Views of Mary by Alison Weir [Write Up]

Okay. Now you all must know I love every one of you who submit and read the posts on this website. But I have to admit, that todays submission is probably my favourite one to date. Last month I emailed Alison to see if she was interested, only to be emailed a few hours later with a submission from her. I 100% fangirled out during my workout after reading it between sets on the leg press machine. I likely looked foolish with the cheesy grin on my face, but I didn’t expect so much as a response, nevermind that response being yes!

On top of it all, its my birthday and I get to share something from the one and only, Alison Weir!

VIEWS OF MARY: Historiography and Romance

Any study of Mary, Queen of Scots, must take into account changing historical perceptions of her over the centuries. After the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley, which led to her enforced abdication and her long imprisonment in England, she became a contentious figure. Scottish Calvinists saw her as an adulteress and murderess, and for political reasons vigorously painted her as such, while Mary’s Catholic and loyalist supporters regarded her as a wronged heroine. As memories of the murder faded, and she became the hope of the Counter-Reformation and the focus for Catholic plots against Elizabeth I, Mary herself consciously fostered a pious image, which culminated in her calculated and dramatic appearance, wearing red, as a martyr for her faith at her execution in 1587. English Protestants, it should be remembered, found her an altogether more sinister figure, and not without reason.

Yet Mary’s dignified courage as she faced the block has had a profound effect on the way in which most of her biographers have portrayed her; this image has, to a great extent, swept away darker contemporary perceptions of her, and as time passed it helped to enshrine her in romance and legend. That last tragic scene on the scaffold inspired the romantic tradition of the tragic heroine, an image of Mary that was to flower in the art and literature of the romantic era, and that would later find expression in countless narrative paintings, historical novels, and films. Back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, observers were more preoccupied with Mary’s religious and dynastic significance.

Predictably, most Catholic writers saw Mary as a Catholic martyr. The emotive image of the Catholic martyr Queen had such a powerful impact on her followers and posterity that it almost blotted out her previously dubious reputation, and gave rise to a long-standing tradition of semi-hagiographic historical writing that still has echoes in modern biographies. Yet after the accession of her son, James VI of Scotland, to the throne of England in 1603, even Protestant historians began to find praise for her, mindful, no doubt, of King James I’s determination to rehabilitate the memories of both his parents. Mary, it was now agreed, had been unfortunate rather than immoral.

It was not until the eighteenth century—when much of the contemporary source material became available for the first time—that Mary was seen as a woman who allowed her emotions to rule her acts and was therefore responsible to a degree for her own destruction. Historians such as David Hume and William Robertson criticised her for succumbing to overt and unwise passions. This view gave rise to a trend, which continued into the nineteenth century, for portraying Mary as the frivolous victim of a licentious upbringing at the French court, whose unrestrained sexual intrigues brought about her downfall. Religion was still a factor: the eminent but prejudiced Victorian historian, James Anthony Froude, was grimly censorious of the Catholic Mary, and shamelessly massaged the facts in order to show her in the worst possible light. At the turn of the century, the controversy over Mary’s involvement in Darnley’s murder was kept alive by a spirited debate between the historians T.F. Henderson and Andrew Lang.

During the twentieth century, historians were kinder to the Queen of Scots. Thanks to the ongoing reappraisal of contemporary evidence, new theories about Darnley’s murder were put forward, and Mary came to be viewed in a more sympathetic light. After Antonia Fraser published what has become the standard biography of the Queen in 1969, most historians have concluded that Mary was an innocent and much wronged victim of the unscrupulous men around her. It was not until the late twentieth century that historians began to paint a new picture of Mary, showing her as a failed monarch who was unique in making her claims to another throne a priority over the country of which she was already Queen. Her choices of husbands were disastrous, and her religious policy inconsistent and unrealistic. In all, she was the architect of her own downfall. A virtually lone voice is that of the historian Jenny Wormald, who believes that Mary was an abject failure as both a queen and a woman, and that she was an accomplice in Darnley’s murder.

In fairness to Mary, it could be said that her downfall was inevitable, given the revolution that had taken place in Scotland; yet it was she herself who, unwittingly or not, provided the Lords with the means of bringing it about.

Anyone writing about Mary, Queen of Scots today has to penetrate beyond the several stereotypical images that have evolved throughout the centuries—the adulteress and murderess, the femme fatale, the romantic tragic heroine, the religious martyr and the foolish victim of her own passions—to look for the real Mary and attempt to establish some estimation of her true character in order to determine whether or not she was capable of murder.

Central to the issue of Mary’s guilt, seemingly, are the controversial Casket Letters. If genuine, they go a long way towards proving her involvement in Darnley’s murder, but many have argued that they are forgeries or genuine letters that have been deliberately altered by Mary’s enemies. It should be said, however, that Mary’s guilt or innocence can be determined by other evidence than the Casket Letters, and that their importance has been somewhat overstated.

Some historians have described Mary as a foolish, passionate woman who was entirely without moral sense, and who was selfish, wilful, reckless, irresponsible and incapable of self-sacrifice. One even called her a nymphomaniac. Her enemies would later emphasise her moral depravity: Buchanan wrote of her “surface gloss of virtue” and Knox compared her to Jezebel. “We call her not a whore,” he wrote, “but she was brought up in the company of the vilest whoremongers.”

The truth of all this is hard to determine; none was more professedly jealous of her honour than Mary, yet there were undoubtedly occasions when she was constrained by circumstances or the behaviour of others to act in a way that left her open to censure. It is hard to believe that there was no alternative open to her: she was the Queen, and she almost always had powerful supporters willing to help her. Her intrigues show her to have been duplicitous and even ruthless, especially in her later machinations for the English throne; in 1561, Thomas Randolph, the English agent in Edinburgh, warned his superiors never to underestimate Mary, since he had found in her the fruit of the “best practised cunning of France combined with the subtle brains of Scotland.” Although she suffered much ill luck, it was often the result of the flaws in her character and her own poor judgement.

But Mary’s courageous demeanour on the scaffold obliterated for many—as it still does—the earlier image of her as an adulteress and murderess, and led to perceptions of her as a tragic heroine rather than a fallen woman.

Given the nature of the circumstantial evidence against Mary, and the fact that no less than 75% of the source material is hostile to her, it is not surprising that so many writers have concluded, with the Dean of Peterborough, that her execution was a just punishment for one who had killed her husband. But it can be demonstrated again and again that the bulk of the evidence against Mary is flawed. Apart from the notorious Casket Letters and the highly dubious deposition of Paris, there is no strictly contemporary documentary evidence of an adulterous relationship with Bothwell, nor is there any strictly contemporary evidence that Mary plotted Darnley’s death. Leaving aside the later libels and the claims of her enemies, who had powerful motives for constructing a case against her, there is nothing but the often ill-informed opinions of historians to condemn her. The arguments for her innocence are many, and have been well rehearsed in the foregoing chapters. Taken together, they constitute a strong case in her defence.

It is easy to see why Mary’s detractors consider her guilty. Even after extensive research, I came to believe, as I began to write my book, that she was guilty of the murder of Darnley. But when, two thirds of the way into writing it, I came to analyse the source material in depth, it became increasingly obvious that such a conclusion was not possible. Mary’s own reluctance to answer the Lords’ charges against her has been seen as suspicious, but it clearly arose from her conviction that she was not answerable to anyone but her equal, Elizabeth, rather than from a wish to evade awkward questions. It has been said that she never directly refuted the charges, but that is not so.

Mary’s poor judgement repeatedly served her ill. Her imprudent marriage to Darnley, her rash favour shown to Rizzio and her utterly foolish decision to flee to Protestant England rather than Catholic France, and to ask for succour from a queen whose throne she had laid claim to, all contributed to her ruin. Yet she had no control over the events that overtook her, the plotting that led to Darnley’s death, and her own frail health which prevented her from responding to his murder as her contemporaries expected. Nor, as an inexperienced Catholic female sovereign, could she halt the reformist movement in Scotland, of which her removal from power was a natural progression. Instead, in an age that did not understand religious tolerance, she followed a policy of conciliation whilst making the right noises to the Pope about the restoration of Catholicism – and consequently lost credibility with both sides. Her tragedy was that she was in many respects innately unsuited for the role to which she had been born. Compared with her cousin Elizabeth, she was a political innocent, and as such she was thrust into a situation in which a seasoned, hard-headed male ruler might have floundered.

No court of law would today convict Mary of the charges laid against her by the Lords. Her integrity is well attested by the opinions of those who faithfully served her over a period of many years. That she was the object of an extended campaign of character assassination is beyond doubt. Furthermore, since so much of the evidence of her enemies has been discredited, doubt must be cast on the rest. Mary paid a high price for the ambitions of others: she paid for it in the loss of her throne, the long years of captivity, separation and alienation from her only living child, and her own violent death. In the circumstances, she must, with justice, be regarded as one of the most wronged women in history.

Thanks to these different views of Mary, her character remains elusive, obscured by the preconceptions and prejudices of many who have chosen to tell her story. The controversy still rages. Lady Antonia Fraser, in her definitive biography of the Queen, published in 1969, believed Mary innocent of complicity in Darnley’s murder, but today there are several historians who disagree with that view. They prefer to believe the so-called libels put about by Mary’s enemies, on the basis that these seemingly corroborate the circumstantial evidence against Mary. The moral outrage expressed by earlier writers hostile to Mary has been replaced by a creeping cynicism. Yet who is right? And can there ever be any certain verdict?

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Thanks to Alison to making my birthday awesome 🙂


I'm a lover of all things Tudor, and historical - fiction or fact. My aim is to bring together writers of all calibers to share their work with like minded people!

2 thoughts on “Views of Mary by Alison Weir [Write Up]

  1. This is a very interesting analysis of Mary, Queen of Scots and the varying views held about her in her own time and by historians in later centuries. With religion at the heart of 16th century life, and people judged by their beliefs, Mary Stuart had Catholic supporters and Protestant enemies. Questioning the wisdom of some of her decisions, including moving to hostile England, rather than to welcoming France, is quite a valid point and, as Alison Weir points out, in many ways she brought her troubles on herself. Whether she was more maligned than is justified remains open to debate but it is certain that she was the most prominent Stuart in Tudor England and without achieving her aim of taking the throne from her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, she has become one of the most famous monarchs in history.
    This excerpt has given much food for thought and for me has revived memories of my school studies of this period of history and given me greater incentive to research further into the life of Mary, Queen of Scots.

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