Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Elizabeth & Mary, Rival Queens: A Study of Leadership

by Barbara Kyle

Should we act from the head or from the heart? Deliberation or passion? In fiction, the Dashwood sisters in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility personify this choice in matters of love. Elinor carefully considers her desires, weighing them against her responsibilities, holding her deepest feelings in check. Marianne scoffs at such reserve and acts boldly on her passions.

When it comes to ruling a country, with stakes infinitely higher, two queens have immortalized this crucial choice. Elizabeth Tudor of England planned her moves with Machiavellian care, keeping her ambitious nobles in line and her kingdom safe from foreign attack. Her peaceful reign spanned over forty years. Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, followed her desires, making impetuous decisions that enraged her nobles. She ruled for less than seven years, created turmoil and civil war, boldly gambled her kingdom by hazarding all on the battlefield, and lost.

Mary Queen of Scots
Elizabeth I of England

The two women were cousins. Yet they never met. When Mary fled to England to escape the Protestant lords who had deposed her she begged Elizabeth for protection and an army to fight her enemies. Elizabeth, however, needed Protestant Scotland as a bulwark against possible invasion by Catholic France or Spain, and so decided it was prudent to keep Mary in England under house arrest. Mary's captivity continued for nineteen years - a comfortable captivity befitting her status as a queen - during which she plotted ceaselessly to overthrow Elizabeth with the help of Spain and take her crown. Elizabeth waited out those nineteen years and finally, after the last plot almost succeeded, executed Mary.

It's a story that has enthralled the world for over four hundred years, sparking plays, operas, an endless stream of biographies, and several movies. (The latest starred Scarlett Johansson as Mary.) In 1895 one of the first movies ever made was an 18-second-long film of Mary's execution produced by Thomas Edison.

Edison's 1895 film The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots
In Edison's brief film the actress playing Mary lays her head across the executioner's block. He raises his axe. An edit occurs during which the actress is replaced by a mannequin. The mannequin's head is chopped off and the executioner holds it high in the air. It was filmdom's first special effect.

What is it about these two queens that so perennially fascinates us? I think it's that primal divide of head vs heart, of sense vs sensibility. Elizabeth, though passionate, acted with forethought. Mary, though intelligent, acted on her desires.

Francis and Mary
Partly it stemmed from their upbringing. Mary became queen of Scotland just days after her birth. Her French mother, Mary of Guise, ruled in her daughter's name and sent Mary at the age of five to France to join the French king's family in preparation for marriage to his son and heir, Francis. Growing up in the most glittering court in Europe, Mary was pampered and petted and loved by the French royal family. She married Francis when they were both in their teens, and when his father died a year later the young couple became king and queen of France. At age sixteen Mary had reached the pinnacle.

Elizabeth at about age thirteen
Elizabeth's upbringing could not have been more different. Hers was a childhood of uncertainty and fear. Her father, Henry VIII, beheaded her mother, Anne Boleyn, for adultery when Elizabeth was three. He disinherited Elizabeth. Her half-sister Mary came to the throne when Elizabeth was twenty-one and sent her to the Tower where Elizabeth, terrified, fully expected to be executed. But Mary died and Elizabeth, who had never thought she would rule, became queen at the age of twenty-five. In those perilous years she had learned to watch and wait, and never to act rashly.

It was a lesson Mary never learned.

These two queens, raised so differently, had very divergent outlooks on three aspects of monarchy. The first is what we today might call patriotism. Mary, formed by France, was not much interested in Scotland, which she considered an unsophisticated backwater. In 1560 her husband, the young King Francis, died and so did her mother, who had ruled Scotland in Mary's name. Mary was therefore free to return to her homeland and take up her birthright as its reigning queen. Instead, she chose to stay in France where life was pleasant, and spent many months casting about for a new European husband. Finding none to her liking, she grudgingly returned to Scotland.

Mary landing in Scotland

Elizabeth, on the other hand, loved her country and its people with a sincerity in her words and actions that rings to us down the centuries. She was proud of being "mere English" ("mere" in those days meaning "purely"). She enjoyed meeting common people on her journeys through the shires, and bantering with them with a familiarity that shocked the European aristocracy. She said often that her people were her family. Her people loved her in return.

Secondly, nowhere was the head-or-heart divide more apparent than in the choices these women made about marriage. For a queen, marriage was a crucial matter of state. After four years on the Scottish throne Mary fell passionately in love with an English nobleman, Lord Darnley, and despite the vociferous disapproval of her nobles she hastily married him. She even used her power as monarch to name him king.

Mary Queen of Scots and Lord Darnley
This splintered her court into factions - for and against Darnley - a situation that diminished much of Mary's power and led to a simmering civil war. Mary bore a son, James. But the marriage quickly soured when Darnley proved to be an arrogant, charmless wastrel. Mary turned to a tough military man on her council, the Earl of Bothwell, and there was gossip that they were lovers. Seventeen months after marrying the queen, Darnley was murdered. (The house he was sleeping in was blown up.)
James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell

Bothwell was accused of the murder, tried, and acquitted. Three months later, Mary took him as her third husband. The people suspected her of having colluded with him to murder Darnley. When she rode back into Edinburgh the townsfolk hissed at her and called her "whore."

Elizabeth, famously, never married. She knew the danger if she did: her husband would be considered king, creating warring factions in her realm and eclipsing her power. For two decades foreign princes vied for her hand in marriage, and Elizabeth used them to negotiate alliances, and to disrupt foreign alliances that endangered England. She frustrated her councilors, who constantly urged her to marry to produce an heir. Elizabeth was acutely aware of the succession problem: a monarch who left no heir consigned their realm to likely civil war. And, with no heir of her body, her throne would pass to none other than Mary, her cousin. Elizabeth's decision to stay single was a hard one that brought her considerable personal anguish. She was heard to say, when Mary's son was born, that she envied Mary the baby "while I am barren stock." But she knew her decision was wise.

Thirdly, the head-or-heart divide had its greatest impact in how the two women ruled. The business of governance did not interest Mary. She rarely attended the meetings of her council, and when she did she sat and sewed. She enraged Darnley and her nobles by ignoring them and spending her time with her young Italian secretary, Rizzio.

Elizabeth was what we would call a "hands-on" leader, involving herself in every aspect of governance. Furthermore, on the eve of a possible invasion by the terrifying Spanish Armada she rode out to her troops assembled at Tilbury and inspired them to face the foe, giving an address so stirring that Winston Churchill quoted it to steel England's people to face a possible invasion by the Nazis.

Elizabeth addressing her troops at Tilbury
"Let tyrants fear . . . I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects. And therefore I am come amongst you ... being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all." (Elizabeth at Tilbury)

Mary Stuart is to be pitied. She spent nineteen years under house arrest and died a gruesome death, beheaded at Elizabeth's order. But before she reached England it was her incompetence as a ruler in Scotland, her disastrous decisions in leadership, that led to her downfall there. If peace, prosperity, religious tolerance, and increased international respect are the fruits of successful leadership, Elizabeth Tudor remains one of England's greatest rulers.


Barbara Kyle is the author of the acclaimed "Thornleigh" novels set in Tudor England. Her latest release is The Queen's Gamble. 

She welcomes visitors to her website: www.BarbaraKyle.com   


  1. Katherine MarcellaMay 9, 2012 at 5:25 AM

    Very interesting. Thank you, Barbara.

  2. Katherine, I'm very glad you enjoyed the post. It's true: these two women endlessly fascinate.

  3. Two of the most fascinating women in all of history! I can't ever read enough about them.

  4. Great to hear, Connie. You're right, both women were quite extraordinary. Both feature in my upcoming novel The Dangerous Queen. I hope you'll enjoy it!

  5. This is a beautiful done and succintly put analysis of the two women, whose strengths and weaknesses keep the members of the Marie Stuart group on Yahoo arguing. I have tried to illustrate the contrasts of their personalities and abilities in my novels First Marie and the Queen of Scots, and Last Knight. But it took me far more words to do so than you have done in this nicely illustrated piece. I shall await Dangerous Queen.

  6. Linda, I love it that my post set your Marie Stuart group on Yahoo to debating. And I am grateful (if ashamed at my previous ignorance) to learn about the Mary Stuart Society. I will henceforth follow the Society's website updates. Thanks for your kind words about the post - I'm so glad you enjoyed it. And I shall check out your books :)

  7. Fascinating ladies! I love your post and was particularly taken by your point about their formative years shaping them.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Sophia Rose, you're right - the radically different upbringing of Elizabeth and Mary marked them for life. An interesting case of "nurture vs nature." Thanks for your comment!

  8. A fascinating look at two very important women. Thanks for this,

  9. I was in Peterborough Cathedral a few months back and there are still tired and very old looking Scottish standards hanging from the walls. There is a plaque telling of Mary Queen of Scots body being temporarily laid in state there. It has been moved on since though her standards still hang inside the Cambridgeshire Cathedral. I went back home and read of the Babington plot that brought about her execution. The gruesome way the plotters met there end was truly horrendous. What you say is right. It was survival by head and not heart. Hearts can be too faint at the end of the day and the price of failure at this level is beyond comprehension, if caught.


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