She lost her heart, then her head
Gareth Russell enjoys a sympathetic biography of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her kinswoman Elizabeth I
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’