Four hundred and twenty six years after her execution Mary Queen of Scots remains an enigmatic figure —one of Scotland’s most famous, yet most controversial people. Was she a pawn of scheming monarchs and lords? Was she betrayed by those she trusted and relied on? Was she an adulteress who murdered in order to have her own way? Or was she a Catholic martyr in countries where the Protestant faith had supplanted the Catholic one?
Born in 1642 in Linlithgow Palace, Mary Stewart was the daughter of James V of Scotland and Mary of Guise, his second wife who came from Lorraine, a member of the powerful House of Guise that played a prominent role in French 16th-century politics.
Six days after Mary’s birth, her father died. Nine months later, she was crowned Queen of Scots. Greed for power and influence in countries already in ferment over religious upheaval, brought about the Treaties of Greenwich between Scotland and England, one of the intentions being to hobble Mary and weaken French Influence in Scotland. So, when barely seven months old, Mary was pledged in marriage to Edward, son of King Henry VIII of England. Arranged marriages are not new. Marriage was a union for status, lands, power and money, and crowns of course. Age and love were never considerations.
Further attacks and skirmishes brought about the Treaty of Haddington, strengthening Scotland’s links with France. In return for Henri ll of France providing military support against England, Mary was promised in marriage to Henri’s son, the three year old Dauphin François and a month after the Treaty five year old Mary was despatched to France.
Ten years later Mary and François were married in Notre Dame Cathedral. Mary flouted convention by wearing a richly decorated white gown — traditionally, in France, white was the colour of royal mourning. The following year Henri ll was fatally wounded in a jousting tournament and François became King. Mary was now Queen Consort of France as well as Queen of Scots (her mother ruling as Regent), with a claim, as great-niece of Henry VII, to the English throne However Mary’s reign in France was short lived as Francois died barely eighteen months later, and in the autumn of the following year Mary returned to Scotland.
Her religion and marriages stoked more controversy, heightened by the murder of her new husband Lord Darnley, her possible implication in the plot, her abduction by the Earl of Bothwell, followed by her marriage to him, and a rebellion by Scottish peers which saw her imprisoned in Lochleven Castle. Mary was eventually forced to abdicate in favour of her one year old son James.
With help, she escaped from Lochleven, but after being defeated at the Battle of Langside, she fled towards the border, spending her last hours in Scotland at Dundrennan Abbey, then crossing into England where she hoped her cousin, Elizabeth I, would help her regain her throne. But Elizabeth was ambivalent towards Mary and how she should be treated, and Mary soon began her stretch of imprisonment in England that culminated in her execution for treason on 8th February 1587. Mary was 44 years old and had spent 19 years in captivity.
Over the years, Mary has been the subject of numerous books, and this year the National Museum of Scotland, now reopened in its entirety after partial closure for modernisation, hosted a major exhibition on Mary, Marie R: Mary, Queen of Scots. Articles intimately associated with Mary — letters (including the silver-gilt casket in which the Casket Letters were supposedly hidden), jewellery, wall-hangings, embroideries, portraits, furniture, coins, keys, scissors, clarsach, virginal, and the warrant for her execution — have all been culled from far and wide and brought together to provide a fascinating glimpse into a monarch who is still talked of over four hundred years after her death.
Mary’s son became James VI of Scotland. In 1603, he succeeded Elizabeth I of England, so uniting the crowns of Scotland and England.
The Auld Alliance between Scotland and France, dating from the end of the thirteenth century, was ended by the 1560 Treaty of Edinburgh, and replaced by an Anglo-Scottish accord. Or was it? Although a military and diplomatic agreement, the alliance — partly due to Scots soldiers serving in the French army — flowed out into the lives of ordinary Scots with its influence seen in architecture, law, the Scots language and cuisine. Scots often attended French universities and other intellectual influences from France continued. Two Scottish castles — Bothwell and Kildrummy — are said to have been influenced by French castle-building. At the height of the alliance, French was widely spoken in Scotland and French influenced the Scots language, giving it words like gigot and aumry or armoire (cupboard).
In 1942, in a speech delivered in Edinburgh, Charles de Gaulle describing the alliance between Scotland and France as the oldest alliance in the world, said, ‘In every combat where for five centuries the destiny of France was at stake, there were always men of Scotland to fight side by side with men of France, and what Frenchmen feel is that no people has ever been more generous than yours with its friendship.’
Even more intriguing was when I found a reference to a paper (published in 2011) by historian Dr Siobhan Talbott of Manchester University. She concludes that the Auld Alliance is actually unrevoked after all. Maybe I should brush up on my French!