jackson using the Basilikon Doron to explain James I’s beliefs and even the original of the Treaty of Union curated in Kew.

However, one might regret the presence of some peculiar shortcuts. In episode two, we are told that Charles I was in Holland without elucidation of how and why he arrived there. Even though the adventure is well-known, the role of the Duke of Buckingham in the Spanish match is not addressed, but Dr Jackson makes an original point by underlining the influence that Philip’s absolute power may have had on Charles I. Moreover, while Jackson visits the town of Bar-Le-Duc in Lorraine, the house in which the Old Pretender stayed for three years is not filmed at all. Likewise, the castle of Bar – in which James stayed too – is not even mentioned.[1] This is a pity because the remains of the castle are now a museum that contains many pieces of Jacobite propaganda of the time, such as Horthemels’ engraving of Alexis Simon Belle’s painting of James III during his time in Lorraine from 1713 to 1716.[2] Besides, the coherence of the overall series can sometimes be a bit dubious since episode three asserts that James III left Scotland directly for the Papal States after the 1715 uprising, but the first episode of the sequel covers his travels to different Italian cities in the period 1715-1720. In addition, Dr Jackson declares that St Germain was “a labyrinth of misery” (13”) right before interviewing Edward Corp who has spent his career showing that the court was not so miserable.[3] Some directing choices also make certain aspects of the documentary inappropriately dramatic. Whether the importance of horses for the early-modern period has been thoroughly addressed,[4] the continuous close-up on slow motions of horses’ mouths (episode one in Berwick) or movement (episode three) accompanied by an overtly powerful soundtrack can make those shots quite awkward and occasionally extraneous. In spite of the brief appearance of historical re-enactment in episode two and three, the directors have preferred to bring history to life by using footage of the Yugoslavian army in Slovenia to illustrate the war of the three kingdoms; the present reviewer does not really understand this choice.

These minor criticisms aside, this DVD is a good introduction to the history of the Stuarts. It reaches its main goal, explaining the foundation of modern Britain and how the country and its flag were created. As for Clare Jackson, she displays a real ease of presentation, offering an enormous amount of difficult material in a very comprehensible and convincing way. Nevertheless, the present reviewer thought The Stuarts in Exile was much more engaging than The Stuarts since Dr Jackson seems more comfortable discussing issues with the other guest academics than presenting directly to the camera. Regarding the content, the strong point of both parts resides in the constant link that Jackson makes clear between past and present. Most of her explanations are well connected to current issues surrounding the crown, the ceremonies around the parliament and the monarchy, and the troubles in Ireland. Dr Jackson carefully locates all her references or anecdotes within the socio-political context of the time. Rather than presenting an entirely English, Scottish or British History, she casts a light on the European dimension of the political and intellectual history of the Stuarts. Whether one could argue that the documentary is no longer topical with references to the 2015 auction sale of Jacobite memorabilia at Lyon & Turnbull or the Scottish referendum, the point that Jackson tackles can be seen as relevant in the current political situation. For example, her introduction of the Whig/Tory opposition in episode three to explain the Glorious Revolution and Jacobitism begins with an explanation of what the Whigs stand for in contemporary Britain. She also reminds the viewer of the importance of the act of Settlement and of the actuality of the act of union.

To conclude, Clare Jackson presents a pertinent piece of factual storytelling, which can be applauded for its balance of sophisticated academic research and accessibility. The informed historian will be responsive to Jackson’s challenging comment on the Stuarts, whereas the amateur will find an accessible entry to a new subject. In an academic context, one could easily use this mini-series to introduce students to the Stuart monarchs and/or the Jacobites. Moreover, these DVDs come just at the right time as Gale has just released the papers of the Stuarts in exile online,[5] a development that might ease the path of students towards Jacobite studies. In spite of a clear subtext related to the Scottish referendum, we can link Jackson’s sharp comments on the division within Ireland or the threats to the act of union as the kind of issues arising within the current Brexit debates. These documentaries clearly underline that the path to the union was more of a rocky road than a walk on the beach. All the allusions to the Scottish referendum are applicable to the construction of the European Union, a Europe that welcomed “Britain’s greatest dynasty” when the Stuarts went in exile “over the water”.

[1] The castle is situated above the new-town, and the house is situated 22 rue de Nèves. Fourier de Baucourt, “Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges (Jacques III Stuart) à Bar-Le-Duc 1713-1716.” in Société des Lettres de Bar-Le-Duc, Mémoires 38 (1910), 225-46. Louis Davillé, “Le séjour du prétendant Jacques–Edouard Stuart à Bar–Le–Duc (1713-1716).” in Le Pays Lorrain 20.7 (1928), 337-49.

[2] Musée Barrois, inventory number 910.5 (Bar-Le-Duc, France).

[3] A Court in Exile: The Stuarts in France, 1689-1718 (Cambridge University Press, 2009) , The Stuarts in Italy, 1719-1766: A Royal Court in Permanent Exile (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[4] Karen Raber, Treva J.Tucker (Eds.), The Culture of the Horse. Status, discipline, and identity in the Early Modern World (Palgrave, 2005). Peter Edwards, Karl Enenkel, Elsepth Graham (Eds.), The Horse as Cultural Icon. The Real and the Symbolic Horse in the Early Modern World (Brill, 2011).

[5] Press release of the Royal Collection Trust of November 5th 2018. Available at

The Stuarts was first broadcast in January 2014 on BBC Two Scotland. Its sequel series, The Stuarts in Exile, was first broadcast in October 2015 on the same channel. The combined DVD set was released in November 2018.