16.03.03, Blakeway, Regency in Sixteenth-Century Scotland

Main Article Content

Cynthia J. Neville

The Medieval Review 16.03.03

Blakeway, Amy. Regency in Sixteenth-Century Scotland. St. Andrews Studies in Scottish History, 2. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2015. pp. xiii, 290. ISBN: 978-1-84383-980-4 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Cynthia J. Neville
Dalhousie University

The widespread acceptance of the practice of hereditary monarchy marked a significant development in the history of political power in the West. One of the most troubling features of the preference for primogeniture, however, was the possibility that the crown might pass to a child. That eventuality occurred in Scotland--not only once, but repeatedly in the years between 1513 and 1584, so that for some fifty years the Scottish political community had to look for leadership in governance to an adult other than the reigning monarch. In this fascinating study Amy Blakeway offers a thorough assessment of the practice of regency in the sixteenth-century realm. The book is a revised version of the doctoral dissertation that she completed at the University of Cambridge in 2010 and while there are passages here and there that might have benefited from a more rigorous editorial effort, the work is beautifully written, exhaustively documented, and compellingly argued. While it is de rigueur for authors to claim that their research "fills a gap" in existing scholarship, few actually succeed in tilling genuinely new intellectual ground. Blakeway's study, by contrast, fulfills that promise.

The main body of the book includes a long introduction, six discrete chapters, and a brief (if largely superfluous) conclusion. In the introduction, Blakeway reviews the circumstances that generated political unrest during the minorities of James V and VI and, between them, the reign of Queen Mary. She also devotes considerable space to an historiographical assessment of the ways in which Scottish historians, past and present, have weighed the performance of the several men (and two women) who governed the kingdom in the monarchs' stead. Regents, Blakeway suggests, have traditionally received a "bad press" at the hands of historians, and while she finds that in some respects this judgment is valid, in others it is decidedly in need of revision. Regency did not, in fact, always represent something less attractive than personal rule. In Scotland, admittedly, repeated accidents of dynastic circumstance compelled members of the political elite to ponder the challenges associated with minority rule unusually often, but the result was the elaboration of sophisticated theories of regency and repeated opportunities to put into practice new ideas about governing. In the first two chapters Blakeway shows that there was "greater continuity...between regency and adult monarchical rule than has hitherto been appreciated" (4); in the four that follow, she examines how the regents of sixteenth-century Scotland set about deploying the traditional authority of the crown to summon the Estates, to raise revenue, to maintain suitably regal courts, to offer justice to their subjects, and to negotiate war and peace.

When in 1513 King James IV perished on the field of battle leaving behind a son aged only seventeen months, the Scots faced the prospect of a long minority. On this occasion, members of the royal council looked to the kingdom's past for guidance in choosing an appropriate representative for the infant king, but as the need to articulate the authority inherent in the office of regent became a matter of repeated concern over the course of the century, more and more thought had to be devoted to simple but fundamental questions about the nature of government by proxy. Blakeway demonstrates that while authority to rule in the name of a monarch was sometimes vested in an individual and at other times in a small council, the real challenge facing the Scottish ruling community was the identification of the locus of authority in the making of regency government. Did the right to identify a substitute king (or queen) belong solely to the immediate kindred and councillors of the royal minor (his or her "traditional" advisors), or did such authority more properly reside in parliamentary election? Her answer is that it took a good part of the period between 1513 and 1584 and, more particularly, the dangerous divisions created in the realm by the crisis of 1568-1569, for the Scots to work towards a satisfactory resolution of this conundrum. Blakeway nevertheless warns against tracing the change from appointed to elected regents in simple chronological terms: for much of the sixteenth century, she writes, "multiple understandings of regency co-existed and overlapped" (234). There is little evidence, moreover, that regents who had been elected to office were any more or less successful in managing the business of governing than were persons who secured the position by personal or parliamentary appointment. Individual regents in general proved remarkably successful at governing in the style of a monarch and they made (or, in the case of James Douglas earl of Morton, sullied) their reputations largely on the basis of their ability to oversee the efficient discharge of the traditional duties of the crown.

While the process of developing a suitable response to the question "Who should be regent?" proved vexatious, Scottish property owners great and small agreed that the rule of a regent should not endanger the eventual accession to the throne of the rightful heir. Blakeway's argument that most of the sixteenth-century regents achieved this goal runs through the book; so, too, however, does her claim that the rule of the regents was always and everywhere subject to constraints that did not trouble fully constituted monarchs. Thus, even after extraordinary circumstances dramatically altered the fiscal landscape of Scotland in the 1540s, most regents managed crown finances in relatively capable fashion, though none was able to exercise the lucrative privileges associated with royal acts of revocation. Each of the eight regents who governed actively between 1513 and 1578 presided over courts that were similar to those of contemporary European princes in their splendor and solemnity, though the regents' respective households were all smaller and prospects for advancement at their courts less certain than at those of James V, Mary, and James VI. The judgments meted out in justice ayres and at the High Court of Justiciary were no less weighty for being uttered under the authority of a regent than were those issued under that of a king. Indeed, Blakeway demonstrates compellingly that the business of the courts increased steadily in the course of the sixteenth century and she concludes that the view that minority governments failed to provide justice needs to be reconsidered. It was, perhaps predictably, in the context of diplomacy that the regents of Scotland experienced the most severe limitations on their ability to act in the manner of a duly enthroned monarch. Doubts about their legitimacy, unceasing machinations on the part of the French and English crowns, financial constraints (which reached new lows in the early years of James VI's reign), and a general sense on the part of all parties that regents did not enjoy "parity of status with a monarch" (231) troubled the efforts of all eight regents.

Blakeway's book falls squarely within a school of historical thought that advocates a detailed exploration of the institutions of government as a means of understanding how power was negotiated in the past. She asks and answers a series of penetrating questions about the function of crown institutions during a formative period of the early modern Scottish state, and for this reason alone her book will appeal to a wide readership. Of greater interest still to scholars and students of Scottish history will be its four appendices. Here, Blakeway demonstrates to impressive effect her paleographical and analytical skills. Anyone who has ever worked with the extant records of the Exchequer or the High Court of Justiciary will know that these are not user friendly sources. Blakeway's appendices reveal just how rich these intractable sources can be in the hands of an expert. Here, laid out in clearly organized tables, is proof of the lengths to which some regents went to ensure a steady income stream into the royal coffers despite the vagaries of inflation and the demands of war; here is laid bare evidence of the earl of Morton’s rapacity and unabashed graft. The detailed list of justice ayres held between 1488 and 1578 alone, compiled in appendix four from a mass of largely unexplored manuscript and print record sources will delight legal historians and will serve as an important research tool for a long time to come.

Article Details