Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens

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The political and religious conflicts between Queen Elizabeth I and the doomed Mary, Queen of Scots, have for centuries captured our imagination and inspired memorable dramas played out on stage, screen, and in opera. But few books have brought to life more vividly than Jane Dunn’s Elizabeth and Mary the exquisite texture of two women’s rivalry, spurred on by the ambitions and machinations of the forceful men who surrounded them. The drama has terrific resonance even now as ...

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Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens

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The political and religious conflicts between Queen Elizabeth I and the doomed Mary, Queen of Scots, have for centuries captured our imagination and inspired memorable dramas played out on stage, screen, and in opera. But few books have brought to life more vividly than Jane Dunn’s Elizabeth and Mary the exquisite texture of two women’s rivalry, spurred on by the ambitions and machinations of the forceful men who surrounded them. The drama has terrific resonance even now as women continue to struggle in their bid for executive power.

Against the backdrop of sixteenth-century England, Scotland, and France, Dunn paints portraits of a pair of protagonists whose formidable strengths were placed in relentless opposition. Protestant Elizabeth, the bastard daughter of Anne Boleyn, whose legitimacy had to be vouchsafed by legal means, glowed with executive ability and a visionary energy as bright as her red hair. Mary, the Catholic successor whom England’s rivals wished to see on the throne, was charming, feminine, and deeply persuasive. That two such women, queens in their own right, should have been contemporaries and neighbours sets in motion a joint biography of rare spark and page-turning power.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A perceptive, suspenseful account of complex English history. . . . By the end of this satisfying book, one feels sympathy for both women, brave queens in an age when ‘no one considered that a woman could effectively rule alone.’ ” —The New York Times Book Review

“Elegant. . . . Dunn demythologizes Elizabeth and Mary. In humanizing their dynamic and shifting relationship, Dunn describes it as fueled by both rivalry and their natural solidarity as women in an overwhlemingly masculine world.” —Boston Herald

“A balanced, nuanced, and eminently clear account. . . . Brilliantly conceived, elegantly executed, and compellingly readable.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch

“A wholly engrossing and sumptuous retelling of a tale that entered legend even before its protagonists were dead.” —Newsday

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780002571500
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/1/2003
  • Pages: 400

Meet the Author

Jane Dunn is the author of a biography of Mary Shelley, a study of the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, and most recently of a groundbreaking life of Antonia White. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and lives in Bath, England.

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Read an Excerpt

The Fateful Step

"I am already bound unto an husband, which is the kingdom of England" ... Stretching out her hand she showed them the ring.
Queen Elizabeth's first speech before parliament,
10 February 1559

These were dangerous times. The second quarter of the sixteenth century had made Elizabeth Tudor and her generation of coming men watchful, insecure, fearful for their lives. Nothing could be taken for granted. Health and happiness were fleeting, reversals of fortune came with devastating speed. This was the generation raised in the last days of King Henry and come of age in a time of religious and political flux. The religious radicalism of Edward VI's reign had been quickly followed by reactionary extremism and bloodshed in Queen Mary's. During the political tumult of these years there was no better time for ambitious men to seize position, wealth and honours. No longer was power the exclusive prerogative of old aristocratic blood. When a Thomas Wolsey, son of a butcher, or a Thomas Cromwell, son of a blacksmith, could rise in Henry's reign to be the mightiest subject in the land, then what bar to ambition during the minority of Edward, the turmoil of Mary, and the unpromising advent of Elizabeth? But vaulting ambition and exorbitant rewards brought their own peril. The natural hierarchy of things mattered to the sixteenth-century mind. Men elevated beyond their due estate, women raised as rulers over men were unnatural events and boded ill. Those with the greatest aspirations could not expect to die peaceful in their beds.

God remained at the centre of this febrile and unpredictable world. His will was discerned in every random act. Death was everywhere. It came as sudden sweating sickness and struck down communities of healthy adults. It came as fire to purify heretic beliefs. It came through poison or the deadly thrust of steel to dispose of inconvenient obstacles in the machinery of power. The supernatural had a physical presence, and spirits and magic were natural companions to everyday life. They were part of the grand cosmic scheme which constituted God's hierarchical universe. Analogy, interconnectedness, fixity were deeply impressive to the Elizabethan mind, mutability and disorder a sign of man out of harmony with God's plan. Superstition and religion were ways to make sense of suffering, attempts at warding off the apparently random blows of fate. Yet the insecurity of life itself made the living intense, the wits sharper, the senses more acute. For sixteenth-century men and women there was a life after death, for the godly well-mapped and glorious, but life on earth was a precious and precarious thing to be seized and drained to the dregs.

At a time of augury and superstition, there was nothing to foretell the events of 1558: no sightings of whales in the Channel; no preternaturally high tide, nor monstrous births nor the mysterious, lingering trajectory of a comet across the northern sky. Even Nostradamus, whose prophecies were consulted by those in a fever of uncertainty, appeared unaware of its significance. The year opened without cosmic fanfare. Yet this was to become one of the momentous dates in every British schoolchild's history rote. Along with the battle of Hastings of 1066 and the great fire of London in 1666, 1558 was one of the markers of a seismic shift in English experience, to be chanted in schoolrooms through subsequent centuries. It was a year of grand transfers of power, as one reign came to an end and a new era began. It was a time of inexorable religious schism, when universal monopolistic Catholicism was permanently supplanted by the state religion, Protestantism.

Scotland's most recent history had been less convulsive. By the beginning of 1558 it was balanced in a certain equilibrium. A significant number of lords had proceeded informally down the road of religious reformation and the opposing factions had forged an uneasy coexistence. Clan loyalties and rivalries would always be the defining identity which cut across ideology, matters of faith or political allegiance. Rather than a religious cause, any growing unrest and sense of danger came more from Scottish resentment against the increasing presence of the French, garrisoned in various towns and awarded lucrative offices over the heads of the native Scots. As a child ten years previously, Mary Queen of Scots had escaped the clutches of the English and sailed for France. Her French mother Mary of Guise was courageous and just as regent but inevitably favoured her own country with whom Scotland was in alliance. This cosy relationship was about to be challenged when, in 1559, the Reformation turned militant and anti-French, and John Knox, the inspired Calvinist preacher, returned home after twelve years' exile to become its hectoring mouthpiece.

At the beginning of 1558, however, both Elizabeth and Mary were poised on the margin between apprenticeship and their public lives as female monarchs. By the end of that year both had embraced their fate. The defining moment for Mary came with a kiss-in effect a marriage. For Elizabeth it came with a death-and an exclusive contract with her people.

It was apparent that a woman in possession of a throne must marry, and do so without delay. All biblical and classical texts, in which the educated sixteenth-century mind was imbued, stressed the natural order of the male's dominion over the female. A female monarch was a rare and unnatural phenomenon which could only be regularised by speedy union with a prince who would rule over her in private and guide her in her public, God-given, role as queen. Only by restoring man's necessary dominion could the proper balance of the world be maintained.

Although her cousin Elizabeth was revolutionary in her lifelong resistance to this obligation, Mary Stuart was more conformable and fulfilled this expectation of her status and sex-not once but three times. In early 1558 she was fifteen and had been a queen since she was six days old. She had never known any other state. First as a queen of Scotland, the land of her birth and a country she did not know: secondly as queen of France, the country of her heart. Having lived from the age of five at the centre of the powerful French court, Mary had grown into a charming and accomplished French princess, destined to become the wife of the dauphin of France. Her spectacular dynastic marriage, reinforcing the "auld alliance" between Scotland and France, was set for the spring. Mary would marry her prince on 24 April 1558. François, the beloved companion of her childhood and King Henri II's eldest son, was just fourteen years old.

In England, Elizabeth Tudor was twenty-four years old and living quietly in the country at Hatfield some thirty miles north of London. Expectant, and fearful of losing the one thing she desired, she was fearful too of its fulfilment. She had already been bastardised, disinherited, often in danger and always waiting, never certain of the prize. Elizabeth had seen her two siblings (and a cousin, fleetingly) succeed to the throne before her. If any had had children then her position on the sidelines of power would have become permanent. But Edward VI died in 1553 unmarried and childless aged sixteen. He was followed not by either of his elder half-sisters but by their hapless teenage cousin, Lady Jane Grey. Sacrificed to further the ambitions of her father-in-law, the Duke of Northumberland, she was queen in name only and then barely for nine days. Immediately imprisoned she was executed seven months later. Now in 1558, Henry VIII's eldest child, Mary I, herself appeared to be ailing.

Elizabeth had survived much danger. She knew well how closely scrutinised her actions were and how much she was the focus of others' desire for power. The previous two decades had seen so many ambitions crumble to dust, so many noblemen and women imprisoned and beheaded, accused of heresy or treason, tortured, tried and burnt, or if a traitor, hung, drawn and quartered, in the terrific ways of judicial death.

At the beginning of 1558, Elizabeth and her supporters knew that some great change was in motion. But change brought disruption too and increased danger. Her half-sister Mary Tudor had been queen for nearly five years. Suspicious, suffering, devoutly Catholic and zealous to maintain the supremacy of the old faith, her reign had grown increasingly unhappy. Mary's worst mistake had been her insistence on marrying Philip II of Spain, for the English hated foreigners meddling in their affairs, and they hated the Spanish most of all.

The fanatical purges of heresy by her decree, and the torture and burnings of hundreds of martyrs, would earn Mary the epithet "Bloody Mary" from generations to come. The country grew ever more tired and repelled by the bloodshed. The dreadful spectacles had become counter-productive, alienating her subjects' affections for their queen and strengthening the reformers' support. In reaction to the mood of the country, the burnings in Smithfield were halted in June 1558. But nature seemed to be against Mary too, for the harvests also failed two years in succession. In 1556 people were scrabbling like pigs for acorns and dying of starvation. The following year they were ravaged by disease as various epidemics swept through the land. Famine and pestilence-people wondered, was this God's retribution for the sins of Mary's reign?

By the beginning of 1558, Mary was herself sick and in despair. Still longing for a child and heir, once more in desperation she had made herself believe she was pregnant again. But Philip had not bothered to hide his antipathy to his queen and anyway had been absent from her for too long. Her delusion and humiliation was evident even to her courtiers. Elizabeth, who had waited so long in an uneasy limbo, under constant suspicion, her sister refusing to name her as her heir, would have lost everything if this miraculous pregnancy turned out to bear fruit. No one could know, however, that the symptoms which Mary interpreted as the beginning of new life and hope were instead harbingers of death.

The Queen's spirit that cold January had already been broken over the loss of Calais. The last trophy left to the English from their ancient wars with France, this two-century-old possession had been lost in the very first days of the year. Since the previous June, Mary had supported her husband by embroiling her country in an expensive, unpopular and now ultimately humiliating war with France. The loss to their old enemy of Calais, remnant of Plantagenet prowess, was more a symbolic than strategic catastrophe, and it cut her to the heart.

This latest humiliation of English pride had been inflicted by François, Duc de Guise, nicknamed le Balafré, "scarface," after a wound inflicted by the English at the siege of Boulogne fourteen years earlier. A lance had smashed through his face from cheek to cheek but he had overcome all odds and recovered his life, his sight, and even the desire to fight again. He was a brilliant soldier, and the eldest and most powerful of Mary Queen of Scots' six overweening Guise uncles. The ambition of these brothers knew no bounds. They claimed direct descendency from Charlemagne. Catholic conviction and imperial ambitions commingled in their blood. Their brotherhood made them daunting: they thought and hunted as a pack, their watchwords being "one for all" and "family before everything."

Taking advantage of their monarch's gratitude for the success of the Calais campaign and riding on a wave of popular euphoria, the Duc de Guise and his brother the Cardinal of Lorraine agitated for the marriage of their niece to the youthful heir to the French throne. The fortunes of the girl queen and the triumphant family of her mother, Mary of Guise, were fatally intertwined. At this time, the Guises seemed to be so much in the ascendant that many of their fellow nobles resented and envied their power, fearing that it was they who in effect ruled France.

Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots had always been aware of each other, of their kinship and relations to the English crown. As cousins, they were both descended from Henry VII, Elizabeth as his grand-daughter, Mary as his great-granddaughter. European royalty was a small, elite and intermarried band. As the subject of the English succession loomed again, Elizabeth was acutely conscious of the strength of the Queen of Scots' claim to the English throne. Certainly she knew that if her sister Mary I's repeal of Henry VIII's Act of Supremacy was allowed to stand then her own parents' marriage would remain invalid and she could be marginalised and disinherited as a bastard. To most Catholics Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn had always been invalid and Mary Queen of Scots was legally and morally next in line to the English throne. If Mary united the thrones of Scotland, France and England then this would ensure that England remained a part of Catholic Christendom.

However, if the Acts of Mary Tudor's reign should be reversed, then Elizabeth's legitimacy was confirmed and she, as Henry VIII's legitimate daughter, had not only the natural but the more direct claim. She also had popular, emotional appeal. Her tall, regal figure and her reddish gold colouring reminded the people, grown nostalgic and selective in their memory of "Good King Harry," of her father when young. Her surprisingly dark eyes, an inheritance of the best feature of her mother Anne Boleyn, were not enough to blur the bold impression that the best of her father lived on in her.

In fact, despite the stain on her mother's name, it was to Elizabeth's credit that she was not the daughter of a foreign princess, that unadulterated English blood ran in her veins and that she had been born in Greenwich Palace, at the centre of English royal power. In early peace negotiations with France, Elizabeth had Cecil point out she was "descended by father and mother of mere English blood, and not of Spain, as her sister was." This meant she was "a free prince and owner of her crown and people." She was an Englishwoman, and she knew this counted for much in this island nation of hers. "Was I not born in the realm? Were my parents born in any foreign country? Is there any cause I should alienate myself from being careful over this country? Is not my kingdom here?"

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, a Venetian ambassador noted the insularity and self-satisfaction of the English even then:

the English are great lovers of themselves, and of everything belonging to them; they think that there are no other men than themselves, and no other world but England; and whenever they see a handsome foreigner, they say that "he looks like an En-glishman," and that "it is a great pity that he should not be an Englishman."

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Reading Group Guide

“Superb. . . . A perceptive, suspenseful account.” —The New York Times Book Review

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography in this guide are intended to enhance your group’s discussion of Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens, Jane Dunn’s fascinating portrait of two powerful women—their tumultuous relationship with each other and its profound effect on their private lives, public images, and historical legacies.

1. When Elizabeth became England’s queen at the age of twenty-four, “She had already been bastardised, disinherited, often in danger and always waiting, never certain of the prize” [pp. 5–6]. How did this difficult background prepare Elizabeth for her reign? Why was the English public so ready to accept her? What lessons did she learn from the disastrous rule of her half-sister, Mary I, and how did she exploit them even as she ascended to the throne?

2. Mary “had grown up with an unwavering sense of destiny and a natural flair for the theatrical; she knew what was expected of her and to what she had been born” [p. 10]. How did her childhood in the French court and her marriage to the Dauphin reinforce Mary’s perception of herself? How did it affect the way she ruled as queen of Scotland?

3. In comparing Elizabeth and Mary as young women, Dunn writes, “Fifteen was not considered as youthful then as it is to modern minds. Fifteen-year-olds were leading men into battle, having children and dying for their beliefs” [p. 14]. Discuss the implications of this on the way both queens were treated by their advisors and perceived by the general public. Why have our assumptions about the capabilities of adolescents changed since the sixteenth century? Is this universally true, or are there societies or cultures that mirror the world Elizabeth and Mary inhabited?

4. In explaining her decision not to marry, Elizabeth stressed that “her subjects represented all the family she would ever need” [p. 176]. What other factors may have played a part in her decision to remain unmarried? In what ways did the conditions of life for women in the sixteenth century shape her views on marriage and motherhood? To what extent did the marriages in her family, as well as her own experiences (including her confusing, sexually charged relationship with Lord Seymour as an adolescent [p. 73]) contribute to her aversion to marriage?

5. During her formative years, Mary was surrounded by powerful women, from her grandmother, the Duchesse de Guise, to her mother-in-law, Catherine de Medici. Elizabeth, deprived of female role models as a child, looked to her father as an example of defining herself and her role in the world. Does this help to explain not just the differences between the two, but also their inability to form a true friendship?

6. Elizabeth created “an androgynous identity which gave her a unique protean power” [p. 107]. What qualities traditionally associated with womanhood strengthened her position and her power? Did these very qualities ever undermine her actions or decisions?

7. Mary is depicted as a vital, seductively charming but impulsive and temperamental woman. Is there credible evidence—in Mary’s communications with Elizabeth and others, in her erratic, inconsistent exercise of power, and in her disastrous marriages to Darnley and Bothwell—that she was manic-depressive as Dunn suggests [p. 255]? How do Dunn’s interpretations of Mary’s behavior differ from those of Mary’s contemporaries, and what elements do they share? Are there dangers in applying the insights of contemporary psychology to historical figures?

8. In discussing Elizabeth’s lifelong attachment to Dudley, a man much disliked and mistrusted by his fellow noblemen, Dunn writes, “Perhaps it was just that the male mind could not understand the attraction. . . . The detail and emphasis that comes down through history is filtered through male eyes and interpreted by masculine sensibilities” [p. 145]. Does Dunn shed new light on the reasons the relationship endured despite the malicious gossip and suspicions it provoked? Do her modern sensibilities color (and perhaps distort) her descriptions of Elizabeth’s and Dudley’s motivations and the feelings that bound them together?

9. For the royal families of Europe and Britain in the sixteenth century, marriage proposals were issued and marriages arranged for dynastic and political ends. How did Elizabeth manipulate this policy to enhance her country’s position in the world? Did her failure to secure the succession by marrying and having a child represent a serious dereliction of her duties as a monarch? What were the negative consequences of her actions, both during her reign and afterwards? What did she sacrifice and what did she gain in a personal sense by focusing on her public role?

10. The rivalry between the queens was played out against the religious upheavals of their times. What role did religion play in Elizabeth’s approach to governing? Were any of her actions or decisions based on religious convictions? For the most part, did Mary benefit from her allegiance to the Catholic Church? How did it weaken her position as Queen of Scotland and undermine her ambition to succeed to the English throne? Did her pro-Catholic stance reflect deep-seated devotion or a more worldly pragmatism?

11. Dunn calls the fact that Elizabeth and Mary never met “the black hole at the center of their relationship, the dramatic axis of their story” [p. 196]. What do Elizabeth’s and Mary’s letters, as well the conversations they had with advisors, ambassadors, and others, reveal about the personal prejudices they harbored about each other? Given the personalities of both queens, do you think that a face-to-face meeting would have alleviated or exacerbated their ill feelings, jealousy, and distrust?

12. Why was Elizabeth threatened by Mary’s power even during her imprisonment in England? How did the mythology surrounding Mary heighten the dangers to Elizabeth and her government?

13. After her involvement in the Babington plot was revealed, Mary “decided that she would stand on her unimpeachable sovereignty and die freely now as a martyr for her faith” [p. 390]. In what ways was Mary’s martyrdom a fitting end to the way she lived her life, from the personality traits she always exhibited to the legacy she was determined to create?

14. The decision to put Mary to death was extraordinarily difficult for Elizabeth. What did it reveal about her ability to balance her instinctive feelings and her understanding of political realities? What does Dunn mean when she says, “Elizabeth, until then the great equivocator, now made up her mind at last and through action transcended royalty to become an iconic queen” [p. 391]?

15. How would you characterize Dunn’s treatment of each queen? Does she seem to favor one over the other? What qualities does she admire? What negative traits does she seem to gloss over or excuse? Did the book change your previous impressions of Elizabeth and Mary?

16. In the author’s note, Dunn writes, “I come to this book as a biographer, not a historian, believing that character largely drives events, explains motivation, and connects us to each other through the centuries” [p. xxiii]. Does Elizabeth and Mary support this point of view? Are there events Dunn describes that contradict the idea of character-driven history?

17. How does Elizabeth and Mary differ from other biographies or histories you have read? Does Dunn’s focus on the “dynamic interaction” [p. xx] between the two queens illuminate aspects of their lives that might be obscured or ignored in a more traditional biography? Does Dunn present a fully rounded picture of the monarchs or does her approach limit her perspective and influence the incidents and events she chooses to chronicle?

18. England has had female rulers, from queens to a prime minister, but in twenty-first century America, where women have achieved positions of power in both the government and the private sector, why hasn’t there been a female president of the United States? What are the prejudices against women in positions of ultimate power, more than four centuries after Queen Elizabeth’s reign?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 12 )
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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 19, 2014


    For evryone interested in understanding the roots of these two queens and their rivalry, this is the book for you.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 28, 2013

    Great book that went into the details of Mary and Elizabeth's re

    Great book that went into the details of Mary and Elizabeth's relationship. It was hard to put down. My only problem with it was I thought the author was obviously biased toward Elizabeth's point of view.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 10, 2012

    If you like detailed history, this is the book for you

    This book goes into detail about the relationship or lack thereof between Elizabeth I of England and Mary Queen of Scotland. Some may find it dry at times but I did not, very factual. Elizabeth appears to have been extremely patient with Mary because she was a "sister" queen and a relative.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 31, 2010

    this is a great book

    i would readthis book, again and again and have. i also give this book as gifts to those interested in these queens. jane dunn is one of my favorite authors. buy it. you won't be sorry.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2010

    Long Overdue Serious Examination of Important Relationship

    The author has performed a great service in this carefully researched and thoughtful history of the collision course of two strong and charismatic women. The authenticity of Jane Dunn's account makes this a worthwhile and thought-provoking reading experience.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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