I At the Center of Disastrous Events The midnight hour being well past, the day is now Wednesday, the eighth of February, 1587. The sound of hammering in the great hall of Fotheringhay Castle has not ceased. In a few hours the most important day of my life will dawn. I have written letters to those I love. My red petticoats and my black gown lie ready. My women, dressed in black, sit with me, and I ask one of them to read aloud the story of the good thief crucified beside our Lord.
When she has finished, the women are weeping. "It is true that the thief was a great sinner," I remind them, "but not so great as I have been."
I lie down and close my eyes, though I have no wish to sleep. Outside the door of my dreary chambers, the guards tramp back and forth, back and forth, stationed there lest I try to escape. They need not worry. My body remains here, but my thoughts have already flown away, back to my earliest beginnings and all that has followed.
Chapter 1 Farewell, Scotland
I was the cause of my father’s death.
My father, King James V of Scotland, drew his last downhearted breath and died when I was just six days old. "He had not been ill," my mother explained to me years later, "but was deeply saddened by his defeat at the hands of the terrible English."
Henry VIII, king of "the terrible English," was determined to take over Scotland. In the bloody battles between the two countries that shared a border, the outnumbered Scots always got the worst of it. After my father’s humiliating loss at his last battle, he took to his bed.
My father had badly wanted a son who could be the next king. When he married my mother, a French duchess, he already had three illegitimate sons, but by law a bastard could not inherit the Scottish throne. My mother bore him two more sons; both infants died. I was my father’s last hope, and when the news reached him of the birth of a lass—a girl—that bitter disappointment was more than he could endure. Had I been a boy, he would still be alive. I have no doubt of that.
From my earliest days I have too often found myself at the center of disastrous events. That was the first. My birth killed my father, and I became queen of Scotland.
I was playing with my friends when the guard rushed in from the watchtower and announced to the queen, "My lady, the ships flying the colors of France are moving up the Firth," and my mother burst into tears.
"Mither?" I jumped up from my game and ran to her. I touched her cheek. "Maman?" I asked, changing to French, my mother’s language.
She dabbed at her eyes and tried to smile. "Shall we go see the ships, Marie?" Her voice trembled. She took my hand, calling to my friends, "Come, dear little Maries!" All four of my friends were named Mary, as I was, but my mother called us by the French version of the name—even Mary Fleming, who was pure Scots. To everyone, they were the Four Maries. Trailed by governesses who always seemed to move too slowly, we dashed eagerly out of the castle and peered down over the stone parapet to see for ourselves these foreign ships far below us. A strong north wind, chilly even in July, whipped our skirts and petticoats and blew our long hair into our faces.
"Look," my mother said, "the king of France has sent his own royal galley for you. This shows how much he honors you."
"Me?" I gazed up at my mother, puzzled. It was the summer of 1548, a few months before my sixth birthday, and there was much I did not yet understand.
Maman sighed deeply and pulled me close. "The time has come to explain it to you, ma chère Marie."
At the age of nine months I was carried in a great procession to the royal chapel at Stirling Castle and crowned Mary Stuart, queen of Scotland, in a solemn ceremony. I remembered none of it, of course, but the event was described to me so often—how I reached out and tried to grasp the scepter; how I did not stop wailing throughout the ceremony—that in a few years I came to believe I actually could remember it all.
I was barely a year old when the Scottish Parliament signed an agreement with England declaring that when I reached the age of ten I would marry Prince Edward, the son of King Henry VIII. I was pledged to marry the "auld enemy"! That promise was not enough to satisfy King Henry. He demanded that I come to live in England until my marriage—for my safekeeping, he said. My mother refused to allow it. Fearing that King Henry would have me kidnapped, my mother moved me from Linlithgow Castle, where I was born, to Stirling Castle, far north of the border and better fortified against an English attack. But still my mother did not feel easy. We moved again, to an even more remote castle.
While we were there, news came from England that Henry VIII had died. Nine-year-old Edward was the new king. I was four.
"I am certain it is safe now," said my mother. "We can go home to Stirling."
But she was wrong. The English continued their attacks along the border. They mowed down ten thousand Scots in the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh and began the march to Stirling. In the dead of night my mother and I were bundled onto a litter and carried to an Augustinian priory on a quiet lake far from the smoke and noise of battle. Within a few days the Four Maries and their mothers joined us on the island of Inchmahome. I would have happily stayed on that pretty island, unaware of the bloody fighting that still raged, chasing butterflies, gathering eggs from the hens’ nests, and devouring the rich buns the monks baked for us every morning.
My mother now made a decision that would determine the course of my life: Instead of marrying Edward, the new king of England, I would marry the future king of France. But the future had its beginning in the present. "Until you are old enough for marriage, you will live at the French court and learn their language and their ways," said my mother. "Someday the king’s son, the little dauphin, will become king, and you will be queen of France."
"What is the laddie called?" I asked—my first question.
"His name is François de Valois. He is four years old, a little younger than you."
"You are coming too, are you not, Maman?" I asked.
"Non, Marie," she said. "I must stay here. But your nurse and your governess will go with you, and Lord Erskine and Lord Livingston as your guardians, and the Four Maries, and your three Stuart half brothers, and many others who know and love you. When you arrive in France you will have your grandparents and your uncles to look after you, and the king of France and his children will welcome you into their family. You will not be lonely, Marie—I promise."
"Then you will come later," I insisted stubbornly.
"Oui, my darling child," she said, smiling. "Later."
Her smile was a lie. I sensed the tears behind it, ready to pour again at any moment. I knew without asking that once I left Scotland, my life would change. I could not possibly imagine how much.
To prepare for my departure for France, we moved again, this time to Dumbarton Castle, in the far west of Scotland. The ancient fortress was built high on a rocky mound where winds howled and rains lashed, and no English soldier would dare scale the steep rock face that jutted straight up from the water and overlooked the Firth of Clyde, where the river joined the sea. To avoid the English ships, the French fleet had taken a long and dangerous route to reach me, sailing around the northern end of Scotland before heading southward to Dumbarton.
I hated to see my mother weep, but on the day those French ships appeared in the firth, I was too filled with excitement to be overly concerned. The king of France had sent his ships to fetch me! I was going to marry the king’s son, and one day I would be the queen of France! I loved the sound of that: queen of France. Even my mother did not have such a splendid title. While my father was alive, she had been titled the queen consort of Scots. Now she was known as the queen mother, meaning that her husband, the king, was dead and she was in charge of things in the kingdom until I, her child, was old enough to rule as queen of Scots.
My own little court was made up of the Four Maries; my father’s three bastard sons; and a number of others. My nurse, Janeen Sinclair, would accompany me, as would my governess, Lady Janet Fleming, Mary Fleming’s mother. Mary Livingston, the daughter of Lord Livingston, one of my guardians, was in my party as well. Mary Seton and Mary Beaton were the other two Maries, and Seton’s younger brother Robbie was coming too.
The Marie dearest to me was Mary Fleming. Because of her reddish curls and mischievous smile, we called her La Flamin. A little older than I and "irrepressible," in my mother’s opinion, La Flamin made it her duty to keep me informed of what was really going on. It did not occur to me that she might have been inventing some of her stories, or at least embellishing them a little. Her father had been killed at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh.
"You and I had the same grandfather, you know," she told me proudly. "King James the Fourth."
"I do know that," I said, not wanting her to think I was ignorant, but in fact I was not sure I did know. "He was killed in battle too," I said, eager to show off my knowledge of Scots history. "Fighting against the English at Flodden Field."
"He was married to Queen Margaret, so he couldn’t marry my grandmother," added Mary Fleming with a deep sigh. "And so my mother is a bastard."
"Pity," I said, nodding sympathetically. Queen Margaret was my grandmother. It was indeed unfortunate that a person born out of wedlock could not inherit titles and property—like my three older Stuart half brothers. "But you and I are still cousins, are we not?"
"Aye, of course! But I am pure Scots on both sides of my family," she boasted, tossing those red curls. "The other Maries have Scottish fathers and French mothers, like you. When Marie of Guise came to Scotland to marry your father, the others came with her as her ladies in waiting."
"I know that too," I said.
"And did you know that your father had another wife, before your mother?"
Sometimes I had to pretend I knew more than I did; this time I did not. "Her name was Madeleine," I said, "and she was the daughter of the previous king of France. She was sixteen when she came here to marry my father, and within forty days she was dead of a fever, poor thing. They blamed it on the Scottish air."
"The air in France is said to be much more pleasant," said La Flamin helpfully.
"My mother’s first husband, the duke of Longueville, died as well, when she was expecting her second child. Poor Mither! That baby died when he was only four months old. But her older boy still lives in France. I suppose I will meet him when I go there."
"That must have been so sad!" Mary Fleming said, her brow furrowed sorrowfully. "And then your mother, the duchess, received a proposal of marriage." She leaned toward me eagerly and took my hand in both of hers. "My mother told me about it. Do you know who her suitor was?"
"My father? The king of Scotland?" I hoped I was right. I did not like La Flamin knowing more than I did about my own family, even if she was my dearest friend.
"No!" she cried. "You are wrong! He was a king, it is true, but not of Scotland!" Mary Fleming was bursting with her triumph in our storytelling. "It was Henry the Eighth of England!"
"That horrible man wanted to marry Mither?" I was so shocked by that bit of information that I flung Mary’s hand away. Why had my mother never told me this?
"Aye, but she refused him! My mother knew all about it!" La Flamin struck a pose that she considered queenly. "This is what Marie of Guise said: ‘I may be a big woman, but I have a very little neck.’ King Henry had had his second wife, Anne Boleyn, beheaded, you see, and before the swordsman cut off her head, Queen Anne said, ‘I will be easy to kill, for my neck is little.’ Your mother had heard that story, and she was not about to have her head cut off."
"Then I thank a gracious God that she refused him and I did not have Henry the Eighth for a father!" I exclaimed. "How horrible to have one’s head cut off!"
My friend agreed that it was horrible. "But still you had him for a great-uncle, you know. King Henry married three more times before he died. Six wives all told!" she went on, sure of my interest. "He divorced two of his wives and had two beheaded. One died—that was Edward’s mother—and one outlived him. I would never have married that dreadful man—would you?"
I shuddered at the thought. "Or his son either," I added. "A wicked lot, the English."
My cousin clearly enjoyed shocking me with her grisly tale. I shivered at my mother’s good fortune in escaping the clutches of the evil King Henry. I did not stop to wonder then how she must have felt when she left France for Scotland, a country she had never seen, to marry a man she had never met, leaving behind her little son without knowing when she would be with him again.