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Aff Wi’Her Heid! – Scottish Review of Books
by Harry Reid

Aff Wi’Her Heid!

October 19, 2009 | by Harry Reid

THE LIFE OF MARY, Queen of Scots is generally presented as a tragedy. It could equally be regarded as a comedy, if a somewhat grisly one. Her story is at once a curious succession of mishaps and a series of grotesque misjudgements. It may ultimately be viewed as an extended misadventure. Whether all this gains genuinely tragic status obviously depends on your point of view. There is certainly enough “tragic” material in the story for those of romantic or sentimental disposition to mine indefinitely; but there is also a persistent current of absurdity.

John Knox, displaying a wonderful penchant for retrospective mischief making, described Mary’s arrival in Leith in August 1561 to take up her queenship thus: “The sky itself plainly told what comfort she brought for this country, namely sorrow. pain, darkness and all impiety…in living memory, the skies were never darker than at her arrival….besides the excessive wet, and the foulness of the air, the mist was so thick and so dark that no man could see another beyond the length of two pairs of boots…. God gave us that warning, but alas, most were blind”.

Knox is not noted for his humour but that is comic writing of the highest quality. Mary’s latest biographer, Roderick Graham, chooses to entitle his excellent book An Accidental Tragedy. That is clever; while he may tilt towards the tragic version, the word “accidental” insinuates a certain caution.

Graham is always fair. He is well aware of Mary’s many attractions; tall for her times, she was bewitching and beautiful; she was often if not consistently kind and gracious; she was a superb horsewoman and an enthusiastic dancer. But in matters of the intellect, in politics and religion, she was inept and foolish. While she took herself seriously, she utterly lacked the judgment and guile and sheer diplomatic cunning which would have helped her though the Byzantine complexities of her new domain.

Her eminent adversary John Knox thought she was crafty, but in truth she lacked the ability to deploy the power-broking skills that her French mother, Mary of Guise, and her clever cousin Elizabeth of England – one of the finest monarchs of all time – could summon when needed. And Mary was perhaps a colder woman than the stock notion of her allows. Graham notes that although she enjoyed flirtation she had no interest in sex.

Graham’s style is not just fluent and colourful; it also maintains a mordant detachment which seems to me to be more suited to the depiction of comedy than tragedy. Here is his acerbic account of Mary’s departure, forever, from France, where she had had a short-lived marriage to the boy-king Francis II, a poor, sterile, stunted, dribbling, stuttering creature, before he had died aged just 15. Thus a lovely young woman was forsaking a sophisticated court for an austere land of which she knew little.

“As the royal galley left Calais harbour, a nearby ship sank and all hands drowned, to Mary’s total horror and moans from her retinue that it was the worst of omens. Mary refused to go to her stateroom below, but had a bed made up on the poop deck, where she spent the night watching the shoreline of France recede. Mary, one of the great weepers of history, lay in floods of tears as the country she had loved disappeared, taking with it her youth. She was an 18-year-old virgin, a crowned queen and widow for whom Scotland was a completely foreign country”.

The crossing was beset by a serious mishap. Graham describes the forced landing at Tynemouth of one of the accompanying cargo vessels- unfortunately the ship containing Mary’s furniture and her 200 prized horses, the finest that France could supply. He notes that as the animals carried no passports, the surprised warden of the port promptly impounded them. Mary and her retinue, complete with two French poets, duly arrived in the Firth of Forth during a dreadful rainstorm. One of the queen’s poets, Brantome, fancifully told sailors who were lighting braziers on deck that their work would not be necessary as one glance from the queen’s eyes would light up the whole sea. The same poet observed more prosaically and more realistically the next day that they had landed “in an obscure country”.

The unpropitious journey was compounded by the fact that the landfall was a debacle. Due to a misunderstanding, no-one was waiting in Leith to receive the new queen. Eventually an official welcoming party arrived and managed to muster at least some sense of occasion. Graham sardonically notes that “it goes without saying that Mary wept at the squalor of her reception and Brantome tells us that she felt she had exchanged paradise for Hell, though he was probably speaking for himself”.

Despite the inadequate welcome, the people of Edinburgh managed to show at least some enthusiasm. Although it is quite possible that Mary was not disposed to hear the loud singing of Protestant psalms at this particular point in her life, by the evening a group of musicians and singers had gathered outside the Palace of Holyroodhouse to give her that particular pleasure. Knox described them as an honest company who gave their salutations at the queen’s window. Brantome, needless to say, was less enthusiastic; he wrote of “five or six hundred knaves of the town”, with “wretched fiddles”. The French-man thought the psalms were sung so badly and out of tune that “nothing could be worse”.

Dismal and dreich Scotland may indeed have been obscure compared to the glitter and sophistication of France, but nonetheless the country was in ferment. Knox had himself arrived from exile a couple of years earlier. He had immediately whipped up the fervour which led to the swift accomplishment of the Scottish Reformation. This was one of the later European reformations, and not a particularly bloody one. It was also bound up with a radical and socially responsible vision of a new Scotland. Knox and his colleagues had prepared a blueprint for a church system that would provide for more than just worship and ‘discipline’. They had outlined an almost liberal education system, based on a modern rather than a mediaeval syllabus. Each parish was to appoint a schoolmaster as well as a minister. Tertiary education was to be provided for those who could benefit from it at the universities. This inclusive and high minded project was to be financed mainly be revenues confiscated from the Catholic Church. Further, Knox and his colleagues adumbrated the proper provision of poor relief, and what was in effect a national system of structured unemployment benefit. This was to be an extraordinary, anticipatory and essentially benign social experiment. Indeed the emphasis on universal primary education was about 300 year ahead of its time.

To complicate matters from Mary’s point of view, her cousin Elizabeth, the new Queen of England, had earlier sent both her navy and her army to Scotland to help the Scots drive the French out of their country once and for all, and to secure the Scottish Reformation. This was a generous and bold decision, though it was also based on pragmatic and painstaking calculation. In the personal context it was a very big-hearted gesture, because Elizabeth well knew that the Scottish Reformation was being masterminded by John Knox – the very Knox who had recently penned an outspoken and insulting tract denouncing the rule of women. But then Elizabeth was a world class stateswoman who could take big decisions and transcend self-pity. Mary was not in the same league. It is may be unfair on Mary to press the comparison, and some of Elizabeth’s vast army of admirers have occasionally gone over the top in their praise of their heroine. Indeed a noted Tudor historian, Professor S T Bindoff, suggested about 50 years ago that Elizabeth’s decision to reverse the religious policy of her half sister and predecessor as queen of England, “Bloody Mary” Tudor, and embrace Protestantism, was every bit as brave and heroic as the choice twentieth century Britain made to forgo appeasement and to defy Nazi tyranny.

I yield to few in my admiration for Elizabeth – how Scotland could have done with a monarch of her consummate astuteness and sheer style – but I would not go so far as to compare England’s foes in 1558-9 to Nazi Germany in 1939-41. Anyway, it was Mary’s misfortune (it was hardly a tragedy) that she, inured in the ways of France and having soaked up the atmosphere of the lavish French court, now had arrived as the monarch of a small country which was very much in anti-French mode, and further was just embarking on an experiment in social democracy as well as religious reform. Little Scotland was suddenly contending for very large stakes.

Knox and his colleagues were working on a most ambitious project. If they had had their way, Scotland might have emerged as a modern country well before its time. But they were confounded and baulked not so much by Mary as by the Scots nobility, whose devious machinations and swirling allegiances caused constant political confusion and religious uncertainty. So again Mary was unlucky. These nobles, who might have supported her and sustained her in her exacting new role, were still basically feudal in outlook. Worse, they were for the most part a bunch of self- serving chancers. Indeed some of them were little better than gangsters.

Mary did not wholly understand such matters – that she had arrived at a time of potential social as well as religious revolution – but she did muster sufficient sense and sensitivity to make it clear that the she would not interfere in the nation’s religious affairs, so long as she could practise her Catholicism privately. Indeed her personal rule was quite tactful and circumspect for a time (despite the insolent and officious hectoring of Knox) before she made a heinous and inexplicable mistake. She fell in love with a man whom Graham, with commendable restraint, describes as a vicious syphilitic bisexual who treated the Scottish nobility with arrogant disdain and Mary with cruel neglect. He was tall and good looking, in a narcissistic, showy kind of way. He was a fine dancer. Apart from these trifles there was hardly anything to be said in his favour, but Mary fell for him nonetheless. This man, Henry Darnley, realised that if he married Mary he would, as Graham puts it, “have to breed”, no matter how distasteful he found that part of his marriage.

Mary’s marriage to Darnley was taken against the wishes of her more sensible aristocratic advisers. In England Queen Elizabeth told her the marriage would be “perilous to the sincere amity” between the two queens. One person who advised her to go ahead was David Rizzio, an Italian musician and “secretary” in her coterie, and a man who was gaining more and more influence over her. Graham is scathing about Mary’s stubborn refusal to heed well meant advice. “Her intransigence was simply the result of her obstinate refusal to accept the advice of her council or to read public opinion. Once she was told that the Darnley marriage was inadvisable she set her mind firmly and childishly to overrule everyone”. The consequence was a divided Scotland. Her nobility had to choose for or against Darnley – and thus for or against the queen. Graham presents a devastating portrait of “a 22-year-old girl experiencing her first love affair, knowing all the while that she was infatuated with a totally unsuitable man who would alienate her friends and cause her serious damage”.

Mary was playing with fire. Darnley was heir to the Earl of Lennox; the bitter rival of the mega-powerful Duke of Hamilton. The senior nobility were now potentially even more split than usual. The nascent national Kirk was expressing unease, and Darnley was designated as the future king without the consent of the Scottish Parliament. For the supposed love of a pitiful, petulant poltroon, Mary was wrecking the always fragile stability of her country. The ill-fated wedding took place at Holyroodhouse. Later Darnley attended a service at St Giles, where Knox preached what Graham calls “a torrent of invective”. Darnley stormed out in fury. Scot-land was close to civil war. There was some sparring and manoeuvring, but serious conflict was avoided.

But faction was back in a big way and there were rumours that Mary was going to reinstate Catholicism as the country’s official religion. Mary and Darnley had together sent an emissary to Philip II of Spain asking for help in restoring Catholicism and in supplanting Queen Elizabeth in England. Here was a reckless mixture of treason, treachery, duplicity and sheer stupidity.

Darnley was in truth incapable of being politically dangerous, preferring to spend his time in the male brothels of Edinburgh rather than getting involved in serious intrigue, which did involve at least some brainpower. Meanwhile Mary was told of the Catholic League being formed by France, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. Rizzio, ever more influential, endorsed the league. Mary agreed to give her support. She was now in effect plotting against her own country.

Rizzio, a feline dandy who had scant political judgment, was however a quick and agreeable companion. Mary enjoyed playing cards with him. So Darnley, despite his growing contempt for his now pregnant wife, became jealous of the Italian, who in turn despised him. A murder plot was hatched. Darnley and a gang of aristocratic hooligans determined to kill Rizzio. He was duly murdered in Holyroodhouse by a drunken, highborn rabble. The Italian clutched at the heavily pregnant Mary’s skirts as he was stabbed again and again, screaming desperately for her protection, which of course the queen was unable to provide. He was knifed fifty times. The corpse was then flung downstairs. Darnley justified the murder by telling Mary that “Davie” had “fallen into familiarity” with her. In the sixteenth century there were many dignified and noble deaths. Many died as martyrs for their faith. This death was not one of them. It was a squalid, wretched murder that besmirches Scotland to this day. It was odious and horrific, but it was not tragic.

Shortly before her child was born, Mary confided to the French ambassador that she wanted to return to France, possibly forever. Scotland would have been well rid of her. As Graham writes, “the lack of firm government and the continual forming and reforming of alliances among the nobility were becoming intolerable”. But she stayed. Her child, a boy. was born. Mary told Darnley that he had fathered the prince who in due course would unite two kingdoms. In this she was correct but it is a salutary thought that the king who was to unite the crowns of Scotland and Eng-land was the child of such appalling parents.

Darnley, smarting at his continued and wholly justifiable exclusion from power in Scotland, now belatedly attempted political intrigue. He corresponded with Philip of Spain and contacted dissident Catholic groups in England. Mary’s heir James was meanwhile sent to Stirling Castle for safe keeping. This was one of the few sensible decisions Mary ever made. Darnley was now out of control, and not afraid to snub the queen in public.

Mary’s second marriage had been disastrous. Now the man who was to be husband number three loomed more and more in her life. If Darnley was weak and vain, this man, James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, was strong and reckless. Unlike Darnley, his sexual appetites were aggressively heterosexual: he once had his way with a blacksmith’s daughter in Haddington Church. Bothwell was a typical Borders warlord; brutish, bloodthirsty and opportunistic. He acted first and thought later, if at all. He was every bit as contemptible as Darnley, if less of a wimp.

In December Mary’s son James was baptised at Stirling Castle. It was a Catholic ceremony and so Bothwell, a Protestant, did not attend, but he organised the state banquet that followed. Darnley, suffering from syphilis, was absent.

Mary’s reign was slipping into anarchy. Mayhem and confusion attended her every move. Any hopes of stability were dashed. The vision of Knox and his colleagues for a new, socially responsible and godly society were very distant. Mary pardoned those who had killed Rizzio. The next person who had to be killed in this black farce was, obviously enough, Darnley. He was duly blown up in his house at Kirk o’ Field (where the old quad of Edinburgh University currently stands).

When the wreckage and Darnley’s corpse were examined, it seemed that his neck had been wrung. It was pretty clear that Bothwell had organised this murder. Certainly that was what all Scotland thought, although Bothwell was acquitted at a rigged court.

Mary’s marriage to the sociopath Bothwell (his wooing of her was notably rough and brutish) was, for most, the last straw. Protestants and Catholics alike were scandalised. Most of the Scottish nobility mobilised against their queen and her shameful spouse. Mary and Bothwell were confronted by an armed coalition of nobles at Carberry Hill, south east of Edinburgh. Mary surrendered and negotiated a safe conduct for Bothwell – he was to die, insane, in a Danish prison. She underwent the humiliation of an enforced abdication. Her baby son was crowned. Her half-brother, the Protestant Earl of Moray, became regent.

She was imprisoned in a castle on the island in the middle of Loch Leven in Fife. She escaped, only for her supporters to be defeated once again, this time at Langside, Glasgow. She was now faced with three choices. Graham presents them lucidly. She could rally her still considerable support in Scotland, and fight on. She could escape to France, where she was Queen Dowager. In France she could have lived a life of luxury and ease; she might even have married for a fourth time and perhaps, at last, married well. Or she could flee to England and place herself at the disposal of her cousin, now established as a distinguished and very able monarch.

But in firmly Protestant England Mary, who had a legitimate claim to the English throne, would serve as a dangerous focus for dissident Catholic interests. Her very presence in England was bound to revive Catholic expectations and to attract conspirators, internally as well as externally. As Graham puts it: “Mary would have to be watched and her irresponsible nature would make embracing mischief her first preference”. Queen Elizabeth was only too well aware of this. But she was a decent woman as well as a formidable monarch, and she could hardly turn away her relative, another anointed queen. So Mary chose England. Graham concludes “As when she chose to marry Darnley, Mary made the worst possible choice and having made it she petulantly closed the door to all contrary advice”.

It was indeed the worst of the three choices. But I disagree with Graham’s view that the right course of action was for her to fight on in Scotland. Scotland had had more than enough of her. Surely the best choice would have been to return to France where she might yet have found happiness and fulfilment. In her decision not to return to France there was possibly, for the only time in her turbulent personal history, an element of authentic tragedy.

Instead, she inflicted herself on England, which was well on the way to becoming one of the most distinguished and sophisticated countries in Europe. At the same time it was in constant peril, facing many powerful Catholic enemies, not least Spain and France. Mary’s arrival was guaranteed to make the country significantly less secure, significantly less stable. As usual, Mary was bad news. One of life’s greatest irritants is the unwanted guest, and Mary was perhaps the supreme unwanted guest of all time.

And so the last years – 19 of them – were spent in a kind of awkward regal captivity at a succession of dreary castles. Mary could

not resist the temptation to plot and intrigue. Elizabeth knew that she had to execute her, for her own personal safety as well as the safety of England, but she procrastinated and agonised, agonised and procrastinated. So Mary lived on, and on. This was a long and weary coda to a wasted life, full of crass misjudgements and missed opportunities. At long last Elizabeth signed the execution warrant. Mary, no longer beautiful but by now fat, round shouldered and double chinned, went to the scaffold at Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire on a winter’s morning in the year 1587, “the 45th year of her age, and

the 19th of her imprisonment”. Church bells were rung and bonfires were lit throughout England in national celebration, but Elizabeth wept.

Graham insists that almost all the events Mary experienced in her futile life were the result of accidents. Thus his theory that her life was “an accidental tragedy”. But let us take two of her more stupid decisions: Was her decision to marry Darnley an accident? Was her decision to inflict herself on the hospitality of her English cousin an accident? She was no mere piece of flotsam, bobbing along on indifferent and stormy seas. She was trouble, and she made much of the trouble herself.

Perhaps her best times had been spent with her first husband, the impotent and retarded Dauphin. She knew she was to be the Queen of France; she knew equally that she was to marry not for love but for dynastic reasons. She could not expect any sexual fulfilment, or any genuine adult companionship. The Dauphin, as Graham puts it, was like a younger, backward brother, whom she could protect from harm. She was fond of him, showing him much affection. They had their private jokes and signals. As Graham suggests, with just a whiff of sentiment, she looked after her Dauphin “as she had cared for her dolls and talked to her ponies”. Did these relatively happy years cocoon her from reality and create a retarded persona; was she a woman of ability suffering from arrested development?

What we do know for sure is that shortly after Mary and her little Frenchman married, he died. And shortly after that the young widow, ardent for something she could not grasp, sailed to this harsh, forbidding, desolate northern country that so many of us know, and some of us manage to love. If there was indeed a tragedy, it was Scotland’s, not Mary’s.

Roderick Graham
Birlinn, £ 25
pp476, ISBN: 13:978 1 84158 551 2

Harry Reid’s new HISTORY OF THE EUROPEAN REFORMATION will be published next summer, marking the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin.


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