The Top Ten Real-Life Characters from the Mercia Blakewood Novels: 8. James Stuart, 1st Duke of Cambridge

After a short break for summer, it’s time to get back to my series looking at the real-life characters from the Mercia Blakewood trilogy. This time we delve into her third adventure, Traitor, to discover the sorry tale of an infant Stuart prince and the creation of the Dukedom of Cambridge.

8. James, Duke of Cambridge (1663-1667)

‘Your Highness.’ Despite the infant’s tender years, Mercia dropped to a curtsey. ‘It is an honour to meet you.’

The boy squealed.

‘Hard to believe this fragile creature may be King some day,’ said Lavinia. ‘Such a delicate aspect, and so very young.’

Meeting the Duke of Cambridge, Traitor, Chapter Eleven

When the infant James was born, the country revelled with joy. A boy! A Stuart heir to the Stuart throne! Never mind he was the King’s nephew, son of the Duke of York, rather than Charles II’s own son. For it was 1663, and although barely a year had passed since the royal marriage, the Queen was yet to give birth – and until she did, this baby was the hope of the House of Stuart.

That Queen, Catherine of Braganza, never did go on to have a child. As the 1660s rolled on, James became increasingly important to the monarchy and the nation, still reeling from the upheaval of civil war and the short-lived Puritan republic. And with the King’s position on his newly restored throne still not entirely secure, a healthy infant was needed to consolidate his dynasty. A healthy infant, moreover, who could help ease the doubts about the King’s Catholic-friendly brother inheriting the throne, as long as his Protestant-raised son would inherit after.

First Duke of Cambridge

As with all children of the time, nothing was taken for granted. Indeed York and his wife, Anne Hyde, had already lost a first son shortly after birth three years before. There was a sister, Mary, who was alive and well, but as yet James was the only surviving boy, and in the seventeenth century all hopes thus fell on him. In recognition of this importance, in 1664 the King created him the first Duke of Cambridge. A second sister followed in 1665, named for her mother Anne, while in Traitor, the conspirators who plotted to take control of his future began to scheme. And yet, while both Mary and Anne would one day take the throne, for all his promise, Cambridge’s reign was never to be.

For a short time, when a younger brother was born in 1666 – Charles, Duke of Kendal – the future of the House of Stuart seemed secure. By the end of that year, with the King and Queen still without a child of their own, the King decided to invest Cambridge as a Knight of the Garter, assuming he would one day be King himself. But in 1667, everything changed.

Tragedy and Sorrow

In the spring of that year, Cambridge developed a rash over his body, possibly smallpox, a highly dangerous disease. The prognosis remained uncertain, but as Cambridge’s young life lay threatened, the first tragedy hit when not he but his younger brother Kendal died, still not yet one year old. As his parents grieved, James was moved out of the crowded city to airier Richmond, but the countryside did little to ease his suffering. His condition worsened, and in June 1667 James, Duke of Cambridge, hope of the nation, died at the age of just three.

Yet again, the House of Stuart was left with no male heir. The young Duke lay in state for a week before being buried in Westminster Abbey, but there was no period of mourning – perhaps because James’s mother was six months pregnant when he died. As the nation waited, in the face of her undoubted personal grief and the heavy expectations of the Court, in September she gave birth to a living child: a boy. The title of Duke of Cambridge was swiftly transferred to this son, Edgar, as the hopes of the monarchy now fell on him.

But the agony was not over. At almost the exact same age as James, in 1671 Edgar too died, three months after his mother had passed away, having just given birth to a final daughter who herself would not survive the year.

End of the House of Stuart

Out of eight children between the Duke of York and his first wife, only two lived past the age of three – Mary and Anne. The title of Duke of Cambridge, fashioned as a Dukedom for the sons of York, was in 1677 set to be granted to another son from a second marriage, but like no fewer than nine other children of that new union, he did not long survive either. By then York was openly Catholic, his new wife was Catholic, and when he eventually became King in the 1680s and the couple produced a healthy boy, the panic that a Catholic line would take hold was so intense that he was hounded off his throne in the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, when Cambridge’s sister Mary and her husband William of Orange (also her cousin) were invited to rule as joint monarchs.

As Queen, Mary hung a posthumous portrait of Cambridge in Windsor Castle, but she and William had no children of their own. When Mary died at only 32, followed by William some years later, Cambridge’s sole remaining sister took the throne as Queen Anne. As seen in the recent film The Favourite, by then she had already lost a terrible seventeen children through infant mortality or stillbirth, and with her own death in 1714, the House of Stuart came to its final end.

Queen Elizabeth’s Gift

James Stuart may have been the first Duke of Cambridge, but he was obviously not the last, and his title, although more often than not unused since the 1660s, is now one of the most famous. In 1706, Queen Anne granted the title to the future George II; the title then lapsed for a time, until in the nineteenth century a younger son of George III, and his son after, held it until it once more passed out of use. In abeyance for the next 107 years, the title was recreated by Queen Elizabeth II in 2011 when she bestowed it on her grandson, Prince William, on the occasion of his marriage.

And so the memory of James Stuart, 1st Duke of Cambridge, lives on.

Coming next: a rebellious duo, Edward Whalley & William Goffe, the related regicides on the run

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