“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.” —The Washington Post Book World
“Reads like Shakespearean drama, with all the delicious plotting and fresh writing to go with it.” —The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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The First Year
Mary Stuart was born in the coldest of winters. Snow blanketed the ground, and the narrow pathways and rough winding tracks between England and Scotland were completely blocked. The cattle that roamed the Lowlands and the valleys of the border region during the summer months were crouching in their low stone byres. The River Tweed, often a raging torrent as it flowed to the sea at Berwick-upon-Tweed on the eastern side of the border, was frozen over. Whereas it normally took a rider five or six days to carry important dispatches from Edinburgh to London, the news of Mary's birth took four days to reach Alnwick in Northumberland, only a few miles south of Berwick.
The new baby was the only daughter and sole surviving heir of James V of Scotland and his second queen, Mary of Guise. She was born at Linlithgow Palace, some seventeen miles west of Edinburgh, on Friday, December 8, 1542.
The deep frost scarcely troubled the occupants of the queen's suite on the third floor of the northwest tower of the palace. Recent construction had transformed Linlithgow into a luxurious residence. James V had lavish tastes and sought to introduce the latest Renaissance styles. The windows of the palace were glazed, the ceilings painted, the stonework and woodwork intricately carved with crowns and thistles. In the great hall and throughout the dozen or so rooms of the royal apartments, logs blazed in the fireplaces. The finest Flemish tapestries and hangings of rich arras and cloth of gold covered the stone walls to keep out drafts.
Linlithgow, along with Falkland in Fife, was a favorite lodging of Mary of Guise. She had helped to redesign both palaces like French châteaux. This was hardly surprising, because she was herself French. She was the widowed Duchess of Longueville, the eldest daughter of Claude, Duke of Guise, and his wife, Antoinette of Bourbon. The Guises were one of the most powerful noble families in France. Their patrimonial seat was at Joinville in the Champagne region, their estates scattered across strategically important areas of northern and eastern France.
The family of her first husband, Louis d'Orléans, Duke of Longueville, owned significant estates in the Loire region, so Mary of Guise knew all about Renaissance palaces. She compared Linlithgow for its elegance and picturesque setting to the châteaux of the Loire, where the French royal family lived when not near Paris. Like Chenonceaux, the jewel of the Loire, Linlithgow was a pleasure palace partly surrounded by water. The outer walls stood on a semicircular knoll extending into the loch on the north side, overlooking St. Michael's parish church and the town of Linlithgow to the south.
Mary Stuart was born at a turning point in history. Only two weeks before, on November 24, her father's forces had been routed by the English at the battle of Solway Moss. To the Scots, England was the "auld enemy." Relations between the two neighbors had smoldered since Edward I had claimed the feudal overlordship of Scotland and tried to annex the country in the 1290s. The Scots sought French and papal support, and fostered a hardy patriotism in defense of their kingdom's independence. A score of English invasions after 1296 ushered in a period of hostility that lasted for five or more generations.
Border skirmishes were the norm. Outright war was the exception, not least because the two countries were so unequally matched. England was so much richer and more powerful than its northern neighbor. Its population was around 3.5 million, Scotland's barely 850,000. The only Scottish town of any size was Edinburgh, where 13,000 people lived. This was at most a fifth of London's population. It was far easier to raise taxes and levy troops in England than in Scotland, since the machinery of government was more centralized and the chain of command more efficient. A set-piece battle would almost inevitably end in a crushing defeat for the Scots.
There were regional inequalities within Scotland. Between a third and a half of the population lived in the border region and the Highlands, while the rest occupied the more prosperous and cosmopolitan Lowlands. The king was advised by the lords in Parliament, but although the Scottish Parliament was supposed to represent the whole country, it tended to stereotype highlanders and borderers as chancers and criminals. The Highland clans stood aloof from the rest of the country, and as a rule the highlanders and lowlanders had a tacit agreement to ignore one another. Many highlanders spoke Gaelic rather than Lowland Scots, exacerbating cultural differences. The language of the lowlanders was in fact much closer to northern English than to anything spoken by highlanders.
The politics of Scotland were tribal: blood ties and kin culture were predominant. Behind the feudal lord lay the more ancient status of chief of a clan or kindred. Loyalty to kin placed the Scottish lords at the head of networks sometimes covering entire regions and shaping the structures of power at every level. The monarchy itself relied on these structures and on what it could redistribute from the patronage of the Church.
The wars within the British Isles resumed under Henry VIII, who acceded to the English throne in 1509. Henry was a strong leader. He saw himself as an English patriot and also as a military strategist. His ambition was to resume the Hundred Years War against France and to win conquests there. Of his royal predecessors, those he admired most were the Black Prince and Henry V, whose glorious victories in France brought them lands and reputation. Repeatedly the efforts of his councilors were bedeviled by his chivalric dreams. But war was the "sport of kings." And if Henry sought to conquer French territory, he had to deal first with Scotland, France's "auld ally" and England's back door. A popular rhyme quipped: "Who that intendeth France to win, with Scotland let him begin." Henry was fond of quoting it, and he put its lessons into practice.
Typically, the defeat of the Scots at Solway Moss was less the result of a full-scale English invasion than of a border skirmish that went tragically wrong. The disaster stemmed less from Henry VIII's aggression than from James V's decision to launch a counterattack on an epic scale without choosing the ground or the moment carefully enough.
In reaction to the incursions of English forces led by the Duke of Norfolk, James sent an army to pillage the disputed territory to the north and east of Carlisle known as the Debatable Land. His troops forded the River Esk at low tide. When they returned, it was high tide and they were caught between the river and a bog. Forced to retreat by a smaller but better-disciplined English battalion, the Scots were snared. Around 1200 were taken prisoner, including 23 important nobles and lairds, who were dispatched as hostages to London, where they were put in the Tower.
James V felt a deep psychological blow. He had been militarily and personally humiliated, his loss of face the greater in that he had been ensconced safely at a distance and was not leading his troops. Cowardice was not the issue. James was a brave warrior, but he misjudged the risks. The result was a disintegration of his forces. It was a more damaging loss to his reputation than that suffered thirty years before by his father, James IV, whose own army had been cut to pieces at Flodden Field by the father of the very same English commander. The political effects of both defeats — a long royal minority — were identical. But in 1513, at least the Scots had been scythed down in hand-to-hand combat during a set-piece battle. They died honorably rather than like rats in a trap.
James V rode to Linlithgow to see his wife begin her confinement, but almost instantly left for Edinburgh and then Falkland, where he took to his bed. It is unlikely that he loved his wife, since he had so many mistresses. But he cared greatly about his baby, and his sudden departure tells us more about his mental state than about his family ties. He went to pieces when told that his heir was not a boy. His two infant sons had died the previous year, and now his thoughts turned to Marjorie Bruce, King Robert I's daughter and the founder of the Stuart dynasty. He exclaimed: "The devil go with it! It will end as it began. It came from a woman, and it will end in a woman." Or as a more colloquial source says, "It came with a lass, and it will pass with a lass."
James died at midnight on December 14. He was only thirty, but had suffered recurrent illnesses. A life of sexual dissipation, leading to "pox" and endemic "fevers," and a serious hunting accident had weakened his immune system. His last symptoms, a "marvelous vomit" and "a great lax," suggest dysentery as the cause of death, perhaps the result of drinking contaminated water. Other possible causes were "pestilence," or cholera, caught from the Earl of Atholl, with whom James had been carousing and who had just died.
James V died of natural causes, unlike his father, who had perished at Flodden in the murkiest of circumstances. Although seemingly killed by the English in the battle, it is just as likely that he was murdered in the closing stages of the fight by one of his rebellious lords.
His son had succeeded him at the age of seventeen months. Now history had repeated itself. His granddaughter, Mary Stuart, was queen at the age of six days.
She was baptized as soon as it was safe to take her into the cold outside air. She traveled the short distance from the south-side gateway of Linlithgow Palace into St. Michael's Church in the arms of her nurse, Janet Sinclair. She was named Mary after her mother, but also because her birthday was the day celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church as the day the Virgin Mary had been conceived.
After baptism at the font, Mary was anointed with chrism and wrapped in a robe of white taffeta of Genoa that had been specially made for the occasion. Almost certainly (for such was the practice with royal children) she was then brought to the high altar and confirmed, although she did not take the sacrament at Mass until she was nine years old. A report reached Henry VIII that she was "a very weak child and not like to live." This was wide of the mark, and what shortly became a more insidious threat to her security and peaceful succession would be dispelled by her mother's courage.
James V's death was to set in motion a complex chain of events in which political, religious and factional maneuvers relentlessly combined. England and France were competing to assert a hegemony over Scotland, which became a pawn in the struggle between the two larger countries and their ruling dynasties. As a child, Mary played no role herself in these intrigues, but all of them were about her. The aim of each and every plot was either to secure physically the person of the infant queen or else to marry her into the English or French royal family as a guarantee of future influence. Such machinations helped to shape the dynastic legacy Mary would inherit as she grew older, and all combined to set the agenda she would bravely confront when she reached the age of majority.
Throughout Mary's formative years, her mother was her example. In Scotland for less than five years when her daughter was born, Mary of Guise was politically astute if on a steep learning curve. She quickly turned her mind to politics, keeping the obsequies for her late husband to a minimum.
She was unusually tall, with auburn hair and delicate features. Her manner was regal, her cheekbones high, her eyebrows raised and arched, her forehead elevated. Her lips were slightly compressed, her nose tending to appear aquiline when viewed from the side. Her deportment was confident and dignified; she was intelligent and attentive, generous to friends and supporters, with easy yet polished manners, affable to equals and inferiors alike.
These were all consummate Guise qualities: James V's widow quickly won admiring hearts in Scotland. She was popular with the ordinary people and was able to inspire fervent loyalty. All these same qualities would later be visible in her daughter, who came to resemble her mother closely in looks and personality.
Mary of Guise learned her political skills from her family. Comparative arrivistes, the Guises had risen at the French court through a combination of shrewd marriages and military prowess. Closely linked in Francis I's reign to the triumvirate comprising Anne de Montmorency, Constable of France, the Dauphin Henry, heir to the throne, and his beautiful and sophisticated mistress Diane de Poitiers, they were equally influential in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Duke Claude's brother Jean was a pluralist who managed to accumulate nine bishoprics and six abbeys. His pickings included the cardinal-archbishopric of Rheims, the most important diocese in France; it was at the great Gothic cathedral of Rheims that the kings of France were crowned. Moreover, the Guises kept it in the family by having it bestowed before Jean's death on Claude's second son, Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine, who took possession of it at the age of fourteen.
In all, Claude had ten surviving children, each of whom held a significant position in state or church. When Mary of Guise married James V, she began fifty years of her family's involvement at the hub of Scottish, French and English affairs. This was because diplomatic alliances were sealed by marriage pacts in the sixteenth century. International politics centered around families, children and the succession to hereditary rights, and in dynastic circles such concerns took precedence over religious affiliations.
Mary of Guise understood her own role perfectly. She set out to protect her daughter's birthright and safeguard the traditional "auld alliance" between France and Scotland. She was used to the call of duty. The most eligible widow in France at the age of twenty-one, she was selected by Francis I to succeed his own daughter Madeleine, James V's first wife, who fell victim to a viral infection within weeks of landing at the port of Leith. She had been reluctant to leave France, but honor required her to do so. She was not unaccustomed to misfortune. Three of her five children died in infancy: one son by her first husband (another boy, Francis, survived until 1551) and both her sons by James.
After her wedding in Scotland, Mary of Guise regularly wrote to her own mother, Antoinette of Bourbon, a matriarchal figure of whom it was said even the French king was in awe. Her letters show that she quickly adjusted to her new life. She tolerated her husband's infidelities — he sired seven, and probably nine, illegitimate children — and spent her time supervising building projects at the royal palaces and laying out the gardens, where she grew an exotic range of ornamental fruit trees from cuttings sent from France. At Falkland Palace, where her stylish improvements to the façade may still be seen, she personally inspected the work, climbing a ladder to take a closer look before authorizing payment to the stonemasons. She had her own French domestic staff, as it was unthinkable that her intimate servants could be Scots: the French frequently made ribald jokes about the vulgarity of the Scots behind their backs. Her servants adored her, and after James V's death, several of his own domestic staff tried to negotiate a transfer to her employment because she paid higher wages than anyone else.
Technically, the infant Mary was Queen of Scots from the moment her father died. In practice, this was a fiction. A governor or regent would have to be appointed to rule until she was declared to be "of age" and able to govern herself. What was uppermost in everyone's mind was who exactly would be chosen, since a long royal minority was an invitation to noble infighting. This especially applied to Scotland, where the monarchy was so much weaker than in England or France, and the crown relied on the kinship networks of the lords to help maintain law and order.
The most binding way to appoint a regent was in the will of the dying ruler. Although James V had not done this — probably because he did not know his death was close at hand — his "last will and testament" was manufactured on his behalf. It was conveniently framed by David Beaton, Cardinal-Archbishop of St. Andrews, the magnate who had exercised the greatest influence on the living king and was determined to keep himself in power.
Beaton led the pro-French faction and was a staunch opponent of the Protestant Reformation. He sought to claim the posts of "tutors testamentary" to Mary and "governors of the kingdom" for himself and three of his allies. His aim was to preempt the claim of the strongest alternative candidate, James Hamilton, Earl of Arran, who was pro-English and heir apparent to the crown should Mary die. Arran, for his part, loudly proclaimed that Beaton had forged the will, saying that as James V had lapsed into semiconsciousness, Beaton had "caused him to subscribe a blank paper" on which it was to be inscribed.
Excerpted from "Queen of Scots"
Copyright © 2004 John Guy.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents,
The First Year,
The Rough Wooings,
Arrival in France,
A Dynastic Marriage,
Return to Scotland,
Into the Labyrinth,
A Meeting Between Sisters,
A Search for a Husband,
"My Heart Is My Own",
A Marriage of Convenience,
A Marriage in Trouble,
Plot and Counterplot,
A Love Match?,
Denouement in Scotland,
The Lords' Story,
Casket Letters I,
Casket Letters II,
An Ax or an Act?,
The Final Hours,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Thiss a truly magnificent read. Well researched and documented it is a truly absorbing biography. If you have read other books on the same subject and think you have made up your mind, read this one with an open mind and try to imagine how it would be trying to manage a kingdom when it seemed like everyone was against you at every turn. Obviouly psychologically and physically abused by subjects and husbands, it is amazing that she made it as far as she did. A woman with true grit who probably could have been an outstanding Queen if just given the chance. Don't miss this book.
This is really exciting history, even if you have read about Mary with other authors, it will surprise you. The great dangers of the life she had to lead are made so clear - she was always known to have been hugely physically attractive, but she is shown to be much braver, cleverer and stronger than previously thought. The research is fascinating, makes sense of the new view of Mary. There are lots of personal details,which makes the story very real and immediate - I could not stop reading. Last time I did that was with the Antonia Fraser biography, years ago.
One of the few books about Marry Quuen of Scots that doesn't paint her out to be a woman ruled by her passions. Very well researched and balanced story of her life and death.
This is a very thorough and interesting account about Mary Queen of Scots. The author, John Guy, attempts to answer the questions of the murder of her husband Lord Darnley, the marriage of Mary to Bothwell, and her plots against Elizabeth I. The author depicts Mary not as a "femme fatale" as many other historians have. He believes that she did not conspire to murder her husband. What is interesting is the extent to which the author explains the plot against Darnley and the whole marriage to Bothwell. He shows it from Mary's side, the lords' sides, and Bothwell's side.This is a long read (500 pages) but it is well worth it. John Guy is an exceptional writer and he sheds light on this very intriguing topic of Mary Queen of Scots who became queen as an infant and was beheaded after 18 years in captivity under Elizabeth I.
Couldn't be a more perfect voice to narrate the tumultuous life of Mary Stuart than the author John Guy. An unparalleled historian and consultant to BBC, Mr. Guy reads with depth and understanding as he traces the years of the doomed queen from her youth spent in France to her execution. There has not been a biography of Mary Stuart written in over a quarter of a century, and this is based on newly discovered documents that shed light on this enigmatic woman who has been presented as one who ruled emotionally rather than cerebrally. It is, of course, a first rate bio that reads as excitingly as any contemporary drama. Listeners who enjoy not only history but an up close look at court machinations, plotting, and subterfuge will be enthralled by Mr. Guy's epic study. Offering previously ignored evidence, the author posits that she was wrongfully incarcerated and finally beheaded, framed by her enemies. Hers was indeed a life that stands larger than the most imaginative fiction. - Gail Cooke
This is the best book ive ever read on Mary, the author starts out slow in the first 3 chapters but after that u cant stop reading! He really gives a more human and impressive account of Mary's story, not only does it entrap you but you know what ur reading its accurate b/c he relies on Mary's letters and documents of the age, this book its excellent and if u want to read on teh Queen of Scots ull want to read this book