The Washington Post
Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuartby John Guy
National Book Critics Circle Award finalist
“A triumph . . . a masterpiece full of fire and tragedy.” Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana
In the first full-scale biography of Mary Stuart in more than thirty years, John Guy creates an intimate and absorbing portrait of one of history’s greatest women, depicting her world and her place… See more details below
National Book Critics Circle Award finalist
“A triumph . . . a masterpiece full of fire and tragedy.” Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana
In the first full-scale biography of Mary Stuart in more than thirty years, John Guy creates an intimate and absorbing portrait of one of history’s greatest women, depicting her world and her place in the sweep of history with stunning immediacy. Bringing together all surviving documents and uncovering a trove of new sources for the first time, Guy dispels the popular image of Mary Queen of Scots as a romantic leading lady achieving her ends through feminine wiles and establishes her as the intellectual and political equal of Elizabeth I.
Through Guy’s pioneering research and superbly readable prose, we come to see Mary as a skillful diplomat, maneuvering ingeniously among a dizzying array of factions that sought to control or dethrone her. Queen of Scots is an enthralling, myth-shattering look at a complex woman and ruler and her time.
“The definitive biography . . . gripping . . . a pure pleasure to read.” Washington Post Book World
“Reads like Shakespearean drama, with all the delicious plotting and fresh writing to go with it.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution
John Guy is a fellow in history at Clare College, University of Cambridge, and the author of several books, including the best-selling textbook Tudor England.
The Washington Post
"As enthralling as a detective story..."Gerard Kilroy The New York Times Book Review
"Recent royal shenanigans look tame compared with what John Guy unearths in QUEEN OF SCOTS."Claire Lui Entertainment Weekly
"Queen of Scots is a triumph of biography, artistry, and historical detective work. John Guy has produced a masterpiece, full of fire and tragedy."Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana
"Rarely have first-class scholarship and first-class storytelling been so effectively combined."John Adamson, Daily Telegraph
"[An] absorbing biography . . . meticulously researched . . . scholarly and intriguing."Peter Ackroyd The Times of London
"A definitive biography. . . . Reads as thrillingly as a detective story, and is rich in detail and authoritative in its analysis."Miranda Seymour, The Sunday Times
"I couldn't put this book down....Never before has [Mary's story] been told with such detail, accuracy, insight and drama."Gerard DeGroot, Scotland on Sunday
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Queen of Scots
By John Guy
Houghton Mifflin CompanyCopyright © 2004 John Guy
All right reserved.
Around eight o"clock in the morning on Wednesday, February 8, 1587, when
it was light enough to see without candles, Sir Thomas Andrews, sheriff of
the county of Northamptonshire, knocked on a door. The place was
Fotheringhay Castle, about seventy-five miles from London. All that remains
there now beneath the weeds is the raised earthen rampart of the inner bailey
and a truncated mound, or "motte," on the site of the keep, a few hundred
yards from the village beside a sluggish stretch of the River Nene.
But in the sixteenth century the place was bustling with life.
Fotheringhay was a royal manor. Richard III had been born at the castle in
1452. Henry VII, the first of the Tudor kings, who had slain Richard at the
battle of Bosworth, gave the estate as a dowry to his wife, Elizabeth of York,
and Henry VIII granted it to his first bride, Catherine of Aragon, who
extensively refurbished the castle. In 1558, Elizabeth I inherited the property
when she succeeded to the throne on the death of her elder sister, Mary
Despite its royal associations, nothing had prepared
Fotheringhay, or indeed the British Isles, for what was about to happen there.
Andrews was in attendance on two of England"s highest-ranking noblemen,
George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, and Henry Grey, Earl of Kent. The door
on which he knocked was the entrance to the privy chamber of Mary Queen
of Scots, dowager queen of France and for almost nineteen years Elizabeth"s
prisoner in England.
The door opened to reveal Mary on her knees, praying with her
bedchamber servants. Andrews informed her that time was at hand, and
she looked up and said she was ready. She rose, and her gentlewomen
She was only forty-four. Born and brought up to be a queen, she
walked confidently through the doorway as if she were once more processing
to a court festival. Almost six feet tall, she had always looked the part. She
had been fêted since her childhood in France for her beauty and
allure. "Charmante" and "la plus parfaite" were the adjectives most commonly
applied to her singular blend of celebrity. Not just physically mesmerizing
with her well-proportioned face, neck, arms and waist, she had an unusual
warmth of character with the ability to strike up an instant rapport. Always
high-spirited and vivacious, she could be unreservedly generous and amiable.
She had a razor-sharp wit and was a natural conversationalist. Gregarious as
well as glamorous, she could be genial to the point of informality as long as
her "grandeur" was respected. Many contemporaries remarked on her almost
magical ability to create the impression that the person she was talking to
was the only one whose opinion really mattered to her.
As a result of premature aging caused by the inertia and lack of
exercise of which she had so bitterly complained during her long captivity,
her beauty was on the wane. Her features had thickened and she had
rounded shoulders and a slight stoop. Her face, once legendary for its soft
white skin and immaculate, marble-like complexion, had filled out and
become double-chinned. But captivity did not alter all things. Her small, deep-
set hazel eyes darted as restle ever, and her ringlets of auburn hair
seemed as lustrous.
Mary had been awake for most of the night and had carefully
prepared herself. This was to be her grandest performance, her greatest
triumph; she had considered every detail.
Her clothes set the tone. She appeared to be dressed entirely in
black apart from a white linen veil. Lace-edged and as delicate as gauze, it
flowed down from her hair over her shoulders to her feet in the French style.
Fastened to the top of the veil was a small white cambric cap. It just touched
the tip of her forehead and was also edged with lace, leaving room for her
curls to peek out at the sides. Her gown of thick black satin reached almost
to the ground, where it was attached to her train. Trimmed with gold
embroidery and sable, it was peppered with acorn buttons of jet, set with
A closer look revealed an outer bodice of crimson velvet and an
underskirt of embroidered black satin, both visible where the gown was
fashionably cut away. To bedeck it, Mary wore long, richly embroidered
slashed sleeves in the Italian style, under which could be seen uncut inner
sleeves of purple velvet. Her shoes were of the finest Spanish suede. Later
someone observed that she wore sky-blue stockings embroidered with silver
thread and held up by green silk garters, these on top of soft white stockings
that she used to protect her skin from chafing.
She carried a crucifix of ivory in one hand and a Latin prayer book
in the other. A string of rosary beads with a golden cross hung from a girdle
at her waist. Around her neck lay a silver or gold chain on which hung a
p medallion bearing the image of Christ as the Lamb of God.
Led by Andrews and followed by the two earls, Mary walked along
the corridor and into a larger room where her household was waiting to greet
her and bid her farewell. An eyewitness (perhaps the Earl of Kent himself)
wrote that she exhorted her servants to fear God and live in obedience. She
kissed her women servants and gave her hand to her menservants to kiss.
She asked them not to grieve for her, but "to rejoice and pray for her." One of
them afterward reported that she showed no fear and even smiled.
Mary then descended the stairs toward the great hall on the
ground floor. Her legs were so swollen and inflamed by rheumatism, she
leaned for support on the arms of two soldiers. When the procession reached
the anteroom of the hall, they encountered Andrew Melville, her steward, who
knelt and fighting back tears cried out, "Madam, it will be the sorrowfullest
message that I ever carried, when I shall report that my queen and dear
mistress is dead."
Mary answered, also weeping, "You ought to rejoice rather than
weep for that the end of Mary Stuart"s troubles is now come." "Carry this
message," she continued, "and tell my friends that I die a true woman to my
religion, and like a true Scottish woman and a true French woman."
As Mary recovered her composure, her mood abruptly changed.
She glanced back up the stairs and exclaimed that she was "evil attended."
She demanded "for womanhood"s sake" that her own servants should escort
her. She harangued the earls, who be that she would cause an
even bigger scene and have to be dragged violently into the great hall.
Shrewsbury feebly claimed that he and Kent were simply following
orders. Hearing this, Mary bridled: "Far meaner persons than myself have not
been denied so small a favor." "Madam," replied Kent, "it cannot well be
granted, for that it is feared lest some of them would with speeches both
trouble and grieve Your Grace and disquiet the company . . . or seek to wipe
their napkins in some of your blood, which were not convenient."
"My lord," said Mary, "I will give my word and promise for them
that they shall not do any such thing." She could not stop herself
adding, "You know that I am cousin to your queen, and descended from the
blood of Henry VII, a married queen of France and the anointed queen of
The earls huddled together, whispering inaudibly, then gave in to
Mary, who was used to getting her own way. Her two favorite gentlewomen,
Jane Kennedy and Elizabeth Curle, and four of her gentlemen, including
Melville, were allowed to join the procession. "Allons donc," said Mary,
smiling again — "Now let us go." She spoke in French because this and
Lowland Scots were her native tongues; English she had learned only with
difficulty in her captivity.
Her retinue now made ready, she strode purposefully into the
great hall with Melville carrying her train. It was self-consciously a royal entry;
Mary walked before the hundred or so spectators straight toward the focal
point, a wooden stage that had been hasti over the previous
two days beside an open fireplace in which a great pile of logs blazed. She
mounted the two steps that led up to the platform and sat down on a low
stool that was offered to her, after which the earls seated themselves on her
right while the sheriff stood on her left.
There was of course no throne. The stage was a scaffold two feet
high and twelve feet square, shrouded with black cotton sheets that hung low
over the sides to camouflage the rough joinery, with a rail eighteen inches
high around three sides and the unenclosed fourth side in full view of the
spectators in the lower end of the hall. There was a cushion for Mary to kneel
on, this beside an execution block also swathed in black.
Two masked men stood in readiness on the platform, one "Bull,"
the headsman of the Tower of London, and his assistant. They were dressed
in long black gowns with white aprons, their ax laid casually against the rail.
In the lower end of the space, the knights and gentlemen of
Northamptonshire and its neighboring counties looked toward the stage
flanked by a troop of soldiers, their view unrestricted because the platform
had been set at the right height. Outside in the courtyard, beyond the
passageway at the main entrance to the great hall, a large crowd of another
thousand or so waited for news.
The sheriff called for silence, after which Robert Beale, the clerk of
Elizabeth"s Privy Council and the man responsible for delivering the execution
warrant to Fotheringhay, read it out. As he spoke —the warrant would have
taken about ten minutes to read — Mary sat complete showed no
emotion, listening, as Robert Wingfield of Upton, Northamptonshire, who was
within ten yards of her, reported, "with as small regard as if it had not
concerned her at all; and with as cheerful a countenance as if it had been a
pardon." Her nerve was to be tested, however, when Dr. Richard Fletcher,
Dean of Peterborough, and at this time one of Elizabeth"s favorite preachers,
stepped forward at the Earl of Shrewsbury"s signal.
Fletcher, the father of the dramatist John Fletcher, who was
Shakespeare"s collaborator on Henry VIII, had been brought in to deliver a
setpiece "admonition" to Mary that strictured her for her traitorous
Catholicism, and to lead the assembly in prayers. He was one of Elizabeth"s
chaplains in ordinary, renowned for his "comely person" and "courtly speech."
But his admonition backfired spectacularly; the attempted
sermon — for that is all it was —was the greatest faux pas of his career.
When the moment came, he started to stammer nervously. "Madam," he
began, "the queen"s most excellent majesty"; "Madam, the queen"s most
excellent majesty . . ." Three times he stumbled, but when he started for the
fourth, Mary cut him off. In a clear and unwavering voice, she said, "Mr. Dean,
I will not hear you. You have nothing to do with me, nor I with you."
Fletcher, somewhat abashed, countered, "I say nothing but that I
will justify before the majesty of the mighty God." He was not at first willing to
give way to her, believing that God would never abandon th but would
minister to them through his angels. If Mary had been condemned to die, it
was God"s work and the preacher would be called to account for his sermon
only before God.
Hearing this, Mary got into her stride, as she always did in an
argument. "I am settled," she said, "in the ancient Roman Catholic religion,
and mind to spend my blood in defense of it."
Fletcher unwisely responded, "Madam, change your opinion and
repent you of your former wickedness, and settle your faith only in Jesus
Christ, by him to be saved." This was not the way to speak to a queen. Mary,
visibly coloring, ordered him to be silent. There was an awkward pause. Then
the earls gave way. Fletcher was told to omit the sermon, which in a fit of
pique he insisted be transcribed from his notes into a report of the day"s
A bizarre, even farcical scene ensued. The Earl of Kent urged
Fletcher to begin the prayers, but as the dean started speaking again, Mary
prayed loudly and in Latin with her crucifix before her eyes.
There followed a battle of wills, because as the knights and
gentlemen in the hall joined Fletcher in his versicles and responses, Mary
and her six servants shouted louder and louder until the queen, in tears,
slipped off her stool, at which point she knelt and continued as before.
Even after Fletcher had ceased praying, Mary carried on, in
English now to cause maximum embarrassment. She prayed for the Church,
for an end to religious discord, for her son, the twenty-year-old James VI of
Scotland —whom her enemies had brought up as a Protestant &md
might be converted to the true Catholic faith. She prayed that Elizabeth might
prosper and long continue to reign, serving God aright. She confessed that
she hoped to be saved "by and in the blood of Christ at the foot of whose
crucifix she would willingly shed her blood." She petitioned the saints to pray
for her soul, and that God would in his great mercy and goodness avert his
plagues from "this silly island."
To the Earl of Kent, himself a staunch Protestant, this was highly
offensive. "Madam," he said, "settle Christ Jesus in your heart and leave
those trumperies." But Mary ignored him. Eventually she finished, kissing the
crucifix and making the sign of the cross in the Catholic way.
This was largely contrived. Mary had never truly been the
ideological Catholic that she now wished to appear to the world. She was far
too political for that. As a ruler in Scotland, she had sensibly accepted a
compromise based on the religious status quo and the inroads made by the
Protestant Reformation. Only after her imprisonment in England had she
reinvented herself as a poor Catholic woman persecuted for her religion alone.
What happened in the great hall at Fotheringhay was for show, and it worked.
By humiliating Fletcher, Mary won a propaganda victory that resounded
around Catholic Europe.
Satisfied, she calmly turned to Bull, who meekly knelt and sought
her forgiveness. She answered, "I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I
hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles."
The executioners helped Mary"s gentlewomen to undress her
down As they unbuttoned her, she smiled broadly and joked
that she "never had such grooms before to make her unready" nor did
she "ever put off her clothes before such a company."
She laid her crucifix and prayer book on her stool, and one of the
executioners took the medallion from around her neck, since custom allowed
that such personal items were a perquisite. But Mary interposed, saying that
she would give these things to her servants and that he would receive money
in lieu of them.
As Mary"s veil and black outer garments were removed, stifled
cries of shock and astonishment reverberated around the hall. Her petticoat
was of tawny velvet, her inner bodice of tawny satin. One of her gentlewomen
handed her a pair of tawny sleeves with which she immediately covered her
arms. A metamorphosis had occurred.
For several minutes Mary stood stock still on the stage, clad in
the color of dried blood: the liturgical color of martyrdom in the Roman
Catholic Church. It was a sight so melodramatic, so abhorrent to the earls,
that they omitted all reference to it from their official report to the Privy
Council. The incident is known only from a contemporary French account
based on the reports of Mary"s attendants, which is confirmed by two
independent English accounts, one by Shrewsbury"s servant, who was
writing to a friend and had no reason to lie.
Mary kissed her gentlewomen, who burst into uncontrolled fits of
sobbing. "Ne criez vous," she said, "j"ai promis pour vous." Or as one of the
English eyewitness accounts renders it, "Peace, peace, cry have
promised the contrary, cry not for me but rejoice."
She raised her hands and blessed them, and turning to her other
servants, Melville especially, who were weeping aloud and continually
crossing themselves, she prayed in Latin and blessed them too, bade them
farewell, and asked them to remember her in their prayers.
She knelt down "most resolutely" on the cushion while Jane
Kennedy covered her eyes with a white Corpus Christi cloth embroidered in
gold that Mary had chosen the previous night. Jane kissed the cloth, tied it
around Mary"s face in the shape of a triangle and pinned it securely to her
cap. The two gentlewomen then left the platform.
As Mary knelt, she recited in Latin the psalm In te Domino
confido, "In thee, O Lord, have I put my trust." Reaching out for the block, she
laid down her head, positioning her chin carefully with her hands and holding
them there, so that if one of the executioners had not moved them, they
would have been cut off. She stretched out her arms and legs and cried, "In
manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum" — "Into your hands, O
Lord, I commend my spirit." She repeated these words three or four times
until, with one executioner holding down her body, the other severed her head.
Except it was the headsman"s turn to blunder. It should have
taken only a single blow, but the strain was too great even for England"s
most experienced executioner. His first strike was misaligned, and the blow
fell on the knot of the blindfold, missing the neck and hacking into the back of
the head. One acco made a "very small noise," but another
says she cried out in agony, "Lord Jesus receive my soul." A second strike
severed the neck, but not completely, and the executioner sliced through the
remaining sinews, using the ax as a cleaver. At length he raised the head,
shouting "God save the queen." An audible gasp went up from the hall,
because Mary"s lips were still moving as if in prayer, and continued to do so
for a quarter of an hour.
And then the final twist. As the executioner lifted up the head,
Mary"s auburn curls and white cap became detached from her skull. The
illusion of monarchy dissolved as the executioner found himself clutching a
handful of hair while the head fell back to the floor, rolling like a misshapen
football toward the spectators, who saw that it was "very grey and near bald."
Suddenly everything was clear. The Queen of Scots had worn a
wig. The assembly was struck dumb, until the Earl of Shrewsbury could
stand it no longer and burst into tears.
As the executioner retrieved the skull, Dr. Fletcher recovered his
wits. He bellowed, "So perish all the queen"s enemies," to which the Earl of
Kent, standing over the corpse, echoed, "Such be the end of all the queen"s
and the gospel"s enemies." But it was a gruesome finale, a harrowing
catharsis. Even in the London theaters, where revenge plays and tragedies
were newly in vogue, no one had seen anything quite like this.
Mary"s distraught servants were led from the scene and locked in
their rooms. The executioners were disrobing the corpse when one of th
saw that her favorite pet dog, a Skye terrier, had hidden itself in the folds of
her petticoat and sneaked onto the stage. When detected, it ran about
wailing miserably and lay down in the widening pool of blood between her
severed head and shoulders. Since it could not be coaxed away, it was
forcibly removed and washed, whereupon it refused to eat. One of Mary"s
servants claimed it soon died, but this is not corroborated.
In the afternoon, by order of the earls, the black cotton sheets, the
execution block and cushion, Mary"s clothes and ornaments, and anything
else with blood on it were burned in the open fireplace so that no relics of
the "martyrdom" she had so conspicuously sought to evoke could be
obtained by her Catholic supporters. Still present in the great hall to observe
these cleansing operations were the knights and gentlemen of the county,
and when the earls wrote their official account of the execution, these men
signed their names to the report as solemn witnesses.
The Earl of Shrewsbury"s fourth son, Henry Talbot, was sent
posthaste to London to deliver the report to the Privy Council that same night.
When he had departed, the mortal remains of the dead queen were put on a
stretcher and carried back upstairs to be embalmed. The scaffold was
demolished and everyone except the sheriff, who had the job of burying the
heart and inner organs in a secret place within the foundations of the castle,
was sent home. Some of Mary"s ornaments must also have been buried in
the deep recesses of the castle, because the ring she was given at her
betrothal to her second husba Henry Lord Darnley, was later unearthed in
the ruins and exhibited at Peterborough in 1887.
No one who had witnessed Mary"s last day could ever have
forgotten it. Whatever view is taken of her character, whatever credence is
given to the stories told about her as a way of justifying her forced abdication
and execution, the business on that day was regicide. Mary was an anointed
queen. Elizabeth, her fellow sovereign as much as her rival for the past thirty
years, was herself all too anxious to defend the ideal of monarchy: the
principle that rulers were accountable to God alone. She had done everything
possible to prevent Mary"s execution until she felt it could no longer be
avoided, and then to shift the blame for it onto the shoulders of others.
Elizabeth had a firm grasp of the issues. She knew that Mary"s
death would alter the way that monarchy was regarded in the British Isles. A
regicide would give a massive boost to Parliament, diminishing forever
the "divinity that hedges a king." It would help to propagate the theory of
popular sovereignty —the belief that political power lies in the people and not
in the ruler — and the idea that the representatives of the people were those
they elected to Parliament. This was the ideology invoked by Mary"s rebel
lords in Scotland to depose her. And the same theory would be instilled
there, and more subversively in parts of France, for 250 years after her death,
finally to cross the Atlantic when Dr. William Small, a Scot, taught ethics
and political science to the young Thomas Jefferson at the College of William
and in Virginia.
How did so versatile a queen as Mary, one so beautiful and
intelligent, so convivial and down-to-earth, so full of life and irresistible, end up
disgraced and deposed? One of the reasons is that Elizabeth"s chief minister
and leading adviser for forty years, William Cecil, was her antagonist. More
than anyone else, he was her great nemesis. Unlike Elizabeth, Mary was a
Catholic, and Cecil"s overriding ambition was to remold the whole of the
British Isles into a single Protestant community. He had little room for an
independent Scotland, hence his intermittent clashes with his Scottish allies
over the extent of English domination. Whereas Elizabeth did all she could to
protect the ideal of divine-right monarchy irrespective of the religion of its
incumbent, Cecil believed that Parliament had the right to settle the
succession to the throne on religious grounds, meaning that Mary"s dynastic
claim had at all costs to be discounted.
In death as in life, Mary always aroused the strongest feelings. To
her apologists she was an innocent victim. She was mishandled and
traduced: a political pawn in the hands of those perfidious Scottish lords and
ambitious French and English politicians who found her inconvenient and in
their way. To her critics she was fatally flawed. She was far too affected by
her emotions. She ruled from the heart and not the head. She was a femme
fatale, a manipulative siren, who flaunted her sexuality in dancing and
banqueting and did not care who knew it.
Her enemies largely won the argument. Mary has come down to
us not as a shrewd and charismat who relished power and, for a
time, managed to hold together a fatally unstable country, but rather as
someone who cared more about her luxuries and pets. She knew how to play
to the gallery. One of the accounts of her execution dismissed her
as "transcending the skills of the most accomplished actress." But a sense
of theater was essential to the exercise of power in the sixteenth century,
and there was far more to Mary than so cynical a judgment implies.
This book tries to get to the truth about her, or as close to the
truth as possible: to see her not merely as a bundle of stereotypes or as a
convenient and tenuously linked series of myths, but as a whole woman
whose choices added up and whose decisions made sense. The rationale
relates closely to the method: to write Mary"s life and tell her story using the
original documents rather than relying on the familiar printed collections or
edited abstracts, themselves often compiled to perpetuate rather than to
engage with the legends. It may come as a surprise to learn that such
documents survive in voluminous quantities, preserved in archives and
research libraries as far apart as Edinburgh, Paris, London, the stately
homes of England, and Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Some of them
have not been read by a historian since 1840.Many have not been freshly
examined since the 1890s, and among these are unrecognized handwritten
transcripts of two of the famous Casket Letters.
The aim is to tell Mary"s story, where possible letting her speak
for herself in her own words, but also to consider why the stories of others
abou same events are often so strikingly different. Only when this is
done can the myriad of facts be properly sifted, the sequence of events be
explained and understood, and a searchlight cast on a turbulent life.
Copyright © 2004 by John Guy. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin
Excerpted from Queen of Scots by John Guy Copyright © 2004 by John Guy. Excerpted by permission.
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