Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Birth of a Queen - Marie Stuart, December 8, 1542

by Linda Root

Marie Stuart Statue

At the time of the births of Mary Tudor to Queen Catherine of Aragon and later, that of her half -sister Elizabeth to Queen Anne Boleyn, neither were considered likely to become sovereigns. Both of their mothers had child bearing years ahead of them, and Henry Tudor would have been the first to declare himself the most virile man in England. Surely there would be sons!

Four centuries later the same could be said of Princess Elizabeth of Windsor when her grandfather King George V died in 1936 and her personable uncle David became Edward VIII. And then came the famous words of abdication 'But you must believe me when I tell you that I have found it discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.' Sixteen years later his gentle-spirited niece succeeded his brother George VI to become Elizabeth II of England and Elizabeth I of Scotland, titular head of the British Commonwealth.

But it was an entirely different story when Princess Marie Stuart was born. When her mother entered her birthing chamber, a Scottish army far superior in numbers to the English defenders had suffered an embarrassing and unnecessary rout at Solway Moss,  and despondent King James V had retreated to his luxurious hunting lodge at Falkland and taken to his bed. The creme of the Scottish nobility had been herded to London as hostages to be seduced to Henry VIII's cause, and the common soldiers had deserted in great numbers even before the battle had been joined, principally due to their distrust of the military hierarchy led by the king's ineffectual favorite Oliver Sinclair and the deference given to the Frenchmen  in the chain of command.

To weather such a crisis, both king and country were in need of a healthy heir apparent who was male. But two weeks after the defeat at Solway Moss, Princess Marie Stuart was born under the cloud of the Scottish defeat and the unfortunate nature of her sex. This was not an occasion when Scottish skies were alight with bonfires.

But the full impact of the birth of a female heir apparent did not strike until six days later, when her father James V turned his face to the wall of his bedchamber and died. And thus, the disappointing Princess Marie became the even more disappointing Queen of Scots, leaving the nation ripe for exploitation from those without and factionalism from those within.

Decades later, the mighty but personally insecure Elizabeth Tudor called her cousin Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots, 'the daughter of debate,' a statement that borders on the prophetic. After hundred of years, historians are divided as to whether she was a martyr or a murderess, an incredibly forgiving wife or an adulteress,a competent sovereign facing insurmountable odds or an utter failure who orchestrated her own ruin.

Thus it should be no surprise that not even her date of birth is settled. Most historians accept December 8, 1542 on the Julian calendar, although some historians advance the argument that it actually occurred on December 7, and had been altered later to make it fall upon the Feast of the Holy Virgin. At least there is a consensus as to the place--Linlithgow Palace in Lothian.

Linlithgow Palace was a favored residence of a chain of Scottish consorts due to its picturesque setting and clean air. When Marie of Guise first saw it, she was delighted to find its setting equal in beauty to the chateaux along the Loire.

She joined with her husband James in a major effort to make it as lavishly decorated inside as it was magnificent on the outside. Together they selected furnishings, art and tapestries and imported items from France that created an environment as comfortable as the queen's late husband's ducal palace in Orleans or at Grande Jardin in Joinville, the most elegant  of the many  residences of  the House of Guise. Linlithgow was indeed the show place of Stuart Scotland, and Queen Marie de Guise chose it for the birthplace of the third child of her marriage to the Scottish king.

Photograph c.  by Paul Taylor, licensed via Wikimedia Commons

John Guy in his excellent 2004 history of the Queen of Scots, My Heart is My Own,  published in the United States under the title, The True Life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, adds  his talent for using words to creating vibrant visual imagery of Scotland in the grips of an unprecedented cold spell at the time of Marie Stuart's birth. Even the mighty Clyde had frozen over in late November  of 1542.

It was an odd time for the king to decide to launch a major military excursion  into England via the Debatable Lands. Some historians including Antonia Fraser attribute the unwise decision as a response to his uncle Henry Tudor's saber rattling when James refused to travel to England for a meeting at Christmas. Henry VIII has been insisting that his nephew, son of his older sister Margaret, meet with him on English soil  or English armies would avenge the slight by marching into Scotland.

For whatever reason, James sent a huge  raiding party into England  and  it resulted in a rout.  James did not personally participate in the battle and when he heard the news, his first concern was not for the hundreds of Scots who had been slaughtered or who had drowned or the thousands captured,  but for his unpopular favorite Oliver Sinclair.

After leaving the borders, James stopped by Linlithgow to exchange courtesies with his wife who was about to begin her confinement, and traveled on to his favorite hunting lodge at Falkland. According to Guy, he was suffering from deep depression after the defeat at Solway Moss, which he blamed on the high rate of desertions within the Scottish ranks, not the incompetence of their leaders.

Whether he died of despair is debatable. There is a possibility that he had contracted cholera or had caught whatever fever had recently claimed the life of his friend and confident the Earl of Athol.  The salient fact is that six days after her birth, Marie Stuart's father was dead and she was Queen of Scots.

Marie de Guise, 1538
Early 20th century Historian Thomas Finlayson-Henderson speculates that James more than likely did not love his second wife Queen Marie de Guise, citing the fact that he sired at least nine bastards to numerous mistresses.  However, those of the king's illegitimate children with known birth records were conceived long before his marriages to either of his French consorts, first to the  frail princess Madeleine, who died childless within months of her arrival in Scotland and whom James apparently adored, or his second marriage to the Dowager Duchess of Orleans, Marie of Guise in 1538.

The Guises were a powerful family from the Duchy of Lorraine and after Lorraine's annexation to France were considered French princes. Marie was the oldest daughter. She was an established beauty of keen intellect, and at least during her youth, a woman of robust health.

Lady Antonia Fraser remarks in her seminal biography first published in 1969, Mary Queen of Scots, that the physical characteristics we associate with Marie Stuart are consistent with the tall and handsome members of the House of Guise, not the less impressive Stewarts. Her temperament, elusive illnesses and her tendency to impetuousness, however, are attributed to her father's line.  In any case, there is no doubt that Marie of Guise was a much sought after marital partner: Henry VIII, who was between marriages when the Duke of Longueville died, had been his nephew's rival.

Finlayson-Henderson's speculation is probably based on the established truth that James V would have preferred to marry the already married  Margaret Erskine, Lady Douglas of Loch Leven, the mother of his favorite child Lord James Stewart.  The lady was the acknowledged love of his life, rather than either of his French brides.

James V, however, was not the consummate romantic that his remote descendant Edward VIII became in 1936. While he did not like it much, he was indeed able to stumble on  without the help and support of the woman he loved, who went back to her husband  Sir Robert Douglas of Loch Leven and is is best known for her role in later life when she became Marie Stuart's jailer at  Loch Leven Castle  in 1567.

A good deal of the problems that befell Marie Stuart as an adult stemmed from the fact that Lady Margaret  indoctrinated her son Lord James Stewart, Earl of Moray, that she and the king had engaged in a hand-fasting and thus he, not his half sister Marie, was the rightful sovereign of Scotland.

Marie de Guise's Coat of Arms as Duchess of Longueville

Marie de Guise, the Dowager Duchess of Longueville  came to the bed of the Scottish king with an establish record for bearing sons. She had already given birth to two, one of whom survived and was left in Joinville in the care of his  maternal grandmother Antoinette de Bourbon, Duchess of Guise.

King James also had established himself as a worthy sire of sons, albeit illegitimate. Of his many bastards of record, only one was a daughter, Princess Jean Stewart, Countess of Argyll. The alarming two childless years  of the royal marriage were causing alarm to both the Scottish nobility and the Guises when  the first of two sons was born in 1540 and became Prince James, Duke of Rothesay, his birth celebrated with all of the requisite bonfires and bells. In April of the following year a second prince was born, named either Robert or Arthur, who lived for just two days.

By the end of April 1541, both of the Scottish infant princes were dead, apparently of natural causes. Scots preparing for the coronation of the elder soon found themselves mourning both.  Scots critical of  the king blamed it on a vengeful God, rendering punishment for his libido and moral laxity, but infant morality in the sixteenth century was hardly rare. Both families assured the couple that they were young and there would be more sons coming. And thus, in the bleak winter of 1542, the fate of Scotland and the mental health of its king rested on a hope and promise that did not come to be.

The circumstances related to the birth of Marie Stuart were shrouded in mystery and misinformation.

Thomas Finlayson Henderson in his 1905 biography Mary Queen of Scots reports that several days before her birth news reached Edinburgh of a premature delivery. In some versions the child was male and in others, female, and in some versions, it died. Henry VIII certainly received such a report. But Linlithgow was only a few miles distant from Edinburgh and soon those rumors were dispelled and the nation returned to a period of watchful waiting.

When the Queen of Scots was born in early December, the weather in Scotland was so foul that it took six days for the messengers heading to London with the news to reach Northumberland south of Berwick-on-Tweed. More disastrous news had  arrived a few days earlier. The King of Scots was dead.

Finlayson-Henderson writes that the child's father King James V had been at Falkland Palace where he had taken to his bed in despair over the defeat at Solway Moss and the uncertain  fate of his favorite Oliver Sinclair when a courier arrived with news that the queen had delivered a daughter.  This was not the news that James wanted to hear. Following the death of his two infant sons he had pinned his hopes on a new male heir. Those hopes too were dashed.

Within a week of Marie Stuart's birth, the disparaged king died, apparently of natural causes, possibly from cholera. Two weeks later reports circulated in London that both mother and child, by now established to be female, were seriously ill and unlikely to survive.

One explanation for the dissemination of such dire but unsubstantiated news was the unusual reclusiveness of the Dowager. An  effort was made by Marie of Guise to insulate her daughter from the intrigues of the factions vying for control of her daughter during what was certain to be a protracted period of regency. A second factor had to do with the death of the king and the resulting funeraries which curtailed the usual celebrations surrounding the birth of a monarch.

The Queen of Scots was quietly christened at the nearby parish church of St.Michael's shown in the above picture, without any of the usual pomp and splendor or exposure to the deadly cold  that she would have faced had she traveled to either of the chapels royale at Holyrood or Stirling.  Her coronation was delayed until the following September.

Marie Stuart's  most formidable  modern critic Retha Warnicke, in her 2006 tightly written biography Mary Queen of Scots gives us a glimpse of what followed  in her remarks on the political atmosphere surrounding the queen's  birth:  Although there was no opposition to her ascension, and no legally justifiable argument to raise against it after the  the parliamentary entail ended in 1536 with the death of the Duke of Albany, succession of a female was by no means popular with the Scots.

Long before John Knox's The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regimen of Women diatribe  against a female monarch, David Lindsey, the Lion Herald, spoke out against it in verse.

The one positive result of the queen's ascension was that for the first year of her life at least, Henry VIII called off the Dogs of War and pursued a marriage game instead. His son Edward, Prince of Wales, was five years old, and Henry saw a way of establishing the long asserted English suzerainty over Scotland without bloodshed by means of a dynastic marriage--provided, of course, that the infant Queen of Scots survived. When the English diplomat Ralph Sadler was shown the unswaddled infant in March, he reported to Henry VIII that she was 'as goodly a child as I have seen of her age and as like to live,by Grace of God.'

By the time of her coronation in September of 1543, she was  a healthy, bright and pretty child, and the battle for control of her future began.

A large contingent of the Scottish nobility were Anglophiles and many of them, Calvinists.  The Dowager Queen of Scotland, however, was French and a daughter of the ultra-Catholic House of Guise, and strongly allied with the standard bearer of the Scottish Catholics, Cardinal David Beaton, Arch-bishop of Saint Andrews, who sought control of the little queen.  His rival was the Scottish heir-apparent James Hamilton, Earl of Arran, who Marie of Guise accurately called 'the most inconstant man in the world'.

Marie de Guise had another nominee, Matthew Stuart, Earl of Lennox, who at the time was a bachelor with claims to both the Scottish and the English crowns, and a sworn enemy of the Hamilton's. The new widow exercised her feminine wiles and enticed Lennox to become her champion. Thus, the major issues during the first year of Marie Stuart's life were 1) who would be her regent; and 2) whom would she marry.

Soon Henry Tudor released the  contingent of Scottish hostages known as 'Assured Scots' whom the English king had wooed and won, and the incompetent but pro-English Earl of Arran was ratified as Regent. Initially there was a compromise that placed Beaton as Chancellor, but that did not last long.  Soon Lennox was ousted  and Beaton was arrested.  A treaty was negotiated between the regent and the English which, among other things, promised Marie Stuart as the future bride of  little Edward Tudor.  The Dowager Marie de Guise had another candidate in mind.

Edward, Prince of Wales, by Holbein
Francois, the French Dauphin  by Clouet

Roderick Graham in his 2009 biography An Accidental Tragedy - The Life of Mary,Queen of Scots, presents an excellent analysis of why the English betrothal  did not happen. In essence, while the diplomats were dispensing bribes and Henry Tudor was flexing his  muscles, Marie de Guise, one of the most competent women of her time, realized that the key to her daughter's safety was to keep her close.

While the others bartered and threatened and bribed and cajoled, Marie de Guise tightened the circle around her daughter and herself,  agreed to conditions she never intended to honor, and until she saw her daughter safely off to France in 1548 under the protection of  the French King Henri II, she held on firmly and did not let go. She was very likely the one person in Marie Stuart's life who consistently acted in what she believed to be in her daughter's best interest, often at the expensive of her own health, happiness and peace of mind.

In 1548, just short of  Queen Marie Stuart's sixth birthday, her mother sent her to France to be raised in the French royal nursery in anticipation of her betrothal to the dauphin Francois.  The Dowager  traveled to France for a visit three years later. She returned to Scotland a year later to protect her daughter's interests and never saw the little queen again.

She died in 1560 after years of confrontation with the protestant Lairds of the Congregation and was buried in the chapel at Saint Pierre les Dames in Rheims after the Scots refused to allow her interment in the Chapel Royale at Holyrood alongside her husband James V and her infant sons. Twenty-seven years after the death of Marie de Guise, the captive Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots, made a similar request of her cousin Elizabeth Tudor that her body be sent to Rheims after her execution to be interred beside  her mother at Saint Pierre les Dames. That request, too, was denied.

More lines have been written about Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots than practically any other regnant queen. There have been nursery rhymes and cut-out dolls and songs and plays and  movies, and now the blatantly sexy and inaccurate but colorful mini-series Reign. But there is little trace of her at the site of her birth.

Her remains are in London  at Westminster Abbey across the aisle from those of her cousin Elizabeth Tudor, the person who either inadvertently or purposefully signed her death warrant.  Her tomb is the far more elegant of the two, probably due to guilt feelings on the part of her son James VI and I who had turned his back on her while she lived. And thus, Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots  reigns over legions of the royal dead and common dignitaries buried within a magnificent abbey in the capitol she never visited in a country she never ruled.

Photo by Bernard Gagnon, Creative Commons via GNU

And thus, her exile remains, a fact that perhaps lends bittersweet importance to plans to erect a statue on the grounds at her birthplace at Linlithgow soon. Its  model, shown below, portrays  her as elegant, tall, athletic and dignified. This past year in conjunction with  an exhibit of her treasures at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh a likeness was created using the latest in imaging technology and based upon a conglomerate of sources.

Marie Stuart Statue
Recently unveiled  image of Marie Stuart

Erection of the seven foot tall statute designed by the late Aberdonian sculptor Anne Davidson will be scaled up and cast by well-known sculptor David Annan.  The costs will come from private donations and is a fundraising project of the Marie Stuart Society. Donations are tax deductible in the U.K. For further information, visit the  mariestuartsociety website.The physical site reserved for the statute is at  Linlithgow Peel  on the palace grounds and will be  provided and maintained by Historic Scotland.  Linlithgow is one of the only sites associated with Marie Stuart that is accessible to the public year round, and it is a popular point of embarkation for those who plan to tour the Scottish sites  associated with the life of the enigmatic Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots.

So much has been written about her fall from glory and her grisly death that revisiting her birth seems appropriate on this, the four hundred seventy- first anniversary of her birth.

~My End is My Beginning~Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots~


Linda Root is the author of the five novels of the Queen of Scots Suite, The First Marie and the Queen of Scots, The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots, The Midwife's Secret: the Mystery of the Hidden Princess, the Other Daughter: Midwife's Secret II, (all available at Amazon. com ) and 1603~The Queen's Revenge (coming soon on Amazon books and Queen of Scots Suite Amazon Kindle)


  1. Thoroughly enjoyed reading your post!

  2. What a great read for me, Marie Stewart has always been one of histories most intriguing characters.

  3. Fantastic article Linda. Readable and informative. So glad you used the #MaryofScotsStatue photograph. Marie Stuart Society is very excited about the proposed 7ft bronze statue to be erected at her birthplace, Linlithgow Palace. More information here:

  4. Wonderful article Linda. Very enjoyable, and I hope the society can reach their goal soon


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