Mary Queen of Scots
Mary Queen of Scots; drawing by David Levine

Lady Antonia Fraser is young, beautiful, and rich, an earl’s daughter married to a busy and successful politician, the mother of a large family; yet she has surmounted all these handicaps to authorship to produce a first-rate historical biography. I do not mean to sound sarcastic or patronizing. Only a practicing historian knows the hours of boring and backbreaking labor that go into a book like this; and in a well-trampled field like the life of Mary Stuart the burden of such labor is not lightened by the hope of some exciting find.

It is the defect of most “amateur” historians that they evade this drudgery, or abandon it halfway through. They pad out their bibliographies and cut back their footnotes (blandly announcing that this is to humor their illiterate readers, the poor dears), they hopefully cram their prefaces with acknowledgments to Professor X and Doctor Y, and in the last resort they pretend that a book to which they have devoted years of effort, of one kind or another, is only an interim report. It is easy for any biographer, trained or otherwise, to put the emotional stress in the wrong place, and to forget in the agonies of her heroine the agonies she created, and there is always the temptation to “stretch” sources which are always inadequate and often ambiguous. From conjecturing that Queen Mary may have thought such-and-such it is a short step to saying that she thought it. (The final step, of making her say it, is one that some authors do not shrink from.) Finally, there is a special kind of martyred sentimentality that afflicts female historians writing about women, paralleled by the jovial locker-room camaraderie which infects many male historians writing about men.

I approached Lady Antonia’s book expecting to find some, if not all of these faults, and my confidence was not bolstered by the fact that most of the reviewers who greeted it so rapturously in England were also women, and women innocent hitherto of any historical knowledge or expertise. To my relief it is a beautifully written book, thoroughly but unostentatiously researched. Lady Antonia avoids the temptation to romanticize an inherently romantic and tragic story, and her tense, muscular narrative generates a flow which carries the reader on unwearying to the end. It is as definitive a life as we shall get of a woman whom her cousin Elizabeth called “the daughter of debate that eke discord doth sow,” who has sown discord among historians to this day.

The first task is to strip away the layers of varnish plastered on Queen Mary’s portrait, and here the Scots are the sinners, not the English. It was the English who imprisoned her for the last nineteen years of her life, but it was the Scots who gave them the excuse, it was the Scots who denounced her as the murderer of her husband, and even turned her own son decisively against her.

Mary was to all intents and purposes a Frenchwoman. Born of a French mother, she never knew her father, and she was sent to Paris at the age of five, and remained there until she was nineteen. In the interval she married Francis, eldest son of Henry’s II of France, and on Henry’s premature death in 1559 she was even raised to the French throne. A future spread before her in which she would rule Scotland jointly with her husband, and no doubt through deputies, making only occasional visits to a country she can scarcely have remembered with any clarity. Beyond that lay the throne of England, for Elizabeth, who succeeded her sister Mary in 1558, was the last of the Tudors in the direct line and was still officially illegitimate in the eyes of the Roman Church.

But King Francis’s death in December 1560 left Mary a widow at the age of eighteen. All her life she would be a daughter of France, but, most unexpectedly, her future now lay in Scotland. Moreover, that year Scotland had risen in revolt against popery and the French connection. With timely assistance from Elizabeth the rebels forced on the government the Treaty of Edinburgh, which recognized the reformed kirk and barred Mary from the English throne. The English succession always had the most powerful hold on Mary’s imagination, so much so that in 1558 she had quartered the arms of England with her own, and laid claim to the throne itself, not just the succession. Her obstinate refusal to withdraw this claim, or ratify the Treaty of Edinburgh, prejudiced her relations with Elizabeth from the outset.

Mary left for Edinburgh in 1561, but it is not surprising that she regarded her stay there as “a wearisome interlude between the France of her memories and the England of her dreams.” It was not just the weather which gave sixteenth-century Scotland the reputation of being “the arse of the world.” It was a poor country, thinly populated; its natural resources meager and inefficiently exploited. It is questionable whether it could even support a monarchy as monarchy was then understood in western Europe. Its kings were feudal overlords, still living mainly on the income from their estates, their power based on their ability to control a nobility which existed in a state of fractiousness and indiscipline not seen in England or France for nearly a hundred years, and then only as a temporary phenomenon. A middle class was only just emerging, and the Scottish Universities, despite their antiquity and comparative abundance, had failed to train that bureaucracy which was taken for granted in most European countries. Maitland of Lethington, Mary’s Secretary of State, was the only servant she had who could possibly have taken a similar post in England, France, or Spain.


For the rest, the aristocracy was as irresponsible as it was contentious, and the Reformation had given it yet another bone of contention. Only the fact that no nobleman could trust another for more than six weeks prevented the country from falling completely to pieces. Much of the sheer inanity of Scottish politics is summed up in the name and fact of the “Chaseabout Raid” in 1565, in which Mary’s wisest councillor, her half-brother, James Stewart, Earl of Moray, made a sickening reversion to type. Fearing loss of influence at court, he could think of no more sensible way of settling the matter than a demonstration rebellion, which ended with his flight to England, having accomplished nothing. Yet the position of chief minister was a dangerous one, as the assassination of Cardinal Beaton (1546), the Earl of Moray (1569), and the Earl of Morton (1580) showed.

In such conditions there could be no tradition of administration or even government. Analyzing Queen Elizabeth’s first Privy Council, a recent historian notes that the Marquess of Winchester should be classified as a bureaucrat rather than as a great magnate, since he was still engaged in a major program of administrative reform at the Treasury which extended back into the previous reign. The whole concept behind this casual remark is so alien to contemporary Scottish conditions that it might well refer to events in another universe. Scots government was at about the same stage of development as English government under Edward the Confessor.

Mary’s initial success in these conditions is astonishing, and even Lady Antonia does not give it its full value. This finely bred girl survived for four years virtually unscathed. She not only survived, in some ways she flourished. For a brief period she imposed law and order on the jungle of Scottish politics. Moreover, she insisted on choosing her own husband, in Henry, Lord Darnley, and beat down considerable opposition to it; and since Darnley, like her, had a claim to the throne of England as well as Scotland, dynastically it was an astute move. (Time was to show that it was perhaps too astute, but no matter.) Above all, her willingness to accept the fact of the Scottish Reformation, and her refusal to make her own sincere Catholic beliefs a matter of state or to build up a Catholic party among the nobility—in fact, one of her most decisive and successful acts was the suppression of the Earl of Huntly, a powerful and troublesome co-religionist—won her a degree of general acceptance which no one had expected.

Lady Antonia seems surprised at this; Catholic historians are more accustomed to explaining away the intolerance and bigotry of their heroes. But Gordon Donaldson has recently shown that the Scottish Reformation was far from being the swift, conclusive, and total event which its leader John Knox tried to pretend.1 Reversal was unthinkable, of course, but there was plenty of room for compromise or maneuver within an accepted Protestant framework. Moreover, the European Reformation was far from complete, and the lines between Protestant and Catholic were not yet firmly drawn. In the early 1560s the Council of Trent was still deliberating and Queen Elizabeth was invited to send representatives. Two generations later the dream entertained by Mary’s son James, of reuniting Christendom by a Council under the joint chairmanship of himself and the Pope, was not quite the visionary nonsense it appears to be. With the exception of Phillip II of Spain most contemporary monarchs were willing to trim their religious sails according to political or personal expediency, and it is ironic that the true age of bigotry, when monarchs like James II and Louis XIV sanctimoniously persisted in their religious beliefs to their grave disadvantage, immediately preceded the Age of Reason.

In the sixteenth century, on the other hand, many French and German Protestant leaders were suspected, with good reason, of adopting the new religion for political ends, and the greatest of them, Henry IV, thought Paris well worth a mass, a decision unthinkable a century later. Soon after her arrival in England Mary Queen of Scots showed a disposition to flirt with Anglicanism which Lady Antonia cannot credit; but it was perfectly natural. William the Silent began life as a Roman Catholic; Elizabeth’s personal beliefs are unfathomable, but almost certainly they did not coincide with the state Anglicanism she sponsored; and so on. In this context it is not strange that Mary found no difficulty in accommodating herself to her Scottish subjects, and John Knox’s diatribes, though eminently quotable, are not typical of public opinion. His hatred for Mary was largely motivated by fear, which is significant in itself.


Yet Mary’s effective reign ended in a bloody melodrama which not only besmirched her reputation as a woman but decisively undermined her position as a ruler. Donaldson, the leading Marian scholar, has paid tribute to her achievements in Scotland, but he is almost alone.2 General opinion is summed up in the words of another professor, who dismisses her as “a vain, artful, bewitching creature,” (“bewitching” clearly used pejoratively), who “played at being queen as she played at nearly everything”—in other words, an over-sexed, irresponsible scatterbrain, who got no worse than she deserved.

True, she was betrayed by sexual passion. But this is surprising in itself. Contrary to general belief, very few rulers have ever been seriously inconvenienced by the scandal of their private lives, let alone ruined by it. In Mary’s case, no breath of scandal touched her in France, and it is extremely doubtful whether her marriage with the sickly Francis II was ever consummated. In Scotland, though she was surrounded by men of voracious appetites, their sexual lives in scandalous disorder, and though she was subject to the unwearying scrutiny of many ill-wishers, for nearly four years she remained completely unscathed.

Then came the eruption. Maddened by Elizabeth’s attempts to block any negotiations for marriage except with her own cast-off lover, the Earl of Leicester (an insulting and ludicrous proposal), she hit upon young Darnley. It was a slap in the face to Elizabeth, personal as well as political, and her subsequent pregnancy secured her position further. She was carrying the undoubted heir to the throne of England as well as of Scotland; as it proved. Unfortunately she fell in love with Darnley, and as a king, or even a consort, he proved worthless. He objected to the favor enjoyed by her hunchback Italian secretary, Riccio, in terms which put another indelible slur on her reputation, and had him dragged from her dinner table one evening and brutally murdered in the next room. Her revulsion against her husband was as passionate as her previous love for him, and when a group of bloodthirsty Scots noblemen, in an orgy of violence, blew up his house and strangled him in the garden afterwards, it was in circumstances which deeply implicated her.

On the whole, historians have agreed that Mary had no direct responsibility for this tragedy of Kirk O’Fields, but contemporaries were less kind. Even Lady Antonia likens her role to that of Henry II in the assassination of Becket. Paralyzed by shock (to be kind), she made no effort to pursue the murderers, though they were well-enough known, and when she married their leader, James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, only a few months later there was only one conclusion to be drawn. Her general popularity in Scotland, which had been her only weapon, disappeared overnight. With the quite unaccustomed support of public opinion, a gang of nobles led by her brother Moray deposed her, replaced her by her infant son, then drove her across the Border into England, in 1568.

The new government of Scotland, led by Moray as Regent, affirmed its solemn belief in Mary’s guilt, and to prove it produced the famous Casket Letters, purporting to be written by her and Bothwell. As Lady Antonia points out, contemporaries did not treat these letters with much seriousness; they were forgeries, and perhaps recognized as such at the time. The commissioners who viewed them on Elizabeth’s behalf delivered no verdict. But Mary remained a prisoner in England, and the young James VI, as he grew to manhood, was schooled to regard his mother as a murderess and a whore.

Lady Antonia pursues the course of a sympathetic but responsible biographer. She explains what she can and deplores what she cannot. The most bitter pill for any admirer of Mary is her marriage to this undistinguished thug, Bothwell. Lady Antonia disposes, I think, of any idea that she was pregnant by him before marriage—an idea still current in most austere circles—but this only makes the marriage less, not more, explicable. She suggests that he raped her, making marriage imperative, but surely this is not so, since the rape was never publicized (and raping the queen was a prominent though little invoked element in the law of treason). Did she like being forced? Certainly all the evidence put before us here suggests a normally frigid woman; even Darnley was unable to engage her physical passions for more than a few months, perhaps only a few weeks, which is why he feared that he had been supplanted by Riccio. During her long periods of self-denial she showed no apparent strain.

All this is speculation. Mary is one of those characters who encourages prurient speculation, and this may be why she is unloved by prudent and sober historians. Her death was tragic, and her influence upon England, France, and Scotland was negligible; she was dam to a dynasty of kings whose name is a byword for failure.

When the over-busy Dean Stanley opened her vault in Westminster Abbey in 1867 it was found that she shared her resting place with more than thirty princess and princesses of the Stuart line. Lady Antonia finds an appropriate text in the Marian motto, In my end is my beginning. But who were these princes and princesses? The ten children of James II, dead in infancy, eighteen children of Queen Anne dead at birth, plus Rupert of the Rhine, the most spectacular failure of them all, and two princes whose premature death had closed off whole chapters of English history; Henry, Prince of Wales, James I’s eldest son, who would have displaced Charles I if he had lived, and William, Duke of Gloucester, who stood between England and the Hanoverians, and died in 1700 at the age of eleven. Her company in death expresses the futility of Mary Stuart’s life.

This Issue

November 6, 1969