If asked to envision a British Renaissance warrior-queen, the majority will conjure up images of Elizabeth I. Quite possibly, she will be clad in armour, atop a white horse, one arm raised as she tells an assembled army that whilst she may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, she has the heart and stomach of a king. This is in image we have been fed for years, via Glenda Jackson’s star turn in Elizabeth R, Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and Helen Mirren in Elizabeth I. Interestingly, each of these productions have compared Elizabeth – who, we are told, ruled with her head – to her tragic cousin Mary Stuart – who, we are told, ruled with her heart.
The problems here are several. For one thing, contemporary sources do not deck Elizabeth in armour and, for another, there are questions as to which recorded version of her speech she delivered. Further, although Elizabeth could not have known it when she addressed her troops at Tilbury (during the crisis of 1588’s Spanish Armada), the naval threat was all but over; a combination of English seamanship and Channel weather had already scattered Philip II’s Spaniards. Elizabeth, though her great favourite, Leicester (then in his last days), had forced her into the guise of warrior-queen, was ideologically opposed to English involvement in continental religious war. Her view of armed conflict – especially against sovereign authorities – was as unpopular amongst the Protestant hawks at her court as it was sensible: war was expensive and reaped few rewards. The English queen’s preferred methods were subtlety, craft, and avoidance of problems.
Yet, historically, subtlety and craft – usually presented by her critics as duplicitous – have been more associated with Mary Queen of Scots. Conversely, those favourable to the deposed Scottish sovereign have too often sought to present her as a hapless victim: a woman in desperate search of a strong man to help her govern a court of uncouth Scottish nobles, and whose failure to find a decent one resulted in her imprisonment and execution at the hands of such equally nasty figures as the scheming Francis Walsingham and Elizabeth’s chief minister, Burghley.
Unfortunately, these competing images of Mary – the serpent queen and the tragic victim – have eclipsed what contemporaries of the queen’s personal rule recognised and commented upon: a female sovereign who sought to play the king rather than the queen. It was, in fact, Mary Queen of Scots who was sixteenth-century Britain’s active and energetic warrior-queen.
From the outset of her personal rule in Scotland, Mary made it clear that she intended to rule not as a queen but as a king – and a king of Scots. Whilst England’s Elizabeth, on acceding as queen regnant, had followed her sister’s lead in maintaining the royal bedchamber as a female space, Mary Stuart followed the pattern of Scottish kings: she saw favoured ambassadors in and allowed high-ranking males access to her bedchamber. Nor was she inclined to abandon this performance of male kingship on her remarriage, to the universally disliked Lord Darnley. Too often, in fiction and nonfiction, the Darnley marriage is viewed as a love match, with the fresh-faced young queen falling hopelessly in lust with the ‘lang lad’. Yet the match was far from a romance, in its beginning or its end.
As Mary’s first cousin, and a young man who had both Tudor and Stuart blood, Darnley was a rival to Mary’s claim to the English throne as well as a potential claimant to the Scottish throne. He was, therefore, a rival. Her whirlwind 1565 marriage to the callow youth, far from being a fairy-tale romance, was a calculated political move: in wedding him (almost before he seems to have realised what was happening), she was able to neutralise and – she hoped – subordinate a dynastic rival whilst retaining the Stuart name for any children they might produce. She would name him King Henry – but she intended for him to wear a paper crown, keep out of state affairs, and do his duty as a royal stud horse.
Nevertheless, problems quickly became apparent. As a rebellion (with Mary’s chief adviser, her half-brother, Moray, prominent within it) threatened to escalate into civil war, the queen was eager to show her mettle. Mary chose to lead her hastily assembled army in person. As the reformist minister (and enemy to the Crown) John Knox reported, ‘The most part waxed weary, yet the queen's courage increased man-like, so much that she was ever at the foremost’. Brandishing a pistol and wearing a steel cap, Mary was keen to fashion herself as a warrior. This was no whim but the satisfaction of a desire she had expressed years previously; during her reduction of the house of Huntly, the English ambassador, Randolph, claimed that she had ‘repented nothing … but that she was not a man, to lie all night in the fields or to walk upon the causeway, with a jack and knapsack, a Glasgow buckler, and a broadsword’.
The rebels, unwilling to meet their sovereign in open battle, were chased about Scotland and eventually fled to the protection of an exasperated Queen Elizabeth.
All might have been well had Darnley accepted the place his wife had assigned him: a dynastic prize, useful for the provision of heirs. With the rebels banished by their militant queen, Scotland appeared to settle down. Yet ‘King Mary’ was not contented by her display of ‘manlike’ fortitude at her army’s head. Already she had begun wearing men’s breeches under her skirts, and her father-in-law, Lennox, noted her ongoing fondness for male attire. This was not simply dress-up, a young woman’s love of masquing – it was the politics of display and performance. Mary was determined that the world should see her as king and queen both. The difficulty was that, in order to provide for the future, she had been obliged to take a king.
That king, however, was far from obliging. The great problem with the Darnley marriage (often problematically blamed on Mary suddenly waking up one morning early in the marriage and realising she had married a fool) was that King Henry, quite naturally for the period, did not expect to be subordinated; he expected to rule. This was anathema to Mary, who by this stage had been governing Scotland well – and in a personal capacity – since her return from France in 1561.Her response to the nominal King Henry’s pretensions was to freeze him out of council meetings and recall the coinage which trumpeted his status. It is sometimes claimed that her actions were due to his unwillingness to engage in state affairs. Yet the opposite is true. Darnley, whose ambition outweighed both his experience and his ability, was too willing to assume the reins of power. Evidence here can be found in the memoirs of Lord Herries, who notes that the famous iron stamp the queen had made of Darnley’s signature appeared before the young king embarked on a lifestyle of hedonistic leisure, not as a result of it. Herries had no reason to sympathise with Darnley, and so his recollections on this point are probably trustworthy. In them, he reveals the source of Mary’s dislike of her husband:
The king had done some things and signed papers without the knowledge of the queen … she thought although she had made her husband a partner in the government, she had not given the power absolutely in his hands … [her banished lords] knew [her] spirit would not quit [relinquish] any of her authority, so they addressed themselves to the king … And then, lest the king should be persuaded to pass gifts or any such thing privately, by himself, she appointed all things in that kind should be sealed with a seal, which she gave her secretary David Riccio … with express orders not to put the seal to any paper unless it be first signed with her own hand.
The marriage – between two people vying for the role of king – was doomed. Darnley’s sulking despondence made him easy prey for those at the Scottish court unhappy with the power wielded by the foreigner Riccio. In March 1566, disgruntled plotters were able to recruit him in a murderous scheme which saw the unfortunate secretary dragged from the pregnant Mary’s supper chamber and stabbed to death.
The consequences of this horrific chapter are well known. Mary was able to convince Darnley of the duplicity of his new friends, and together the pair escaped, regained control despite what was rapidly becoming a palace coup, and the queen was able to be safely delivered of their son, the future James VI and I, in June 1566. Thereafter followed the murky assassination of Darnley at Kirk o’ Field in February 1567: an act which followed suspiciously closely on the baptism of James as a Roman Catholic, and which conveniently allowed Mary to be scapegoated as a murderess working in tandem with the Earl of Bothwell.
Mary’s great error – the error which can be identified as the beginning of the end of her reign in Scotland – can be reasonably identified as her marriage to Bothwell. The reasons for it defy explanation, although they have been variously portrayed as a genuine love affair, a kidnapping, and, as Mary herself claimed, a ‘ravishment’ following hard on the heels of her desire – at last – for a man to govern the ungovernable. This claim, on the queen’s part, rings false: Mary, as we have seen, was dead against abdicating power to a man. It is possible, of course, that she was so horrified by Darnley’s murder – she who always had and always would evince a belief in the sacred nature of monarchy, powerless or otherwise – that she truly did believe Bothwell’s promises of being able to bring order to a realm which had shown itself to hold no such belief. More likely, however, is that Bothwell took advantage ofatemporary collapse in her mental state and insinuated himself into power – and her bed – with promises of armed, capable support
.The sources, certainly, agree that Mary’s behaviour around the time of the Bothwell marriage – those wild and confused days following Darnley’s murder – was worthy of note; her celebrated good looks apparently faded and, after the wedding, she called for a knife with which to commit suicide. Yet this, the last of Mary Queen of Scots’ marriages, had done damage far greater than her enemies (those who likely aided Bothwell in killing Darnley) could have hoped. They now had what they considered proof that the queen had been, all along, an adulteress and murderess. A hypocritical righteousness (given many had been up their ears in Darnley’s death) compelled them to rebel. The newlyweds were chased from Edinburgh and, staying at Borthwick Castle, they parted. Mary’s spirit returned. It was reported that she hurled down insults at the besiegers and once again donned male garb, this time disguising herself as a page boy and being lowered from a castle window.
Although they reunited, Bothwell could not provide the support he had promised his wife. Their confrontation with the rebels (still clothed in outraged sensibility) ended in farce; Bothwell rode off on a failed attempt to rally support and Mary was taken prisoner, first at Edinburgh and then at the island fortress of Lochleven. After a traumatic miscarriage and forced abdication, she managed one final great escape, rallied a significant army once again, and clashed with the rebels (now led by Moray) at Langside. When the royal forces were routed, she departed Scotland, anticipating a swift return at the head of an English army provided by her sister-sovereign Elizabeth.
So begins the well-worn twin narratives of Mary the scheming captive and Mary the tragic prisoner. Yet it is notable that, on her arrival in England, Elizabeth’s emissary, Sir Francis Knollys, reported that ‘This lady and princess is a notable woman. She showeth a great desire to be revenged of her enemies. She showeth a readiness to expose herself to all perils in hope of victory for victory’s sake, pain and peril seem pleasant unto her, and in respect of victory, wealth and all things seem to her contemptuous and vile’. Though Mary would never again know freedom, she remained, even in captivity, a captive lion rather than a bound sheep.
Though she is known to history as a victim – whether deserving or undeserving, according to one’s biases – it is worth remembering that Mary had, repeatedly and in various ways, sought to rule Scotland as its king. She had dressed the part, acted the part, and even gone so far as to maintain supreme authority despite having taken on a husband. She attempted to, even if finally she could not succeed in, reigning as a warrior.
Did you know that Mary Queen of Scots’s triumphal entry in Edinburgh featured a march of ‘Moors’? If you enjoy reading about the bloody sixteenth century, you might like my new novel, “Of Judgement Fallen”: a murder mystery set against the backdrop of Henry VIII’s 1523 ‘Black Parliament’, featuring Anthony Blanke, the fictional son of real-life ‘Moorish’ trumpeter John. You can grab it here (or at all good bookshops):
Henry VIII readies England for war with France. The King’s chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, prepares to open Parliament at Blackfriars. The eyes of the country turn towards London. But all is not well in Wolsey’s household. A visiting critic of the Cardinal is found brutally slain whilst awaiting an audience at Richmond Palace. He will not be the last to die.
Anthony Blanke, trumpeter and groom, is once again called upon to unmask a murderer. Joining forces with Sir Thomas More, he is forced to confront the unpopularity of his master’s rule. As the bodies of the Cardinal’s enemies mount up around him, Anthony finds himself under suspicion. Journeying through the opulence of More’s home, the magnificence of Wolsey’s York Place, and the dank dungeons of London’s gaols, he must discover whether the murderer of the Cardinal’s critics is friend or foe.
With time running out before Parliament sits, Anthony must clear his name and catch the killer before the King’s justice falls blindly upon him.