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The Tumultuous Life of Mary, Queen of Scots

Take a detailed look at the life of a ruler who inherited the throne when she was just six days old.

queens of scots excerpt
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  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

At just nine months, Mary Stuart was crowned Queen of Scotland; and by the time she was 16, she was also Queen of France. 

She watched her first husband, King Francis II, die from an undetermined disease at the age of 16, and then married her first cousin, Lord Darnley, with whom she had her only son—James VI. Her marriage to Darnley was an unhappy one—and he was murdered in 1567. James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, is believed to be responsible for Darnley's death, but Mary ended up taking him as her third husband, which forced her to abdicate the thrown. 

Her life was filled with victory and betrayal, triumph and defeat—it was anything but static. She's perhaps one of the most debated figures in history. Was she as manipulative as some claim? Did she betray her husband in the pursuit of power? These questions and more are answered in John Guy’s Queen of Scots. He examines her life through a variety of lenses—delving into specific events and decisions that may have had a hand in her unraveling. 

Read on for an excerpt from Queen of Scots, and then download the book.




Queen of Scots

By John Guy

Mary’s wedding was spectacular. The service took place on Sunday, April 24, 1558, at the cathedral of Notre-Dame, the spiritual heart of Paris. The cathedral stood at one end of the Cité, the slender island in the middle of the Seine. The excited citizens packed into the Place du Parvis, the square in front of the building, or leaned out of the windows of neighboring houses, determined to catch a glimpse of the ceremony, largely held outside. A temporary gallery or covered walkway, twelve feet high, connected the starting point of the grand procession, the nearby palace of the Archbishop of Paris, to Notre-Dame itself. The gallery, in the shape of an arch, was decorated in the antique classical style and led to an open pavilion on a stage across the west front of the cathedral, surmounted by a canopy of azure silk embossed with gold fleurs-de-lis. It continued into the church along the nave to the chancel, ending in the royal closet where the bride and bridegroom were to hear Mass. The sides of the walkway were open so everyone could watch the procession as it passed by. This was doubtless Henry II’s idea, with his grasp of the way glorifying spectacle could consolidate power.

The nobles and foreign ambassadors were seated outside on the stage, close to where the bride and groom were to be married. At ten o’clock, the Swiss halberdiers led the procession, marching in their smart uniforms while showing off their weapons to the sound of tambourins and fifes. They entertained the crowd for half an hour, until the bride’s uncle and the head of the Guise family, Francis Duke of Guise, appeared on the stage.

He struck an imposing figure: tall and handsome like the rest of his family, his skin was tanned by sun and war. He strode forward purposefully with his head carried high, his fair golden hair cut short beneath a black velvet cap festooned with a plume of white feathers, and his beard and mustache neatly trimmed. Officially the master of ceremonies, he had been temporarily promoted, if only for this special day, to the post of Grand Master of the King’s Household, the highest court office and a position usually held by his absent rival Montmorency, still a captive in Brussels.

At a signal from the duke, troupes of musicians emerged, playing trumpets, bugles, oboes, flutes, viols, violins and more. Clad in lavish red and yellow costumes, they astonished the crowd by their virtuosity. Then came a hundred gentlemen of the king’s household in their finery, then the princes of the blood, then the mitered abbots and bishops bearing their croziers. Next were the senior Church dignitaries: the archbishops; the cardinals, including Mary’s uncle Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine; and the papal legate, Cardinal Trivulzio.

In pride of place were the royal party. The bridegroom was flanked by his younger brothers Charles and Henry, and by Anthony of Bourbon, Duke of Vendome and titular king of Navarre, who had married one of Henry II’s cousins. Mary walked between Henry II and her own cousin, Charles Duke of Lorraine, head of the branch of the Guise family whose lands lay in Lorraine and Bar on the eastern border of France. Catherine de Medici brought up the rear, escorted by Anthony’s brother, Louis Prince of Conde, and attended by a dozen or so princesses, duchesses, ladies and maids of honor.

mary queen of scots
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  • Francis and Mary.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The crowds had eyes only for Mary. They virtually ignored Francis, whose short, weedy build must have presented a strange contrast to her height and womanly beauty. They craned their necks to catch sight of her, cheering and waving their hats in the air. She looked radiant in her shimmering white dress, itself a daring and unconventional choice because white was the traditional color of mourning for royalty in France. Mary, however, was not going to be bound by convention on her wedding day. She meant to make a dramatic gesture. She knew that white suited her delicate skin and auburn hair, and insisted on it. Her dress was “sumptuously and richly made,” lustrous with diamonds and jeweled embroidery, its long, sweeping train carried by two maids of honor. From her neck hung a magnificent jeweled pendant, the one she called “Great Harry,” a gift from her father-in-law and engraved with his initials, which she valued so much that she later placed it with the Scottish crown jewels. Her hair hung down loose—another bold choice—and on her head she wore a gold crown studded with diamonds, pearls, rubies, sapphires and emeralds. A huge gemstone at its center flashed in the sunlight and caught everyone’s gaze: the rumor went around that it cost half a million crowns.

We have a good idea what Mary was thinking as she walked in the procession toward the stage. Early that morning, she had written to her mother to say she was so excited, “all I can tell you is that I account myself one of the happiest women in the world."

The Archbishop of Paris greeted the royal family as they reached the cathedral’s great doors. Henry II drew a ring from his finger and gave it to the Cardinal-Archbishop of Rouen, who performed the marriage there and then on the stage. After a short sermon from the Archbishop of Paris, it was time for the bride and bridegroom to withdraw to the royal closet for the nuptial Mass. Before going inside, the Duke of Guise, eager to win popularity and seeing the crowd’s view was obstructed, with a gesture of his hand ordered the heralds to shunt the guests off the stage and into the overflow seating in the church. The spectators roared their approval, the duke acknowledging their cheers.

No ordinary Parisian was likely to forget the day. As the royal family turned to enter the church, heralds cried out three times “Largesse” and began throwing gold and silver coins of all types into the crowd. Money showered down like confetti, causing something of a riot. People jumped or dived for the coins, pushing and elbowing their neighbors to grab a share of the spoils. Several people were knocked over, receiving cuts and bruises. Others fainted in the crush, while those nearest the stage were jostled or had their clothes torn. The melee was so intense, there was a risk of a serious accident: those within earshot of the stage begged the heralds to stop before someone was killed.

The royal family withdrew to the closet, where the bride and bridegroom knelt on cushions of cloth of gold to receive the sacrament. During the offertory, heralds once again threw money, this time inside the church from one side of the nave to the other. After the Mass, the royal party reappeared, but before retracing their steps to the archbishop’s palace, Henry II ordered the bride and bridegroom to make another circuit of the stage to please the crowd. Another roar of approval went up, louder than before and audible a mile away.

The procession returned to the archbishop’s palace, where a private banquet was prepared. During the meal, Mary found her solid-gold crown had become too heavy to wear. She signaled to Henry II, who ordered one of his gentilshommes to hold it over her head. A magnificent ball followed at which she danced without her crown, letting her hair flow freely. She took to the floor with her father-in-law, reveling in everyone’s delight and admiration.

At five o’clock, there was a new procession to the Palais, the official residence of the Parlement of Paris, where the state banquet was to be held. Henry II and the dauphin rode on horseback, and Mary and Catherine de Medici traveled in a golden litter. As the Palais was only at the other end of the Cité, a few hundred yards away, the procession took an indirect route. It crossed the main Pont Notre-Dame into the business and residential districts of Paris and returned by the Pont au Change, a small wooden bridge lined with goldsmiths’ shops and moneychangers’ stalls. As the master of ceremonies, the Duke of Guise had planned this route to maximize the numbers able to catch a glimpse of his ravishing niece.

The state banquet was designed to impress foreign ambassadors and the magistrates of the Parlement and the Hôtel de Ville. It was followed by masques, revels, dancing and entertainments on a breathtaking scale. The banquet sprawled across several different halls, and as no fête was complete without exotic floats or clockwork devices, six mechanical ships had been constructed. They were decked with cloth of gold and crimson velvet, with silver masts and sails of silver gauze that billowed in an artificial wind created by hidden bellows. The ships rocked from side to side and moved backward and forward. Painted canvas had been laid on the floor of the great hall to imitate waves, which undulated gently to complete the effect. On each deck were two seats of state, one empty, the other occupied by the ship’s captain, who was in each case played by a male member of the royal family or a prince of the blood.

The ships made several circuits of the hall until each in turn stopped by the lady of the captain’s choice; she was then lifted into the vacant seat of state. Henry II chose Mary, the dauphin Catherine de Medici, and the Prince of Condé took Anne d’Este, Duchess of Guise. The festivities lasted all night and continued the next day at the Louvre, culminating in a spectacular three-day tournament at the Tournelles, the most important royal palace in Paris and the one Henry II used most often as a family home.

Mary was exultant. She had made what seemed to everyone to be the ideal dynastic marriage, and the mise en scène was choreographed to reflect this. As the clockwork ships circumnavigated the hall, a narrator explained how the scene depicted Jason, the Greek hero who led the Argonauts in the quest for the Golden Fleece. Henry II, he announced, was Jason. By capturing the Golden Fleece, he would conquer an empire and create a universal monarchy. His son Francis was already dauphin of France; the wedding made him king consort of Scotland and therefore a king-dauphin. But that was only the beginning. The king-dauphin and queen-dauphine would unite the crowns of France, Scotland and England, and this dynastic theme of triple monarchy was the leitmotif of the poems and anthems specially composed for the occasion.

Ronsard, the Pléiade’s inspiration and Mary’s poetry tutor, began with an epic poem in honor of the Guises, eulogizing the Cardinal of Lorraine as a master strategist and explaining how the dauphin, by choosing the most perfect queen alive, had subordinated Scotland and England to France. Mary was the bearer of a magnificent dowry: she was the heir to two kingdoms. By her marriage she had helped to shape a dynasty that would dominate not only the British Isles, but eventually the whole of Europe.

Michel de l’Hopital, the president of the Chambre des Comptes, or treasury, and an amateur poet, then boasted of a time when the “gallant heirs” of Henry II would each take their place among the crowned heads of Europe—in France, northern Italy and the British Isles. “So shall one house,” he foretold, “the world’s vast empire share.” Only through Mary’s marriage could the Valois monarchy subjugate England “without war and murder.” Or, to use the metaphor of the pageant, she herself was the Golden Fleece.

Lastly, Joachim du Bellay, Ronsard’s chief collaborator in the Pléiade, rhapsodized in an ode to Mary: “Through you, France and England will change the ancient war into a lengthy peace that will be handed down from father to son.”

The core assumption of these celebrations was the idea that the British Isles were part of an emerging French empire. Scotland and England were to be the provinces that France had subjugated by the dauphin’s union with Mary. This notion was more tangibly expressed in July 1558, when Henry II instructed the Parlement of Paris to register an edict granting French citizenship to all Scots on account of Mary’s marriage. It was a contentious demand. To smooth its passage the royal lawyers stressed that Henry intended to safeguard French sovereignty throughout all his provinces and dominions: the purpose of the new edict was to allow him to exercise an imperial monarchy over Scotland modeled on the example of the Roman empire.

Within two years, Henry II’s imperial vision would damage the Franco-British project as irreparably as Henry VIII’s Rough Wooings had the Anglo-British one. In Scotland, nothing was more important than the idea of national independence. When Henry II had first announced the date of Mary’s marriage, the Scottish Parliament sent a delegation of eight commissioners to Paris to discuss terms. The Scots still approved of the dynastic alliance, which they saw as a guarantee of stability and security against England, but asked that their laws and liberties” be confirmed, to comply with the treaty of Haddington.

Henry referred them to Mary. Now that she had been declared of age, the obligation was hers. She turned for advice to her mother, who in her absence appointed Mary’s grandmother Antoinette of Bourbon to represent her. And Antoinette turned to her sons, in particular the Cardinal of Lorraine, even though they had no experience of Scotland and its political and cultural traditions.

Two mutually contradictory sets of undertakings were given. First, Mary promised to observe and keep faithfully “the freedoms, liberties and privileges of this realm and laws of the same, and in the same manner as has been kept and observed in all kings’ times of Scotland before.” It was an unequivocal declaration of national independence, signed and sealed with her own hand and binding on her successors. A copy was taken back to Edinburgh, where it was kept with the registers of Parliament.

That was nine days before the marriage. But at Fontainebleau on April 4, eleven days earlier, Mary had signed three secret documents to a quite different effect. The first was a conveyance or deed of gift, made, as she noted in its opening clause, “in consideration of the singular and perfect affection that the kings of France had always had to the protection and maintenance of the kingdom of Scotland against the English.” In the event of her death without an heir, the king of France and his successors would inherit Scotland, also succeeding to all her rights and title to the throne of England.

Next, Mary acknowledged that if she died without heirs, the king of France would have full rights to all the revenues of Scotland until he was repaid one million pieces of gold, this sum being a necessary reimbursement of his investment in the country’s defense and in Mary’s education. The sheer size of this debt was yet another guarantee that Scotland would remain a French province for a very long time.

The final document was a letter of renunciation or “protestation” signed jointly by Mary and Francis, in effect a combined oath and prenuptial agreement, whereby she affirmed as Queen of Scots and he confirmed as her fiance that the dispositions and gifts she had secretly made were valid and effective in law, and would remain so irrespective of her marriage and of any other assurances she had formerly given or might give in the future. The document also nullified any future contract or agreement made by the Scottish Parliament on the strength of the previous contract that she herself made with the commissioners.

It is impossible to believe that in asking her to sign these documents, the Guises acted out of ignorance or naivete. They knew what they were doing; but did Mary?

The secret documents were extremely clever. They were written in florid and high-flown language to create the illusion that Scotland’s national interests were indeed protected—but by Henry II and the Valois dynasty. Mary was only fifteen; she was not a constitutional lawyer. Her identity was shaped in France and bound up intimately with Henry II and the Valois dynasty. No one had told her that the secret documents, and especially the third, were illegal by Scots law. Again Mary was inclined to be too trusting. She had already signed thirty-five blank sheets of paper for her mother’s convenience. She trusted her other Guise relations in the same way, and might well have been prepared to sign documents presented to her without studying them properly.

Perhaps she should have been more careful, but then, she did not expect her uncles to act illegally. Her adolescence suggests she was uneven in her precocity. She was both older than her years and no more than her years. Diane de Poitiers noticed that she spoke to the Scottish commissioners "not as an inexperienced child, but as a woman of age and knowledge."

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Featured still from "Mary Queen of Scots" via Focus Features