Saturday, July 30, 2011

Mary, Queen of Scots : truth or lies - Rosalind K Marshall

Mary, Queen of Scots is one of those historical figures that I find endlessly fascinating. There are so many questions & myths about her life, her motives & her beliefs. She was revered as a Catholic martyr & reviled as an adulteress who murdered her second husband to marry her third. Was she more French than Scots after her childhood at the French Court & her first marriage to Dauphin Francis? What was her real relationship with Elizabeth I? Was she in love with the Earl of Bothwell & did she conspire with him to murder Darnley?

Rosalind K Marshall is a historian who has written many books about Scotland's history. Last year I read her fascinating book about Anne, Duchess of Hamilton & posted about it here. She has also written about Mary & the influential women in her life in Queen Mary's Women. This book is a short (only 120pp) & succinct examination of some of the myths about Mary's life. Marshall sets out the myth & then examines the facts & the evidence to try to come to a reasonable opinion about the truth or otherwise of the myth.

The idea that Mary was more French than Scottish & knew very little about Scotland until she returned after the death of her husband, Francis II, has very little substance. Mary was Queen of Scots almost from birth as her father, James V, died when she was only a few days old. Her formidable French mother, Mary of Guise, was determined to protect her inheritance &, because she feared Mary would be abducted or assassinated by unruly nobles or Henry VIII (who wanted to marry Mary to his son & combine the kingdoms), she eventually agreed that Mary would be sent to France to be brought up at Court & marry the Dauphin. Mary was only five years old but she went to France with a retinue of Scottish servants & companions & it was expected that she would be treated as a Queen & not lose sight of her Scots heritage. Mary of Guise was Regent of Scotland & she wrote to Mary, keeping her informed of political developments.

When Mary returned to Scotland at the age of 18, after her mother & husband had died, she was not ignorant of the political or religious situation & her Personal Rule began well because she was determined to rule justly & with tolerance towards the religious reformers like John Knox. Mary's second marriage to Henry, Lord Darnley, was a disaster. Darnley was a cousin of Mary's & had Tudor & Stewart heritage. Their marriage began well but Darnley's immaturity & petulance soon made him enemies at Court & he was easily manipulated by the wily Scottish nobles who wanted to control the Queen & thought controlling Darnley was the way to do this. The murder of Mary's secretary, David Rizzio, in her presence when she was six months pregnant, was the beginning of the end of the marriage. Whether Mary had an affair with Rizzio, whether she was involved in the plot to murder Darnley at Kirk o'Field, & whether she connived with Bothwell in his abduction of her to force their marriage are some of the other stories examined in the book.

Mary, Queen of Scots : truth or lies is an interesting examination of Mary's life through the myths that have grown up around her. It's not a comprehensive biography & I think you'd need to know a bit about the subject to keep track of the many characters. Antonia Fraser's biography is still the best in my opinion, still in print over 40 years after publication. A more recent biography by John Guy, My Heart is My Own, is also excellent.


  1. Mary is a fascinating subject and I don't suppose we'll ever know the truth about her. We're pretty much steeped in her here. Stirling Castle, about seven miles away, is where she spent some of her childhood and there's a wee hole in one of the walls, at a four year old's height, which someone made so she could see out beyond the castle. The castle of the Lake on Menteith, not far from here either, was where she was taken for safety. And, of course, Linlithgow Palace, fairly close, too, is where she was born. Yesterday we were in Falkland for a jaunt. Falkland Palace is beautiful and it's where her father, James V, heard that his wife had had a daughter. He then died, a disappointed man... I'd better get hold of this book!

  2. You obviously know a lot about Mary so I think you'd enjoy the book. How lucky to be able to pop over to Falkland for the day! Poor James, if he hadn't been so depressed he might have taken a deep breath & tried for another child. Turning his face to the wall was a bit extreme! One of the great What Ifs of history, isn't it? What if Mary had been a boy?