She lost her heart, then her head

Gareth Rus­sell en­joys a sym­pa­thetic bi­og­ra­phy of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her kinswoman El­iz­a­beth I

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - BOOKS -


384pp, Hutchin­son, £25, ebook £9.99

n life, Mary, Queen of Scots was nick­named “the daugh­ter of de­bate” by her re­luc­tantly be­daz­zled kinswoman, El­iz­a­beth I. In death, she has re­tained her abil­ity to di­vide. Most mod­ern bi­ogra­phies of Scot­land’s only 16th-cen­tury queen reg­nant have been sym­pa­thetic, from An­to­nia Fraser’s best­seller, more or less con­tin­u­ously in print since its pub­li­ca­tion in 1969, to John Guy’s My Heart Is My Own, in­spi­ra­tion for the forth­com­ing biopic star­ring Saoirse Ro­nan as Mary, Mar­got Rob­bie as El­iz­a­beth, and David Ten­nant as Mary’s bête noire, John Knox, founder of Pres­by­te­ri­an­ism.

But ad­mir­ing pity has not been the only re­sponse. The late Dr Jenny Wormald’s 1988 study of how Mary lost her throne in a 1567 coup dressed up as an ab­di­ca­tion, and then her head in 1587, after spend­ing two decades un­der de facto house ar­rest in Eng­land, was ini­tially sub­ti­tled “A Study in Fail­ure”.

Kate Wil­liams’s Ri­val

Queens falls res­o­lutely into the sym­pa­thetic camp, analysing the life of Mary, de­scribed here as “a se­ries of fail­ures, and bloody breath­tak­ing be­tray­als”, in the con­text of her tor­tured and tor­tu­ous re­la­tion­ship with El­iz­a­beth I, and wider 16th-cen­tury at­ti­tudes to fe­male monar­chy. With fe­male re­gents in Por­tu­gal, France and the Hab­s­burg em­pire, and then queens reg­nant in Eng­land, Spain and Scot­land, the fears of men be­ing sub­ju­gated to what

John Knox called “the mon­strous reg­i­ment” of fe­male rule were lively and vi­cious. Wil­liams sees these fears as the ori­gins of Mary’s per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal tragedies.

If not quite a Ste­wart Hat­shep­sut, Mary none­the­less emerges from Ri­val Queens as a stronger per­son­al­ity than the old trope of the “queen who lost her head through los­ing her heart”. She seems to have been ev­ery inch a prod­uct of her French up­bring­ing, com­mit­ted to pre­serv­ing royal pres­tige and ab­so­lutism. This left her man­i­festly un­suited to be­come the pup­pet hoped for by the Presbyterian Kirk and the var­i­ous un­scrupu­lous lords who sur­rounded her.

To this litany of prob­lems,

Mary added her se­cond and third hus­bands, Henry, Lord Darn­ley, and the 4th Earl of Both­well, mem­o­rably char­ac­terised by Wil­liams as “the two worst con­sorts in royal his­tory”. Those mar­riages were near-fa­tal wounds upon Mary’s po­lit­i­cal le­git­i­macy and the strong­est ex­am­ples of her ten­dency to trust too eas­ily.

In Wil­liams’ ac­count, Mary is a woman, like Marie-An­toinette, far more sinned against than sin­ning, and the stub­bornly long-lived idea that both were “dev­il­ish women” says more about the en­durance of his­tor­i­cal stereo­types than the re­al­ity of ei­ther per­son­al­ity. While the book’s sym­pa­thies are un­am­bigu­ously on Mary’s side, and sup­ported by a wealth of well-de­ployed ev­i­dence, Wil­liams re­mains fair to those who op­posed her, like Mary’s first mother-in­law, the al­most-bril­liant Queen of France, Cather­ine de Medici.

Wil­liams writes of Cather­ine’s “ra­zor-sharp in­tel­li­gence”, which led her to ex­clude Mary from life at the French court and drive her back to Ed­in­burgh after her hus­band, and Cather­ine’s el­dest son, King Fran­cis II, died sud­denly be­fore his 17th birth­day. “Kind and af­fec­tion­ate”, Fran­cis emerges as a far more nu­anced per­son­al­ity than the cretinous weak­ling he is some­times made out to be.

To none is Wil­liams more fair than El­iz­a­beth I, who could eas­ily be cast as “a Jezebel, a witch and a whore”, as she was by crowds who ri­oted in Scot­land upon hear­ing of the death sen­tence she re­luc­tantly

Her se­cond and third hus­bands were ‘the two worst con­sorts in royal his­tory’

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