Wednesday, 8 October 2014

talking about Mary, Queen of Scots

One of my favourite historical characters has to be Mary, Queen of Scots.

What do I like about her? Well: 

  • she became Queen at 6 days old
  • She was 5'11" (1.8m) tall, in the C16; 
  • and she had a really interesting personal life. I mean 'interesting' like the Chinese curse - 'may you live in interesting times'.

You need to read a book really to get the full gen on Mary Stuart's life, but here are some basics:

Not actually Mary, Queen of Scots, just
someone dressed up at Linlithgow Palace

Mary was born in December of 1542, in Linlithgow Palace. Her parents were Mary of Guise and King James V of Scotland. Sadly King James was on his deathbed, and when he was told his only surviving heir was a girl, he said "it came with a lass, it will pass with a lass" referring to the Stuart line of Kings, started from the daughter of Robert the Bruce marrying into the Stuart family, and, James thought, ending with Mary (he was wrong).

King James died, and Mary became Queen at six days old. There was a dispute over who should be regent, won out by James Hamilton, the 2nd Earl of Arran, who was Protestant, and was next in line to the throne. He had ties with the Protestant King of England - Henry VIII, with whom he arranged that Mary would marry King Henry's son, Edward, when she was ten, and move to England.

The little girl (aged 3), looking through the hole
provided for little Queen Mary
The man who had been named as regent in James V's will, the Catholic Cardinal David Beaton, was not happy with the situation, and formed an army to take Mary and her mother to the more secure Stirling Castle when she was six months old. She was crowned there, and had gardens to play in. They even made a small hole in the wall, so toddler Mary could see the beautiful views from the castle. 

King Henry VII meanwhile arrested some Scottish traders who had done nothing wrong, and James Hamilton decided he had been backing the wrong horse, converting to Catholicism, and joining with Beaton. The marriage proposal was rejected by the Scottish Parliament, although Henry tried to enforce it with the 'rough wooing'. Mary was moved to Dunkeld for her safety. In 1546, Beaton was murdered by Protestant lairds. Henry died not long after, but the campaign against the Scots continued. Fearful for Mary's safety, her guardians turned to the French for help.

The French King, Henry II offered to marry Mary to his own son, Francis, and promised to help. Mary was moved from place to place, with the English inching closer, before the French arrived at Leith docks to save the day. The Scottish Parliament agreed to the French marriage in 1548, and five year old Mary was sent to France. She went with her own court, and caused quite a stir, being lively, intelligent, and beautiful. She made friends, and got on well with Francis, although they must have looked an unusual couple, as he was rather short (and was said to stutter, while Mary was thought to be eloquent). Secretly, the French King had Mary sign a pre-nup, handing over Scotland, and her English claim, to France, should she die without issue. This wasn't the death he should have been worrying about however. Mary and Francis married in 1558, when Mary was 15. 

Posing with a unicorn horn (it's a
replica of the original, which was
actual a narwhal horn). The unicorn
is the national animal of Scotland,
and this picture was taken at Stirling
castle, where Mary of Guise's throne
room is reproduced.
Soon after that, Queen Mary I of England died, and was succeeded by Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth was the daughter of Anne Boleyn, who had married King Henry VIII while he was still married to Queen Katherine (Mary of England's mother) under Catholic law. Elizabeth was therefore, not considered eligible for the throne by many people, whereas Mary was the legitimate heir, as her grandmother had been Henry VIII's sister. Mary was also Catholic, which helped.

The following year (1559), King Henry II died from a jousting injury, and Francis and Mary became King and Queen of France. Mary was 16. In Scotland, Mary of Guise was running Scotland in her daughter's absence, with the help of French troops, working against an uprising of Protestant Lords. It was all rather stressful. The next year, Mary of Guise died of dropsy (possibly caused by heart failure). That same year, France formally accepted the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, but Mary refused to ratify the treaty, citing her grief. She was to know more of grief, as later that year, her husband died from complications of an ear infection. His brother succeeded him to the throne, and Mary returned to Scotland.

Mary arrived at Leith in the summer of 1561. She was 18, and recently orphaned and widowed. She was also used to living in France, and was a devout Catholic. It was not easy for her. To the surprise of many, Mary kept the Protestant advisers, including her illegitimate half brother, who had led the Protestant faction, as her chief advisor. This strengthened her position with England. Mary set to work finding herself a new husband. Several people were in the frame, including the mad son of the King of Spain, and Queen Elizabeth's own favourite.

Darnley and Mary: tall and in love
Picture in the public domain, taken from here
In February of 1565, Mary met with her cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. She had met him before soon after her husband died, but this time her grief had faded, and she noticed him. He was over 6' tall, and an English Catholic, and she is said to have fallen in love. They married later that year, although they did not get a papal dispensation to marry (which they needed, being cousins), and the union upset many. The Protestant Lords rose again in rebellion, but it came to nothing in the end.

Darnley meanwhile was not content with being King consort, and wished to share the throne with Mary (which would effectively put him in charge). Mary refused, and things between then grew strained. Darnley grew jealous of the now pregnant Mary's friendly relationship with her secretary David Rizzio, and joined in a secret plot with the very Protestant Lords who had consipired against her, to murder Rizzio right in front of her. Afterward Darnley was repentant, but Mary could not forgive him.

Their child, James, was born at Edinburgh castle in June 1566. Later that same year, Mary visited her adviser James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, who had been injured. It was a long day trip and eyebrows were raised. Straight after her return, Mary was seriously ill, and took several weeks to recover, however she met with various nobles at the end of November to discuss what was to be done with Darnley. Divorce was a possibility. There were other possibilities too. Afraid for his safety, Darnley fled to Glasgow, where he too was seriously ill, taking weeks to recover.

In the new year, Mary instructed her husband to return to Edinburgh, which he did; staying at a friends house, and recuperating from his illness. Mary visited him every day, and it was thought that a reconciliation was on the cards. She visited him on the evening of 9th February, before going to the wedding reception of a member of her household. While she was there, there was an explosion in the house Darnley was staying at, and Darnley himself was found dead in the garden. There was not a mark on him.

People generally believed that Bothwell was guilty of Darnley's murder. The Queen was petitioned that Bothwell should go to trial. She allowed this, but did not allow time for any evidence to be gathered. After a seven hour trial Bothwell was acquitted. A week later Bothwell was canvassing support in his aim to marry the Queen, and quickly divorcing his wife.

In April 1567 Mary visited her son for the last time. On her way home, she was abducted by Bothwell and other Lords, and it seems likely that Bothwell raped her. Soon after, they returned to Edinburgh together, and were married in a Protestant ceremony. The marriage was very unpopular, mainly because Bothwell had probably murdered Darnley. The relationship between Mary and Bothwell was also tempestuous, and Mary suffered from depression. There was an uprising against them and Mary was denounced as a murderer and adultress, and imprisoned. She soon miscarried twins, and after that was forced to abdicate to allow her infant son to become King. Bothwell was exiled to Denmark, and Mary's illegitimate brother became Regent. Mary was 24.

Mary escaped into England, and asked Elizabeth for help, instead, Mary was held prisoner in one grand house and then the next, while Elizabeth considered what to do. The imprisonment was not good for her, and her health declined.

Mary remained at the centre of several plots to replace Elizabeth on the throne, although generally Elizabeth did not believe that she was herself the source of the plots; however there was eventually a plot wherein it was clear that Mary had given the go-ahead for Elizabeth's assassination. She was loath to put a Queen on trial, but with the overwhelming evidence, Elizabeth agreed, and Mary was tried in October 1586, and sentenced to death. Elizabeth could not bring herself to sign the death warrant until February 1587, at which point the men acted fast, no doubt in case she changed her mind.

Mary spent the last hours of her life in prayer, distributed her belongings amongst her household, and wrote a letter to the King of France. On the scaffold, her executioners knelt at her feet and begged her forgiveness. She answered:  "I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles." She was assisted in partially disrobing, and revealed a red petticoat and sleeves. It has often been said that red was the colour of martyrs and that this was a political statement, however, it is also possible that it was February, and it was cold. Red was thought to be more warming than other colours, and so she might have chosen red to keep warm. Given her poise, it seems likely she would have wanted to avoid shivering. Mary was 45.

Elizabeth was furious when she heard that the sentence had been carried out, and had the man responsible imprisoned.

Sounds like good fodder for a soap doesn't it? Scottish history is full of treacherous murders, of Protestant and Catholic plots, and of dodgy weddings. It has provided inspiration for Shakespeare, and George RR Martin, and I would so be up for a Tudors style series looking at Scottish history!

What about you? Any favourite historical figures?

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