Fight to the death

As his bi­og­ra­phy of Mary, Queen of Scots comes to the big screen, John Guy tells the monarch and El­iz­a­beth I’s ex­tra­or­di­nary story

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As his bi­og­ra­phy of Mary, Queen of Scots comes to the big screen, John Guy tells the monarch and her royal cousin El­iz­a­beth I’s ex­tra­or­di­nary story.

Just over two years ago I re­ceived a phone call from Work­ing Ti­tle Films. My 2004 bi­og­ra­phy of Mary, Queen of Scots was about to move from page to screen, di­rected by Josie Rourke, with a screen­play by Beau Wil­limon, the cre­ator of Netflix’s drama about Machi­avel­lian politi­cians, House of Cards.

The idea was to tell the story of love, be­trayal and tragedy within Mary’s tur­bu­lent court against the back­drop of Mary’s re­la­tion­ship with her cousin, Queen El­iz­a­beth I. These two fe­male rulers, in­spi­ra­tionally played in the film by the Os­car-nom­i­nated ac­tors Saoirse Ro­nan and Mar­got Rob­bie, uniquely un­der­stood, cap­ti­vated and chal­lenged each other. They called each other “sis­ter”. Each be­lieved she had been called to rule her coun­try by God. Each was the only other woman on the planet who could know what it was like to be in the other’s shoes.

My role was to com­ment on the his­tor­i­cal au­then­tic­ity of the script, to help the ac­tors un­der­stand their char­ac­ters, and to ad­vise on ev­ery­thing from El­iz­a­beth and Mary’s leisure in­ter­ests (ex­otic horses, say, in El­iz­a­beth’s case; cross-dressing pranks in Mary’s) to who should be present at the scene of Mary’s ex­e­cu­tion at Fother­ing­hay Cas­tle. I also have a small walkon cameo part in the film.

The­atri­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion can never ex­actly repli­cate a book, but I be­lieve that the film is an ut­terly compelling drama, bril­liantly scripted, di­rected and acted. Care­ful prepa­ra­tion was cru­cial. A high­light was the day I spent at Hamp­ton Court Palace with Rob­bie. The Aus­tralian ac­tress grasped in­stantly from our con­ver­sa­tion as we toured the state apart­ments that the key to play­ing El­iz­a­beth was to re­mem­ber that she and Mary were both young and vulnerable at the start of their tan­gled re­la­tion­ship.

El­iz­a­beth was far from be­ing Mary’s mor­tal en­emy then — both “Bri­tish” queens were, as it might be said, fully paid-up mem­bers of the fe­male mon­archs’ trade union — and Mary did not want to claim El­iz­a­beth’s throne dur­ing her cousin’s life­time; she wanted El­iz­a­beth to recog­nise her as the law­ful suc­ces­sor should the English queen not marry and have a child. And for much of the time that was what El­iz­a­beth wanted too.

In her deal­ings with her Catholic cousin, the Protes­tant El­iz­a­beth was caught in a trap. She wanted to do what she be­lieved to be the right thing — for Mary as much as for Eng­land. That meant mak­ing a pact, if she could; one in which the Scot­tish queen’s dy­nas­tic claim was preserved for the fu­ture, but by which Scot­land, mean­while, would be turned into a satel­lite state of Eng­land.

The crux is that El­iz­a­beth ranked blood ahead of reli­gious faith. Mary was the great­grand­daugh­ter of Henry VII, the founder of the Tu­dor dy­nasty, and her le­git­i­macy was never in doubt, whereas El­iz­a­beth, Henry VIII’s child by his sec­ond wife, Anne Bo­leyn, had been de­clared a bas­tard by Par­lia­ment and her own fa­ther.

Early in her reign, El­iz­a­beth told Wil­liam Mait­land, the Scot­tish sec­re­tary of state, that in her heart she did in­deed con­sider Mary to be her right­ful heir. She sim­ply re­fused to name her as such for fears of plots and con­spir­a­cies. In the film, El­iz­a­beth can­didly con­fesses her anx­i­eties on the rooftop at Hamp­ton Court, telling her chief min­is­ter, Wil­liam Ce­cil, played silk­ily by Guy Pearce, “No prince’s rev­enues be so great that they are able to sat­isfy the in­sa­tiable am­bi­tion of men.” Here and else­where in this scene, Rob­bie is ac­tu­ally quot­ing the re­al­life El­iz­a­beth’s con­fi­dences given to Mait­land.

El­iz­a­beth’s pub­lic im­age may be that of a strong leader, but when it came to Mary, she spent much of her time in a fug of in­de­ci­sion. Ap­peal­ing to Ce­cil six years into her reign, she fret­ted, “In such a quandary am I . . . I’m at a loss to know how to sat­isfy her, and have no idea as to what I now ought to say.”

Ce­cil had lit­tle sym­pa­thy be­cause El­iz­a­beth had just bun­gled one of the most sen­si­tive po­lit­i­cal ne­go­ti­a­tions she would at­tempt in the whole of her long reign — an at­tempt to per­suade Mary to marry Lord Robert Dud­ley. Dud­ley was Eng­land’s most glit­ter­ing courtier — the only man El­iz­a­beth ever truly loved or (for a while) se­ri­ously con­tem­plated mar­ry­ing. El­iz­a­beth had thought, by sac­ri­fic­ing him as a hus­band for Mary, the Scot­tish queen would be sub­or­di­nated to some­one she felt she could trust.

But Mary scorned the idea of mar­riage to a man com­monly re­puted to be her cousin’s castoff lover. In the film, Ro­nan uses Mary’s own words: “Do you think it might stand with my hon­our to marry my sis­ter’s sub­ject?”

What’s telling, though, isn’t so much the plan’s im­plau­si­bil­ity as what it re­veals about El­iz­a­beth’s psy­chol­ogy. Be­sides an in­se­cu­rity sur­round­ing her le­git­i­macy she, like Mary, felt a keen vul­ner­a­bil­ity at a time when fe­male mon­archs were at best con­sid­ered an aber­ra­tion.

Re­mem­ber, too, that El­iz­a­beth had a trau­matic child­hood. Apart from the shock­ing fact that her fa­ther killed her mother, El­iz­a­beth had been abused while liv­ing with her step­mother, Cather­ine Parr, af­ter Henry VIII’s death.

When the over-sexed, over­ween­ing Thomas Sey­mour came to the 14-year-old El­iz­a­beth early in the morn­ings to pull off her bed­clothes, tickle and try to kiss her, or to “strike her upon the back or on the but­tocks fa­mil­iarly. . . and make as though he would come at her”, she learned fast that women in power had a sex­ual body as well as a po­lit­i­cal one, and that preda­tory, am­bi­tious men sought to use the one to con­trol the other. If any­thing per­suaded her never to marry, this was it. So when the Scot­tish no­bles be­gan their ca­bals and con­spir­a­cies, at­tack­ing Mary with al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual mis­con­duct, stirred by the firebrand Calvin­ist preacher John Knox, who main­tained that a fe­male ruler was a “mon­ster in na­ture”, El­iz­a­beth’s sym­pa­thies were with her cousin.

Only when they killed Lord Darn­ley — the nar­cis­sis­tic hus­band Mary chose in place of Dud­ley — in a gun­pow­der plot were the first seeds of doubt sown in her mind.

But when Mary’s rebels forced her to re­marry, and then ab­di­cate, the English queen de­nounced it as a crime against God and de­manded her unconditional restora­tion. El­iz­a­beth’s in­abil­ity to make good on that de­mand was in­dica­tive of the talent her chief min­is­ter had for go­ing be­hind her back, claim­ing that only he could save her from her­self. Ce­cil wanted Mary de­posed, and prefer­ably dead, to which end he’d been

‘‘ The crux is that El­iz­a­beth ranked blood ahead of reli­gious faith.

smug­gling money and weapons across the bor­der to aid her rebels.

Af­ter Mary es­caped and fled to Eng­land, El­iz­a­beth was torn in two. While she wa­vered over how far to as­sist and pro­tect her cousin, Ce­cil put Mary un­der strict guard. A Protes­tant zealot, he’d feared all along that if El­iz­a­beth made a pact with her cousin, a Catholic queen might one day rule the whole of the Bri­tish Isles. He was de­ter­mined that the charges of adul­tery and com­plic­ity in Darn­ley’s mur­der lev­elled against Mary in Scot­land should be in­ves­ti­gated. And El­iz­a­beth could not rea­son­ably ob­ject to this with­out her­self be­com­ing em­broiled in scan­dal.

Ce­cil never fully per­suaded a scep­ti­cal El­iz­a­beth of Mary’s guilt. In­stinc­tively, she felt im­pelled to de­fend a fel­low fe­male ruler. She more than once be­lieved — as Mary al­ways did — that if only these two Bri­tish queens could look each other in the eye and talk things over, woman to woman, they might set­tle their dif­fer­ences.

For the screen ver­sion, Rourke and Wil­limon took a creative de­ci­sion that the two queens re­ally should meet. And a meet­ing (had it hap­pened in his­tory) would al­most cer­tainly have ended just as it does in the film. Faced by English in­tran­si­gence over restor­ing the Scot­tish queen to her right­ful throne, Mary — a woman of spirit as shown by her tem­pes­tu­ous con­fronta­tions with Knox — would fi­nally have lost her tem­per and de­liv­ered an out­right claim to the English throne. It took Ce­cil 19 years to ca­jole El­iz­a­beth into killing her cousin. Even af­ter Mary be­came des­per­ate enough to con­nive in An­thony Babing­ton’s plot of 1586 to as­sas­si­nate El­iz­a­beth, the English queen re­fused to send a fel­low monarch to her death by sign­ing a war­rant. Only on Fe­bru­ary 1, 1587, af­ter Ce­cil spread a false ru­mour that Span­ish troops had landed in Wales and ad­vised El­iz­a­beth to dou­ble her body­guards — the Ar­mada of 1588 was al­ready in its early stages of re­cruit­ment — was she pre­pared to send for pen and ink and sign. That de­ci­sion struck her to the core. De­spite Mary’s com­plic­ity with Babing­ton, El­iz­a­beth knew that by sign­ing her cousin’s death war­rant she’d con­doned regi­cide. When in the film the axe falls, in a dra­matic scene that fol­lows the his­tor­i­cal ac­count to the let­ter, an anointed queen is killed and the ideal of monar­chy at­ten­u­ated.

El­iz­a­beth had to live with her con­science; she would find it to be no easy task. For the rest of her life she claimed her cousin’s death had been “a mis­er­able ac­ci­dent” and protested “how in­no­cent I am in this case”. In his­tory, as in the film, Mary’s ex­e­cu­tion would prove to be El­iz­a­beth’s ar­mada of the soul.

Pho­tos / Getty Im­ages, AP

Saoirse Ro­nan and Mar­got Rob­bie at the premiere of Mary Queen of Scots in London. Below, Ro­nan as Mary Stu­art.

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