The ‘Phoenix’ Queen
Harper Perennial – 608pp.
John Guy’s Mary is a phoenix, the mythical bird that rises gloriously from the ashes of its own burning remains. In captivity, ‘In the end is my beginning’ was Mary’s chosen motto, words borrowed from her mother, Mary of Guise, and emblazoned on her cloth of state. The epitaph suits a Queen whose fate was to triumph only in death, as ‘one of the most celebrated and beguiling rulers in the whole of British history.’ In life, however, Mary was ‘the unluckiest ruler in British history’, a victim of ambition, deceit, mistrust and jealousy. And it is this well-worn story, played out once more in the most minute detail, which Guy tells.
Mary triumphed in death, and Guy’s sympathetic narrative (he promises to ‘tell Mary’s story … in her own words’) begins with a rather gruesome depiction of her execution. Proudly clad in undergarments of scarlet, the liturgical colour for Roman martyrs, Mary goes to her death dressed as a martyr to her Catholic faith. ‘I am settled’, she said, ‘in the ancient Roman Catholic religion, and mind to spend my blood in defence of it.’ Her crime was treason, plotting to overthrow Elizabeth I and install herself on the English throne, which she and many believed to be rightfully hers, and restoring the Catholic religion, a last act of desperation to end her years of captivity. She had been ‘done over’ so many times that when presented with an opportunity to regain some control she took it desperately. Mary’s Catholicism, however, was only displayed proudly and defiantly once she had lost. As a reigning Queen, she ardently advocated religious toleration (a practicing Catholic, she however, had no qualms about a Protestant marriage ceremony to her third husband, Bothwell) but once captive and desperate she sought help from her foreign Catholic allies such as Philip II of Spain, and wore her Catholicism proudly on her sleeve. She was persecuted because she was Catholic.
Guy presents Mary as an extremely engaging, beautiful, intelligent and imposing figure (standing at nearly six feet tall, Mary would often disguise herself as a man so as to enjoy a degree of anonymity). But as a Queen almost from birth, her fate was to be forever a power tool. As a baby she was the subject of Henry VIII’s ‘rough wooings’ – his policy of destruction in Scotland to force a betrothal of Mary to his son, the future Edward VI. As regent, her Mother Mary of Guise, perhaps the only person who truly loved Mary, did all in her power to protect her, eventually sending her to France to live at the French Court, under the protection of the King of France, Henry II. This was perhaps the most peaceful and trouble free time of Mary’s life, culminating in her ‘ideal dynastic marriage’ to the Daupin, Francis at the age of 15. Just over a year later, they were crowned King and Queen of France. But happiness was not to last. Within the year Francis II was dead and Mary, pushed aside by her fearsome Mother-in-law Catherine de Medici, returned to Scotland, at the age of nineteen, to reign as Queen in the land of her birth. And it is here that Guy’s story begins to pick up.
Mary’s life in Scotland is the stuff of thrillers and, although heavily weighed down throughout with complicated politicking, at this stage the biography becomes a page-turner, depicting love, betrayal, and murder. Despite Mary’s best efforts to rule and maintain a level of religious toleration, she is thwarted at every opportunity by the ambitious, factionalised Scottish Lords, in particular her half-brother James Stuart, Earl of Moray. It is in keeping up with the ploys and power-plays of these ambitious Lords each wanting a chunky slice of power, that one can lose a grip on the story.
The Lords are presented as the enemies of Mary, along with the cruel and ‘indomitable’ John Knox. But the consistent baddie of Guy’s narrative is the shadowy and highly sinister figure of William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief minister and leading adviser for forty years, who engineered the downfall and disposal of Mary from the time of her coronation as a baby. Guy claims that ‘the collapse of Mary’s rule in Scotland was not an accident’ but had been engineered all along by Cecil. Driven by his ambition to secure the British Isles as a single, Protestant community, in his mind there was room for only one Queen and therefore sought to find and encourage ways of undermining Mary at every turn, encouraging the first revolt against her in 1559-1560 and then standing behind the most troublesome Lords, the Earls Moray, Maitland and Morton. Without his support, their efforts would have been futile. But Guy, ever sympathetic, argues that Mary successfully ‘managed to hold together a divided and fatally unstable country,’ handling people ‘just as masterfully as her English cousin and counterpart.’
If ever there was an issue, however, which Mary wanted settling, it was the question of her dynastic claim to the English throne. As the natural successor to Elizabeth, she, from the time of her return to Scotland as a young woman, longed for a meeting with her ‘own dear sister’, believing her to be her closest ally. Cecil of course dreaded such a meeting; it served his interests to keep the two Queens apart. Elizabeth, for her part merely ‘feared that the younger, possibly more beautiful Queen of Scots was so magnetic, so brilliant in conversation, that she would overshadow or surpass her.’
Where Mary failed, according to Guy, it was in her choice of husband and it was here that her greatest failing, her naïveté and her easy willingness to trust, were exposed. Desperate for someone who would shield her from the feuding Lords, Mary’s greatest error was her second marriage to the narcissistic, ambitious and bisexual Lord Darnley. The marriage plunged her deeper into the power plays of the Lords and when he was ruthlessly assassinated by them, chiefly Bothwell, her demise was secured. History implicated Mary in the plot, arguing that if she wasn’t involved directly, she must have at least known about it. But Guy refuting this argues that she was neither involved nor knew about it and her affair with Bothwell did not begin until after her husband’s death. In allowing herself to be seduced by Bothwell and marrying him, she secured her destiny. Her errors – as with the plot to overthrow Elizabeth – are narrated by Guy as if Mary erred only when driven to desperation. With Darnley, another successor to the English throne, it was desperation over Elizabeth’s refusal to meet her and settle the dynastic claim; with Bothwell, a true affair of the heart she was manipulated by his masculinity and sought his protection from the Lords; and with the disastrous treason plot, a desperate desire to end her years in captivity and to once again be recognised as the Queen she was born to be.
My Heart is My Own depicts Mary as a Queen ‘to the last fibre of her body and soul.’ It suggests that she would have reigned successfully if allowed to get on with it. But Elizabeth was jealous of her, Cecil despised her and the despicable Scottish Lords used her for their own ambitious ends. Essentially she was an inconvenience and was killed because of it.