Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Rethinking Mary, Queen of Scots

That history is written by the victors is especially true when considering the life and achievements of Mary, Queen of Scots... Born on this day in 1542 at Linlithgow Palace, Mary ascended the throne of Scotland at the age of six days following the death of her father James V; even though most agreed he died of grief - some said over recent losses to his uncle Henry VIII at the Battle of Solway Moss, others that his hoped-for heir had been a girl - the official cause was cholera. She was raised thereafter by her formidable French mother, Marie de Guise.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketTo her contemporaries (not all of them fawning sycophants and courtiers) there was much that was commendable in and about the lively girl with the lush chestnut hair and long limbs; yet Mary's reputation has, until recently, suffered from the slings and arrows of scholarly hacks.

True, she made some terrible decisions in her life; then again, who hasn't? The trouble is, when you're Queen (and Mary was twice a Queen, having also been Queen of France from July 1559 to December 1560) your lousy decisions tend to blow up in your face not just in front of everyone but when everyone's watching you as well; since the state is only as infallible as the monarch, too much of this tends to be quite unnerving, and an unnerved governing class never governs well, so an unnerving sovereign is usually gotten rid of forthwith by hook or by crook.

Anyway, as if the events leading up to her abdication in July 1567 weren't bad enough (and they were) her ill-starred escape from Scottish custody at Loch Leven Castle, military defeat at the Battle of Langside, and inevitable capture by the English at Carlisle (all in May 1568) seem to pale in comparison to the humiliation of her two decades in English custody; a Queen almost from birth, her captivity may have cut her dignity as deeply as her death sentence, deeper in many ways than even the blade that would one day separate her head from her body.

The compatriots of Mary's archnemesis Elizabeth I and their successors have tended to remember the vanquished Queen (beheaded at Fotheringay Castle in February 1587) as everything their own mistress wasn't: frivolous, easily flattered, and a slut. Had things worked out a little better for the lively and passionate Mary, Queen of Scots - had she not been quite so gullible in her relationships with men, just as a for instance - it might be the reputation of her brittle, ambivalent cousin that would need rehabilitation today, and not the other way around.

Mary's reputation, though, has been in recovery for nearly forty years, ever since the appearance of Lady Antonia Fraser's epic 1969 biography, and is probably as good as it'll ever be today given the circumstances. In the 2007 film Elizabeth: The Golden Age Mary's death was given its rightful context as the event which triggered the Spanish Armada; Jane Dunn's excellent book Elizabeth & Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens revisits both women with unabashed fascination and adds both shading and dimension to the received view that, while Mary was crafty, Elizabeth was also crafty. Plus cunning, savvy, Machiavellian even...

(Everything, in other words, Mary was not but shoulda been to survive. ~ MSM)
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