Nigel Tranter was a historian and a prolific historical fiction writer whose work can be uneven. During the 1950’s through 1990’s he wrote more than 60 historical novels, some of which employ dialogue and characterization only to drive the plot forward. Such is not the case, however with Lords of Misrule, the first book in his Stewart Trilogy, a novel that is fully realized.
Jamie Douglas is a young esquire to the Earl of Douglas, the most powerful man in 14th century Scotland, certainly more powerful than the King, Robert II, a sorry descendent of Robert the Bruce and doddering old man who just wants to be left alone. The King has spawned a clutch of squabbling Stewarts who are waiting to see what happens when he dies. Unfortunately, his oldest son, John, seems unsuited to power, and his second son, Robert, is ambitious and dangerous.
When Jamie’s lord is foully stabbed in the back by his own armorer during battle, Jamie fears that any of several powerful men may have had enough to gain in the subsequent power vacuum among the Douglasses to have suborned the armorer. But when Robert Stewart, acting as his father’s Governor, appoints his good friend Archie Douglas to take the position of Earl, Jamie’s suspicions point to Robert.
Jamie and some other men lie in wait outside the armorer’s home after they figure out where he is hiding, in hopes they can capture him and question him about who paid him to murder the Earl. Their plans go awry, however, ultimately sending Jamie Douglas north in pursuit of another man, to the Highland territories of the dreaded Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan, known as the Wolf of Badenoch.
This novel provides a fascinating glimpse into the rivalries and political in-fighting among the early Stewarts. It has an appealing protagonist, although Jamie is a bit too honest and outspoken for his own good. It also includes a romance, as Jamie is drawn to two different Stewart women while serving a third, his Earl’s widow. Having learned most of my Scottish history from the excellent historical novels of Dorothy Dunnett, I am not accustomed to thinking of Douglasses as heroes, but Jamie makes a good one.