I have always been fascinated by the figure of Mary, Queen of Scots, so much so, that I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on her. At the time I was very much influenced by Jenny Wormald’s A study in Failure which led me to be very critical of Mary and to view her as a bit of an idiot (obviously I wrote this conclusion up in more academic language). John Guy’s Tudor England was my bible during my degree, so I was interested to read this biography of Mary.
Mary is a fascinating character for historians; she has been alternatively viewed as a Catholic martyr, who was an innocent pawn in the hands of alternatively, the French, the Scottish and the English, or a foolish, evil adulteress who murdered her husband.
This book has led me to completely revise my opinion of Mary, this could be because I am susceptible to whatever opinion I read. Guy has gone back to the archives to re-assess the character and actions of Mary and has discovered important documents that he believes discredit the Casket Letters and acquit Mary of the murder of her husband Darnley, and show the complicity of the Scottish Lords in discrediting Mary, by forging the evidence. In this book Mary does appear to be tragic but instead of this being due to her own stupidity, Guy argues that it was partly due to naïvety, but also a political situation in Scotland that made her reign doomed from the start. Mary’s policy of pragmatic acceptance of Protestantism and her attempts to balance the factions of the Scottish nobles, ultimately failed.
A fictitious portrait of Mary Stuart,and her son James,later King James I of England, 1583. Mary last saw her son when he was nine months old.
I had always loved William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief minister, but in this book he is presented as Mary’s nemesis, and s intent on Mary’s destruction from as early as 1559 when Mary was declared Queen of England by the French. Elizabeth comes across as petty and vindictive; Mary made many overtures to Elizabeth, Guy claims that Elizabeth’s vanity meant she refused to meet with Mary, fearing that Mary would would possibly outmaneuver her due to her superior intelligence and beauty. Guy argues that the evidence against Mary was so obviously contradictory and fake, but Cecil ignored this as he was intent on her execution. Elizabeth’s vacillation about Mary’s execution was due less to their kinship than fears over the precedent it would set if Parliament was given the authority to execute an anointed monarch ( and this certainly was a problem for Charles I, just over sixty years later). In fact Elizabeth favoured a discreet assassination of Mary.
Mary is portrayed as loyal and likeable, but it cannot be denied that some of her choices were catastrophic such as marrying Bothwell who was certainly involved in the murder of Darnley and the decision to flee to England (although it is difficult to see what else she could have done).
Tomb of Mary, Queen of Scots in Westminster Abbey, London, commissioned by James, no doubt feeling a bit guilty so he made her tomb bigger than Elizabeth’s.
It is easy to understand why she became involved in plotting against Elizabeth, as she had been in captivity for eighteen years and was becoming increasingly isolated and desperate, betrayed even by her own son. Guy skips the gory account of her execution (the number of times it took the executioner to behead her, her head falling on the floor due to wearing a wig, the dog under her dress, etc.), which I was extremely glad about as by this time I had become extremely sympathetic to Mary. Guy simply describes it as Mary taking her last walk to “her most compelling act of theatre” that settled her place as “a truly tragic heroine”. Every British ruler since James I has been descended from Mary not Elizabeth, so her motto of “In my end is my beginning” seems highly apt.