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“One of the most intriguing murder mysteries in European history . . . No stone is left unturned in Weir’s investigation, and . . . her book is as dramatic as witnessing firsthand the most riveting court case.”
—Booklist (boxed and starred review)
“The finest historian of English monarchical succession writing now is Alison Weir. . . . Her assiduousness and informed judgment are precisely what make her a writer to trust.”
—The Boston Globe
“Alison Weir has perfected the art of bringing history to life.”
TO EVERYONE'S DISMAY, THE BABY born to James V of Scotland and his second wife, Marie de Guise, on 8 December 1542 at Linlithgow Palace was a girl. After the deaths of two infant sons in 1541, her father had hoped for another boy to succeed him, because Scotland needed a man's strong hand to rule it. For James V was already mortally ill, and following a crushing defeat by the English at the Battle of Solway Moss on 24 November, he had taken to his bed at Falkland Palace. When news was brought to him of the birth of his daughter, he turned his face to the wall and, recalling that the crown had descended to the Stewart dynasty through Marjorie, daughter of King Robert the Bruce, muttered, "It came from a woman, and it will end in a woman." Soon afterwards he died, "wherefore there was great mourning in Scotland."
At only six days old, the infant Mary became Queen of Scots. Scotland was used to royal minorities, for every one of its monarchs since 1406 had succeeded as a child. As a result, the nobility had grown in strength and autonomy, having become used to long periods without royal interference during which they enjoyed the unfettered exercise of power. These minorities had also bred rivalries and factions, as different familiesstruggled for power.
In March 1543, Parliament appointed Mary's cousin and next heir, James Hamilton, Earl of Arran, as Second Person and Governor of the Realm until the Queen attained her majority at the age of twelve. Arran, then twenty-seven, was a Protestant, and head of the powerful Hamilton clan, whose lands straddled Clydesdale and central Scotland. An English envoy described the Hamiltons as a good looking race, but vicious, faithless and inept. Arran's claim to the succession was not undisputed, because there was uncertainty as to whether his parents had been lawfully married; hence his overriding purpose in life was to establish the legality of his claim. Self-interest and the advancement of his House dictated his political policies, but his indolence, instability and lack of decisiveness lost him the support of many nobles.
The King of England at that time was Henry VIII, and he was resolved to marry his five-year-old son and heir, Prince Edward, to the little Queen of Scots, and thereby unite England and Scotland under Tudor rule. Arran, eager to secure the support of the English King for his claims, was willing to co-operate, and on 1 July 1543 a treaty was concluded at Greenwich, which provided for the marriage of Mary and Edward. Mary was to go to England when she was ten, and be married the following year.
But the Catholic party in Scotland, led by Marie de Guise and Cardinal David Beaton, were opposed to the treaty. They removed Mary from Arran's care, took her to Stirling Castle, and had her crowned there, in the Chapel Royal, on 9 September. In December, a Catholic-dominated Parliament repudiated Mary's betrothal and renewed the ancient alliance between Scotland and France, England's enemy.
Henry VIII was incensed, and in 1544 retaliated by sending an army to Scotland. The savage campaign that followed became known as the "rough wooing": in the course of it, scores of towns, villages and abbeys in the south-east were mercilessly sacked and burned, leaving vast swathes of devastation. Even the city of Edinburgh did not escape Henry's fury: he had ordered his commanders to sack, "burn and subvert it, and put every man, woman and child to the sword." Far from bringing the Scots to heel, the barbarity of the English only strengthened them in their resolve.
In 1543, there had returned to Scotland a man who was to play a prominent role in the drama of Mary, Queen of Scots. Matthew Stuart, 4th Earl of Lennox, whose power base was centred upon Glasgow, had been born in 1516 at Dumbarton, and had succeeded to his earldom at the age of ten, after the murder of his father by Arran's bastard half-brother. This was cause enough for bad blood between Lennox and Arran, but they were also bitter rivals for the succession. Like Arran, Lennox was descended from Mary, daughter of James II, but only in the female line; unlike Arran, he had been born in undisputed wedlock. With such contentious issues dividing them, there could be no friendship between the Lennox Stuarts and the Hamiltons.
In 1531, Lennox had gone to France, where he joined the royal guard, became a naturalised subject of the French King and changed the spelling of his surname from Stewart to Stuart. Twelve years later, to Arran's consternation, he returned to Scotland and began paying court to Marie de Guise. Like most women, she found him handsome, charming and gallant: he was "a strong man of personage, well-proportioned with lusty and manly visage, and carried himself erect and stately, wherefore he was very pleasant in the sight of gentlewomen." A well-educated man, he spoke fluent French and was skilled at playing the lute. The Queen Dowager and Cardinal Beaton believed Lennox to be an ardent Francophile who would support them against the ambitions of Arran. But Lennox was unreliable, treacherous and driven by self-interest, and when Marie refused to marry him, he defected to the English in search of better prospects. In return for his support against the Scots, Henry VIII bestowed on him the hand of his niece, Lady Margaret Douglas.
The wedding took place in July 1544 at St. James's Palace in London. Born in 1515, Margaret was the daughter of Henry VIII's elder sister, Margaret Tudor (widow of James IV and grandmother of Mary, Queen of Scots) by her second husband, Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus; Margaret was therefore near in blood to the English throne, and a marriage between her and Lennox could only reinforce the dynastic claims of both parties. Yet although their union was politically advantageous, it was also a love match on both sides: he was said to be "far in love," and in his letters, he addressed his wife as "mine own sweet Madge" or "my Meg," told her she was his "chiefest comfort," and signed himself "Your own Matthieu and most loving husband." Margaret was a devout Catholic, so Lennox, who had been reared in the old faith but recently converted to Protestantism, now tempered his spiritual views to please his wife and King Henry; religion was ever a matter of expediency with him.
Margaret Douglas was a formidable woman. Beautiful, intelligent, domineering and relentlessly ambitious, she had an alarming talent for dangerous intrigue. She had spent much of her youth at the English court and become a great favourite of her uncle the King, but incurred his anger when she twice, in 1536 and 1541, became involved with unsuitable men; on each occasion Henry sent her for a spell in the Tower, a place with which she was to be become all too familiar during the course of her turbulent life. There can be no doubt that Margaret Douglas became the driving force in the Lennoxes' marriage.
In 1545, Lennox led an English army into Scotland in the hope of taking Dumbarton Castle for Henry VIII. It was during this campaign that he ordered the slaughter of eleven child hostages whose Scottish fathers had been forced into his ranks and then defected; this earned him undying notoriety and a perpetually haunted conscience. His offensive ended in failure, and on 1 October the Scottish Parliament attainted him for treason and confiscated all his estates and titles, some of which were given to Arran. Lennox was now the most hated man in Scotland. For the next nineteen years, he remained an exile in England, living on the bounty of Henry VIII. The Lennoxes' chief seat was Temple Newsham in Yorkshire, and they owned another house nearby at Settrington. When in London, they resided at the former royal manor of Hackney. Lennox never abandoned hope of regaining his lost lands and asserting his dynastic claims, his ambitions having been sharpened by his grand marriage and the birth of eight children, who inherited the royal blood of both Scotland and England.
During the 1540s, the impact of the Protestant Reformation began to be felt in Scotland. For decades now, the Catholic Church in Scotland had been morally lax and corrupt, and there had been calls for its reform. Now, religious affiliations became identified with political issues, and two noble factions emerged: the Catholics, who favoured the "auld alliance" with France, and a growing number of Protestants, who wanted closer relations with England, whose King, although a Catholic, had severed links with the Church of Rome and declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England.
Trouble began when a Protestant heretic, George Wishart, was burned on the orders of Cardinal Beaton in 1546. In reprisal, Wishart's followers brutally murdered Cardinal Beaton, then held out for a year in St. Andrews Castle before the arrival of a French fleet forced them to surrender. Among those taken prisoner was the reformist preacher John Knox, who would one day become one of the prime movers in the Protestant Reformation. He was sentenced to two years as a galley slave.
In 1547, when Henry VIII died and was succeeded by the nine-year-old Edward VI, England became a Protestant state. The Lord Protector, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, was determined to carry on the war against Scotland, and ordered another invasion. On 10 September 1547, the Scots under Arran suffered a devastating defeat at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh, which enabled the English to occupy south-eastern Scotland. On the day after the battle, the Scots hastily moved their little Queen to Inchmahome Priory for safety, and appealed to the French for aid.
By January 1548, Arran, who had hoped to marry his own son to Mary, was negotiating with King Henry II of France for her marriage to Henry's eldest son, the Dauphin Francis. Mary's maternal uncles, Francis, Duke of Guise and Charles de Guise, Cardinal of Lorraine, were rising men at the French court, and they, foreseeing great advantages to themselves through the marriage of their niece to the heir to the French throne, added their persuasions to Arran's. Henry was more than amenable, as he realised that the match was of far greater benefit to France than Scotland, for it would ultimately bring Scotland under French control, since a wife, even a crowned queen, was always subject to her husband. Given the situation they were in, the Scots had little choice in the matter: whether they married Mary to a French or an English prince, they would be under threat of interference by a foreign power. In the circumstances, it seemed safer to ally with an old friendly ally than a hostile enemy, and in February 1548, the Scottish Parliament gave its consent to the marriage. In return, the French promised to send troops to help expel the English garrisons from Scotland. At the end of the month, Mary was moved to the greater safety of Dumbarton Castle.
In June, having cut a swathe through the occupying forces, a French army recaptured the strategic town of Haddington in East Lothian, and there, on 7 July, a treaty was signed formally providing for the marriage of Mary to the Dauphin, with provisions for safeguarding Scotland's future political autonomy.
Arran was now a spent force, although he was to remain Regent for six more years. Real power in Scotland now lay in the hands of the Queen Dowager, who was determined to protect her daughter's interests and preserve her Catholic kingdom intact. In order to ensure Arran's support, she persuaded the French King to grant him the dukedom of Chatelherault, and promoted his bastard half-brother, John Hamilton, Abbot of Paisley to the office of Archbishop of St. Andrews and Primate of Scotland.
The new Archbishop, who was one day to be accused of involvement in Darnley's murder, was the most able and opportunist politician of all the Hamiltons, and a liberal conservative in religion. Wily and self-seeking, like all his family, "he spent the least part of his time in spiritual contemplations" and led "a life somewhat dissolute" with a "harlot" called Grizzel Sempill, who bore him at least three children, and was the widow of the Provost of Edinburgh. For his sins, Hamilton contracted syphilis, and in 1566 underwent an expensive course of mercury treatment. Marie de Guise ignored the scandals of the Archbishop's private life; she hoped he would be the saviour of the Catholic Church in Scotland.
On 7 August 1548, the five-year-old Mary said goodbye to her mother and her kingdom, and sailed to France. Amongst her attendants were four well-born girls of similar age to her own, all called Mary, who were to be her special companions, and to whom she became especially close: vivacious Mary Livingston, beautiful Mary Beaton, devout Mary Seton and enchanting Mary Fleming.
When Henry II first saw Mary, he declared she was "the most perfect child that I have ever seen." From the first, he treated her as his own daughter, and placed her in the household of his children by his Florentine Queen, Catherine de' Medici. Mary was to grow up in luxurious royal chateaux such as Blois, Chambord and Fontainebleau, surrounded by the art and culture of the Renaissance and the sophisticated, glittering life of the court, where she was petted and pampered by all who came into contact with her, and particularly by her magnificent Guise uncles, who hoped for great things from her in the future, and who guided her in all matters.
Yet the French court was also a moral cesspit, and Mary was exposed from an early age to its promiscuity and corruption. Her own governess bore the King a bastard child. "Here, it is not the men who solicit the women, but the women the men," observed the Queen of Navarre disapprovingly. The court was ruled by the King's mistress, the elegant and cultivated Diane de Poitiers, who was nineteen years his senior yet still beautiful. An affronted Queen Catherine was relegated to the sidelines while Diane was given responsibility for arranging the education of the royal children. From Diane, Mary learned to regard Catherine with contempt, and consequently the Queen "had a great misliking" of her daughter-in-law.
The moral laxity of the court is reflected in two paintings that apparently show a teenaged Mary, the future Queen of France, in the nude. Two figures in the erotic allegorical work The Bath of Diana, attributed to Francis Clouet (now in the Musee des Beaux Arts, Rouen) are thought to be portraits of Mary, and she is almost certainly the bare-breasted sitter wearing a ruff and headdress in the portrait of A Lady at her Toilet by an artist of the School of Fontainebleau (now in the Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts). It is not known whether Mary herself posed naked for these pictures, or whether her portrait was superimposed on the body of a nude model, but the portrayal of her in such poses belies the later image she fostered of a prim and virtuous princess.
Excerpted from Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Murder of Lord Darnley by Alison Weir Copyright © 2004 by Alison Weir. Excerpted by permission.
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2. In the author’s view, Mary made two fatal errors that blighted her life. What were these? Would you say that Mary was the victim of circumstance and unscrupulous men, or of her own poor judgement?
3. Who was the most guilty: Elizabeth I for keeping Mary prisoner for nineteen years and then having her executed? Or Mary, for seeking aid from Elizabeth, whose crown she coveted, and for ceaselessly plotting her ruin?
4. Some people think it incredible that Mary could not have known of the plot against Darnley, given that so many people were involved. Yet she had certainly not known of a similarly orchestrated plot against Rizzio. Do you think that, after the conference at Craigmillar, she should have realized that Darnley’s life might be in danger?
5. How do you account for Mary’s inertia after Darnley’s murder? Does the author make a convincing case for it being due to a physical and mental breakdown?
6. Did Mary collude in her own rape by Bothwell? What evidence is there that she was forced into marriage with him?
7. Suppose Elizabeth had sent Mary back into Scotland with an English army in 1568 and it proved victorious in winning her back the throne, what do you think the consequences might have been?
8. This question was asked by a reader at an event: Did Darnley have any good points? The author, at a loss for an answer, mentioned his youth and his good looks! Is there anything you think she could have added?
9. Has Mary ever been well-portrayed on screen? How would you rate the performances of Katharine Hepburn (Mary of Scotland, 1936), Vanessa Redgrave (Mary, Queen of Scots, 1971), Vivian Pickles (Elizabeth R, 1971), Clémence Poésy (Gunpowder, Treason and Plot, 2004), Barbara Flynn (Elizabeth I, 2005), and Samantha Morton (Elizabeth: The Golden Age, 2007)?
10. Having read the book, do you agree with the author’s conclusions?
Posted November 17, 2006
Weir does it again! After having read her biography of Elizabeth I (another great read) and having an interest in Mary Stuart anyway, I enthusiastically delved into this work. Weir painstakingly explores primary sources and incorporates ample background material. She doesn't try to indoctrinate her readers with a certain view, although she makes it clear how she feels. On the contrary, she presents a fair picture of the nobles involved and the political and relgious climates. She isn't in any way unfair to Mary Stuart herself, nor is she unfair to the 'bad guys', either. Rather, she carefully discerns from primary sources the characters and motives of the various players in the story. She takes you through everything (and I do mean everything) as if settting up a geometric proof. Nothing is assumed, no step is skipped. A must for anyone with an interest in Mary, Elizabeth, or the study of history in general.
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Posted July 3, 2012
I have become a fan of Alison Weir's historical writings and have enjoyed reading many of her books. I studied King James I of England, VI of Scotland quite extensively for my Master's thesis and was intrigued by his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots. This book is an excellent in depth look at Mary's life and it's an enjoyable read as well.
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Posted April 7, 2003
I had expected some wonderful revelation in reference to Mary and Darnley's marriage and his death. There wasn't one! To me, the book was a re-hash of everything I've ever read, both biographical and fictional. I had difficulty with Ms. Weir's interpretations of The Casket Letters. She would translate the supposed meaning of the letter in a format that made me wonder where she ever came up with her conclusions. As for the conclusions, I couldn't see where she could possibly have come up with her deductions. In all fairness, it may be the way in which The Casket Letters were written, in the Old English style. What was appreciated, though, was that I finally had a sense of who all the main characters were and how they were placed in the story...from Moray, Maitland, and Huntly, to Lennox, Morton, and Bothwell. I do agree with Ms. Weir's ultimate hypothesis, though....that Mary was innocent of the crime, albeit she probably knew something was afoot due to a conference with some leading nobles, and that The Casket Letters were most probably either all forgeries or actual letters tampered with. Thing is....other books which I have read have said this already! As previously mentioned...there was nothing new in this book.
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