The rivalry between the Tudors and the Stewarts lasted for over 100 years and was crucial in shaping sixteenth century Britain, but this dramatic tale of flamboyant monarchs, cultured courts, sibling rivalry, bloody battles and sexual licence (the latter often on a breath-taking scale) has been overlooked in the very English obsession with the Tudors, and especially Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. It is over 400 years since Francis Bacon, eager to please his new monarch, King James I, tried to commission a joint history of the two nations that would correct George Buchanan’s extremely biased version, thus providing an antidote to the venom of Buchanan’s attack on James’s mother, Mary Queen of Scots, executed by Elizabeth I in 1587. My new book is the first to respond to this quest, though I must admit I was not aware of it until Professor John Guy’s review of my book in the August edition of the Literary Review.
Mary Queen of Scots is, of course, the ‘other’ major queen regnant of the sixteenth century in the British Isles and is often depicted as a glamorous, if rather foolish, woman who did not understand Scotland when she returned after 13 years in France, was unable to control its violent, self-serving aristocracy, practised the wrong religion (she was Catholic in a country that had recently become Protestant) and had appalling judgement in men. All of these aspects (but especially the latter) were considered to have contributed to her downfall in the spring of 1567 and flight the following year, after an unsuccessful attempt to regain her throne, into the unwelcoming kingdom of her distant cousin, Elizabeth I. Many historians only discussed the rivalry between the Tudors and Stewart in terms of Elizabeth (so clever to remain unmarried and such a successful ruler) and the charming but emotional Mary, ‘a study in failure’. But what lay behind all of this? Why was Mary so determined to be acknowledged as Elizabeth’s heir? These were questions that intrigued me and I soon realized that the answers lay much farther back in time. The rivalry between the Tudors and the Stewarts began in the late fifteenth century. The two women who have come to epitomise it were only part of the story.
And what a story it proved to be. Mary’s grandfather, the charismatic King James IV of Scotland, had come to the throne in 1488 as a boy of fifteen, in rebellion against his own father. Intelligent, fascinated by new ideas and technology, charming, approachable and physically brave, he had turned his small country into a genuine player on the European stage, and taken on Henry VII in the process. The Stewarts had ruled Scotland for over a century when Henry Tudor won his unlikely victory at Bosworth and his hold on his throne appeared insecure for many years. James challenged him in the disputed area of the Borders, renewed the ‘Auld Alliance’ with France and made an ostentatious display of supporting Perkin Warbeck, the pretender who claimed to be the younger of the Princes in the Tower. Finally, in 1503, a peace was negotiated, and James, by then the father of seven illegitimate children, married the thirteen year-old Margaret Tudor, Henry’s elder daughter.. Despite the age gap (James was nearly thirty), Margaret’s temper and her husband’s continued philandering, the marriage was something of a success, though no children born to the couple survived before the future James V, in 1512. But by that time relations with England, now ruled by Henry VIII, a stroppy young man who resented his sister and brother-in-law, were breaking down again. When Henry joined a European alliance against France, James, after careful consideration and counsel, invaded northern England in support of his ally. At the battle of Flodden, little-known, despite this year being its 500th anniversary, James and the flower of Scottish aristocracy were defeated by the elderly but resourceful earl of Surrey. The king died fighting heroically but the loss to Scotland was immense, though the English did not follow up their victory (a repeated pattern in Anglo-Scottish warfare) and Scotland survived.
James V, Mary’s father, came to the throne at the age of seventeen months. His long minority was characterised by complex faction-fighting. Queen Margaret remarried, disastrously, to the earl of Angus and promptly lost the regency. Her son was brought up by loving personal servants but he hated his stepfather, who ruled in his name while essentially holding James as a hostage. In 1528, exhibiting much of the Stewart determination, he broke free and began to rule in his own right. During all of this time, Henry VIII had signally failed to exert much influence in Scotland, despite its instability. He could not bring himself to support his sister and even considered kidnapping her son. Small wonder that when a conference between the adult James V and Henry VIII was supposed to take place in York in 1541, James did not show up. He never met the uncle he so rightly distrusted, though he did infuriate Henry by marrying the king of France’s daughter. James spent nearly a year in France and was much influenced by the style of the French court. His response to it, a frenzy of building at the royal palaces of Scotland, emphasised the credentials of his Renaissance court. Visitors to the splendidly restored rooms in Stirling Palace can get a feel for this. James had also managed to excel in other respects – he had at least nine illegitimate children, all by different mothers. The six wives of Henry VIII pale in comparison.
James V died, probably of cholera, after the disastrous rout of the Scottish army by Henry VIII’s forces at Solway Moss, in late 1542. His second wife, Mary of Guise, the clever and attractive daughter of an ambitious noble French family, gave birth to their only surviving child, a daughter, six days before her husband’s death. So Mary became Queen of Scots before she was a week old. As Scotland faced yet another long minority (none of its monarchs had come to the throne as an adult since the late 14th century), Mary of Guise, an inveterate dynast, schemed successfully to retain custody of her child. By 1548, following a series of incursions by the English and another resounding defeat at Pinkie, the Scots had had enough. They sent their little queen to France, to be brought up there as the prospective bride of the French dauphin. They had effectively chosen to become a satellite of France rather than submit to the English. Mary was educated as a French queen consort, rather than a Scottish queen regnant. She married the dauphin Francis in 1558, six months before Elizabeth ascended the English throne. His death in late 1560 made Mary a childless widow who was on bad terms with her mother-in-law, Catherine de Medici. The decision to return to Scotland was inevitable, though not one she undertook enthusiastically.
The realm was greatly changed. Her elder illegitimate half-brother, later to be created earl of Moray, was the driving force in government and he, like many Scottish aristocrats, had converted to Protestantism. The firebrand preacher, John Knox, was influential and vocal in his detestation of women rulers. A Catholic queen offended him even more. Mary faced the uphill task of trying to emulate her immediate predecessors with none of the masculine power they could deploy. Her decision to marry her nineteen year-old cousin, the ghastly Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, made dynastic sense but was to prove an abject failure on a personal level, and one that undermined Mary’s authority. Still, she ruled with considerable skill and success for five years, summoning parliaments and outwitting rebels. She also gave birth to a son in 1566, much to the chagrin of the heirless Elizabeth. Alas, Mary had not realized that the baby prince could easily be used by her enemies to replace her. The story of Darnley’s assassination and her third marriage to the violent and opportunistic earl of Bothwell is well-known, though few scholars of the period now believe that Mary connived in her own kidnap. She married Bothwell under duress, probably already suspecting that she was pregnant by him. I have taken the view (as have others recently) that she was raped because of what she and contemporaries said at the time and her subsequent behaviour. This has caused quite a stir (though it is not a new interpretation) – interestingly enough, the chief objectors seem to be men! Of course, we cannot be sure. But an unwell and frightened woman, isolated from her servants by a man who could he charming and violent in equal measure, may have submitted without a struggle, though against her will. Nowadays, I think we would probably call this rape.
Her most serious error of judgement was in throwing herself on Elizabeth’s mercy. Mary had a strong claim to be viewed as Elizabeth’s heir and she knew it. Drawn into the spider’s web of intrigue so carefully spun by Elizabeth’s advisers during her long captivity in England, the Scottish queen was certainly willing to see her rival dead and to replace her. Elizabeth was finally forced to execute the Queen of Scots. But it was Mary’s son who united the two crowns in 1603, bringing the long rivalry between the Tudors and the Stewarts to an end.