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Fatal Majesty: A Novel of Mary, Queen of Scots

Overview

Fatal Majesty is the story of Mary, Queen of Scots - but this is no conventional retelling of a fascinating yet familiar tale. Returning from the sophisticated court of France to take up her throne in a cold and backward Scotland, eighteen-year-old Mary found herself trapped in a web of ambitions and intrigues - those of her self-righteous brother, James, whose ambition was to rule in her place; of her brilliant secretary of state, Lethington, dedicated to placing the Stewarts on the throne of England; and of ...
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Overview

Fatal Majesty is the story of Mary, Queen of Scots - but this is no conventional retelling of a fascinating yet familiar tale. Returning from the sophisticated court of France to take up her throne in a cold and backward Scotland, eighteen-year-old Mary found herself trapped in a web of ambitions and intrigues - those of her self-righteous brother, James, whose ambition was to rule in her place; of her brilliant secretary of state, Lethington, dedicated to placing the Stewarts on the throne of England; and of Elizabeth I, dazzling and unscrupulous, who feared Mary as a threat not only to her crown but to her life. The intrigues of the men closest to Mary were to be responsible for shaping not only her tragedy but also their own. Yet the secretary stabbed to death at her feet, the murder of her husband, her marriage to his murderer, and even her own end on the headsman's block were not disparate events in an era of easy violence, but episodes in a grand, sometimes terrifying, and ultimately successful design.
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Editorial Reviews

Daily Mail
A chilling tale of love, revenge, madness and murder.
Daily Mail (London)
A sweeping saga to thrill and confound.
Library Journal
Readers hoping for a fictionalized biography of Mary Queen of Scots on the level of Margaret George's Mary Queen of Scotland & the Isles: A Novel (LJ 8/92) will be disappointed. Focusing primarily on the "political intrigues" surrounding Mary after her return to Scotland, this narrative lacks the complexity that made George's account so engrossing. The characters are wooden and unsympathetic, and there is little insight into Mary herself, who often seems peripheral to her own story. Although Tannahill (Return of the Stranger, LJ 4/1/96) does set the social and political scene, she pays more attention to Elizabeth I's motivations (seen through Scottish eyes) than to those of Mary or any of the Scottish nobles. Readers eager for anything about Mary and her times will probably want this; others want to look elsewhere.--Karen E. Sadowski, Simmons Coll., Boston
The Washington Post
Truly a majestic novel whose pace never slackens.
Daily Mail
A chilling tale of love, revenge, madness and murder.
Sunday Express (London)
For those who like history with a good dose of fun and imagination this is a must.
Birmingham Post
Tannahill has added drama, wit, and some very apt dialogue to the tale. The result is a highly readable psychological thriller.
Mail on Sunday (London)
Witty and sharp...Business skullduggery, the struggle to keep loyal, and a love affair are blended with impeccable research and storytelling.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312198817
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 12/21/1998
  • Pages: 480
  • Product dimensions: 6.49 (w) x 9.57 (h) x 1.46 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

AUGUST 1561


1

    Although it was high summer, there was a thick white sea mist shrouding the Firth of Forth on the day when Mary Queen of Scots sailed home from France to take up her throne.

    She should have been welcomed by lords and ladies in velvet and jewels; heralds in Scarlet and gold; loyal addresses, fanfares of trumpets, cheering throngs. But there were only a few open-mouthed bystanders.

    Her subjects had not expected to see her so soon. In truth, many of them would have preferred not to see her at all.


2

Because of the mist, the first warning anyone had was the rhythmic chant of an invisible leadsman. In the port of Leith, where square-rigged merchant ships came and went almost daily throughout the sailing season, such a sound was familiar enough, but on this particular morning there were other sounds that were less familiar. The men working on the jetties stopped to listen, heads cocked, but only a handful of them, one a fisherman who had spent five terrible years as a galley slave in the Mediterranean, knew enough to interpret the meaning of the shrilling whistles and the whisper of many oars pulling as one.

    The fleetest of the fisherman's sons, sent running for the provost, found him at the desk in his counting house, tranquilly sharpening a pen.

    `Mercy me!' exclaimed the provost, when the boy had gasped out his message. `Great galleys, ye say?'

    `Aye, and my father says they're awful well drilled. He thinks they must be cerry ... uh ... ceremonial ones. Royal ones.'

    The provost, who had been assured on the best authority that there was no truth in the rumour that Mary Stewart was about to abandon her life of lotus-eating luxury in France for one of porridge-eating austerity in Scotland, wasted no time on reviewing possible alternatives. `Mercy on us!' he exclaimed. `It'll be the queen! Where's my clerk? I'll need messengers. I'll need my steward. I'll need my chain of office. The queen! Mercy me!'

    Hurrying down to the shore ten minutes later, he found a gathering crowd of Leith's population there ahead of him and a long, beautiful galley, its sails furled, its cannon firing the salute, gliding in over the grey satin waters towards the harbour entrance. From sails to oars -- twenty-five a side, and each of them as long as the galley was wide -- everything that was not carved and gilded was of a pure and spotless white, forming the most dramatic of backdrops for the dark-clad group of people assembled in the prow.

    At their head stood a tall, graceful, black-gowned figure with a coquettish little black velvet cap perched on her red-gold head. There could be no mistaking Mary Stewart -- queen of Scots since six days after she was born; educated in France to become the bride of its future king; queen of the French as well as the Scots for a few brief months; then, suddenly, a widow. And still only eighteen years old.

    A voice shouted commands, the silvery whistles shrilled, the oars leapt from the water, and the galley flowed on under its own diminishing momentum to the smoothest of berthings inside the harbour wall. The people of Leith were not easily impressed, especially by French seamanship, but a ripple of approval passed through the crowd and, within minutes, the queen was stepping ashore from a gilded ramp that had appeared seemingly from nowhere.

    By that time, Provost Lamb and four of his fellow merchants were ready to greet her, drawn up in a sturdy, bearded line, models of bourgeois respectability in their short cloaks, plain dark doublets and hose, narrow white ruffs, and neat small caps with corded trims. The provost's chain of office was the only indication of the wealth Leith's merchants were able to command but were much too wise to advertise -- especially to royalty, which was always short of money.

    Bending low, they swept off their caps with the aplomb of years of practice. They had done a good deal of bowing and scraping to the queen's late mother who, until just over a year before, had ruled and come near to ruining Scotland in her daughter's name.

    His gaze resting deferentially on the cobbles at his feet, Provost Lamb said, `Bonjour, votre majeste. Bienvenue en Ecosse. Bienvenue chez vous.'

    After which, raising his head in expectation of, at best, a nod of gracious condescension, at worst a flurry of French from some court functionary, he was astounded to meet, instead, a pair of large amber eyes sparkling with youthful and very feminine mischief.

    `I thank ye, gude maister,' replied her majesty demurely. `Whit a lichtsome walcome hame on sic a dreich day!' Then, tempted by his expression into something very near a giggle, `I am still mindful, you see, of my native tongue.'

    The provost, entranced, beamed back at her, forgetting the problems of protocol that beset him, forgetting the political and religious troubles her arrival foreshadowed, forgetting even the battered stones of Leith, the towerless kirk, the ruinous preceptory and the hundreds of cannonball scars that still remained as witness to the recent civil war and the siege its citizens had withstood on a diet of boiled horse and roasted rat.

    He thought only, `What a bonnie lassie!'


3

He had sent messengers off to Edinburgh, he told her -- bowing again, just to be on the safe side -- but if they found none of her great lords in residence, they might have to ride on to Niddry or Aberdour or Kinneil. It could take hours for an official welcoming party to turn up, so, in the meantime, would her majesty deign to honour his house with her presence?

    Her majesty said that nothing would give her greater pleasure, on the understanding that it neither jibbed nor heeled nor plunged, but stood firmly on solid ground.

    It was an education, as they walked along the jetty and up the slight incline to his house, to see how the people responded to her. Most were there out of vulgar curiosity rather than loyalty to a crown which they had little reason to love, but in no time at all she had beguiled them into something very near worship. It was only partly a matter of her looks and grace; far more, it was the enchantment of her smile and the readiness with which she paused to speak to anyone and everyone, wide-eyed children and blushing boys, stout washerwomen and floury bakers, weedy clerks and weatherbeaten sailors. The provost, in intervals of fretting over how he was entertain her until the lords arrived, supposed she must have inherited her magic from her father, who'd had a genius for charming folk, though not for much else.

    When they reached his house at last, he heard himself saying, with a trace of desperation, `Here we are, your grace. Ye'll be tired after your journey. Would ye maybe like a wee lie down on my best bed for an hour or two?'

    There was an understanding twinkle in her eye as she replied, `What an excellent idea.'

    It freed him to threaten his steward with instant death if there wasn't a midday dinner fit for a queen on the table in two hours; to set his grooms scouring the town for some means of transporting the vast number of roped packs and banded chests being unloaded both from the white galley and another that had emerged from the mist, this one resplendent in scarlet and gold; and to distribute the lesser members of the queen's entourage among his fellow citizens. It was not a large entourage by royal standards, only about sixty in all, but its members ranged from a courteous handful of great noblemen by way of a dratted nuisance of a poet down to a pair of touchy professional embroiderers and three seasick upholsterers.

    It was a slightly nervous Andrew Lamb who at midday sat himself down, by royal command, to dine with the queen, her three distinguished uncles, the four lovely young ladies-in-waiting known as the Four Maries, and two diminutive lapdogs, but it turned into one of the pleasantest meals he could remember. The Marquis d'Elboeuf admired the new French drawleaf table that was the provost's pride and joy, the Duc d'Aumale commended the silver plate on the sideboard, the queen said the barley pottage was the best she had ever tasted, and the Maries teased him into trying to guess what all the banded chests contained. They were still merrily at table when they heard the clatter of a large troop of horse approaching over the cobbles of the Kirkgait.

    `That'll be your majesty's lords come to welcome you,' the provost said with honest regret. `Your brother Lord James is maybe with them. I'd heard tell he was in Edinburgh.'

    Before his eyes, all the queen's lightness of spirit vanished, although the smile remained. In the merest fraction of a second, Mary Stewart ceased to be a frivolous girl and became, graciously, a queen.


4

Without haste, Mary rose to her feet, held out her ringless white hands to be rinsed with rosewater, thanked the page who dried them, spoke a few appreciative words to the steward, smiled at the table servants, and finally strolled out through the friendly doorway of the provost's friendly house into the far from friendly world that awaited her.

    She had known what she was coming home to, and had no one to blame but herself.

    The leaders of the riding party were already dismounted, one of them half-turned away giving orders to the train of men and led horses behind. Of the three well set up figures striding towards her, one was indeed her brother, the Lord James Stewart.

    Or, more accurately, her eldest half-brother. Their father, King James V, had exercised his royal prerogative to such effect that Mary, his sole legitimate child, was possessed of no fewer than nine illegitimate brothers and sisters, each of them acknowledged by the king and, in the case of the seven sons, endowed by the Vatican -- on a quid pro quo basis -- with church benefices that guaranteed them a comfortable existence for life at no cost to the Crown. Lord James, as a small boy, had been created commendator of St Andrews, but although he had subsequently renounced the Catholic faith, he showed no sign of renouncing the benefices that went with it.

    He was now thirty, tall and muscular, dressed with expensive restraint in the black of fashion rather than of mourning, with twinned gold buttons on his doublet, gold embroidery edging the fine white linen of his ruff and shirt cuffs, a double gold chain round his neck and a plume in his flat velvet cap. His features were more striking than handsome, with strong bones, a wide forehead, brown eyes that gave little away, a sharp chin, and the long Stewart nose carried to ridiculous extremes.

    It was an excellent nose for looking down but, with deliberation, Mary denied him the opportunity by extending her hand for him to kiss, so that he was forced, instead of embracing her, to bend the knee to her in full view of the crowds that had been flocking into Leith in the hours since she had landed. She had read somewhere that the Ottoman Turks had a law requiring whoever gained power to execute all his brothers in order to eliminate any possibility of a war of succession. It had not previously occurred to her what a sensible idea it was. Because there was no doubt in her mind that James envied her the throne. Nor any doubt that, during the years of her absence, he had taken every opportunity to show people what a good king he would have made.

    And yet, and yet ... He had visited her twice in France, and she thought he was mildly fond of her, as she was of him. Certainly, she would make little progress in Scotland without his advice and experience. So, having made her point, she smiled into his harassed face, and raised him up, and drew him forward to embrace him. The crowd cheered.

    Lord James was not a man to whom smiling came naturally, but he did his best. `Welcome home, sister. I'm blithe to see you.' He waved a hand towards his companions, `Ye'll remember Argyll and Erskine?'

    She smiled warmly at Lord Erskine, the elder of the two, deducing from the faint ripple of movement in his immensely long and fatly spiralling beard that he must be smiling back. But the Earl of Argyll was another matter. He was about James's age, a big man with deepset eyes and a Roman nose, whose marriage to Mary's and James's half-sister Jean was so famously incompatible as to be a subject of gossip even in France. His gaze was unresponsive as he bent the knee to her and said, with a soft Highland sibilance that came oddly from such a hard-looking man, `It iss an unexpected honour to haff your machesty home at last.'

    `Thank you,' she replied. He was one of the most powerful of her lords and one who clearly stood in need of being charmed.

    James rubbed his hands. `Well, we'd better get started back. We left them cleaning up Holyroodhouse for you. Lighting the fires and sweeping out the spiders and cobwebs. That kind of thing.'

    Since he was obviously trying to be humorous -- or she hoped he was -- she smiled again, cooperatively, and turned her eyes towards the train of broken-down nags that appeared to pass for horses. There was not a palfrey or jennet among them, and not a side saddle to be seen.

    James, correctly interpreting the faint lift of her brows, said, `Ladies in Scotland always ride pillion. Ye'll come with me, of course.' He gestured towards his big Flemish mare, so long in the back that he could have taken not only his sister but all four of her Maries up behind.

    She stared at him. He could not, surely, believe that she would be prepared to make her first appearance before her subjects in the role of her brother's passenger, sitting perched on his mare's rump, holding on with her arms round his waist ...

    No. She would ride alone, on a horse gilded and tasselled, saddled, bridled and plumed as befitted a queen.

    `I think not,' she said, and sensed rather than saw Fleming, the most beloved and easily the quickest-witted of her Four Maries, raise a daintily gloved hand towards two servants lurking in the shadows. Suppressing the bubble of amusement rising in her throat, she went on, `Although the ship carrying my stable seems to have been delayed on the voyage, my side saddle and trappings came with us in the galley.'

    The servants stepped forward, carrying between them the banded chest with the royal cipher surmounting the figure 63, and, as Fleming produced the key from its hiding place in her gauntlet, Mary gestured towards a bay gelding that might, just possibly, have had a hint of Arab in his very mixed ancestry. `He will do.'

    Was James disappointed? Mary could not tell.

    But she turned towards him, and smiled at him again, and said with the optimism that so often overrode her intelligence and was, in the end, to be the ruin of her, `My dear James. The die is cast, the suspense over. I am here -- and I depend on you to tell me what I must do.'


5

The three-mile ride to the royal palace of Holyroodhouse, on the fringes of Edinburgh, was a triumph. The sun was struggling to come out but Mary did not see it. Neither did she see the buildings or the landscape of the Scotland she had left as a small child thirteen years before. All she saw was the people running from the fields and houses to the roadside as she passed.

    She might have come, as her uncle, the Duc de Guise, had advised, with a troop of French halberdiers and arquebusiers to protect her, but instead she had brought only a small retinue of friends and servants. It had been a gamble, but elatedly she knew that it had succeeded.

    There was no dour or sullen face to be seen, nothing but animation as, rumour scampering ahead, the crowds thickened into throngs, waving and cheering, smiling, bowing, curtseying, ready and willing to be enchanted by the laughing, vivacious young woman who, as far as looks and charm went, was just the kind of queen they would have chosen if anyone had asked them. A stranger she might be, and an idolatrous Catholic in a dourly Protestant land, but she was tall and regal, graceful and beautiful, and Lord James would put her right.

    And if he didn't, John Knox would.


6

By the evening, Mary might reasonably have welcomed a wee lie down on Provost Lamb's best bed if it had not been for the excitement that had possessed her since dawn and grown ever more intense as the hours passed. Now, with the iron drawbridge of Holyroodhouse threatening to collapse under the weight of the lords and lairds hastening over it to pay their respects, she had decided to change out of her widow's black, well though it became her, into something different. Long ago she had learned -- with delight, since she loved clothes and jewels -- that a display of splendour was an essential adjunct of royal power. Tonight seemed the perfect opportunity for putting the principle into practice.

    To Fleming, she said, `The pearl-embroidered white satin, I think,' and Fleming's eyes danced responsively.

    The Maries were skilled at reading her mind. All four of them had sailed with her to France thirteen years before, five-year-old ladies-in-waiting to a five-year-old queen, confusing everyone -- including themselves -- by all having the same Christian name but stubbornly resistant to being addressed by their surnames. They had whiled away hour after hour of the voyage squabbling over an acceptable allocation of diminutives, with Beaton finally becoming `Mhairi', Livingston `Marion', Seton `Maria', and Fleming `Mallie'. For some reason, the only one to whom her new name had clung had been Fleming.

    Despite being separated from their mistress during much of their growing up, they had remained her dearest and most loyal friends, closer to her than sisters, and their bond with her had, she knew, forged another private bond among themselves so that, different though they were in personality, they very rarely disagreed.

    Beaton, dark-haired, dark-eyed and languid, was the most classically beautiful of the four and perhaps a little too conscious of it, while Livingston was the opposite, energetic, carefree and with a heart overflowingly kind. Seton was the quiet one, meek and patient and sometimes oppressively devout, but still worldly enough to be vain of her ability to dress the queen's hair as none of the others could. And finally there was Fleming who, through her mother, an illegitimate daughter of James IV, was first cousin to Mary herself.

    Although she was of an age with the others, she had always seemed younger. Partly it was because she was delicate in build and feature, with wide blue eyes and soft fair hair that gave her a look of waiflike innocence. But it went deeper than that. Whereas the others had grown naturally into adult selves that had been predictable almost from childhood, Fleming had suffered a more difficult transition. Even now, despite her surface composure and her undoubted intelligence, she did not seem to be quite sure who she was. Mary, wondering about it once or twice, had begun to suspect that it might have something to do with her seductive and wayward mother, who had not only conceived a child by King Henri II of France but boasted of it, thus incurring the enmity of both Catherine de' Medici, Henri's queen, and Diane de Poitiers, his official mistress. For Lady Fleming's sensitive small daughter, it must have been an extraordinarily embarrassing time and that, perhaps, was why she had retreated into herself. But some day, when she overcame her private shyness -- and when her figure matured a little -- she was going to be ravishing.

    Now, shaking out the luxuriant white skirts from their wrappings in one of the sea chests, she sniffed at them, said, `Pff! Damp!' and sprinkled them vigorously with musk.

    Mary chuckled. `No one will notice.'

    James had not, after all, been joking about the spiders and the cobwebs. It was a long time since the royal apartments in the big corner tower of the palace had been occupied and, every fire, candle and lamp in the place having been lit, the atmosphere reeked of steam and dust.

    With the bedchamber full of servants and chests, of feather beds being unrolled, bolsters unpacked and bed curtains hung, Mary and her ladies had been driven into the adjoining dressing room, which was no more than twelve feet square, with thick walls and a single small, deeply embrasured window through which the traces of a watery sunset were just visible. After Mary Livingston, long-limbed and gawky, had stubbed her toe or cracked her elbow four times in five minutes, Fleming had suggested that she might care to dig herself in somewhere, so that the rest of them could use her as a rallying point.

    Hooks, hooks, hooks. Beaton unhooking the black cloth travelling gown, and the figured black silk bodice and skirt. Livingston hooking up the white silk underskirt over the stiffened farthingale; then the white tulle underbodice with its gathered yoke and ruff; the separate satin sleeves; and the sleeveless overgown of pearl-embroidered white satin with its low square neck, pointed waist, and quilted puffs round the armholes. Seton twining the diadem into Mary's pinned-up red-gold hair. Fleming searching out the pearl jazerines -- the chains for draping over the bodice -- and a carcanet necklace to sit round the base of the ruff.

    `The ruby and diamond one,' Mary said, hooking her favourite pearl drops into her ears.

    Rings, bracelets, brooches ...

    `Enough!'

    All her life she had been a queen, but a queen required only to look like one and behave herself as one -- never, independently, to act as one. Always she had been surrounded and guided by advisers, men great and powerful in their own right, many of them, like her Guise uncles, related to her so that she instinctively did as they told her. When she had been in doubt about anything -- even when she had not -- they had been there for her to turn to.

    Now, she was on her own except for a brother she scarcely knew and did not altogether trust, and one other man who was almost a stranger to her and whom she trusted even less.

    She raised her chin and straightened her shoulders. There had been great turning points in her life before; first when she had married Francois, her beloved childhood companion; then when he had been crowned king of France and she had become its queen. But that was in the past, a past from which she had chosen to turn away. Of all the days in her life, this was the one that mattered, because on this day she was truly a queen at last and her destiny was in her own hands. And in God's.

    With a trace of uncertainty, she said, `Will I do?'

    The Four Maries exclaimed in unison, `You look superb.'


7

Holyrood's royal audience chamber -- which was low-ceilinged, not very large by the French standards to which she was accustomed, and which had been hung earlier that day with Flemish tapestries that had been languishing mustily in a cellar for years -- was full to bursting with men of all shapes and sizes, clad in dark wools or satins and smelling of haste and horse sweat. In Scotland, personal acquaintance with the sovereign mattered more than title, land or riches, which meant that every man of consequence within thirty miles had been in such a hurry to greet the queen that every wife and daughter of consequence within thirty miles had been told, `No, ye're not coming. Ye'd slow me down, and I want to get there before Melville ... or Lindsay ... or Spens ... or Crawford ...'

    It did not mean that they were loyal to the queen, or prepared to let her dictate to them. It meant only that they wanted her to think they were.

    Like sensible men, Lord James Stewart and William Maitland of Lethington were keeping out of the way, backs against the wall, observing everything but saying little. They had argued out the political and religious implications of the queen's return so exhaustively in the past that there was nothing left to argue about, even if there might be a good deal once they had the opportunity of sitting round a table with her.

    `Tch!' muttered Lord James after a while, his eyes on the pallid, red-bearded, middle-aged man bending the knee before his sister. `Would ye look at Morton? Why can he never manage to look clean?'

    Lethington, who was the cleverest man in Scotland, held his peace. The Greeks had believed that there was symmetry in all things, moral, material and metaphysical; that body and spirit were each a reflection of the other. In Lethington's view, the food stains on Morton's doublet and the piggy, distrustful eyes perfectly reflected the soul within, but he could hardly say so. The Earl of Morton was head of the Douglases and a very important man, and criticising him -- unless you happened to be the queen's brother -- was one of the riskier forms of self-indulgence.

    Happily, at that moment a diversion arrived in the person of the English ambassador, Thomas Randolph, a small dark man, half-Welsh by blood and wholly Welsh by temperament. For someone well versed in the ways of courts, he was looking curiously ill at ease.

    Lord James greeted him with no more than an abstracted nod, but Lethington's `Randolph!' was so extravagantly affable that the ambassador's brows drew together into a thick, black, suspicious frown.

    `Well?' Lethington said.

    In no doubt about his meaning, Randolph hesitated. What did he think of her, now that he could see her, this young woman whose personal charms and political importance he had always thought to be vastly overrated?

    Over the years, there had been repeated rumours from across the Channel that Mary was incurably ill and her little husband impotent. It had made them seem a harmless enough pair even when the king of France, Mary's father-in-law, had taken a hand in the game of power by contesting Elizabeth's right to succeed to the throne of England, to which Mary had a legitimate claim. Elizabeth had been furious, although in Randolph's view her sovereignty had never really been in danger. But Francois's death and Mary's return home had changed things.

    If Randolph had been a disinterested observer, he would have admitted frankly that Mary was everything a queen ought to be, if rather too tall for his taste. But he was not a disinterested observer, and the living reality of a young and beautiful Catholic sovereign in Scotland with her eyes set on the Protestant throne of England threatened to add a whole new dimension to his own diplomatic problems. And just when everything had been going so nicely, too.

    Gloomily, he remembered the reassuring terms in which he had written to Sir William Cecil, Elizabeth's principal secretary, only ten days before. Mary would be coming, he had said -- if she came at all -- to a country in which she would find no welcome, a country which believed that she intended its ruin. Lord James Stewart, the Earl of Morton and Secretary Lethington would be glad if she never returned home. Furthermore, the voyage from France would be a dangerous venture for a sick, crazed woman ...

    It would have been politically convenient to England for Mary to be sick and crazed. Dead would have been better.

    Now, his eyes swivelling from the dazzlingly sane and healthy figure seated under her canopy of state to the sycophantic crowd that filled the audience chamber, he returned them at last to meet the quizzical grey gaze of Maitland of Lethington.

    He frowned again and inwardly cursed. It was almost as if Lethington knew what he was thinking; Lethington, whose position of secretary of state gave him almost unlimited powers. Was it possible -- was it possible -- that he had been monitoring Randolph's correspondence with Cecil?

    `I will write immediately to-my queen,' Randolph said with unnatural formality, `to tell her that your queen has arrived home safely in Scotland, and to the warmest of welcomes from her nobles. My queen will be delighted.'

    `Excellent! And when your queen writes to express her delight to my queen, I have no doubt that I will be instructed to write back to say how delighted my queen is at your queen's delight.'

    Randolph, breathing heavily through his nose, was saved from the need to reply by Lord James, whose attention was elsewhere. `Would you look at that!' he muttered. `The duke. He crossed himself.'

    `It's the third Tuesday in the month,' Lethington said.

    Even Lord James was betrayed into a slightly sour smile. The religious -- and therefore political -- affiliations of Scotland's leading nobleman did indeed change almost as often as the phases of the moon. It was not perhaps surprising that, after two miraculously consistent years of Protestantism, he should have suffered a relapse at the sight of his beautiful young Catholic sovereign.

    Especially since it was his greatest ambition to marry her off to his son, the Earl of Arran.


8

The Earls of Morton, Glencairn, Ochiltree, and Atholl had come and gone, Mary being equally charming to them all. She would have liked to show extra favour to Atholl, who was the only Catholic among them, but it would have been politically unwise when religion was such a sensitive issue.

    Now, extending a queenly hand to the only duke in Scotland -- who was no less a Scot for having a French dukedom -- she was aware of being scrutinised by the little group consisting of her taciturn brother, her lean and elegant secretary of state, and the small dark shrewd-looking person who was the English ambassador. They were, she supposed, appraising her performance, but that was something to which queens grew accustomed very early in their lives. On the crest of her own private wave of exaltation, she was tempted to laugh at them outright.

    Everything was going beautifully, although perhaps a little too informally. James should have offered to be by her side to make everyone known to her. As it was, she had to rely on the whispered promptings of the four well-connected Maries, prettily bestowed around her chair of state, to identify the various lords as they approached her. Perhaps it was for the best. Not having to introduce themselves was making an excellent impression on them.

    But the Duc de Chatelherault needed no introduction. She said, `Monsieur le duc. My dear cousin.'

    She remembered him from her childhood as a slender, goodlooking, rather affected man, but now he was thickset and ageing, with a lingering air of sophistication, pouched eyes, and wine-laden breath. Unfortunately, although he might be something of a nonentity in person, in position he was not, because he was both head of the powerful family of Hamilton and -- although his royal Stewart blood was little more than a trickle in his veins -- the heir presumptive to her throne. It occurred to her suddenly that, for most of the eighteen years of her life, he must have been waiting and hoping that she would die. Poor man.

    She said, `What a joy it is to see you again!' and smiled on him brilliantly.

    He didn't notice at first, because he was too busy staring at her necklace. `That's nice,' he said. `They're good rubies, those. I like a good ruby.'

    `Cousin!'

    `Sorry, my dear. Well now, it's fine to see you home and we've a lot to talk about. But there's no rush. There's just one thing that I promised my son Arran I'd raise with you straight off.'

    She could guess what it was going to be.

    `You'll need to be marrying again, and he'd be the ideal husband for you. Well, you know him, don't you? He's twenty-four, a goodlooking boy with a good soldierly background, and he's never been wed. He's devoted to you. All this time he's been waiting for you. Oh, it would be a fine match.'

    A fine match it would certainly be from Chatelherault's point of view. To be father of the king would be almost as good as being king himself.

    He was still holding her hand and he squeezed it coaxingly. `What do you say?'

    There were many things she could have said, among them -- maliciously -- that she was perfectly well aware that the Earl of Arran, however devoted to herself, had recently offered for the hand of Elizabeth of England and been turned down because Elizabeth was passionately in love with her Master of the Horse, whose wife had just died in the most suspicious circumstances.

    Instead, retrieving her hand, she said, `Alas, cousin, queens are not their own mistresses in matters of the heart. My marriage is something we must all take time to discuss seriously, in full council. But you can be assured that the Earl of Arran's name will figure prominently in our discussions.' Right at the bottom of the list, if she had any say in the matter. `And now, if you will forgive me, I see my Lord Seton approaching.'


9

Randolph, who as a diplomat was expert at observing, if not always correctly interpreting, the expressions on the faces of his betters, murmured, `Now, what was that about? Why's the duke looking so pleased with himself?'

    But when he turned to Lethington, he found that gentleman's eyes as limpid as a child's. It was no wonder, he thought irritably, that even his closest associates never knew what to make of Lethington. In Randolph's view, there wasn't a soul in either Scotland or England equipped to deal with him, except perhaps England's Secretary Cecil. And even he was a doubtful quantity, being the driest of dry sticks and utterly devoid of humour.

    So he said roundly, `Yes. All right. She's managing to enchant every single one of them, whether they like it or not. But that's today, and it won't last. What about tomorrow, when the glow wears off?. What about when she orders you all back to the church of Rome?'

    It was Lord James who answered. `She won't,' he said. `I've told her. She knows how the country feels. She knows we'd oppose it to the death.'

    `Yes, that's all very well. You've had things all your own way for the last year or so, with her in France and no representative of the Crown here since her mother died, but now she's back you can't force your anointed queen to observe laws you've passed without her assent.'

    Austerely, James said, `The laws were passed in the name of the people, and the people's assent matters more to God than the assent of queens.'

    `Tchoof!' Randolph muttered. `I hope it's not sedition you're talking. If it is, you'll get no support from England. Elizabeth's not been long enough on her own throne to sanction that kind of thing.'

    `Och, don't worry. I've told my sister the laws against idolatry don't apply to her. She can hear her own Mass in private, and no objections raised, as long as she keeps quiet about it. It's called compromise.'

    `No objections raised? I should have thought you'd have John Knox objecting at the top of his lungs?'

    Lord James had a knack, when cornered, of dismissing inconvenient truths with the loftiness of Jehovah at the Last Judgement. `No,' he said. And that was that.

    Lethington made a faint sound that might have been a laugh or a cough, and Lord James glowered at him, but the secretary merely flapped a long-fingered hand and murmured, `The dust from the tapestries.'


10

The day over, Mary was at last able to retire to her still disorderly bedchamber, the room with the plaster frieze of flowers and fruit, and the high wooden ceiling with its diamond-shaped panels bearing the arms and initials of her long-dead father, King James V, and her recently dead mother, Mary of Guise.

    She was already in her bedgown, reminding Fleming, who had just brought her a cup of hippocras and some almond wafers, to send one of her enamel-mounted cameo portraits to Provost Lamb of Leith, in thanks for his kindness, when the air was ripped apart by a blast of sound so bizarre that, at first, it was impossible to identify the source.

    `Mother of God!' exclaimed Fleming, and ran to one of the windows.

    It was a moment before she turned and, with a gasp, said, `Madame. It's your subjects. In the courtyard. They've come to serenade you. Hundreds of them!'

    Mary removed her hands from her ears. `How kind.' Her voice quavered slightly.

    There were, indeed, hundreds of them, with fiddles and stringed rebecs, and they were singing, lugubriously, what one of the Scots servants, hurriedly summoned, said were psalms of joy and thanksgiving.

    Music was Mary's greatest pleasure, but she disciplined herself to stand at one of the windows, listening and smiling, for the better part of an hour. The execution might be imperfect, she told Fleming severely, but the sentiments were impeccable. Her heart was truly touched.

    The only emotional false note was struck right at the end. As the musicians turned away, one man remained, staring up at her window, a tall, bearded figure in a long dark gown and flat cap.

    Mary said, `Oh, dear. I wonder who that is? He doesn't look very joyful.'

    It was Seton, the most devout of the Maries, who answered. `I think it's the Protestant preacher, John Knox, Madame.'

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 15, 1999

    A review from the other end of the spectrum

    Excellent! Yes, this was a fictional account of Mary's life in Scotland. Most of it was written from the angle of Maitland of Lethington, her Secretary of State; a fact that was greatly appreciated. If it had been handled as a fictionalized account of Mary's life ,from her point of view, I would have agreed with Reviewer Number One...but it wasn't. From this author's standpoint Maitland of Lethington was the author of the story. I liked reading an account of this tragic queen from a 'insider's' perspective. After all.. it was a work of fiction.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 6, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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