I am a fan of historical dramas, and so it will not surprise you to learn that I recently saw the movie, “Mary, Queen of Scots” – on Valentine’s Day. I can highly recommend it. Spoiler: for those of you who have yet to see it, this review may give away some of the plot.
The Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, whose high cheekbones, blue eyes and pellucid complexion are unforgettable, is memorable in the title role. And the Australian ex-Neighbours actress, Margot Robbie, puts in a stellar performance as Elizabeth I.
Although I recall reading Antonia Fraser’s biography of Mary as a child, I had forgotten some of the grim highlights of her return to Scotland (of which more later). The film also bypasses the extraordinary historical facts of her family background, and her relationship with France. That merits a TV mini-series, along the lines of the hugely successful “Tudors”.
Mary had become Queen aged one week old! after her father James V of Scotland succumbed to illness. Her French mother Marie of Guise then became ruler. At the time Scotland was at war with England’s Henry VIII, who then proposed that Mary marry his son by Jane Seymour, Edward. This initiative was supported by the Protestant Scottish Lord Arran, who signed a Treaty of Greenwich to that effect.
However, the Treaty did not pass muster with other Scottish nobles, who rejected it while busily manoeuvring for power amongst themselves. The Earl of Lennox had an eye on marriage to Marie, whilst promoting a pro-French stance. Arran then dived back into the Catholic Church, and proposed that Mary marry his son, instead of Edward. Mary was crowned Queen-Regnant, aged nine months.
Henry VIII was furious. He teamed up with the Earl of Lennox, who swore allegiance to him, and another Protestant, Earl Angus. Lennox married Angus’ daughter, and their offspring included Henry, Lord Darnley. Bear with me: Darnley features in the film as a subsequent spouse of Mary.
Henry VIII kept up attacks on Scotland, including the burning of Edinburgh, and the infant Mary was a constant target for kidnap to England by hostile English forces.
Then things changed. Henry VIII kicked the bucket in 1547 as did Francois I, King of France. Elizabeth was third in line to succeed to the throne.
In 1548, the Scots Parliament had decided to prefer France as an ally over England. They agreed a Treaty, whereby Mary would move to France and marry Francois jr, in return for which France would agree to defend Scotland against the English. So Mary was sent to France where she was reared in the French court from the age of 5.
Meanwhile, Edward, Henry’s son, became King of England aged nine, and died six years later in 1553. Henry VIII’s daughter, also named Mary, then succeeded him and aggressively sought to reverse the English Reformation.
In 1558, Mary (Scots Mary, that is) aged 15 years and four months became the wife of the French Dauphin, who was then aged 14. In a linked Treaty, the Dauphin was deemed King of Scots, with Mary’s mother Marie the de facto governor of Scotland.
The headline points of this and some underlying secret agreements were as follows:
- When the Dauphin became King of France, he would rule Scotland as well;
- If Mary were widowed, she could stay in France as dowager-queen or return to Scotland with a substantial dower;
- If Mary died without issue, France would rule Scotland.
And in England, Henry VIII’s daughter Mary also died, and Elizabeth became Queen – a reign that was to last 45 years.
But what viewers of the film would not have known is that in November 1558:
“Henri II King of France had immediately arranged for Mary to be proclaimed as Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland – naturally overlooking the English claim to the throne of France. Mary and her husband quartered the arms of England with those of France and Scotland and they were frequently displayed in court ceremonial, as well as being engraved on their household plate.
This action of Henri II’s had a most damaging effect on the rest of Mary’s life. Aged only 16, she probably had little say in the matter, but it made the English government, which had immediately accepted and proclaimed Elizabeth as Queen, deeply suspicious of Mary. As a French influenced Catholic, Elizabeth’s new Protestant government was certain that Mary had her eyes on the English throne – a view from which it never wavered.” [emphasis added]
The King of France, Henry II, then died in a joust in 1559. The Dauphin was sickly, and Mary was widowed in France at the age of 18. Her half-brother – the Earl of Moray – had been ruling Scotland as regent, after her mother died.
A red shift
The film begins with her execution at the age of 45, when she famously went to the executioner’s block clad in a red shift. It then segues back to her arrival in Scotland as a widow, stumbling through sea waters onto a beach, to the surprise of bedraggled cockle-pickers. She speaks English with a Scottish accent, impeccable French, and has a roving eye.
Quite why Mary took the decision to return to a bleak and windswept Scotland, when she had offers of marriage from the crème de la crème of European society, is something of a mystery. It appears to be a generally accepted view among historians that she was wholly unprepared for the instability of Scottish politics at the time.
As a practising Catholic, she would have been viewed as “radioactive” by Protestant Scottish nobles and clerics, and as a very real threat by Elizabeth and her counsellors.
Another problem was that Mary viewed herself as superior to the English queen. This would hardly have endeared her to Elizabeth, whose own ascent to the English throne had been fraught.
The film depicts Mary as a somewhat naïve and sexually alluring woman, whose ability to control the warring lords in Scotland proves to be limited. Her court is portrayed as hedonistic and, predictably, attracts criticism from the firebrand cleric John Knox (memorably played by David Tennant in a shaggy beard). She is exposed to crass allegations of adultery because of her musician David Rizzio, who is portrayed as effeminate.
After she agreed to marry Darnley, who turns out to be gay, he sleeps with Rizzio on their wedding night. In a shocking scene, Rizzio is later butchered in front of Mary, when she is pregnant. Darnley is murdered after his house is bombed. And then Bothwell, another Scots lord, grabs her. By then, you get the distinct impression that Mary is a powerless pawn of powerful men. What a contrast with Elizabeth, a monarch with real power.
By the time Mary encounters Elizabeth, in a fictional scene, you feel her odds are running out. In this imaginary encounter (for the two queens never met), Mary is childishly aggressive, asserting the primacy of the Stewarts, whilst Elizabeth – now disfigured by smallpox – is rigidly on her dignity, and evidently unimpressed by Mary.
To cut a long story short, Mary bolted to England where Elizabeth held her in captivity for 18 years. Eventually – in a scandal that the film does not cover, concerning certain letters allegedly showing a Catholic plot (the so-called “casket letters”) – Mary is executed for treason. So we jump from her abrupt encounter with Elizabeth to her execution again, without any explanation of what gave rise to such a drastic decision.
The film is very good indeed, but perhaps a taster for a more in-depth consideration of those turbulent times.