I have read so much about Mary Queen of Scots over the years but it seems I never have enough, so when I saw the latest movie about her (directed by Josie Rourke) was coming to Lisbon last week I texted my usual Saturday-night- dinner-and-movies group and suggested we go and see it. Everyone agreed with alacrity.
Knowing my passion for Scottish history my friend Beli asked me to do a brief introduction to Mary Stuart’s life during dinner, which I gladly did.
Mary was the only legitimate child of James V, king of Scotland, who died in battle only a few days after her birth, making her a queen in her cradle. Her mother was a strong woman, belonging to the powerful French Guise family and she was determined to keep the throne for her daughter, in a wild unruly country such as Scotland was at the time, with divided loyalties and unending feuds among the many clans. Not to mention their all powerful English neighbour who was always meddling in Scottish politics either by making alliances with powerful unsatisfied nobles or through military attacks on the border.
As a young child Mary had to go into hiding for her own protection. She was taken away from her castle late at night and into the safety of an island in the middle of a loch (the Lake of Menteith) where she lived for some time in the secluded Inchmahome Priory. On my first trip to Scotland I wanted to see some of the places related to Mary so I went there; it was truly magical to be rowed there on a small boat, just as she must have been centuries before, and watching the grey silhouette of the island appear through the mist. Unfortunately nowadays only the ruins of the priory can be found, but the place has a mystique of its own and Mary and her story are around us all the time. When she left the island it was to go to France and marry the heir to the throne; by doing this her mother was guaranteeing her safety and making it clear to the powerful English there would be no possible alliance with them – as the English king, Henry VIII, wanted Mary to marry his own son and thus unite the two kingdoms.
My friends were listening attentively but I didn’t want to spoil any surprises the movie might have in store for them, so I went on with some caution. I mentioned Mary’s young husband (who was then the French king having succeeded his father) had died and she had had to go back home to take up her throne there. The court at Edinburgh was of course a long way from the French one and at first Mary was in shock with the dark cold uncomfortable castles and the uncouth manners of her people and, most of all, the Scottish nobility. As she takes measure of her situation there are two problems she has to face: one, the fact that she is a woman, and most people at the time believed a woman is not fit to rule; the other one is that she is a Catholic in a country that has turned fiercely protestant, where John Knox, the leader of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, preached against having a woman in the throne, something he saw as abhorrent and unnatural.
I told my friends I would say no more – the rest they would see in the movie.
The story begins when Mary arrives in Scotland after her years in France, so I was glad I have given my friends some information as to what had happened before. It also shows the rivalry between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth I the Queen of England, mainly brought about by the fact that Mary, on the bad advice of her Guise relations and her father in law the late French King, had declared herself as the rightful ruler of England rather than her cousin Elizabeth – and this was something the latter would neither forget nor forgive.
Mary’s difficult times unravel as she faces John Knox’s express hostility and her half brother (her father’s bastard son) James’ treachery; as she falls in love and recklessly marries Henry, Lord Darnley, against the opinion of her closest advisors. Soon she is sorely disappointed in him and she is horrified when he, a puppet to some of the nobles, has her private secretary and musician David Rizzio cruelly murdered in front of her when she is heavily pregnant with their son.
Having read so many books about her I know there are some events that have undisputedly taken place – such as Rizzio’s murder – while others have more than one possible version without any certainty, so it’s up to us to decide which one we believe in. As I see it she was in some sort of passionate relationship with Lord Bothwell, and she might have been involved – or not – in the assassination of her husband. She was certainly thought to be by many of her subjects and her hasty marriage to Bothwell, a rough and sensuous powerful border lord only seemed to confirm that idea.
Civil war ensued between Mary’s supporters and her brother’s. In the end she lost everything – her son, her crown, her lover turned husband, her freedom and ultimately her life. Her flight from Lochleven Castle – also on an island in the middle of a loch, where she was imprisoned for a time by her enemies – to take refuge in England, throwing herself at the mercy of her cousin Elizabeth proved to be a disastrous decision but then it seemed she did not have much of a choice. What she thought was her way to freedom and to regaining her lost crown turned into a life of imprisonment. To Elizabeth, Mary was a threat, as a figurehead for the English Catholics who would not rest until they deposed Protestant Elizabeth and put Mary on the throne. There were many plots with that purpose in mind, until finally Elizabeth had proof that Mary was involved and had no option but to take a decision she had apparently been dreading: to give Mary the punishment due to traitors – the death sentence.
In the end, Mary was somewhat triumphant, as she achieved after her death what she had not in life: her son was named Elizabeth’s successor and a Scottish King came to rule over England and unite the two kingdoms. However, her son was raised in the Protestant faith, and England never came back to Catholicism as Mary would have wanted.
As we came out of the cinema I felt slightly disappointed with the movie. In my opinion it missed some important moments of Mary’s life, but maybe this was because I know quite a lot about her. Other situations I found very different from those I have come to believe in; I also felt the passionate side of Mary was not really shown in the movie. Many of her decisions, namely those that ultimately led to her downfall, were not cold, rational ones, but made with her heart. She was a brave lady, no doubt; she was a woman in a men’s world, much resented for holding power; she was fearless but also reckless and impulsive, a queen but also a woman who wanted love and would not sacrifice it for politics. How different she was from her cousin Elizabeth, who never put her throne in jeopardy because of her personal wishes. Maybe because the throne had been so hard to come by to her and Mary’s had come so easily, as a baby.
We walked through the cold damp streets, still talking about her life and I thought how ironic it is that, while Elizabeth’s reign is so much more successful and longer than Mary’s – she reigned for more than forty years and is recognised as one of England’s greatest monarchs- Mary’s short lived one has become the stuff of legend. Her tragic story will continue to be told generation after generation; the story of a controversial woman, no doubt, but always – and forever – utterly fascinating.