Friday, December 25, 2015

The Other Mary: Mary of Guise

by Marie Macpherson

Portrait of Mary of Lorraine, Queen
 of Scotland in the Royal Collection
2015 marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of Marie de Guise, mother of Mary, Queen of Scots, on 22 November 1515. Throughout her short life this twice widowed, dowager queen regent of Scotland surmounted many personal tragedies and handled public crises with the pragmatism and prudence of a skilled politique but she is rarely given the credit she is due. The tragic misfortunes of her more famous daughter have eclipsed the achievements of this French-born warrior queen who fought to keep the Scottish throne for the Stewarts.


The eldest child of Claude de Guise and Antoinette de Bourbon, Marie was born into ‘arguably the most powerful dynasty in sixteenth-century France’, the prestigious House of Guise, a scion of the House of Lorraine. However, she did not enjoy the cosseted upbringing that her royal daughter later did. Marie was no pampered princess but lived with her devout grandmother, Philippa de Gueldres, who had retired to the convent of Pont-à-Mousson. There, Marie endured the privations of a Poor Clare, sleeping on a bed of straw and undertaking menial tasks. This austere, ascetic regime undoubtedly stood her in good stead, forging a character strong enough to withstand the many tragedies, trials and tribulations that fate flung at her.

When she was fourteen, her striking good looks and robust figure – Marie would grow to nearly six feet – as well as her intelligence and wit – greatly impressed her uncle Antoine, duc de Lorraine. Declaring his niece to be too precious a prize to be closeted in a convent, he withdrew her from the cloister to groom her for the French court and marriage to a prince. Though Marie swiftly found favour with François I, the king did not match her with the hoped-for prince but with a duke – Louis de Longueville. Their wedding on 4 August 1534 was the event of the season.

Duchess of Longueville

The golden couple’s marriage seemed blessed, firstly with the birth of their son, François, on 30 October 1535, and then again when Marie became pregnant in 1537. However, that year Marie was to suffer the first of the many tragedies that blighted her life: the sudden death of her husband in June 1537.

If the 21-year-old widow assumed she would live out her life as a dowager duchess rearing her sons (her second son, Louis, was born in August) and overseeing their inheritance at Châteaudun, King François had other plans for this highly desirable marital asset. In 1537, he had wed his eldest daughter to James V, King of Scots, but Madeleine suffered poor health and, weeks after arriving in damp, dreich Scotland, succumbed to consumption.

Although devastated by her untimely death, James V was anxious to acquire a French princess, but François was not keen to sacrifice another daughter.

Instead, he proposed the recently widowed duchess. As well as her many physical and intellectual attributes she had proved to be fertile. Marie was reluctant for it would mean leaving behind her sons and travelling to Scotland, a very rough and backward place, she had heard.

Nevertheless, she must have given thanks that James got his offer in first because his uncle Henry VIII, newly widowed after Jane Seymour’s death in childbirth, was also back on the marriage market. Hearing that the ‘lusty and fair’ duchess with the rich dowry was ‘big in person’ he retorted that he had need of a big wife. Neither his manner of wooing nor his marital history impressed Marie. ‘I may be big in person, but my neck is small,’ she famously retorted, demonstrating a sharp tongue as well as a brass neck. Henry’s reaction to this, if his envoys ever dared to pass it on, is not recorded.

Although Marie had no choice but to accept James’ proposal, the doughty widow asserted herself during the dowry negotiations, refusing to agree to his unreasonable demands and drawing up a pre-nuptial agreement that would secure her sons’ inheritance. In the midst of this crisis, Marie suffered another blow: her four-month-old son Louis died, leaving her bereft.

To persuade his reluctant bride, James wrote an emotional cri de coeur that began: "Madame, I am only twenty-seven years old and life already weighs as heavily upon me as my crown does … Fatherless since childhood, I have been the prisoner of my ambitious nobles." Going on to list the deceit, treachery and greed of his rebellious nobles who continually threatened his position, he confessed his need for a strong and capable wife to help him govern. Forewarned should be forearmed, and a lesser woman might have balked at such a frank description of the trials that lay ahead, but perhaps his frankness disarmed her. And Marie de Guise was made of sterner stuff. She had smeddum – the Scots word for backbone, mettle, or determination – in spades. Hastening the wedding plans, she was married by proxy on 9 May 1538 at Châteaudun.

Engraving of the Proxy Marriage of Mary of Lorraine and James V

Queen of Scots

After meeting his bride at St Andrews, James took her on a tour of the properties he had been refurbishing in preparation for his marriage to Madeleine. The palaces of Falkland, Linlithgow and Holyrood and Stirling Castle enchanted Marie who confessed that Scotland was not such a barbarous country after all. However, the honeymoon was short-lived as Marie learned that James was a deeply troubled man who suffered from bouts of depression and mood swings. Then she had to accept his various illegitimate children by at least six different mistresses were being brought up at court.

Portrait of James V and Marie de Guise

Marie had to tread a fine line and deploy all her tact to deal with the resentment and jealousy that her arrival had aroused, especially in Margaret Erskine, mother of his eldest son, James Stewart. After her failed attempt to divorce her husband so as to marry James V, Lady Douglas nursed a deep-seated grudge that she bequeathed to her son, drumming it into him that he should be the rightful heir to the throne.

Marie’s increasingly strained relationship with the mentally unstable king eased when she produced an heir and a spare. When she gave birth to James on 22 May 1540 followed by Robert on 24 April 1541 Marie was crowned Queen of Scots in reward for doing her duty. However, fate dealt a double blow when both sons died within hours of each other. When she aired her suspicion about their being poisoned in a letter to her mother, Antoinette de Bourbon consoled her with the thought that she and the king were young yet and had plenty of time to have more sons.

In the spring of 1542, Marie was delighted to be pregnant again, but her joy was overshadowed by the threat from England. For centuries the English had fought to gain sovereignty over their northern neighbour, and now Henry VIII was scouring the ancient records for proof of his claim to be overlord of Scotland. When this failed, he planned to kidnap his nephew and seize his kingdom. He sent a small force led by the Douglas brothers, Archibald, Earl of Angus (ex-husband of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret Tudor; he was James V’s stepfather). James had warned Marie about the fickle Scottish lords, but here was proof that ‘assured Scots’ in the pay of Henry VIII were willing to betray their country for English gold.

In November 1542, James sent an army under the command of Oliver Sinclair to face the English force at Solway Moss. Whatever the reason for the Scots’ defeat that day, the rout sent James spiralling into a deep depression, ‘his mind near gone through dolour and care’. He embarked on a final tour of his properties, stopping off at Linlithgow where Marie was in the last days of her confinement before crossing the Forth to Falkland. When asked where he would spend Christmas he replied he could not tell, for, "On Yule day you will be masterless and the realm without a king". He then took to his bed with a high fever.

The news that his wife had given birth to a daughter on 8 December was the last straw. Reputedly muttering the prophecy about the Stewart dynasty that: "It cam wi a lass an it’ll gang wi a lass", James V turned his face to the wall. The thirty-year-old monarch died on 14 December, probably of dysentery but also despair.

Dowager Queen

Marie of Guise
Widowed once again, Marie held in her arms an important ‘dynastic entity’, as Merriman described her six-day-old daughter and during the fierce battle for control of the infant Queen Mary, Marie was helpless. For over a month she not only had to observe the Roman Catholic ritual of purification for a newly-delivered mother but also the strict rules of mourning for a royal spouse. Released from her enforced seclusion she was surprised to find that she had not automatically become regent. Cardinal David Beaton had produced a will purportedly signed by James on his deathbed appointing him as regent but contested by James Hamilton, Earl of Arran, next in line to the throne, who accused him of forging it. At a convention in January 1543, the lords voted for Arran as regent and Lord Governor of Scotland and Beaton as Lord Chancellor.

These bitter rivals would head the two factions that defined Mary Stewart’s regency. The Anglo-Scottish alliance – led by Arran – intended to reform the Church along Protestant lines while the Franco-Scottish alliance – headed by Beaton – sought to maintain the authority of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland.

Meanwhile, in England, Henry VIII saw the perfect opportunity to unite the two kingdoms. By marrying his son, Edward, to Queen Mary, Henry could achieve peacefully what his predecessors had fought over for centuries – sovereignty over Scotland. With that in mind he released prominent noblemen captured at Solway Moss in return for their promise to support the union of Edward and Mary and his claim to Scotland. Marie was pushed into a corner. If she refused Henry’s proposal, he would invade Scotland and take the infant queen by force. With no choice but to dissemble and play for time she replied that nothing would please her better.

Despite heated debates, the Scottish Parliament finally signed the Treaty of Greenwich on 1 July 1543 agreeing to peace between the two kingdoms and to sending Mary to England on her eleventh birthday to marry Edward.

Meanwhile, the queen mother was playing off rival suitors for her hand. Dangling the bait of marriage she had invited back to Scotland Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox. A Catholic with a strong claim to the Scottish succession he would present a serious challenge to Arran’s authority.

Not to be outdone, Patrick Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, divorced his inconvenient wife in order to throw his hat into the marital ring. During the autumn of 1543, the comical sight of the two earls vying with each other for the queen’s hand kept the court entertained. Marie had no intention of favouring either: her ploy was to keep both earls on her side. (Growing impatient, Lennox flounced off to England in the huff to wed Margaret Douglas, daughter of the Earl of Angus and Margaret Tudor. As fate would have it, both men turned out to be fathers of her daughter’s future husbands. Such was the incestuous relationship of the Scottish nobility!)

The Rough Wooing

The ink on the Treaty of Greenwich was hardly dry when the Scottish parliament revoked it. On the eve of Mary’s coronation as Queen of Scots, twa-fangelt Arran lived up to his nickname. Leant on by his half-brother the Abbot of Paisley, the vacillating, indecisive, opportunistic regent repented of supporting the Protestants. Now he supported the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France.

Infuriated, Henry ordered his commander, Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, to burn Edinburgh and Leith, sack Holyrood, "putting man, woman and child to fire and sword without exception". So began the period of ‘rough wooing’ that lasted until 1548.

Henry also ordered St Andrews, the seat of the Scottish Roman Catholic Church and Cardinal Beaton’s stronghold, to be razed to the ground. Beaton fortified the castle, but Henry plotted with Protestant sympathisers in Fife who were only too ready to get rid of this turbulent priest.

"Cardinal David Beaton" by Quicumque; Own work. 
Licensed under Public Domain via Commons* 
The wealthy, worldly cardinal, who kept a concubine and had fathered several offspring, symbolised all that was corrupt in the Roman Church. In 1546 he sentenced the popular Protestant preacher, George Wishart, to be burned at the stake for heresy. In retaliation, the Fife lairds stabbed him to death and then barricaded themselves inside the castle. Thus began a long siege during which Wishart’s disciple, the firebrand John Knox, stepped into his master’s shoes to become preacher to the Castilians, as the conspirators were called.

On Henry’s death in January 1547, Seymour, now Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector of Edward VI, insisted on the Scots abiding by the Treaty of Greenwich and continued the policy of aggression. In September 1547, with the aim of taking Queen Mary by force, he marched on Edinburgh. The two armies clashed at Pinkie Cleugh, six miles south of the capital, where the Scots suffered a disastrous defeat.

Fearful for her daughter’s safety, Marie hid her daughter at the priory on Inchmahone Island in the Lake of Menteith but that was only a stopgap. To spring the trap, the new French king, Henri II proposed marriage between his three-year-old son, Dauphin François, and Mary, Queen of Scots, on condition that Mary was brought up at the French court as the future queen of France. In return he sent ships to break the St Andrews siege and capture the Castilians, amongst them John Knox who was sentenced as a galley slave.

On 7 July 1548 Marie signed the fateful Treaty of Haddington at the Cistercian abbey on the banks of the Tyne, and a few weeks later Mary sailed from Dumbarton (in a galley rowed by her nemesis Knox, in a quirk of fate, I like to imagine!)

Sojourn in France

In 1550, Marie left for France not only to visit her children and newly widowed mother but to petition Henri’s support in her bid for the regency and oust Arran who was bleeding the coffers dry. I also think she was anxious to meet her daughter’s intended. On receiving Lady Janet Fleming’s unfavourable reports about the dauphin’s poor physical condition, Marie was concerned he may not live to adulthood. And what would Mary do then, poor queen? She may also have intended to bring back her son to groom him as a future regent, but sadly, on the way to Dieppe, François, died in her arms. "Our Lord must wish me for one of his chosen ones, since he has visited me so often with such sorrow," broken-hearted Marie wrote to her mother.

Queen Regent

Back in Scotland, Marie toured the realm to find out how many lords would support her bid for the regency. Quite a lot, it turned out, if given enough financial inducement. Arran, too, had his price. In return for substantial financial benefits he surrendered the governorship, and Marie was at last declared Queen Regent of Scotland in February 1554. Her letters reveal that she saw herself as ‘mother of the commonwealth,’ with a God-given mission to turn the unruly infant nation into a well-organised, well-behaved state.

Bringing together all the various divisions under one rule was not an easy task, for Scotland was a disunited country not only religiously but politically, geographically. In the highlands, the clan chiefs ruled their own roosts while uprisings amongst the rebellious borderers in the Debatable Land were forever breaking out.


John Know woodcutting
Marie de Guise may have been brought up in a convent, but she displayed remarkable tolerance towards her Protestant subjects – unlike Mary Tudor who sent countless martyrs to the stake. The controversial burning of Walter Milne in 1558 was by order of Archbishop Hamilton, and during 1555-56 she allowed Knox to carry out his preaching tour of Scotland (much to Hamilton’s chagrin) though she famously brushed aside his attempt to convert her – a snub Knox never forgave.

Marie did not escape the lash of John Knox’s vitriolic tongue in his notorious tract, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women –not, as is commonly supposed a sexist rant against a battalion of battleaxes, but a denunciation of female rule – Mary Tudor, Mary of Guise and Mary, Queen of Scots. To be fair, Knox was voicing what most men of the time believed – that being weak, vacillating and immoral creatures, women were unfit to hold power – though much more vociferously.

Despite her policy of tolerance and non-persecution, a group of the lords banded together in December 1557 to sign the first covenant, ostensibly to establish the Protestant faith in Scotland but more likely to gain the rich properties held by the Roman Catholic Church. For Marie suspected the grubby mitts of Mammon rather than the divine hand of God guided the motives of these Lords of the Congregation.

With the threat of the Catholic Anglo-Imperial partnership south of the border (Mary Tudor had married Philip of Spain) the lords pushed for Mary’s marriage to the dauphin in 1558 as the lesser of two evils. However, the commissioners sent to negotiate the marriage contract were unaware of the secret documents signed by Mary stating that, in the event of her death, France would retain the kingdom and revenues of Scotland until all the expenses incurred for Scotland’s defence and Mary’s education had been repaid. In other words, France would gain full control of Scotland. What would the Congregations’ reaction have been if they’d found out? The marriage took place in April 1558 but with Mary Tudor’s premature death in November, the game of thrones changed once again.

The Protestant Rebellion

Emboldened by the accession of the Protestant Elizabeth and the removal of the Habsburg threat, the Lords of the Congregation became more forceful in their demands for reform. On 1 January 1559, an anonymous notice, the ‘Beggars’ Summons’, was pinned to the door of every religious house in Scotland warning the friars that if they did not hand over their property to the poor and infirm by Whitsunday they would be evicted.

Spurred into action, Marie ordered the four most outspoken preachers to answer charges of usurping the ministerial office and preaching sedition, but they refused. To show their support for the preachers, a multitude assembled in Perth ready to march on Stirling. Taken by surprise, Marie could not imagine that this act of defiance would spark a wholesale rebellion in Scotland, a civil war led by John Knox.

Invited by the Lords of the Congregation, Knox had left Geneva and landed in Scotland on 2 May 1559. On 11 May he preached a fiery sermon at St John’s Kirk of Perth that provoked riots and destruction throughout Perthshire and Fife.

Over the next few months a bitter civil war ensued with defeats and victories on each side and agreements drawn up only to be broken again. The French ambassador’s report best sums up the sorry state of affairs in mid-16th century Scotland:
Because of the aforesaid divisions, the realm of Scotland was, and still, is at the present time under arms, for all the friends of one faction mistrust all those of the other faction so much so that not merely is the nobility in arms, but churchmen, friars and country people only travel through the countryside in large companies, all armed with pikes, swords and shields.
Suffice to say that there was deceit and dissimulation on both sides and downright treachery on the part of the lords.

At first Marie had the support of her stepson, Lord James Stewart, and the Earl of Argyll, husband of her stepdaughter, and Secretary William Maitland, but when she broke the Perth Agreement by garrisoning the town with soldiers in the pay of France, they defected to the other side.

When Marie ordered a contingent of French troops to fortify Leith, Arran, now Duke of Châtelherault, used this as an excuse to switch allegiance. Ever the opportunist, he had been conspiring with Elizabeth’s principal adviser, William Cecil, to unite the two countries by putting his son on the Scottish throne and wedding him to Queen Elizabeth. An even more serious danger was the treachery of Marie’s secretary Maitland who betrayed her plans to the Congregation.

After Henri II’s death from a jousting wound in July 1559, the new monarch and son-in-law François sent a fleet to Scotland, but it was driven back by storm to Calais. In the meantime Knox, Maitland and Châtelherault had been negotiating with Cecil and in February 1560 signed the Treaty of Berwick giving Elizabeth I the right to military intervention and renouncing the Franco-Scottish Auld Alliance. In March 1560 when an English army invaded Scotland Marie took refuge in Edinburgh Castle.


All this stress was taking its toll on Marie who was now showing signs of heart failure. Despite suffering from dropsy, she battled on, pleading with her lords to break from England – in vain as one by one they deserted her. By 1 June she was gravely ill – her mind began to wander and she was unable to eat and speak at times. Knowing she was near to death she wrote her will and sent for the lords including James Stewart, Châtelherault and the Earl of Argyll. After pleading with them to maintain the French alliance she begged their forgiveness if she had ever offended them and forgave them for all their offences against her. For some reason she consented to a visit from the Protestant preacher John Willock, a colleague of Knox, rather than her French bishop.

Shortly after midnight on 11 June 1560 she died in her 45th year. Her body was placed in a lead coffin and taken to St Margaret’s Chapel on the highest point of the castle rock where it lay until being transferred to France in March 1561 to be buried in the abbey church where her sister Renée was abbess. Marie had come full circle.

Mary of Guise Commemorative Tablet at Edinburgh Castle

Two symbols are attributed to Marie de Guise. One, a crown set above a rock beaten by winds and waves, bears the motto Adhuc stat – And still it stands. The other, according to Margaret Swain, is a phoenix, the bird that rises anew out of the ashes from the flames that destroyed it. It has the motto that her daughter chose to embroider on her cloth of state: En ma fin gît ma commencement – In my end is my beginning. Added together both symbols and mottoes sum up the arduous life of this remarkable woman.


Ritchie, Pamela E., Mary of Guise in Scotland, 1548-1560 (2002)
Dawson, Jane E. A., Scotland Re-Formed 1488-1587 (2007)
Dawson, Jane, John Knox (2015)
Marshall, Rosalind K., Mary of Guise (2001)
Merriman, M.H., The Rough Wooings: Mary, Queen of Scots, 1542-1551 (2000)
Swain, Margaret, The Needlework of Mary, Queen of Scots (1973)

All illustrations are in the public domain.


Scottish author Marie Macpherson writes historical fiction set in the 16th century during the turbulent time of the Scottish Reformation. Her first novel in the Knox Trilogy, The First Blast of the Trumpet (published by Knox Robinson Publishing 2012) is a fictional account of the early, undocumented life of the reformer, John Knox.

Marie de Guise’s valiant struggles to preserve her daughter’s throne are depicted in the second book of the Knox trilogy. The Second Blast of the Trumpet, due out in 2016, follows Knox’s life after his release from the galleys; his exile in England and Geneva, his marriage to Marjory Bowes (as well as his relationships with other women), the circumstances that led him to write his notorious tract, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women and his role in the Protestant uprising of 1559-60.



  1. Marie Macpherson is our foremost great Scottish historians and writers today. Thank you for this thorough article on Marie Of Guise, a key player in Scots politics and world affairs at that time.

    1. And thank you for your kind, though undeserved words. I'm glad the importance of Marie's achievements came through. Until the day & hour she died she never let up. It's always difficult within the confines of a short article to do justice to her endeavours.

  2. Great post! Marie de Guise stands forth as quite the impressive lady - most deserving of being compared to a phoenix

    1. Thanks, Anna. She was an astute lady.I often wonder what would have happened had she lived long enough to pass on the benefit of her great experience to her daughter.

  3. This Article touched on a lot of the conflict of that Period. What an amazing lot to have to deal with...I have a lot of Admiration for her and her Daughter.

    1. Belated thanks Marilyn! Nearly a year in fact. I came to admire her greatly while writing The Second Blast - I hope I've done her justice!


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