Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The True Life of Mary Stuart and the Movie Version: PART 1, by Linda Fetterly Root

(Republished from my Blog at lindaroot.blogspot)


When I heard John Guy was going to consult on the script for the 2018 version of the life of Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots, I was a pre-determined fan.  I should have known better when I heard the movie included a scene portraying a meeting of the Queen of Scots and her cousin Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England, an event that never happened.  I considered an argument offered by the filmmakers that the scene could be interpreted by historians as a dream sequence and in any case, what transpired between the royal cousins could be excused because the views and sentiments expressed at the mythical meeting were consistent with their letters and public declarations.  Nevertheless,  a generation who learns its history at the cinema will be left with an impression of an encounter that is at best a fantasy, and at its worst, inaccurate.

When Elizabeth removes her wig in the presence of a rival queen whose legendary beauty was a thorn in the hand that held the scepter, I wanted to scream aloud.

The fictional meeting of the queens is not the movie's only sin nor the fatal one: I am only one among the several people who know their history who applaud the cinematography, the casting and the costuming, but are left wondering if the movie somehow missed the point. Others who saw it felt the scene portrayed Marie as the stronger character, which was never the case. The queens came from the same bloodline but as very different women.

 Marie Stuart was a divine-right monarch and upon her father James V's death when she was six-days-old she did not need to fight for a thone ostensibly given her by God, but during a childhood spent in France, her country was ruled by others in her stead. Although she was an anointed queen, she was an absentee ruler. By the fall of her mother's regency and death, the Reformation had altered the political thought of those left behind in Scotland, bringing changes Marie never entirely grasped. On the other hand, Elizabeth's ascendancy was an entirely different situation. Upon her father Henry VIII's death, she stood third in line to the English throne under the terms of his Will and disqualified entirely by her bastardy in the eyes of many, including many of the powerful Northern Lords. Under the rules of succession, her young brother Edward inherited the crown and sought to disqualify both of his sisters in favor of his adamantly protestant Lady Jane Gray. Even when Mary Tudor asserted her claim and ousted Jane, Elizabeth's succession was far from settled.  When Mary Tudor was in declining health, a faction sympathetic to a Catholic succession favored the dying queen's Catholic cousin, Margaret Douglas. But Elizabeth had grown cautious during her Catholic sister's reign. Her survival and ascendancy required an entirely different skill set --one necessarily sensitive to the Winds of Change. Most English had no desire for another Catholic Queen.  No one understands the difference between the histories of the two British Queens than historian John Guy. If I take a poke or two in this post, my barbs are not aimed at John Guy, the historian, but at  John Guy, the script-consultant, screenwriter.

 The movie attributes more progressive thought to the Queen of Scots than it's co-screenwriter Guy reports in his excellent history.  During the early months of her personal rule, she accepted the guidance of her brother James Stewart, known to history as the Earl of Moray, and her foreign secretary, Sir William Maitland.  Their influence kept her ardent Catholicism in check and allowed her to achieve a strained but working relationship with Scotland's firebrand Reformer, John Knox, but not for long.

(David Tennant, John Knox in the Queen of Scots film.)

The Mary Queen of Scots screenplay is not the 'True Life of Mary Stuart' of John Guy's book.  In a sense, the title of the movie is itself a misnomer.  Those who have read Guy's stellar biography of Marie Stuart and followed his lectures will have come away with two strong messages to help us understand the tragedy of the iconic queen: 1) The youthful queen who returned to her birthplace to begin her six years of personal rule was a French girl; and 2) her marriage to her English cousin Henry Stuart, commonly known as Lord Darnley, was her downfall.   The movie makes neither of these points apparent, and thus, the Marie Stuart in the movie, however superbly acted by Saoirse Ronan, is not the queen in Guy's history, The True Life of Mary Stuart, QUEEN OF SCOTS, first published in the UK as ''My Heart is My Own' - The Life of Mary Queen of Scots.  I concede the commercial necessity of making the cinematic Mary Stuart a construct fashioned to please an audience, a premise with which I have no quarrel. Focusing on her relationship with her regal English cousin makes good sense if the objective is box office appeal. There is something almost magical about the Tudors. However, I do take issue with a script that needlessly distorts or omits portions of a history every bit as dynamic and intriguing as the fictionalization that displaces it.

Marie Stuart did not wish to return to Scotland when her husband Francois II died.

I should have sensed problems from the first scene, which is not at all what happened when the Queen of Scots returned to Scotland to occupy the throne. The truth was far more humiliating to the Queen than merely being cast from a landing craft into kneedeep water at the tideline. After surviving a brutal North Sea Crossing, the Queen of Scots was faced by a colossal snub that would have played every bit as well as the fiction scene of Ms. Ronan on hands and knees in murky water.

Marie Stuart was more than the French Dowager. In her own right, from the time she was six days old she was an anointed queen. As such, she enjoyed a position at the French court that even the consort Catherine de Medici could not claim, and indeed, she rubbed it in. Adolescent Marie Stuart was said to have called the French king Henry II's consort 'the Italian shopkeeper's daughter.' Also, her display of the English Arms at the French Court while Dauphiness and Consort left no question she considered Elizabeth a bastard, an inferior and a usurper. All of modern Europe knew she claimed the English throne, a claim she never abandoned although at one point after her imprisonment in England, she agreed to do so if Elizabeth named her son James VI her heir.  When her sickly husband Francis II died, Marie did not decide to return to Scotland until her European marriage prospects failed to materialize.  Her first choice and that of her powerful French family, the Guises, was Don Carlos, the eldest child and heir to the King of Spain.  The fact he was known to be mentally unstable and likely homicidal did not matter.  He had the proper pedigree. Contrast this with the disaster of Elizabeth's sister Queen Mary Tudor, a lesson of which her younger sister Elizabeth took heed. However, the King's Mother, Catherine d' Medici, as Regent for her son, Charles IX, jinxed the marriage because it threatened the position of Catherine and the late King Henry's daughter Elisabeth, who had married Phillip in 1560.  The Queen of Scots deemed all other candidates inferior, including those advanced by her uncles, the Guise. With a suitable European marriage thwarted, the Queen of Scots looked favorably on a return to Scotland because she had run short of choices. She may have considered her return a temporary measure until she could place one of her Guise uncles' probably Renee, as Regent. Catherine must have been delighted to send the Queen of Scots and several of her Guise male relatives on their way to Scotland.  And since Marie was Dowager Queen of France, she embarked on the journey with considerable pomp and circumstance and a sizeable French fleet. The question was the route.

Elizabeth and her chief minister William Cecil were not unmindful of the threat of having a committed Catholic on the neighboring Scottish crown. When negotiations between  Cecil on behalf of the English Queen and William Maitland of Lethington on behalf of Marie Stuart failed, dashing hopes of smoothing over issues caused by the Queen of Scots publicly flaunting her claim to Elizabeth's throne, the English retaliated. Elizabeth refused to grant safe conduct to the Scottish Queen's party, which would have permitted her to sail from Calais to Dover.

By the time Elizabeth's temper cooled and the passports were issued, a formidable French fleet carrying the Queen of Scots and her household had embarked on the perilous route to Leith.  But Marie Stuart left France with trepidation and a heavy heart, with expectations of a warm welcome from Elizabeth and the English dashed.  And the disappointment was not over yet.

The Queen of Scots was not dumped in knee-deep water on a deserted beach like a homeless refugee as depicted in the movie. She arrived at Leith in full regalia aboard a  French flagship commanded by Nicholas Villegagnon, the same notable admiral who had piloted the ship carrying her from Dumbarton thirteen years earlier. Nevertheless, it had not been an easy crossing. They had lost the ship carrying their horses and another bearing their household accouterments in a North Sea storm. The survivors had fallen behind the flagship, which entered the harbor alone. Admiral Villegagnon ordered his flagship to fire its cannons to announce the queen's arrival, but no one of consequence came. Her principal Scottish ministers were at Saint Giles listening to a sermon, no doubt delivered by John  Knox or his protegee John Craig, both committed anti-Marians.  The crestfallen queen rested in a house commandeered by her attendants while the Four Maries found someone who would provide horses for the journey to Edinburgh.

The Lamb House. Leith
After a brief rest at what is known as The Lamb House in Leith, with evening approaching, the queen left for Holyrood Palace on a borrowed horse and simple saddle. And thus, the first hours of her personal rule of Scotland began with an insult, not a mishap.

In a recent interview, John Guy reminded us that Marie Stuart was a charmer with the ability to focus her attention on someone and make them feel as if they were the only other person on the planet. By the time she reached Edinburgh on her borrowed horse, however briefly, Scotland was hers to win.

  TO BE CONTINUED tomorrow:


  1. Replies
    1. THank you, Anne. You might enjoy my radio interview of Guy's book hosted by JAnet Wertman, if you can find it on The Tudor Network.

  2. Thank you for this excellent post. I look forward to Part II. (I couldn't bring myself to pay to see the movie.)

  3. Has there ever been a fictional retelling of Mary Queen of Scots, beginning with Friedrich Schiller's 1800 play, in which Mary and Elizabeth did not meet? It seems that history fails drama in this instance.

  4. Linda I really enjoyed reading this. Your knowledge is second to none and what you don’t know about this subject amazes me. Thank you.


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