A Doomed, Romantic Queen? – Guest Post by historian Linda Porter

Crown of thistlesLinda Porter on how she came to write her latest book, Crown of Thistles: the fatal inheritance of Mary Queen of Scots.

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.

Linda’s book is available now from Amazon.com, Amazon UK or your usual bookstore.

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14 thoughts on “A Doomed, Romantic Queen? – Guest Post by historian Linda Porter”
  1. Those folks played ‘for keeps.’ One wonders if the current term ‘sociopath’ would have fit a select few members of the Court(s.)

  2. So how does this history doom Mary? While an interesting story, it doesn’t appear to bring to light anything new to support a history of doom and it still shows Mary’s poor judgment in several areas. We know she relied on favorites for advise and support, that the men around her wanted the power and control and that there were too many factions willing to fight each other. I haven’t read anything new to the Mary story which seems fairly well documented for the time, even is biased in some quarters.

    1. I guess one could say she was doomed to her fate.There are people in life,sometimes because of their own mistakes,and other times through no fault of their own,who can’t ever seem to get a break. Nothing seems to go right in their life. And as I said, sometimes it’s not all their fault. I think that’s what is meant by doomed in her case.Some of it was due to her own mistakes,but others not.
      As mentioned, the match with Darnley made sense, but the man himself was no good, like many a spoiled aristocrate. Once saw perhasp in a book, a suggtestion that it might have been better if Mary could have married her half brother,James ,Lord Moray.
      I assume from a political postion as things were going in Scotland.
      I think mary turned to Elizabeth, because it didn’t seem like she was going to get any help from her Guise relatives and the French. Her former mother in law,Catherine de Medici didn’t seem to want to help her out.
      So she felt she had to turn to Elizabeth. I’m sure Mary was aware of the fact her cousin prefered her claim to the throne over that of Elizabeth’s cousins, the Grey sisters.

      I have the book The Sisters Who Would Be Queen,and Elizabeth was hardly kind to Lady Catherine Grey and Lady Mary Grey,Lady Jane’s sisters.

      Yes, you had sociopaths at court in those days, but they weren’t called that then.
      The game was to grab as much power,money and real estate as you could from the King or Queen, while all the time trying to prevent someone grabbing it from you.
      People didn’t fool around then.There was no such thing as political correctness.
      When you think about it, things really haven’t changed . Only in America it’s done by corporations or lobbyists or wealthy donors, not men and women with titles like in Europe.

      1. Agree with many points but have to point out that Mary could not have married her half brother, James as this would have been incest and also against civil and canon law. The country would not have accepted it even though the Earl was quite popular and Knox would have had even more to preach at her about.

  3. mary queen of is another queen ive always been fasinated by i cant seem to figure if it was a set of tragic cirumstaces or she did have some hand in her husband s death tho admidily he was makeing things very difficult for her i do think it was a mistake to go to england and she wasnt thinking straite at all . liveing in scotland ive got to see most of the stuart history includeing david rizzio grave and mary s prison loch leven castle just wish i could go to england more and see some tudor sights

  4. I’m glad to read what seems to be a more sympathetic account of Mary Stewart. I do admit that she is my favorite queen, and has been since I was eight, and my father gave me a “Mary, Queen of Scots doll” ! While her faulty judgment did play a part in her downfall, I think it has been overstated at times by some, without looking at the whole picture. Mary did show competence to rule in the beginning of her reign, as stated in the article. The tragedies that occurred later, sometimes horrific, did cause her to have what we may call today a nervous breakdown. But the plotting and betrayal of her ‘counsel’ (the Lords of the Congregation) cannot be overstated, and was a major factor in her downfall as well. And many other things as well !
    While I do like and am sympathetic toward Anne Boleyn, I confess that my feelings toward her daughter are somewhat different…! But enough! Liked the article!
    Thanks, Claire, and Ms. Porter!!

    1. Again, I am late in reply. I very much like this post and agree with it.

      Anne Boleyn and Mary Queen of Scots are my favorite Queens. While initially I was sympathetic to Elizabeth ( due to her being Anne Boleyn’s daughter) I ended up not liking or respecting her at all. She was too much like her father. What a shame.

  5. One of things few modern people realize is that in the past, rape could have been seen as rendering a female victim eternally tainted – unless she married the rapist. (In earlier centuries rape was commonly used as a method of forcing a marriage.) I have to wonder if Mary felt that she had no choice but to marry her rapist.

  6. Mary’s taste in men seemed to get worse as time went on. She was swept of her feet, while still in mourning for her first husband, Francis II King of France who died after several brain hemorages and a fall from his horse, leaving her a widow at 18. Henry, Lord Darnley seems to have been very handsome and charming and Mary just fell for him, but did not give dynastic needs any real consideration. For some reason the totally loopy Darnley allows himself to be courted by the Protestant Earls who want to remove the Queen’s brother or rather half brother and her secretary David Riccio from her side as they see them as advising her ill. He wants to be King and they claim they will make him King but use him to get rid of the people they do not like including the murder in front of the heavily pregnant Queen of Riccio. Mary actually comes over rather well at this point; fleeing for safety and having her child and then having defeated the traitors forced them to reconcile in public and acts as a Queen should to publically pardon them. She then unfortunately finds herself at the mercy again of a continually brutal and drunken husband. Mary I believe was a battered wife and that is why she acted so afraid and only to save her son. I do not believe she gave any orders to murder Darnley but she may have said something to make others believe they were doing her will when they conspired to kill him. An even more vulnerable Mary now has again to flee and is the unwilling captive of a protective but wild Bothwell, and I too believe she was raped.

    I think her mistake when she leaves Bothwell’s protection for the first time to appeal to the council and to the people for justice as a wronged mother and a battered spouse who had been brutally attacked against her will. Had she demanded those wh had killed Darnley were brought to justice she may have rallied her people and brought them to have some sympathy for her as a wronged mother in fear for her life and that of her child. Mary could have gained justice and ruled for her son with a protective council. She did not need to remarry at once. Later on after a few years of more wise rule some more suitalble candidate could have been found and Mary may have gone on to weather this crisis and be a successful ruler.

    But alas she did not and was instead tried as an adultress and a wh*re and her name blackened and she lost the right to rule or to influence her son who was taken from her. Mary now does the only thing she has left. She flees and tries to raise an army to regain her throne. But she goes to the wrong place; she goes to England or rather she does not have the resources to raise money for a ship to France and is forced to take the closer option of her cousin in England. Perhaps she believed that Elizabeth could be appealled to as a woman and a fellow monarch. What I find extraordinary is that for the next 18 years; Mary Queen of Scots is not only held a close captive and moved against her will further and further into England; Elizabeth makes no attempt to go and speak with her. The cousins never met! If Elizabeth wanted to be sure that Mary had not killed Darnley why did she not speak to her and question her and investigate the matter? Because Mary was an inconvenience that she wanted to forget about. Unfortunately she had to do something as Mary, although unwillingly became the focus of some plots to replace Elizabeth on the English throne. She was a focus for the persecuted Catholics, most of whom stayed loyal to Elizabeth, but would have prefared a Queen who favoured their religion. Elizabeth’s paranoid council made more of these so called plots than they were and after a farcical trial persuaded Elizabeth that Mary had to die. She was killed for the Catholic Faith and in that Faith on 8th February 1587 in Fotheringhay Castle, the ironic birthplace of Richard iii.

    I have always seen Mary Queen of Scots as a romantic figure and a tragic one, never a doomed one; her downfall was partly due to her own foolish choices and partly due to the hostile situation she found herself in when she returned to Scotland. Mary left when she was about 6 years old and it was still officially a Catholic country. When she came home after 13 years, it was a radical Protestant one, although it had Catholic parts in the Highlands. John Knox was a powerful and persuasive preacher; he was also someone who wanted to preach against what we today would see as their right to have their own form of worship in their small private chaple. He clashed with the equally fiery Queen and although she had guaranteed all could worship as they pleased; he was not pacified. Things went downhill when the young Queen was distracted by a handsome and sporty young man from England, who also had a claim to the English crown through his mother, Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox a neice of Henry VIII. She fell in love, was diverted from affairs of state and allowed herself to get swept up by him. The fatal decision to marry him was quickly reached and the rest is history. Events conspired around Mary, but it was her own choices that led to her losing her crown and her fatal need to appeal to the frosty Elizabeth for help as a sister Queen, a woman and her kin.

  7. Yesterday was the Birth of Mary Queen of Scots who to most people is a romantic and tragic figure, but I wonder if that actually does her an injustice. Her life undoubtedly, because of her death and the way her second marriage ended, the loss of her baby twins and her kingdom has been seen in the light of tragedy and romantically enhanced by the Victorians, we have come to accept this view. However, we have to remember there was much about Mary which was triumphant, defiant and self defining.

    Mary was born into conflict, from the moment she was born, she was vulnerable and in danger, although she was also protected from the horrors around her. King Henry Viii wanted her for his young son, Edward and pressed the point home through the Rough Wooing or border raids and the Battle of Pinkie. Mary was crowned when she was nine months old, coming to the throne just six days old. However, despite the dangers, she thrived and her powerful French family the De Guise family are to thank for this. Mary had a pampered upbringing despite the threats which faced Scotland for her first six years, until she was forced to flee, twice, first to a coastal island and then to France. A marriage was arranged for Mary with the Dauphin of France and she was taken there to safety in 1548/9. This for Mary was her time of triumph, her time of sophisticated education and culture, her time of growing up in luxury, her time of beauty and privilege and she loved her years in France. She was 15 when she married Francis and together they had a couple of years of happiness. At eighteen she was Queen of France, Scotland and the Isles and by right, of England and Ireland. However, her happiness and first triumph wasn’t to last.

    In 1560 Mary’s husband died after an ear infection turned into a haemorrhage and she was devastated. She was also unwanted and had no place under her mother in law, Catherine de Medici. Mary and Francis II had no children and Mary’s only choice was to return to Scotland, but it was a Scotland much changed. John Knox had transformed the Church into a very Puritanical Protestant Church, the nobles had taken a oath to follow this and they now called themselves the Lords of the Congregation. Elizabeth I was also now on the English throne and had to guarantee safe conduct for the return of her cousin. However, Mary’s ship with her white horses was shipwrecked and confiscated by Elizabeth. Mary landed and local horses had to be provided for her. She also arrived ahead of her full retinue but received a good welcome as she made her way into her homeland. Traditionally we are shown the brazen Knox berating Mary from the outset. However, this isn’t true.

    Knox like the Lords was actually a member of her Council and provided advice and criticism as required. His first attack was when she held Mass in her apartments, to which she invited anyone who wished to attend. Mary gave him as good as she got. Mary actually did well as Queen, she was welcomed and she was a confident ruler. One of her highlights was her grand progress to the Highlands. Mary also faced a rebellion and conspiracy from the Huntley family and she crushed it ruthlessly and effectively. Nor was Scotland a backward or isolated kingdom, it was advanced and her palaces as luxurious as any, influenced by France. The language of the Court was French. Literature flourished in every part, even in the Highlands which had its own rich traditional Celtic and Irish Gaelic poetry and literature. However, Mary made errors which put all that in jeopardy.

    Mary and Elizabeth developed in the early years an understanding in their letters, which were affectionate and regular. Until the issue of Mary as Elizabeth’s heir and the insulting incidents of telling Mary who to marry arose, their relationship was productive. In 1562 and 1563 this changed and Elizabeth suggested Robert Dudley as a husband for Mary. However, Mary had found her own husband. Elizabeth allowed the Earl of Lennox, the husband of her cousin Margaret Douglas to return to Scotland with their son, Henry, Lord Darnley. The grandson of Queen Margaret Tudor, the sister of Henry viii and wife of James iv of Scotland and her second husband, Alexander Douglas, Earl of Angus, Henry had a claim to the English and Scottish thrones. At twenty one he was tall, handsome and charming. He was also wild, a drunk and probably homosexual. However, much of his problems was somehow kept from Mary who doesn’t appear to have been aware until it was too late. Mary did have an inkling about something in her young and impetuous husband, because she refused him the crown matrimonial. The eventual title of King he craved was granted but it was ceremonial only. Darnley turned into a loose canon and his demands were too hot to handle. He was drunk and abusive and Mary’s relationship with him turned soar. He demanded to be treated as King by the Lords and became jealous of her Secretary David Rizzio who he believed was her lover. He formed an association with a number of nobles and burst into her private apartments where the terrified Rizzio was playing his lute to entertain the heavily pregnant Queen. For all of their problems, somehow Mary and Darnley had slept together for a time and Mary was seven months pregnant with the future James vi of Scotland and 1st of England. Rizzio found himself being man handled by armed men, tried to hide behind the Queen who was threatened with violence and he was dragged screaming from her and stabbed several times. Mary was taken captive.

    Now this is one time that Mary came into her own. During the next several months she was truly a Queen. Mary found help and worked out a plan to get out of custody and out of the palace and reunited with Darnley who swore the assassination wasn’t his idea. She raised an army and returned to Edinburgh in triumph. Here her son was born and the lords, including her illegitimate brother James Stewart escaped to England, where Elizabeth was outraged but gave them shelter. For the stability of the Kingdom Mary negotiated the return of these same Lords and received them in exchange for their admissions. In a grand gesture in Edinburgh she publicly reconciled the rebels, her husband and the crown, pardoning them, somewhat reluctantly but because she had the security of the Realm at heart first. Mary’s relationship with Darnley was never fixed but for the sake of their son she maintained the appearance of a marriage. Some historians see these months as folly but I see them as the actions of a pragmatic and strong woman, putting the good of the nation before her desire to quite frankly get rid of the husband that she despised. However, it was not to last and Darnley became even more reprehensible to the Queen and the Lords. A new association was formed, led by James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell to assassinate Darnley.

    On a hot Summer night in 1566 while ill with smallpox or perhaps the actual pox, Darnley was moved out of the palace to his manor at Kirk of the Field and stayed with a few friends. Mary had been nursing him and was now herself ill, staying in Holy Rood Palace. In the early morning a great explosion was heard and the body of Darnley was found in the grounds. However, he wasn’t killed by the explosion but by stabbing and garotting. Mary was devastated and terrified but what happened next is confusing. Mary was taken to safety and held a Council and inquiry but nobody was charged with her husband’s murder. Three months later in other debatable circumstances Mary found herself being hounded by Bothwell who had divorced his wife. She was also facing new revolts and conflict and Bothwell claimed it wasn’t safe for her. She found herself kidnapped and taken to his border stronghold where she was raped and forced to marry him. Meanwhile back in Edinburgh things were really kicking off with Mary accused of complicity in the murder of Lord Darnley and of marrying his murderer. After a skirmish she was brought back to the capital and the mob, aroused by Knox called her wh*re, Murderer and Witch. Eventually Mary was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle.

    Here again I believe Mary showed great fortitude. She was threatened with her life and the lives of her unborn children and took a decision to save her nation again from civil war. Mary abdicated. She miscarried the babies but soon afterwards she was helped to escape and raised a new army. Unfortunately, Mary found herself outnumbered and had little choice but to make an accord. She gained a promise that Bothwell would go free, handed over the Government to the Lords in the name of her son as King and was allowed to flee to England. Mary could have gone to France or Spain but on false promises fled to England instead. Elizabeth promised to aid Mary if she was proved innocent of her husband’s murder. This is were the casket letters, clearly faked to malign Mary came in, but Mary was in fact cleared. However, Elizabeth wasn’t secure and she kept Mary as her guest or rather prisoner for several years in any event. Desperate for freedom and emboldened by the Northern Rebellion, which was crushed without mercy by Elizabeth and the Ridolfi plot in 1569 and 1572 Mary agreed to conspiracies to free her and place her on the English throne. Her actual guilt in the Babbington Plot of 1586 has always been debated and Mary denied it. With great courage and in fact triumph Mary faced her judges during her heavily rigged trial. She died as a martyr for her deep Catholic Faith on 8th February 1587 aged 44. She dressed in black with a red dress under her outer gown, the colour of martyrdom. It took three strokes to remove her head. The axeman picked up her head and her red wig fell off to the horror of the onlookers. A myth persists that her little dog hid under her skirts and was removed covered in her blood. He was bathed but died of a heart attack afterwards.

    Mary was a woman who didn’t always use her head but who almost lived life as she wished, in the fast lane. Elizabeth was indeed reluctant to execute a cousin of royal blood, an anointed Queen, but she was persuaded by lies about a new Catholic plot. It’s not true that she didn’t know that she had signed the Warrant for Mary’s death, it was a clever deception to hide her guilt and her grief. The warrant was delivered and Elizabeth pretended to ask for it back but Mary was already dead. She pretended to be outraged and Lord Burleigh was kept out of her way, wishing he was back because someone had to be blamed. She made great lamentation for some time. Mary was first buried in Peterborough Cathedral and then given an even greater tomb than that provided for Elizabeth I by her son James in Westminster Abbey. Elizabeth was forced to recognise James only with her last breath but all was well arranged for his peaceful ascension in 1603 uniting the crowns of England and Scotland. He was Mary’s last, if unexpected triumph.

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