Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Martyred Queen

Today is the 430th anniversary of the judicial murder of Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots, at Fotheringhay, England in 1587. (History, however, as it is occasionally wont to do, gave Mary the last laugh - albeit post-mortem - when her son James VI King of Scots, succeeded Elizabeth on the English throne, and the Stewart dynasty - through their descent from Margaret Tudor and, through her, back to England's Edward IV - replaced the barren Tudor line of England's 16th-century Stalin, Henry VIII.) 

I must have been about 15 when I read my first biography of Mary, Queen of Scots. I especially remember a historical novel about her that particularly mesmerized me in the summer of 1963. I was a nerdy kid who loved history. Each September, when school resumed and we got our new textbooks, I rushed to read through the entire history book as quickly as possible, so eager was I to learn, so in love was I with other times and other places. And few foreign times and places were more exotic than Reformation-era England and Scotland (while simultaneously seeming so pertinent, thanks to the persistence of its religious divisions).

Mary was born at Linlithgow Castle on December 8, 1542, the only surviving child of James V, King of Scots, and his French Queen, Marie de Guise. James's Scottish army had just recently been defeated by the superior forces of James' English uncle, Henry VIII, at the battle of Solway Moss. Ill with fever, the defeated king died six days after his daughter's birth, making Mary Scotland's new Queen. Depressed to hear he had a daughter instead of a son, he is supposed to have said that the Stewart dynasty "came with a lass and will go with a lass." He was wrong, however. His and his daughter's descendants have continued to reign over both Scotland and England since 1603. 

Having a common enemy in England, both France and Scotland had been traditional allies ("the auld alliance"). So at the age of five, Mary was sent by her French mother to the French court of Henry II to be betrothed to his son Francis, whom she married in 1558. A year later, Francis became King of France, but the young king himself died in late 1560, leaving Mary a childless widow. When she returned to Scotland in August 1561, she was not only returning to a kingdom she barely knew but one which had - in her absence - embraced the Protestant Reformation. She was thus a Catholic Queen in a predominantly Protestant country, with all the problems that inevitably produced. (The religious leader of the Scottish Reformation was the infamous John Knox - among other things, the author of The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women a polemic he published in 1558 attacking female monarchs, claiming their rule to be contrary to the Bible.)

Through her grandmother, Margaret Tudor, Mary was the heiress presumptive to the even more desirable English throne, then occupied by Elizabeth I. She was thus - in the eyes of Catholic Europe - already England's rightful Queen. This unresolved tension between the two queens would lead to Mary's eventual execution by Elizabeth. 

Her second marriage - to the Catholic Henry Lord Darnley (also descended from Margaret Tudor) - was intended to bolster her claim to the English crown. It quickly proved to be a disastrously unhappy marriage, but at least it produced a son and heir, the future James VI and I. But Darnley's jealous collusion in the murder of Mary's Italian secretary David Rizzio, followed by Darnley's own suspicious death in the early morning hours of February 10, 1567, and Mary's rapid re-marriage to a Protestant Scottish Lord, James Hepburn , Earl of Bothwell, proved her undoing. She was soon forced to abdicate. A year later, she fled to England, where Elizabeth kept her confined for 19 years until her eventual execution. Had she lived another year and had the Spanish Armada succeeded in toppling Elizabeth, Mary would presumably have become England's Catholic Queen, although by then the association of Catholicism with Spain's imperial ambitions had disastrously weakened Catholicism's once strong position among the people of England.

The religious dimension of the conflict between Mary and Elizabeth enabled my adolescent imagination to think of Mary as a kind of martyr, a title which - barring an official designation by the Holy See - she of course cannot actually claim, except maybe metaphorically. In fact, it was her political threat to Elizabeth's crown that got her killed; but in the 16th century religion and politics were inextricably intertwined, and Mary's Catholicism was what made her so threatening as Elizabeth's heir. 

Some 45 years earlier, in 1541, Henry VIII had executed Lady Margaret Pole, a distantly related, Yorkist-Plantagenet (i.e., pre-Tudor) claimant to the crown, who was also a Catholic (and the mother of a future Cardinal and the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury under Mary Tudor). When her son heard of her death, he announced he was now the son of a martyr. In 1886, Pope Leo XIII apparently agreed and beatified her as an English martyr. But surely the political and the religious were as inextricably intertwined in her case as in Mary's. Margaret may have been more pious, but their "martyrdom" was analogous.

But Mary was also - and remains to this day - a much more enticingly romantic figure than Margaret Pole. England's Elizabeth I was a much more successful queen than Mary mainly because she consistently put the requirements of her public position above her private emotions, whereas Mary's disastrous second and third marriages were disproportionately affairs of the heart. That is what made her such a tragic figure - as even a 15-year old could comprehend. That is also what makes her story so perennially intriguing.

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