Po­lit­i­cal in­genue or tragic vic­tim of the pa­tri­archy? As Saoirse Ro­nan reimag­ines Mary Stuart in her new film, Li­adan Hynes looks at the truth be­hind the le­gend of the Scot­tish monarch

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - REPORTAGE -

Mary Stuart fa­mously em­broi­dered these words shortly be­fore her bru­tal death by be­head­ing in 1587: ‘In my end is my be­gin­ning.’ It was a ref­er­ence to what the de­voted Catholic saw as her im­pend­ing spir­i­tual im­mor­tal­ity, but lit­tle could she have known that over 400 years after her death in 1587, her le­gend would still live on, en­dur­ingly ca­pa­ble of fas­ci­nat­ing. Most re­cently, she has been reimag­ined in Saoirse Ro­nan’s lat­est film, Mary Queen of Scots, to be re­leased later this month.

Mary was the great-niece of Henry VIII, he of the six wives and fa­ther to her cousin, the fu­ture Queen El­iz­a­beth I. The two girls had wildly dif­fer­ent for­ma­tive years. El­iz­a­beth, the el­der by nine years, was an in­stant dis­ap­point­ment to her fa­ther, on ac­count of her gen­der. Ironic, given the met­tle she would later dis­play as a ruler. Her mother, Anne Bo­leyn, was ex­e­cuted when the child was not yet three, and El­iz­a­beth was in­stantly de­moted from the sta­tus of princess, deemed il­le­git­i­mate and sent away from court un­til she be­came queen at the age of 25.

Mary, on the other hand, was named Queen of Scot­land at just six days old, in De­cem­ber 1542, when her fa­ther, King James V, died of a fever. A fe­male ruler wasn’t a prospect that de­lighted all of Scot­land at that time. It is spec­u­lated that the pos­si­ble threat this might pose to her young daugh­ter’s safety was what caused her mother, Mary of Guise, to send her child to live with their pow­er­ful rel­a­tives at the court of France.

The ac­tions of Henry VIII of Eng­land at this time were prob­a­bly also a con­tribut­ing fac­tor. In an ef­fort to wed the young queen to his son, he en­gaged upon what be­came known as ‘the Rough Woo­ing’ — a war be­tween Scot­land and Eng­land.

Safe in France at the court of King Henry II, Mary en­joyed a cul­tured, lux­u­ri­ous up­bring­ing, prob­a­bly quite dif­fer­ent from the one she might have ex­pe­ri­enced at the less salu­bri­ous Scot­tish court. She learnt to dance and hunt, very suc­cess­fully in both cases, wrote poetry, and en­joyed a var­ied education, cov­er­ing Latin, Ital­ian, Span­ish and Greek.

Mary’s beauty is the one undis­puted as­pect of her le­gend. Un­like her cousin, El­iz­a­beth, who courtiers knew to flat­ter at the ex­pense of all other women, Mary seems to have been a gen­uine beauty. Un­usu­ally tall for the time (5ft 11in), she was slen­der, with clear pale skin and red/gold hair. Both cousins took great care in main­tain­ing their com­plex­ions; El­iz­a­beth us­ing white chalk-like make-up made of lead and vine­gar (used to cover the scars of small­pox, it is thought to have had a poi­sonous ef­fect), Mary us­ing white wine. In 1558 she mar­ried King Henry II of France’s el­dest son, the Dauphin Fran­cis.

Life must have seemed se­cure then to the young Mary. After a tu­mul­tuous start, her fate was sealed in this dy­nas­tic mar­riage to a young boy she was said to have been fond of, al­though history deems the mar­riage un­con­sum­mated.

Later that same year, her cousin, El­iz­a­beth, be­came Queen of Eng­land, an event which made Mary next in line to the English throne. In the eyes of many English Catholics, El­iz­a­beth was il­le­git­i­mate. By this rea­son­ing, Mary was in fact now the right­ful queen of Eng­land. It was a state of af­fairs which did not rec­om­mend the Scot­tish royal to her cousin, a woman who spent a life­time fix­ated on so­lid­i­fy­ing the le­git­i­macy of her claim to the throne.

The two queens had vary­ing lev­els of suc­cess as women rul­ing in the most pa­tri­ar­chal of so­ci­eties. El­iz­a­beth built her power on her idea of be­ing the queen bee at court, seem­ingly us­ing her fem­i­nin­ity as a source of strength. Where wom­an­hood was a boon for the English queen, for Mary — re­peat­edly used by oth­ers as a pawn — it was a bane.

The tra­di­tional in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the pair is of El­iz­a­beth as a cold, cal­cu­lat­ing, nat­u­ral politi­cian; sex­less, ruth­less. The Vir­gin Queen dis­gusted by Mary’s sex­ual an­tics. Mary, in this telling, is painted as a pas­sion­ate, sex­ual, lov­ing crea­ture, po­lit­i­cally naive. One ruled with her head, the other her heart. Where El­iz­a­beth was the orig­i­nal stateswoman, Mary was a friv­o­lous fool. Or, if you are Catholic, then the for­mer was a heart­less con­niver, the lat­ter a wronged mar­tyr.

More re­cent in­ter­pre­ta­tions, par­tic­u­larly that of bi­og­ra­pher John Guy, whose book My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots was the source ma­te­rial for the new film, would sug­gest that it was bad luck rather than a lack of po­lit­i­cal nous that brought about her demise.

Mary’s fa­ther-in-law, King Henry II of France, died in 1559, mak­ing her hus­band the king, and she the queen con­sort. Trag­i­cally, Fran­cis died in 1560, and the fol­low­ing year, now a widow, the 18-year-old Mary re­turned to Scot­land. Like El­iz­a­beth, who took up to four hours to get dressed, Mary un­der­stood the need to dress for the part. She trav­elled in a fleet of 12 ships. One car­ried Mary and her ladies-in-wait­ing, a se­cond her cooks, grooms, maids and ser­vants. The fur­ther 10 ships bore her pos­ses­sions, fur­nish­ings, her wardrobe, jew­ellery, pets and fur­ni­ture, in­clud­ing 45 beds.

Things on her re­turn were not straight­for­ward. Scot­tish no­bles were a frac­tious, quar­rel­some bunch. “I am their queen and so they call me, but they use me not so,” she com­plained at this time. In her ab­sence, Scot­land had adopted Protes­tantism as its of­fi­cial re­li­gion. This put Mary, a de­vout Catholic, and es­sen­tially a for­eigner, in a difficult po­si­tion.

El­iz­a­beth re­fused to name her heir of the English throne, fur­ther weak­en­ing her po­si­tion. De­spite the in­aus­pi­cious cir­cum­stances of her re­turn home, Mary reigned suc­cess­fully for the first few years, due in part, pos­si­bly, to her oft-ref­er­enced charm. She her­self had strongly held Catholic be­liefs but, as a ruler, was, like her cousin, tol­er­ant of oth­ers’ spir­i­tual per­sua­sions.

Five years after ar­riv­ing home, she mar­ried again, this time to her cousin, Henry Stuart, Earl of Darn­ley. It is this event that bi­og­ra­pher An­to­nia Fraser marks as the start­ing point of the “fa­tal train of events” that would lead to her demise. Fraser de­scribes the mar­riage as a reck­less act on Mary’s be­half; she mar­ried for love. Mary her­self later de­scribed her new hus­band as the “lusti­est and best pro­por­tioned” man she had ever seen. Said to have been hand­some, and at 6ft un­usu­ally tall for that era, Darn­ley was recorded by Mary’s courtiers as ar­ro­gant and petu­lant, a weak-na­tured wom­an­iser ca­pa­ble of great cru­elty, and a heavy drinker.

The mar­riage was a tu­mul­tuous af­fair. On March 9, 1566, the queen and a group of close as­so­ciates were hav­ing sup­per in a room off her bed­room when Darn­ley, ac­com­pa­nied by a group of armed no­ble­men, burst into the small room and ac­cused David Rizzio, the Queen’s Ital­ian pri­vate sec­re­tary and close con­fi­dant, of hav­ing an af­fair with her. Mary was then six months’ preg­nant, and re­ports have it that dur­ing the fra­cas a pis­tol was aimed at her stom­ach. Rizzio was mur­dered be­fore the eyes of the preg­nant queen, the men stab­bing him more than 50 times.

Later that year, Mary gave birth to a longed­for son, James, the heir to both the English and Scot­tish thrones. The line se­cured, it seemed that her trou­ble­some hus­band’s use­ful­ness was en­tirely at an end.

Crit­ics of the queen claim it was now that an adul­ter­ous re­la­tion­ship be­tween Mary and James Hep­burn, Earl of Both­well, be­gan, with ac­cu­sa­tions that the pair planned her hus­band’s mur­der, claims bol­stered by let­ters al­legedly sent be­tween the lovers, though let­ters now proved to be fake.

On Fe­bru­ary 10, 1567, when their son, James, was one year old, Darn­ley’s house just out­side of Ed­in­burgh was blown up and Darn­ley stran­gled while try­ing to es­cape. In fact, history would sug­gest that Mary her­self was not in­volved in the plot that killed her hus­band, but her lack of ur­gency in sub­se­quently hunt­ing down his killers was enough for her crit­ics. What hap­pened next re­mains open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

Mary mar­ried the chief sus­pect in her hus­band’s death, Both­well, three months after Darn­ley died, but ac­counts of the events lead­ing up to that mar­riage dif­fer.

In April, on her way to Ed­in­burgh, the queen was met by Both­well, ac­com­pa­nied by a force of 800 men. He de­clared that there was trou­ble in the city and that he was tak­ing the queen un­der his pro­tec­tion.

As a woman, what else could she do, writes Kate Wil­liams, whose book Ri­val Queens: The Be­trayal of Mary Queen of Scots, ar­gues that Mary’s gen­der was the defin­ing fac­tor of the events of her life.

Ac­counts de­scribe how once at his res­i­dence, Both­well, who could be de­scribed as hav­ing ab­ducted the queen, “rav­ished her and laid with her against her will”. Raped her, in other words.

Mary now be­came the most fa­mous, if most ter­mi­nally un­di­ag­nosed, case of vic­tim blam­ing. It was widely thought that she did not protest at Both­well’s un­looked-for at­ten­tion, and that in fact, given her sex­ual pro­cliv­i­ties, she most likely wel­comed it. Ask­ing for it, to use mod­ern-day par­lance.

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