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.

And:

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.

And:

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
cheated.
If right was might, then you would lie before
Me in the dust, for I, I am your queen.

Donizetti uses stronger language:

Obscene, unworthy prostitute,
I blush for you.
The English throne is sullied,
vile bastard, by your foot!

Some of this, especially the opera as performed with fervid and overwrought passion by Joan Sutherland as Mary and Huguette Tourangeau as Elizabeth and Pavarotti as Leicester, can take me straight back to my youth. The best music for that, however, is by Robert Schumann. His five songs for Mary Stuart, especially as performed in French by Victoria de los Angeles, have all that plaintive, innocent tone, full of suppressed sexuality, which made me so happy when I was 14.

The best books to induce this mood were by Jean Plaidy. The first was called The Royal Road to Fotheringhay, published in 1955, the second The Captive Queen of Scots, published in 1963. ‘What was the secret,’ Plaidy asked in an author’s note, ‘of that immense physical charm which she undoubtedly possessed? I believe it was largely due to an extremely passionate nature which was but half awakened when she met Darnley and not fully so until it was recognised by that man – so experienced in amatory adventures – the virile Bothwell.’ These novels are full of villains – Catherine de Medici and the Earl of Moray – and gentle playmates for the young queen. They are full of serious historical research and wild, passionate moments of self-abandon. There are marvellous scenes in the first book, most of the fun provided by the virile Bothwell:

Bothwell came to the queen’s apartment and he stood on the threshold of the room, smiling at her as he had smiled in the Exchequer House.

She cried out in feigned alarm: ‘My lord . . . what means this?’

He smiled. As though she did not know! But he enjoyed the masquerade as much as she did. Of late she had perhaps been overeager, and a certain amount of resistance had always appealed to him. So she protested but her heart was not in the protest, and she was glad when she could surrender freely to his passion.

For 12 days he kept her at Dunbar Castle – his passionate mistress and his most willing slave.

In the second volume, there is more space for villains as Mary is held in many damp castles. There are new rules at every move, plus plots, counterplots and torture. Mary suffers despair and writes many appeals. Bess of Hardwick and Paulet are among her tormentors. It is clear how the story will end; Plaidy writes with the same grim relish of the execution as all the others who have described the scene at Fotheringhay Castle in 1587 – Mary arriving with her ladies, her terrier hidden under her clothes, her red underclothes, the three blows of the axe, her wig. ‘With a cry of triumph,’ Plaidy writes, ‘Bulle seized the chestnut hair and, to the horror of all, the head covered with short grey hair rolled from his grasp, leaving him clutching the chestnut wig.’

The same scene is described in the prologue of John Guy’s My Heart Is My Own, the latest biography of Mary Queen of Scots:

And then the final twist. As the executioner lifted up the head, Mary’s auburn curls and white cap became detached from her skull. The illusion of monarchy was dissolved as the executioner found himself clutching a handful of hair and the head fell back to the floor, rolling like a misshapen football towards the spectators, who saw that it was ‘very grey and nearly bald’.

‘The last five Scottish kings,’ Jane Dunn writes in Elizabeth and Mary,

had been children at their accession, most of them still in the cradle. (Mary Queen of Scots and her son, James VI, were also to succeed to the Scottish throne as infants.) The Stewarts were plagued by their history of monarchs dying violently and dying young (James I and James III were murdered and James II, a murderer himself, was blown up while watching his own cannon being fired).

Dunn goes on to offer the standard account of the infant Mary’s inheritance: ‘One day she would have to become queen in deed of a kingdom of proud, disputatious clans centred on ancient tribal strongholds spread out across a sparsely populated, mostly mountainous, beautiful but inhospitable land.’

Schiller’s account of the contrast between the childhood of Mary Queen of Scots, who was born in 1542, and the upbringing of Elizabeth, who was born nine years earlier, is the most succinct and eloquent. Elizabeth, the character of Talbot tells her in the play, was brought up ‘in harsh adversity’. She saw ‘no throne awaiting, but an open grave’. She found her way ‘through suffering to duty’.

You learned
Beyond distraction of the giddy world,

In youth to gather up your inward strength.

Mary, on the other hand, was sent as a child to France, to ‘the court of folly and of frivolous joy’.

There in eternal drunken gaiety
She never heard the sterner voice of truth,
But dazzled by the glittering show of vice,
Was carried on the flood that leads to ruin.
The idle gift of beauty she enjoyed,
She was the foremost woman in the land,
Not less by radiance than by right of birth.

In France, when she married the heir to the throne and became briefly queen, she was protected by her mother’s family, who included the Duc de Guise and the Cardinal of Lorraine, who were immensely ambitious. But as she prepared to return to Scotland in 1560 after her husband’s death, the power of the Guise family was waning. Thus she was, without a direct connection to French interests, left strangely powerless with the trappings of power around her. There was also the famous matter of her temperament, what Dunn calls ‘her natural polarity of impetuous courage and nervous sensibility’. She would have made a great medieval queen, who loved dancing and staying up late and ordering magnificence of all sorts to be placed in front of her, expecting in return obedience and adoration and harmony in the country. She was, unfortunately, in the wrong country during the wrong century. Elizabeth, on the other hand, had, according to Dunn, learned ‘the value of circumspection over spontaneity’.

It was almost enough that Mary was next in line to the English throne, a Catholic and allied, however tentatively, to France to make her both vulnerable and dangerous, ‘a perpetual incumbrance of this kingdom’, as William Cecil said in 1559. She lived in an age of rumours and readiness to believe. It was a time, in the words of Sir John Hayward, when

every man’s mind was then travailed with a strange confusion of conceits, all things being immoderately either dreaded or desired. Every report was greedily both inquired and received, all truths suspected, diverse tales believed, many improbable conjectures hatched and nourished. Invasion of strangers, civil dissension, the doubtful disposition of the succeeding Prince, were cast in every man’s conceit as present perils.

Cecil, in this context, took a dim view of France, believing that it ‘seeketh always to make Scotland an instrument to exercise thereby their malice upon England, and to make a footstool thereof to look over England as they may’. But among the conjectures hatched and nourished was the idea of Mary’s almost supernatural powers of attraction, the radiance which Talbot refers to in Schiller’s play. ‘In an age that believed in witches, angels, divination and the supernatural,’ Dunn writes, ‘it appeared that she was possessed of "some enchantment, whereby men are bewitched".’ Later, Dunn refers to her ‘almost sorcerous powers of attraction’. In all the writing about Mary Queen of Scots, both by contemporaries and by later historians, there is a hint in the background that she was in possession of a 16th-century version of the Singapore Grip.

As Dunn points out, while Elizabeth had William Cecil as her adviser, clever and wily, working tirelessly on her behalf, with the interests of the structures of the state foremost in his mind, Mary had only her Guise uncles, concerned with her merely as a pawn, and then in Scotland a set of fractious earls, ready to change sides and form new alliances. And just as Elizabeth’s androgynous image made her powerful and invulnerable, the image of Mary as uncannily charming and attractive, open to offers at home and abroad, suitable and unsuitable, made her a figure protean and untrusted, easy to undermine. It also made her the subject of much bad writing. Dunn, for example, writes this about her return to Scotland: ‘Mary’s youth, beauty and gracious demeanour did not fail to touch everyone. She had come with a small entourage and without arms, and her vulnerability and trust in her people encouraged their protectiveness . . . The pathos of her story together with her physical attraction was enough to make even battle-scarred chieftains weaken.’

Mary’s first Scottish husband, Henry Lord Darnley, was, Dunn reports, ‘the tallest young man a tall young queen could hope to meet.’ John Guy writes in My Heart Is My Own: ‘He was more effeminate and baby-faced than his father, but the implications of that were not yet talked about.’ And later: ‘He was almost certainly bisexual, as was the vogue of young hedonistic courtiers in France.’ The Cardinal of Lorraine dismissed him as ‘a polished trifler’. Soon after his marriage, he became arrogant; he began to drink and, according to a hostile witness, he shared a bed with David Rizzio, his wife’s confidential secretary. Bisexuality, or rumours of it, might have been all the rage in France; its popularity did not extend to Scotland.

Darnley did not help by having syphilis. Once he had been murdered, at the age of 21, Mary began her affair with Bothwell. According to her enemy, George Buchanan, who invented a great deal of this to damage her, she used a niece of Cardinal Beaton with the wonderful name of Lady Reres as the go-between. Perhaps it was her name which caused Buchanan to spread the rumour about Mary’s sexual behaviour: ‘It needs not be kept secret being in the mouths of so many: the Earl of Bothwell abused her body at his pleasure, having passage in at the back door.’ Mary’s enemies, the Confederate Lords, also issued a ballad, accusing Mary and Bothwell of the ‘beastly buggery Sodom has not seen’.

Mary was not a fanatic; unlike her uncles or her namesake in the South, she had no interest in burning heretics or banning worship, or using religion as a way of centralising power. Her policy of religious tolerance did not, however, serve her interests, or set opposing factions against each other, thus absorbing their energies. Her policy was seen instead as weakness. Her tolerance allowed John Knox to flourish; it also meant that the adherents of the old religion did not see her as an essential and energetic protector of their interests.

Nonetheless, allowing both religions to live side by side must have seemed intelligent and enlightened, at least for a time, and perhaps even clever. Mary’s efforts to court her cousin Elizabeth with many flattering letters and gifts, while keeping as close to France as possible, must also have seemed diplomatic and sensible. But it too became a sign of weakness, especially when she had married Darnley, of whom the French could not see the point, and when she also made it increasingly clear that she was the rightful heir to the English throne should anything untoward happen to its incumbent. Thus the French had no further use for her while the English saw her as dangerous and threatening.

‘Impulsiveness, impatience, lack of judgment and uncontrolled animal spirits’, Dunn writes, meant that Mary was ‘cavalier with her own power, relinquishing it to her Guise uncles, her half-brother Moray, to Elizabeth, in her desperation to gain her crown, to Darnley through sexual desire, and then eventually to Bothwell’. But Mary was no more impulsive, impatient etc than anyone else. Uncontrolled animal spirits did not directly bring about her 20 years of imprisonment and her execution. Instead, it seemed that extreme pressure, which she was under on two occasions in her life, caused her to go too far, to do things which were deeply unwise and endangering, and would make it impossible for her to survive.

Thus when she was implicated in Darnley’s murder and it was her task to keep many miles away from those directly involved, she sided, against her own interests, with Bothwell, who was clearly among those responsible, and after he had got a hasty divorce married him. She had finally chosen one side, but it was an unruly and discredited faction, easy to defeat, rather than a group which would offer her protection. It meant that she could be hounded out of Scotland.

Later, as relations between Spain and England became fraught, she had been almost fifteen years a prisoner. She had many powerful enemies and many powerless friends. It was clear that she should not have replied to any letters or implicated herself in any plots. Her secretaries should have been busy doing nothing. She should have modelled herself on Elizabeth during the reign of Mary Tudor: watchful, absolutely cunning in her silence, determined simply to survive. Instead, she invented codes, sent secret messages, spent those years conspiring. The codes were cracked; the letters intercepted. Once danger came her way, sheer foolishness, an inability not to take the largest risk available, came to the fore. This is what makes her so interesting.

In Enniscorthy all those years ago, as I moved up the grand staircase of our small house, I imagined that Elizabeth had imprisoned me for 20 years out of sheer badness, having planned to execute me all along. She wished, I bitterly believed, to prolong my agony. Thus I am grateful to both John Guy and Jane Dunn for painting a much more complex picture of Elizabeth’s motives. Elizabeth understood very well that all around her were men who had a great interest in killing an anointed queen, thus proving the rule of law over everybody in the realm, including its God-given ruler. She professed all the more fervently and publicly a belief in the divine right of kings because such faith was weak all around her, and perhaps did not hold any serious sway in the deepest labyrinth of her own real convictions. A warrant signed for Mary’s execution would prepare the way for the larger prize, which came with the execution of Mary’s grandson, Charles I.

At the beginning, it seems, Elizabeth had many varying feelings about Mary’s ejection from Scotland. She was both indignant on her behalf and wary of her. She was, in principle, against the idea of queens being thrown out of the country over which they ruled. She was clever enough to leave the meeting between her and the younger and more attractive queen to Schiller and Donizetti. She waited and did nothing, not out of badness but from mixed motives.

In Enniscorthy too I believed that Mary had been made to live frugally, in bare rooms, with bad food. This was a matter of much resentment. Guy, however, makes clear that this was not true. Even during the preparations for her trial, when she was being brought to Fotheringhay, and was in total disgrace, 20 mules were needed to cart her baggage. She had arrived in England in 1568 with no money and no clothes. Soon, five cartloads and four horse-loads of clothes were sent from Scotland. In one of her early sites of imprisonment, Elizabeth sent her beds and bedding and carpets. At first Mary had 16 attendants, ‘but as the months went by,’ Guy writes, ‘more than a hundred of her old domestic staff congregated around her.’ This was reduced to 60, and then 30, and then increased to 40.

Mary’s food was cooked in her own kitchens. Her sheets were washed by her own laundresses, and she kept her own horses, even if she was not allowed to ride as often as she wished. In the final and most straitened years of her captivity, when almost every courtesy was denied her, the total number of her staff was still as high as 51.

For many years, the combined size of her household and that of her jailer was second only to Elizabeth’s court. Mary was not as destitute, these books explain, as I needed her to be during my own long exile.

The best poem about Mary Queen of Scots was written by a Scottish woman. Marion Angus’s ‘Alas! Poor Queen’, written in 1950, combines pity and wisdom and a sense of form and rhythm which Joseph Brodsky, to name but one, should have studied carefully. Angus began her poem with Mary’s career in France:

She was skilled in music and the dance
And the old arts of love
At the court of the poisoned rose
And the perfumed glove.

Angus dealt then with Mary’s relationship to John Knox, building in the poem a strange version of a ballad or a song, with repetitions and moments of mystery. And she wrote with beauty and reticence about Mary’s execution:

Consider the way she had to go,
Think of the hungry snare,
The net she herself had woven,
Aware or unaware,
Of the dancing feet grown still
The blinded eyes.

In the next lines she offered a sense of the vast inconsequence of Mary’s harmless concerns as she lived her last years in a parody of a court in the North of England, all passion spent, making jolly tapestries and writing to whoever would listen, and remembering the time when she put the arms of three kingdoms on her coach and received many gifts:

Queens should be cold and wise,
And she loved little things.
Parrots
And red-legged partridges
And the golden fishes of the Duc de Guise
And the pigeon with the blue ruff
She had from Monsieur d’Elbúuf.