I haven’t written about the books I have been reading for quite some time. However I will make an exception for this particular book. Mary Queen of Scots, by John Guy, is an exceptional book. I listened to the audio version which is beautifully and clearly read by Jan Cramer. It is also the basis for the recent film about Mary.
Though born and brought up in Scotland, I have little detailed knowledge of our history. I know the outlines thanks to my Primary school. However in secondary school Scottish history was effectively ignored in favour of British history, which in practice meant 19th century English history. So it was with a mixture of excitement and apprehension that I began listening to the audio.
This is not really a review as such, but rather I want to highlight what we’re for me the key take-aways from the book. Before I must pay tribute to John Guy for the amazing and exhaustive research he undertook for the book. Much previously hidden and some new material has now for the time been subjected to rigorous analysis. All of which has enabled the author to write what will undoubtedly become the authoritative history of not just Mary, but of the period.
Below I offer the key points that have most impressed me from the book.
1 An Unruly Kingdom Scotland was most definitely “an unruly kingdom” for almost all of the period. Mainly due to the unfortunate and seemingly ingrained habit of Scotland’s kings getting themselves killed, either in battle or just murdered, at a very young age. This was the case with Mary’s father James V, who died in 1542, when just 30 years old. Mary, the future queen was just six days old when her father died.
This meant of course that as in previous occasions there was a long interregnum before the new monarch could assert control. These interregnums were periods of much infighting among the nobles and meant that no Scottish monarch was able to exert, never mind extend, royal control over all of his kingdom.
2 The Reformation Mary’s difficulties with her nobles were compounded by the difficulties created by the Reformation. Mary herself was brought up as a catholic and remained one all of her life. Some of the catholic nobles wanted to re-establish the church in Scotland while some of the Protestant nobles resented having a catholic queen. The vicious hostility of John Knox, the leading Protestant theologian added to Mary’s woes.
3 The Rough Wooing Scotland has always had a rather difficult relationship with England. Every since the Norman conquest a key objective of the Kings of England was to extend their control over all of the British and Irish isles. In the case of Wales and Ireland both were eventually brought under the rule of the Kings of England. Scotland proved a harder nut to crack and was never conquered nor fully brought under English rule.
This failure did not stop successive English kings from trying to bring Scotland under control. The favoured route was through a dynastic marriage. Upon Mary’s accession to the throne, the English were determined to force the Scots into agreeing to a marriage between Mary and an English prince, thus securing a personal union between the two kingdoms.
The Scots were not too keen on this though and the English decided to persuade the Scots by invading the country. Though this eight year war, known as the ‘rough wooing’, did not succeed, Scots were left in no doubt as to the determination of England to secure control over Scotland.
4 The French Connection By the time of Mary’s accession to the Scottish throne in 1542 Scotland was an internationally recognised independent country, with alliances with other European states. The most important of which was France. Mary’s mother was a leading member of one of France’s most powerful families – the Guises.
An alliance with France would offer Scotland some protection against English attempts to invade the country. France’s interest in Scotland did not rise much above using Scotland as a counter to English claims to rule bits of France. The alliance may have deepened when the very young Mary was betrothed to the dauphin of France. Alas Francis died shortly after ascending the throne, leaving Mary a widow at the age of 18..
France continued to take an interest in Scotland and Mary. Though from the French perspective what interested them most was Mary’s claim to the throne of England.
5 The English Succession Unlike Scotland there were competing claimants to the throne of England. Protestants and most of the court accepted Elizabeth as the rightful Queen, as she was the daughter of Henry VIII. However strict royalists and most catholics regarded Elizabeth as illegitimate as they did not recognise Henry’s divorce from his first wife.
In their eyes the rightful Queen of England was Mary, who was not only catholic, but also the granddaughter of Mary Tudor, the daughter of Henry VII. Mary was thus regarded as a threat to Elizabeth, particularly if Mary’s claim was to be supported by either France or Spain.
This situation was compounded by Elizabeth’s refusal to marry and produce her own heirs, thus securing a Protestant succession. This was to remain the main concern of the English court, in particular William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief advisor. While Mary did not make any serious attempt to become Queen of England herself, she strove to be acknowledged as the next in line to the throne, both for herself and her son, James.
James, who was separated from his mother when a baby, was brought up as a Protestant. As such there was less opposition to his succession to the throne of England.
However, as a staunch Protestant, Cecil was determined to deny Mary any recognition of her claim. Even when Mary was in captivity in England, Cecil remained suspicious of her and her catholicism. More than anyone, Cecil was the mastermind behind the execution.
6 A Woman’s Trials As if trying to govern as a monarch was not difficult enough, Mary had the additional burden of doing so as a very young woman. While Elizabeth faced similar challenges in England, it was much, much worse in Scotland. As mentioned above her unruly nobles were always more of a hindrance than a help. Added to which as a catholic she faced constant hostility from some of her Protestant subjects.
John Knox was an inveterate and constant critic. Her main failing was simply to be a woman. Knox had a very low opinion of women. They were unreliable and ruled by their passions. A catholic woman was the worst of the worst.
As John Guy makes eloquently clear Mary was under constant threat from the boorish behaviour of her male nobles. Her two Scottish husbands were just as bad, mistreating her very badly. Her one serious misjudgement probably was in part due to the pressure she was under from her unruly nobles.
This is the most likely reason for her marriage to Bothwell. She felt she needed a strong man to help her stand up to her unruly and often treacherous nobles. There was in reality nobody she could trust. Not even Bothwell alas.
7 Mary herself The book provides lots of details about Mary herself. She was from a very early age recognised as a very attractive, learned and charming person. She was also a very lively one, who enjoyed life as fully as a princess and Queen could. This included wearing fine dresses and dancing, all of which added to John Knox’s disapproval.
She was also for a while a skilled ruler. Though she lost her final battle in Scotland it is a small miracle that she survived for so long in such an unruly kingdom.
Though she spent the final 20 years of her life in captivity in England, she never lost her dignity and her charm. Virtually of her jailers were impressed by her. It is also worth noting that her captivity broke just about all civilised laws. As Queen of Scots, Mary could not be guilty of treason against England. She had not led an army against England. She was held in captivity because the English court was frightened of her and her claims.
I end by noting that despite many invitations Elizabeth resolutely refused to meet Mary. Perhaps Elizabeth was a bit feart of being overwhelmed by Mary’s charm.