I was Mary Queen of Scots

Colm Tóibín

  • My Heart Is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots by John Guy
    Harper Perennial, 574 pp, £8.99, August 2004, ISBN 1 84115 753 8
  • Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens by Jane Dunn
    Harper Perennial, 592 pp, £8.99, March 2004, ISBN 0 00 653192 X

Certain doomed spirits from the 16th century continue to haunt us and beguile us. On 21 May 1940 Nancy Mitford wrote to Evelyn Waugh on the subject:

I used to masturbate whenever I thought about Lady Jane Grey so of course I thought about her constantly and even executed a fine watercolour of her on the scaffold, which my mother still has, framed, and in which Lady Jane and her ladies-in-waiting all wear watches hanging from enamel bows, as my mother did at the time … I still get quite excited when I think of Lady Jane (less and less often as the years roll on).

So too in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland, in the late 1960s, during certain times of the day and night, I was sure that I actually was Mary Queen of Scots, and as I made my way around our small, semi-detached house, I had no difficulty imagining that I was imprisoned with my ladies-in-waiting in a damp castle in the North of England, depressed and stripped of all my power, with only memories to treasure. Unlike Nancy Mitford, however, I was too sad and too regal to masturbate.

Since her death in 1587, Mary Stuart has caused strange stirrings and vehement imaginings in those who have applied themselves to her case. In Schiller’s play, her jailer Paulet worries about an escape:

I curse the task that is entrusted me,
To keep this scheming vixen in my care.
I wake in terror in the night, I walk
About the castle like a ghost in torment,
Try all the locks, spy on the guards, and wait

In fear and trembling for the day to dawn.

In the rehearsals for the first production of Donizetti’s opera in 1835, the sopranos playing Elizabeth and Mary fell out rather badly. ‘The ill-will of Mary,’ it was reported, ‘so enraged Elizabeth, by nature the more choleric, that right in the middle of one finale she hurled herself at her enemy, pulled her by the hair, boxed her ears, bit her, punched her in the face, and almost broke her legs by kicking her furiously.’

Even Robert Lowell got carried away. In his long sonnet sequence ‘History’, he imagines one of Mary’s famous flights by night across Scotland on horseback as happening by car:

We roared off hell-wheel and scattered the soft mob;
happily only one man splashed the windshield,
we dared not pluck him off; it was hard at night
to hold the road with a carcass on the windshield

Joseph Brodsky did not help. He wrote what is possibly the worst sonnet sequence ever produced on any subject on the subject of Mary Queen of Scots. His lines include the following:

Mary, I call them pigs, not Picts, those Scots.


The number of your lovers, Mary, went
beyond the figure three, four, twent-
y-five. A crown, alas, gets dented, bent,
or lost between the sheets with some odd gent.


There’s nothing, barring Art, sublunar creatures
can use to comprehend your gorgeous features.

Earlier poets had a better time with Mary Queen of Scots. Robert Burns, when he composed his poem in 1791, wrote to Mrs Graham of Fintry: ‘Whether it is the story of our Mary Queen of Scots has a peculiar effect on the feelings of a Poet, or whether in the enclosed ballad I have succeeded beyond my usual poetic success, I know not, but it has pleased me beyond any late effort of the Muse.’

O! soon, to me, may Summer suns
Nae mair light up the morn!
Nae mair, to me, the Autumn winds
Wave o’er the yellow corn!
And in the narrow house o’death
Let Winter round me rave;
And the next flow’rs, that deck the Spring,
Bloom on my peaceful grave!

Twenty-six years later, Wordsworth had a go. His rhythms were awkward and strained, and his rhymes no better, but he too was concerned with writing a melancholy ballad about the long years of confinement and the terrible end of one who had been so exalted:

Hark! The death-note of the year
Sounded by the castle-clock!
From her sunk eyes a stagnant tear
Stole forth, unsettled by the shock;
But oft the woods renewed their green,
Ere the tired head of Scotland’s Queen
Reposed upon the block!

Even poor Swinburne had a try. His ‘Adieux à Marie Stuart’ is not as bad as Brodsky’s poem, but it definitely comes second:

But surely though it die or live,
Your face was worth
All that a man may think to give
On earth.

In the century after her death, music began to be composed about the Queen of Scots and her doom. Giacomo Carissimi (1605-74), for example, composed a very dull and lugubrious 11-minute lament for her which includes, in translation, the following lines:

To death! To death! To death!
Blood will run from my neck but tears will
certainly not run from my eyes.

In Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda there are plenty of tears. When Mary sends a portrait of herself and a letter via Talbot to Leicester, she bathes them first with her tears. In the same scene Leicester, who is in love with her, promises ‘to dry away the tears from her eyes’. Even the hard-hearted Elizabeth is almost moved to tears when she reads a letter from Mary. Leicester tells Mary that ‘on her eyelashes I saw/the glint of a tear.’

Not for long, however. Soon, Donizetti follows the route laid out by Schiller by having the two queens meet. In both the play and the opera Mary begins by abasing herself to her jailer and arch-rival, but it soon gets too much for her. In Schiller, she roars:

The throne of England by a bastard is
Profaned, the noble-hearted race of Britons
By trickster’s cunning is deceived and
If right was might, then you would lie before
Me in the dust, for I, I am your queen.

Donizetti uses stronger language:

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in