Mary, Queen of Scots, approached the executioner’s block dressed in a petticoat – blood-red, the martyr’s color. It was the end of a life lived as a royal victim – held prisoner, her infant son brutally taken from her and finally, beheaded by order of the Queen.
The Queen in question was played by the beautiful Cate Blanchett in the 1998 blockbuster film, ‘Elizabeth.’ Her ‘Good Queen Bess’ is England’s first feminist, a noble queen bravely defying the male oppressors embodied in the Catholic Church.
This Protestant version of reality – morphed through the lens of late 20th century feminism – has remained essentially unchallenged for nearly 500 years. Until very recently, the story of the great Elizabeth I (or “Gloriana’ as she preferred to be called) was ‘history’ to most Western Christians.
Today, as serious historians are beginning to re-examine what actually happened in Britain during the Reformation, the real story is finally beginning to emerge. One very black shadow on the sterling reputation of Gloriana was her horrific treatment of Mary, Queen of Scots.
The image of Mary which comes down to us through the biased lens of Protestant history is a classic case of ‘blaming the victim.’ The Whig historians of the British Empire depicted her as weak-willed and excessively romantic – so hopeless, in fact, that she ‘deserved’ her fate.
The real Mary Stuart, however, appears to unbiased eyes as guileless and forthright, clearly possessed of intelligence and character sufficient to survive a life rife with calamity – and still to keep her wits and charm about her.
From France to Scotland
Daughter of King James V of Scotland and Mary of Guise of France, Mary Stuart became Queen of Scotland at her father’s death. She was six days old. What followed were certainly her happiest years – her youth spent in the French court, educated by devoted French religious.
She was then married to the sickly Francis, son of Henry II and Catherine de Medici, whom she treated with kindness. His death two years later followed that of her own mother; she was eighteen years old.
Grieving her losses, Mary nevertheless stalwartly acknowledged her royal obligations, and left her merry France for dismal Scotland. It was a country engulfed in religious turmoil, with significant political opposition entrenched against her. The stern Puritans who followed John Knox made much of her elegant French wardrobe; she was said to have arrived with more than 20 lavish black gowns, the height of French fashion.
Regardless of their politics, however, the Scots were inevitably struck by Mary’s beauty, charm, sweetness of character and gentleness of spirit. An eyewitness relates that “In one of the … processions Mary was moving along with the rest, through a crowd of spectators, and the light from her torch fell upon her features and upon her hair in such a manner as to make her appear more beautiful than usual. A woman, standing there, pressed up nearer to her to view her more closely, and, seeing how beautiful she was, asked her if she was not an ‘angel’.”
Wishing to avoid further discord and bloodshed, Mary allowed the Scots their religious freedom.
Faithful Wife, Dutiful Queen
Such generosity was characteristic of Mary; she was not a vindictive woman, though her basic goodness of heart was abused by many – including her Scottish husbands.
The persistent succession problem and Mary’s assertion of her queenly rights influenced her choice of husband. Aware of her monarchical responsibilities, she recognized that love rarely figured in dynastic matches.
Her choice, Henry Stuart (Lord Darnley), was like her a grandchild of Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister. The union would boost her claim of succession to the English throne. After marrying him, she patiently endured Darnley’s immature and dissolute lifestyle. He was vain, petulant and ambitious for ‘the Crown Matrimonial’ which would give him equal status with Mary.
When she refused, Darnley’s friends convinced him she was having an affair with her secretary, David Rizzio. On March 9, 1566, Rizzio was murdered in the presence of Mary – by then five months pregnant – as they dined at Holyrood Palace. Darnley, emerging from behind a tapestry, seized Mary to restrain her as Rizzio was stabbed before her eyes by a band of conspirators.
Hence, Mary became Darnley’s captive at Holyrood Palace. Banned from having attendants, she pretended to miscarry and pleaded for her midwife. Realizing his stake in the matter through his unborn offspring, Darnley relented and granted her request.
Under such stress, Mary would soon give birth to James VI of Scotland and I of England. She was delighted with her son, and the fact that she now had a male heir.
Murder and Palace Intrigue
For his part, the vicious Darnley would soon perish in a plot involving the brash Earl of Bothwell and some Scottish lords.
On the night of 9 February, 1567, the Old Provost’s Lodging in Edinburgh where Darnley was staying was reduced to rubble in an explosion. Next morning two corpses were found in a garden below – Darnley, in his nightshirt, and his valet. Because their bodies were unmarked, Elizabeth’s spies reported that they escaped before the explosion but had then been killed, possibly by asphyxiation, by Bothwell’s men.
An ‘Unseemly’ Marriage
Mary’s astuteness helped her deal with Darnley and the unruly lords, but she was also ready to forgive, trust again and reward those who showed sympathy to her causes: safeguarding her throne and promoting peace in Scotland.
In a palace full of intrigue and murder, she trusted Bothwell – an unwise choice, as it turned out. He kidnapped her and held her captive in Dunbar Castle. Not one laird came to Mary’s rescue during these twelve days of captivity. Feeling deserted by all, and fearing for herself and her child, Mary agreed to wed Bothwell – who’d allegedly raped her so she’d have to marry him to save her honor.
In any event, her decision to marry the arrogant, profane Bothwell was considered most unseemly, following too closely on Darnley’s murder. Was it merely a desperate bid for self-preservation and protection for her infant son?
Perhaps Mary grew weary of the endless turbulence around her, but the affair sullied her standing even among supporters. Whatever the reason, now the Scottish lords were jealous of Bothwell, and Mary was on a rollercoaster to ruin. She escaped to England the next year, hoping for sympathy from Elizabeth.
It was not to be. “Good Queen Bess” had Mary arrested; she was held for nineteen years. Her son was taken from her, and raised Protestant under the watchful eye of "Gloriana."
The Murder of a Catholic Queen
Nevertheless, born to rule, even in captivity Mary avidly embraced her queenly role and right. She never relinquished her claim to the Scottish throne despite schemes to depose her. And she remained a faithful daughter of the Church to the end. Her faith especially deepened in her last two decades of house confinement.
Mary was sentenced to death for plotting to assassinate Elizabeth.
Today, more unbiased scholars maintain that it was impossible for her to have been directly involved in the conspiracy, but the verdict was likely decided even before her trial. Removing Mary permanently from the scene was the longstanding goal of Elizabeth’s chief counselor and Mary’s nemesis, William Cecil (Lord Burghley).
On September 9, 1587, her execution day, she was denied access to a Catholic priest. The Protestant minister who saw her even dared to convert her. When the executioner begged her forgiveness, as was customary, she told him, ‘I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles.’
The 41-year-old Queen of Scots prayed aloud as she raised her ivory crucifix aloft. She disrobed, revealing her red petticoat – a Catholic symbol of martyrdom. Moments later the axe-wielding executioner would complete his grisly task.
Mary lived her life with courage and dignity worthy of a grand Catholic monarch. Such challenges to her person, and surrounded by men of devious, dastardly and vicious character would defeat those made of sterner stuff.
Only one possessed of unusual mettle and faith could have weathered these with a good and stalwart heart intact. Such was Mary, Queen of Scots.
Teresa Limjoco, MD
Abbott, Jacob. Mary Queen of Scots. New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1876.
Guy, John. Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.
Vicary, Tim. Mary, Queen of Scots. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
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