I often talk about the sixteenth century, primarily in the context of how in that particular century women held major positions of power, or were in positions to not only have an impact on history but did. Constant Reader knows I love me some history–right now I am thoroughly enjoying Versailles and having a bit of a seventeenth century period–but during this past football season, during games, I was rereading a book I first read when I was ten years old: Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots.
Ah, the tragic romantic heroine that is the Queen of Scots! I first discovered her, I think, when I was maybe eight years old when I read Genevieve Foster’s John Smith and His World; and there really wasn’t much about her, as Smith was only alive in the late Elizabethan period. I do remember reading the entry about her execution, and about how her spaniel was hidden inside her skirts as she went to her death–and how when the headsman held up her head, she was wearing a wig, her head fell to the ground, and the whimpering spaniel curled up around it.
How romantic! Almost sounds like the start of a ghost story, doesn’t it? “And ever after, at Fotheringhay Castle, the sound of a whimpering spaniel could be heard on the anniversary of her mistress’ death.”
Anyway, the first book I read about Mary Queen of Scots was one I found in the school library (her title always bothered me–shouldn’t it have been Queen of THE Scots?), and it was sanitized for children, and again, highly romantic: Mary was a romantic heroine, doomed by her gender to be treated as a pawn by the men of her court and, of course, her cousin Queen Elizabeth I was the villain of the piece. The 1971 film, with Vanessa Redgrave as Mary and Glenda Jackson (who was AMAZING) as Elizabeth pretty much told the same story; Mary was a romantic heroine and Elizabeth the villain.
It makes for a lovely narrative, and it’s one that is incredibly popular in fiction; the young beautiful Scottish queen who falls in love with and marries her cousin Lord Darnley only to realize it’s a colossal mistake, but then throws everything away because of her deep love for the Earl of Bothwell, winds up imprisoned by her wretched cousin Elizabeth who eventually has her executed. It does make for a lovely story.
Fraser, in her bestselling biography, tried to get to the truth of who Mary was, rather than paying lip-service to the romantic narrative. It is her thesis that Mary was actually much smarter than anyone at the time or since has given her credit for; and that her decisions weren’t emotional but made coolly as political moves in the game of thrones she was playing–and the end goal, of course, was to ascend the throne of England, uniting the entire island into one realm; an ambition her son James finally achieved.
Mary’s life, once she started getting into her marriage entanglements, was the stuff of high drama. She inherited her throne when her father died from wounds inflicted in the Battle of Solway Moss against the English; she was only six days old. She was the third child of King James V and his second, French wife, Marie de Guise; her two older brothers died of fevers while her mother was carrying her. (Inheriting the Scottish throne as children was a sad Stewart family tradition; James V was less than a year old when his own father was killed in battle–again against the English–in the Battle of Flodden Field; Mary herself abdicated in favor of her own son when he was less than a year old; James I was only twelve when he became king; James II was only seven; James III was nine, and James IV fifteen. These minority reigns helped empower the Scottish nobility and prevent the throne from becoming strong, as it did in say England, France and Spain.)
Her royal family was Stewart; her marriage to her cousin Henry Stuart changed the dynasty to the English spelling, which is why the royal family of England was known as the Stuarts, not Stewarts.
Her grandmother was Margaret Tudor, eldest surviving child of Henry VII of England and elder sister of Henry VIII, which is where her claim to the English throne came from. Until the birth of Edward VI to Henry VIII’s third wife in 1537, James was the only male heir to England. The marriage of Edward VI to young Mary was probably the wisest move, uniting the two crowns and ending centuries of strife between the two kingdoms, but Marie de Guise, Mary’s mother, was French and instead sent her infant daughter to the French court, where she was engaged to the Dauphin. The Tudor direct line ended with Henry VIII’s children, who were all childless; the death of Edward VI in 1553 brought the Catholic Mary to the throne. Once Mary died in 1558, Elizabeth became queen; but Catholics didn’t recognize Elizabeth’s legitimacy–Henry’s marriage to her mother Anne Boleyn was bigamous in the eyes of the Catholic Church and so therefore Elizabeth was a bastard. The nearest legitimate heir, in their eyes, was the young Queen of Scots–who was married to the heir to the French throne and a Catholic.
Obviously, the thought of those three crowns being united was a threat to both Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, so they recognized Elizabeth. A year later Mary and her husband were King and Queen of France–a year later Mary was a childless widow returning to Scotland. Elizabeth never forgave her for claiming herself to be queen of England; and the game of thrones was on.
Four years after her return, Mary married her first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. This is where it gets complicated. Margaret Tudor, Mary’s grandmother, only had one child with James IV; after he died she married again and had a daughter, Margaret Douglas–who had no claim to the Scottish throne but a claim to England as a Tudor. She in turn married Matthew Stuart, Earl of Lennox–who was a descendant of James I and thus also was an heir to the Scottish throne. Their son Henry thus had claims to both thrones; he married Mary, and their son James would obviously be King of Scotland thru his mother; had a claim through his paternal grandfather, and a claim to the English throne from both his mother AND his father, both of whom were great-grandchildren of Henry VII.
Lord Darnley, her husband, and other lords of the court were jealous of her closeness to her Italian secretary, and they murdered him in front of her when she was about six months pregnant. Somehow, later that night, as a prisoner of her husband and lords, Mary convinced her husband to come back to her side and they escaped together, rose an army, and with her loyal lords defeated the conspirators–who included her illegitimate brother. Mary had a son, and then, a few months later, her husband was murdered–the house he was recuperating from an illness in was blown up, but his strangled body was found in the gardens. Mary then married the Earl of Bothwell, who was commander of her armies–it was an incredibly volatile time, the Queen was Catholic and most of her subjects were not–and so it was very easy for public opinion to turn against her; particularly since most people believed Bothwell had murdered her husband so he could marry her.
Was she complicit? The marriage made it appear so–and soon enough her army was defeated, she was a prisoner, and forced to abdicate. She escaped to England, where Elizabeth promptly placed her under house arrest.
George R. R. Martin has nothing on the Queen of Scots.
She was eventually implicated in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth–after being a prisoner for almost twenty years–was tried and found guilty and sentenced to death.
So, was she a wanton adulteress and murderess? Was she a silly woman who allowed her emotions to lead her down the wrong path, or was she a calculating player who wound up being outplayed? Despite her high station, she had a pampered and spoiled childhood, and wasn’t raised or educated to be a regnant Queen; it was always assumed her husband the King of France would rule for her. So the odds were stacked against her from the beginning; and she learned her lessons the hard way; unlike her contemporary, Elizabeth, who spent her childhood and early twenties with the shadow of the executioner across her neck.
Fraser does a great job of defending her thesis; I’ve read many other books about both the royal cousins and the game they played with each other, and I think Fraser probably paints the most accurate picture of the Queen of Scots: a smart woman who played the game against overwhelming odds and lost.
Is there anything so romantic as a lost cause?
One of the biggest disappointments of the CW show Reign was, in order to try to draw in the younger audience, they told the story when she was a young girl in France–probably the most boring part of her life. Her life in Scotland was MUCH more interesting, and would have made for greater television. The best part of Reign was Megan Follows as Queen Catherine de Medici of France–one of the most fascinating women in history. Apparently, the struggle between the cousin queens became a part of the story in the third season…but Paul and I had bored of the show long before then.
And now back to the spice mines.