At the Crucible of History: The Centenary of the Romanov Family’s Murder

Romanovs 1913

For today and tomorrow, I am using this photograph as my Facebook cover photo.

Many of you already know who these people are, but for those who do not, let me tell you why I am featuring them, and what they represent to me. Above all else, in terms of my thinking, keep in mind the premise that “those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it…”

First, let me begin with a quick note about the photograph: it was taken in 1913, 105 years ago. In 1913, World War I had not yet begun, Woodrow Wilson was President of the United States, George V King of Great Britain and Ireland. Pius X was Pope of Rome, while China had only just overthrown its millennia-old monarchy. An Ottoman sultan still reigned from Istanbul, while the Meiji Emperor had died in Tokyo the year before. Most homes in the world used neither electricity nor gas, most people used horses or carriages rather than cars, and the wealthiest kings and captains of industry were just as vulnerable as the poorest factory worker or pauper to numerous diseases which we now no longer have among us.

Look at this family pictured here, seemingly of a world so far removed from our own, a century apart, and see if you can find a glimpse into their unique personalities. Look at their faces: the two eldest daughters on the photo’s left and right edges, beautiful in the golden age of their late teens. Notice the shy, inquisitive gaze of the oldest, on the left, and the somewhat bolder smile and direct gaze of the next-oldest, on the right. The youngest daughter, whom her parents called the ‘Imp’ for her mischievous ways, stands next to her clearly naturally reserved father, arm-in-arm with the family’s youngest child, her brother and the only son. Standing in the back, the mother, who looks so much like her own maternal grandmother, places her arm on her husband’s chair; even in this photo, worry etches her face, while to her right, our left, the middle daughter, whose face radiates kindness, looks on with a thoughtful stare.

Who were these people, who was this family? What happened to them only five years after they sat for this photograph, a moment in history when their father and husband’s dynasty had, been on the throne of Russia for three hundred years and seemed certain to continue in power for generations to come?

One hundred years ago, in the pre-dawn hours of July 17, 1918, the unlawfully imprisoned Imperial Family of Russia—held without any semblance of legal authority or pretense—was murdered by a team of Bolshevik Cheka secret police along with four of their devoted servants and assistants. This was both a horrific tragedy and a history-changing political murder.

The murdered family members were: the Emperor Nicholas II Romanov (50), his wife, Queen Victoria’s beloved granddaughter, the Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna (46), their four daughters, the Grand Duchesses Olga (22), Tatiana (21), Maria (19), and Anastasia (17), and their son, the Grand Duke and Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich (13).

Murdered with them were their four devoted servants and friends who chose to share their exile and imprisonment: their physician Dr Eugene Botkin (53), footman Alexei Trupp (62), cook Ivan Kharitonov (47), and maid Anna Demidova (40). All the servants who stayed with the Imperial Family and shared their martyrdom were Orthodox, save for Trupp, who was a Catholic Latvian, but, interestingly, he was also glorified as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) along with the others in 1981.

The murders took place in the dimly lit cellar of the Ipatiev House in the isolated town of Yekaterinburg, Ural Siberia. Led by Yakov Yurovsky, the ten killers were all convinced atheistic Bolshevik revolutionaries from Baltic Latvia and Lithuania.

The Emperor, the Empress, the two oldest Grand Duchesses, and the men died from the initial hail of bullets; the Tsarevich, Grand Duchesses Maria and Anastasia, and Anna Demidova survived the initial blasts. The princesses, wearing diamonds and other gems sewn into their dresses, were savagely bayoneted along with their brother and Demidova, who attempted to fight back. One of the family’s poor dogs, a French bulldog, was also killed, while another escaped and was later found and adopted by the anti-Bolshevik (White) Army soldiers. These details are disturbing to read and to learn, but I believe that we must know these things to understand the depths of the utter evil and the sadism that motivated the murderers, both those who gave the order and those who drunkenly carried it out.

The most disturbing part is that Lenin and all his lieutenants had—after inventing a revolutionary propaganda machine to spread both slander and distorted half-truths about the Tsar and his policies—somehow convinced themselves that these heinous murders were for the ‘good’ of ‘The People’ and the totalitarian cause of advancing the Soviet Proletariat against its ‘Class Enemies’…

The order to kill them all—not only the Emperor, but his wife, children, and their servants—came directly from Lenin and his lieutenants Yakov Sverdlov and Filipp Goloshchyokin. Not content merely with killing the Emperor, Empress, and their children and servants, their killers mutilated the victims’ bodies and then attempted to destroy them by fire before irreverently dumping them nearby at Ganina Yama.

The very next day, July 18th, 1918, the Bolsheviks killed the late Empress’ older sister, who was also the late Emperor’s aunt-by-marriage, the widowed Grand Duchess-turned-nun-and-abbess Elizabeth Fyodorovna. Along with her devoted former maid and fellow nun Varvara Yakovleva and several cadet princes of the Romanov family, the Grand Duchess was taken by the Bolsheviks to an old mine shaft at Alapaevsk, clubbed on the head, and thrown alive down the mine shaft. Save for one grand duke, Sergei Mikhailovitch, who had been shot, the others survived the fall and sang hymns down in the shaft until they died of Bolshevik grenade blasts, smoke inhalation from burning brushwood that the Bolsheviks threw down upon them, or blood loss.

One of the most beloved women in Moscow who was immensely popular with the faithful for all her social work and loving kindness—in some ways comparable to a kind of Russian Orthodox Mother Teresa figure—the Bolsheviks didn’t dare arrest Abbess-Grand Duchess Elizabeth in broad daylight. Like her sister, brother-in-law, young nieces and nephew, and millions of other future victims of Soviet repression and mass murder, Grand Duchess Elizabeth was arrested without legal pretense, imprisoned, and ultimately killed under shadow of darkness.

Glorified as martyrs in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) in 1981, and glorified as passion-bearing saints in the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000, the Imperial Family and their dear servants are widely venerated throughout the Orthodox world. Many Catholics and high church Protestants also revere them as well. They are viewed by most Orthodox as martyrs (Gr. ‘witnesses’) who were killed in large measure due to their killers’ utter hatred for all religion, Christianity generally, but Orthodoxy in particularly. Others view them as ‘passion-bearers’—those who went to their deaths with Christ-like composure, forgiveness, and long-suffering.

In the short term, the brutal murders achieved what Lenin had sought—eliminating the main focal point for the unity of anti-communist White Army resistance to the Bolshevik Red Army. Within several years as the Russian Civil War began to wind down under Lenin, Trotsky, and then Stalin’s brutal regime, the United States recognized the USSR as a legitimate political entity and established full diplomatic relations with it, with other countries quickly following suit.

Yet today, increasing public veneration of the Imperial Family in Russia and Eastern Europe represents one of the most visible healings of memory. For many, it is an inseparable part of the ongoing civil society transformations of post-Soviet Russian cultural, political, and religious life. Just as many formerly communist countries have torn down their Soviet-era statues of Lenin and Stalin, statues of Nicholas II and his family and shrines to their memory have risen across Russia, Ukraine, and Serbia, with plans for more to follow.

“Those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it”. Today millions of Western schoolchildren rightfully learn about the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust, but very few are educated about the horrors of the Soviet holocausts and various communist purges and revolutions, in which tens of millions of people have died as “enemies of the People”. This was not just in Russia and China, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, North Korea, and Cuba, but all across the world. In Vietnam, Cambodia, Georgia, Armenia, Angola, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Macedonia, and Mongolia, millions of people died under communist firing squads, in gulags, concentration camps, torture chambers, mental hospitals, etc. Millions more died of deliberate famine-inducing policies and purges of dissent. People must learn of communism’s murderous history or, in their ignorance, they will be more likely to sympathize with its proponents today and ignore the historical realities of its massive abuses and murders.

While controversial among some Westerners for how the Russian government has utilized the Romanovs’ murders to foster conservative nationalist and Orthodox political sentiments (it is worth noting here that all governments engage in co-opting national historical events and prominent personalities for ideological purposes), the growing popular veneration of the Imperial Family today is also undoubtedly part of something else, a reality that transcends a purely earthly political dimension. This is something that, while often connected to political considerations, also exists independent of them: the ongoing spiritual process of a gradual re-Christianization of Russian society after the +70 year experiment in atheistic communist Soviet dictatorship. This was an experiment with many scientific and medical achievements, but also one of innumerable totalitarian horrors, persecutions, and genocidal levels of engineered starvation in Kazakhstan and Ukraine, which, along with all the purges, claimed the lives of tens of millions of people from 1918 to 1991.

Through the wise actions and policies of so many brave men and women across the world, and, I believe, Divine Providence, this murderous experiment collapsed in less than eight decades where it had first been violently launched a century ago. A century ago today, the men ruling Russia ordered the murder of its previous ruler, its last monarch of a three centuries-old dynasty, and his entire family and household. Today, the people ruling Russia overwhelmingly abhor the ideology that inspired these murders, and instead many of them are among the patrons and pilgrims of the commemorations going on across Russian cities and towns today. In only a century, think of all that has changed. Think, too, of those who, even now, seek to bring to Western countries the communist policies which led to untold suffering for tens of millions in Russia, Eastern Europe, and indeed worldwide.

In remembering and honoring the Romanovs today and tomorrow—and all the tens of millions of victims of Soviet and communist oppression everywhere—let us keep in mind the historical nuances surrounding their lives and deaths, the examples found in both, and the reality of the hope of our Resurrection above all else. May they intercede for us all before the Throne of God!

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Remembering the Fall of Constantinople and its legacy today

On May 29, Orthodox Christians worldwide remember the Fall of Constantinople to the forces of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II Fetih (“the Conqueror”, 1432-1481, r. 1444-1446, 1451-1481) on that date in 1453, 565 years ago. Using the haunting text of Psalm 79, a survivor of the city’s brutal sack, the leading Greek choralist Manuel Doukas Chrysaphes (Greek: Μανουὴλ Δούκας Χρυσάφης, active from 1440–1463) composed this profoundly moving, transcendent lament for the fall of the Great City, which had once been referred to as “the Queen City of Christendom” and the “Eye of the World”.

Most musical historians regard Manuel Chrysaphes as the most prominent Constantinopolitan musician of the fifteenth century. He was a renowned singer, composer, and musical theoretician who served as a master choralist at the courts of the last two emperors of Constantinople, the brothers John VIII (1392-1448, r. 1425-1448) and Constantine XI Palaeologus (1405-1453, r. 1449-53). Chrysaphes’ surviving treatise, “On the Theory of the Art of Chanting” is an invaluable guide to Byzantine music and the evolution of courtly singing in the late Palaiologan period.

One of the most traumatic events in Christian history with lasting repercussions to this day for Greek-speaking people in particular, Constantinople’s fall to a multi-confessional, multi-ethnic army led by Sunni Muslim Turks was also one of the pivotal turning points in Western, Greek, Ottoman, European, Mediterranean, Christian, and Muslim history.

While the city had declined in population, power and prestige since the Fourth Crusaders’ renegade, errant sacking of it in 1204 to become a mere shadow of its former self—it was in fact little more than a series of loosely connected villages huddled behind the ancient fifth century Theodosian walls when Mehmed’s forces breached them—its fall came like the crashing of a giant in the Christian consciousness.

The lead-up to the city’s fall: hopes for Western aid, and failed attempts at Union with Rome to secure that aid

While the Catholics and Orthodox had acrimoniously split with the so-called Great Schism in 1054 (a date whose significance is more an anachronistic myth than a clean, neat reality of severed communion, which happened gradually over the following centuries), as the Ottomans continued to encircle Constantinople, tightening the noose ever-closer around the beleaguered city, several of the city’s emperors made overtures to the papacy in Rome. Several offered to accept the papal ecclesiastical claims to jurisdiction over the Patriarchate of Constantinople in exchange, they hoped, for vital, substantial military and financial aid given at papal directives from the kings and princes of Catholic Western Europe.

After Ottoman Sultan Murad II’s forces unsuccessfully besieged Constantinople itself in 1422, in the 1430s, the desperate Emperor John VIII—urgently trying to obtain more Western aid and papal support for a Crusade against the Ottomans to relieve his capital—went to Florence himself along with Patriarch Joseph II and most of the leading imperial court. Here, after extensive debate about the Filioque, azymes, papal supremacy, and several other theological issues, the Emperor accepted the Filioque and the papal claims of supremacy over the Eastern Churches, and ordered all his bishops to do likewise. This ‘unia’, or union with Rome, solemnized by the decree Laetentur Caeli of Pope Eugene IV, is particularly important in Russian history: the pro-union Metropolitan of Kiev and Moscow at the time, a Greek named Isidore, whom Emperor John VIII had appointed in 1437 to head the Orthodox Church in Rus over the objections of the Tsar, Vasily II, was made a cardinal and papal legate to Galicia and Russia. Isidore accepted the Unia, personally proclaiming it at Hagia Sophia in Constantinople before returning to Russia.

During his return journey to Moscow after the council had approved reunion, in 1440 Isidore issued an encyclical while in Budapest calling on all the Russian bishops to accept the union. Upon his arrival in Moscow at Pascha/Easter in 1441, the Metropolitan opened the Divine Liturgy at the Kremlin’s Dormition Cathedral (Uspenskiy Sobor) carrying a Western-style Latin cross in front of the procession, and naming Pope Eugene IV in the diptychs commemorating all the Church hierarchs, proclaiming the new reunion with Rome by reading aloud the Pope’s decree solemnizing it. Most Orthodox clergy, the common people, and the Tsar rejected Isidore’s position, denouncing him as an apostate. Three days later, the embattled Unia-affirming Metropolitan was deposed for apostasy and imprisoned at the Chudov Monastery by a synod of six bishops irregularly convened by the Tsar. Vasily II and the Orthodox bishops swiftly elected Bishop Jonah to replace him.

Metropolitan Jonah of Kiev and all Rus, the last to use this title despite residing in Moscow, in 1448 declared the Russian Orthodox Church autocephalous without Constantinople’s approval, arguing, as ultimately the Old Believers would two centuries later, that Constantinople had lost its right to determine other Orthodox Church’s autocephaly due to its apostasy in reuniting itself to communion with Rome. The hapless Isidore of Kiev, rejected by the Russians as an apostate, escaped from prison in 1443, ultimately returning to Rome, where Pope Nicholas V appointed him as the papal envoy to Emperor Constantine XI in 1452. Isidore was present at the city’s siege and sack, serving at all the liturgies prior to its fall. His detachment of 200 papal guards, whom Pope Nicholas had sent with Isidore to defend Constantinople, died defending the city. Isidore himself barely escaped the sack with his life, abandoning his clerical vestments on the body of a dead boy before being enslaved with a host of the common Greek people of the city. He ultimately escaped slavery, returned to Rome, and was appointed to subsequently serve, nominally, as the Latin rite Catholic Patriarch of Constantinople until his death in 1463.

The 1431-1449 coterminous Council of Basel-Florence-Ferrara was the ultimately abortive, final imperial attempt at union with Rome, which Moscow and Constantinople’s citizens ultimately rejected under the influence of the sole dissenting Orthodox bishop present at Florence, St Mark, bishop of Ephesus. Usually referred to simply as the Council of Florence, where it met in the late 1430s after a plague outbreak obliged the delegates to remove from Ferrara, it failed to inspire Western kingdoms to make significant military and financial efforts to relieve Constantinople. Venice and Genoa, the two chief rival maritime northern Italian city-states, each had favorable trade treaties with the Ottomans and stood to lose much of their commerce with the Turks should they openly side with much-weakened Constantinople. Bitterness over the lack of substantive Western aid to defend Constantinople prior to 1453 remains a major point of contention among many Greek Orthodox to this day, while the Russian Orthodox Old Believers held that the city fell precisely due to its leaders’ acceptance of the union with Rome shortly before the Ottomans’ 1453 siege.

The siege itself: Titanic losses on both sides as Mehmed’s cannon and strategic calculations prove decisive

siege-of-constantinople-1453-en-francais

This map in French gives an approximation of the Ottoman, Venetian and Genoese positions on the walls of Constantinople during their defense of the city alongside the (Byzantine) Greeks, who always considered themselves to be Romans.

Despite well-founded Greek outrage at the lack of promised Western military aid, when Sultan Mehmed II ultimately began the siege of the city in early April 1453, out of a mere 7,000 armed defenders, some 700 of them—a full ten percent of the defense—were a motley crew of Venetian and Genoese Catholic mercenaries financed, trained, and led by the famed Genoese captain, condotierro, and mercenary soldier Giovanni Giustiniani Longo (1418-1453). These men were willing to stand with Emperor Constantine XI (1405-1453) and the people of Constantinople to vigorously defend the city against the Sultan’s massive army of at least 80,000 (several other reliable sources estimate up to 100,000) Ottoman soldiers. The Ottoman forces were outfitted with the latest in gunpowder technology, and comprised both professional soldiers and feudal vassals’ conscripts from across the Ottoman possessions in Asia Minor, Thrace, Serbia, and Bulgaria.

As formidable as the Turkish army was—with the relentless forward-attacks and constant pounding of the city’s ancient Theodosian triple walls by their massive bombard cannons—the defenders and their allies held out for an astonishing 53 days. A man of deep military experience, Constantine XI had served as the chief imperial commander in the Peloponnesus and regent of Constantinople when his older brother John VIII had spent several years in the 1430s travelling throughout Western Europe desperately seeking military and financial aid. During this time, Constantine had undertaken much-needed structural repairs to the city’s outer wall and fosse (dry moat). Prior to the commencement of the siege, Constantine recalled and implemented a longstanding Byzantine military stratagem, and ingeniously blocked Mehmed’s access to the Golden Horn harbor to the less-defended north of the city with the use of a 700-yard-long iron chain. This freed up the Emperor’s limited supply of men to concentrate on defending the four miles of land walls on Constantinople’s western end, repair the great, triple walls as necessary amid the constant, day and night cannon bombardments and Ottoman mining attempts, sally out to repel attacks, and pray that vital additional assistance would come from Western European powers.

Haliç_zinciri_(2)

A part of Constantine XI’s heavy iron chain that closed off the entrance to the Golden Horn in April 1453, now on display in the Istanbul Archaeological Museums.

The defenders’ morale rose briefly when a contingent of four Genoese carracks managed to break through the Ottoman blockade of some 140 war galleys after a furious struggle, and enter the protected Golden Horn harbor with vital military supplies. The enraged Sultan ordered his chief admiral Hamza Bey’s impalement as punishment, but was moved to show clemency by the entreaty of his sailors and courtiers, who held that the admiral had fought bravely, even losing an eye in the fighting. Mehmed instead ‘mercifully’ stripped the admiral of his command and had him given a hundred lashes in public view, while impaling the surviving crew of one of the sunken Italian warships in full view of the disgusted defenders on the city walls. The Christians in turn responded by slaughtering their Turkish captives and hanging their bodies from the ramparts.

A brilliant military tactician, Mehmed managed to circumvent the problem of the huge defensive chain over the harbor—which was blocking his navy from bombarding Constantinople’s weaker northern seaside walls—by having his sailors dismantle many of his ships out of the water. He had several thousand Ottoman sailors drag and pull them on log rollers from the Double Columns harbor on the Bosporus north of the city, over the Galata/Pera valley by land, and into the Golden Horn west of the defensive chain and the small Christian fleet positioned there. Once in position, the city’s lower seaside walls were vulnerable to bombardment and landings, forcing Constantine to fatally weaken his concentrated defense of the land walls by sending some of his troops to man the lower, weaker sea walls overlooking the Golden Horn.

1453-The-Fall-of-Constantinople

One depiction of the Ottoman army’s relentless assault on the Theodosian land walls in April-May 1453.

While the Ottoman gun batteries on the northern shore of the Golden Horn exchanged fire with the small gun batteries of the defenders overlooking the inner harbor, and the Venetians and Genoese squabbled over how to attack the Ottoman fleet positioned in the harbor, the Emperor on the land walls constantly reviewed strategy with his chief commanders, inspected his troops and boosted morale, and fought side-by-side repelling numerous Ottoman frontal assaults on the walls. At Constantine’s directive, the city’s able-bodied citizens, including monks and nuns, constantly repaired breaches in the walls by night. The capital’s noncombatant women and children, meanwhile, prayed ceaselessly to God in the city’s hundreds of ancient churches, which in these perilous hours made no distinction between those clergy and laity who had accepted or rejected the unia with Rome. All hoped that, as she had so many times in the city’s history, the Theotokos would protect Constantinople and her people from this latest heathen attack.

After defeating many Ottoman mining and sapping attempts to undermine and collapse the outer land walls, and withstanding endless direct troop assaults on the walls alongside constant day and night artillery bombardments that rained massive stone cannonballs down on all sections of the land walls and outer city’s houses and churches, the defenders became increasingly exhausted. Fear of the spread of contagion gripped both besieger and besieged alike, but by early May, Constantinople’s already limited food rations began to run short. The besieging army, however, was also beginning to lose morale, as so many thousands of Turkish corpses piled up on the walls that the Ottomans were obliged to burn the bodies for fear of disease spreading. Along with the battle-hardened Emperor and his advisors, the young Sultan and his advisors knew that, with each passing day that the city had not been taken, the chance of a Hungarian relief army or a Venetian or Genoese naval force appearing on the western horizon increased.

As with all late medieval and early modern sieges, this one was a question of time and morale, of whose side gave in to disease, hunger, or impatience first. Defeat for Mehmed meant not only humiliation and the clear sign of Allah’s displeasure with him, but also likely rebellion and insurrection by his disgruntled soldiers who had suffered much and expected to reap the reward of three days of pillage once they took the city. Defeat for Constantine, having rejected Mehmed’s customary offer to surrender the city to him, or embrace Islam and vassal status, meant certain death along with most of his people. Religious faith and identity, so integral to the very cause of the conflict between the Byzantines and Turks, and before that the Byzantines and Arabs, played out in the opposing sides’ camps day by day. Both sides believed in the truth and reality of omen and auguries, both good and evil, and held that theirs was a holy cause, a just war ordained by God, and both sides’ clergy and soldiers alike despised the other as infidels, pagans, and heathens.

Before the walls of the city, in full view of the defenders, the Sunni Turkish imams sounded the azan, the Arabic call to prayer, five times daily, beginning the dawn (fajr) prayers before the Ottoman gunners commenced their artillery bombardments. Mehmed led daily dawn and evening prayers, visibly prostrating himself among his sheikhs, qazis, imams, generals, and princes on a silk rug facing the qibla, the direction toward Mecca’s Kaaba shrine, Islam’s holiest site. Acutely aware that his troops’ morale had been frustrated by high casualty rates and their lack of success so far at breaching the walls, the Sultan had his imams and qazis constantly make the rounds throughout the Ottoman camps by day and night. The Muslim prayer leaders exhorted the soldiers to endure to final victory, reminding the men of Muhammad’s prophecy that Allah would confer the highest blessings on the Muslim army that conquered Rum (Constantinople) for Dar al-Islam and the Ummah, but that, in so doing, one third of the Muslims would fail, one third gain martyrdom for Allah, and one third emerge victorious. Constantine likewise made a point to worship day and night, both in church and out in the open, alongside his men. The Emperor ordered constant processions of the city’s numerous ancient holy relics and icons to beseech God, the Theotokos, and all the saints for their aid, and ensured that the bells of the capital’s hundreds of ancient churches tolled night and day as the women, children, and elderly prayed ceaselessly along with the monks and nuns for divine deliverance.

The citizens’ once unshakable morale and redoubtable faith in the divine protection of their ancient capital, which had withstood dozens of sieges in the last millennium, finally plummeted several days before Mehmed II ordered the final attack. In addition to a partial lunar eclipse, which frightened besieger and besieged alike, the ancient, beloved Hodegetria icon of the Theotokos fell to the ground while being carried in a procession along the city’s land walls, horrifying the people of Constantinople. Exhausted by a month and a half of defending the city against tremendous odds, the citizens began to fear that God had finally forsaken them. Omens of old men and women who claimed to have seen the Holy Spirit of God departing from Hagia Sophia, so named after Him, further diminished morale among the exhausted defenders inclined toward superstition.

WLA_vanda_Virgin_and_Child_copper_Cathedral_of_Torcello

Stamped, embossed, and gilded copper icon of the Theotokos Virgin and Child done in the Italo-Byzantine (Venetian) style, dating to the 12th century. The icon was found in the rood-loft of the Cathedral of Torcello in Venice. Inscribed in Greek: ‘Mother of God strengthen thy servant Philip the bishop’; the bishop has not been identified. The plaque was probably made for an altar.

Both sides spent Monday, May 28 in deep fasting and prayer, with Constantinople’s exhausted defenders finally flocking from most of the other churches to Hagia Sophia, which most of the anti-unionist populace had shunned since the proclamation of the union. Constantine XI, grand duke (Megadoux) Lukas Notaras, the chief Greek, Genoese, and Venetian generals, and all the bishops and priests of the city along with many of the faithful laity gathered bearing all of Constantinople’s vast array of wondrous and miracle-working icons and saints’ relics. As many as could fit into the great cathedral assembled for what was to be the final liturgy in Hagia Sophia as the imperial church, coming together for the solemn Feast of All Saints. In these moments, the pro-union and anti-union clergy and laity reconciled and concelebrated together on the eve of the city’s final defense. The Emperor received holy communion with the bishops and priests, and then, bowing down low before the high altar of the great church, he tearfully prostrated himself before God, imploring the Lord to show mercy on the city.

The Turkish camp bonfires at night lit up the entire landward horizon opposite the battered city walls, as the army of Muhammad shouted and danced with camel-skin drums, cymbals, and tambourines to loud, rhythmic cries of the dhikir (the 99 names of Allah in Arabic) and the Shahadah, “La-ilaha illa’lah, Muhammadun rasul-ullah” (“There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His Messenger.”).

The final assault: 1:30-6:00am, Tuesday, May 29, 1453

After praying for Allah to let the city fall to his armies, and again closely supervising his troops’ preparation of numerous siege ladders and final formations, Mehmed ordered the final assault to commence at 1:30 in the morning with one massive cannon bombardment of the outer wall. First, he sent waves of thousands of mostly poorly-armed, expendable Christian conscripts from the Balkans and Hungary against the defenders. These men of dubious loyalty to the Sultan fought courageously against the equally valiant defenders, who poured down rocks, crossbow bolts, arrows, burning sulfur, pitch, and Greek fire on them. Ultimately, the Ottomans’ Christian conscripts—pinioned between the defenders in front of them and Turkish military enforcers behind them who forced them forward with blows of their clubs and scimitars—were repulsed with staggering casualties after about two hours of constant fighting along the vulnerable middle section (Mesoteichion) of the wall between the Blachernae Palace walls and St Romanos gate.

Determined not to let the exhausted defenders have a moment’s respite, Mehmed then ordered his main contingent of Anatolian Turkish heavy infantry to attack the outer walls. Most of them being sincere Muslims who genuinely believed in the holiness of their cause, these men did so, rushing against the middle section of the outer wall bellowing war cries and shouting the different titles for Allah to the deafening cacophony of Ottoman drums, trumpets, fifes, and cymbals designed to rally the attackers and paralyze the defenders. The noise of it all—bullets cracking, guns booming, arrows whizzing and thudding, swords and spears cutting through shields, armor, and flesh, men fighting, screaming, moaning, and dying, the pealing church bells within the city— was deafening. Piles of thousands of Turkish corpses filled the gap between the outer fosse—which the Turks had finally mostly filled in the night before—and the outer wall, while the exhausted defenders—only some 2,000 remaining on the land walls—knew that if they allowed the Ottomans to mount the outer wall, the city’s defenses would effectively collapse. Somehow, after another two hours of constant attack, the Ottoman heavy infantry began to falter, having failed to establish a firm hold on the walls or plant the Turkish red and white or Islamic green flags on the battlements.

Finally, aware as Emperor Constantine, Giustiniani, and their men were that the Ottoman advance seemed to be faltering under the determined, relentless attack of the defenders up on the walls, the desperate Sultan made the fateful decision to commit his elite, well-trained imperial Janissary personal guard—some 5,000 men, about three times the likely number of surviving defenders still manning the walls.

Ironically, before the light rose on Tuesday May 29, 1453, it was not the final push by Sultan Mehmet II’s elite Janissary corps that ultimately overwhelmed the city’s defenses and led to the city’s fall, but a seemingly accidental caprice of fate. In fact, the beleaguered defenders held off the Turks to the mounting frustration and desperation of the young Sultan, many of whose leading viziers and generals again urged him to call off the siege in the wake of such staggering losses, and demand that the city pay a steep, face-saving annual tribute.

The end for the defenders only came because someone had forgotten to re-lock the door of the Kerkaporta, a small postern on the northern edge of the city’s fortifications on the Golden Horn. A band of Turkish janissaries cautiously entered this unguarded door, convinced that it was a trap by the defenders. Moving slowly into the city, they discovered that their entrance was a Greek oversight, as nearly all of the defenders had locked themselves into a section in the central part of the wall to meet head-on the mass of the attacking army.

Invigorated and astonished, several janissaries rushed up to the wall and planted the red and green Turkish flags with the white Islamic crescent and star on the parapets. While these flags were quickly taken down by a group of quick-acting defending troops, the sight of the enemies’ flags within the city melted the strength of the exhausted defenders, who started to flee from the walls. When Giustiniani, who had already been gravely wounded the previous day, was again wounded, this time mortally, he gave the order for his remaining Genoese soldiers to carry him toward the Genoese ships in the Golden Horn. Horrified by what the sight of Giustiniani leaving the walls would do to the remaining defenders, Emperor Constantine implored him to stay on, but the stalwart mercenary could no longer stand. Realizing that the fateful moment had come, the Emperor reluctantly gave his erstwhile indefatigable Genoese ally the keys to the inner city wall. Seeing the wounded commander and his guards depart through the inner wall’s gates back into the city, the remaining defending troops’ morale began to collapse. Many of the exhausted Greek and Italian soldiers began to flee back toward the inner wall as thousands of janissaries and ordinary Ottoman troops began to pour through the gaps in the outer wall. The tide had turned, and either fate, or God, had abandoned the city after sustaining the exhausted defenders for the past 54 days. In a matter of minutes, some 30,000 Turkish soldiers had poured through the crumbled outer walls.

Thousands of remaining Greek and Italian defenders, including Emperor Constantine and his men, were killed in the subsequent rout, with the Emperor by all accounts deciding to die fighting on the walls with his remaining men rather than risk dishonorable capture or public execution. The Emperor threw off his armor, and with his remaining bodyguard plunged into the mass of advancing Turkish janissaries, never to be seen again. To Mehmed and the defeated Constantinopolitan citizens’ mutual dismay, Constantine’s body was never recovered.

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A depiction of the Ottoman soldiers rushing toward the breach in the outer walls.

The end of the City: the savage sack, blood running in the streets, and Mehmed’s triumph

In the wake of the collapse of the last defense on the wall, the Turkish army and its Serbian Christian vassals poured into the horrified, shocked city, looting the western districts’ richly adorned ancient churches and monasteries. Initially refusing to believe that the 2,000 defenders on the land walls were all that remained of the city’s defenders, the Ottomans proceeded warily and cautiously. As they came to realize that the city’s defenders had all died on the walls, they began to wildly set about ransacking all they could, indiscriminately slaughtering men, women, and children, old and young, monks, nuns, and laypeople. Thousands of soldiers began streaming down the ancient, colonnaded Mese, the city’s principal ancient processional thoroughfare.

Everywhere, women and children ran about screaming, with the Turks slaughtering most men regardless of whether or not they were armed, and taking as many women, boys, and girls captive as possible. Guaranteed three days of raping, pillaging, and sacking according to the dictates of the Quran and hadith, the army of Muhammad spared no one. The soldiers set about invading, pillaging, and firing houses, looting and burning palaces, libraries, churches, and monasteries, and slaughtering and enslaving thousands of civilians with impunity. In a matter of hours, some one thousand years of Byzantine art, literature, religious icons, and historical records went up in flames. The Turkish advance headed inevitably for Hagia Sophia, where thousands of desperate civilians had crowded into the massive ancient church, itself the symbol of the Christian capital, praying for a miracle even now as the city burned around them.

With the death of the valiant Emperor Constantine XI on the walls of the city, the Empire whose Greek-speaking citizens had for over a millennium simply called themselves ‘Romans’—whose realm’s official name was Τον Βασιλεία Ῥωμαίων, ‘the Roman Empire’, or Ῥωμανία’, ‘Romania’, for short—came to a bloody end after 1,123 years. It is remarkable to think of how—until this moment in history—the city had endured, and, with only one exception, successfully withstood repeated attacks and sieges by the Huns, Sassanid Persians, Muslim Arab caliphs, then-pagan Vikings and Russians, Bulgars, renegade Italian Crusaders, and finally the Ottomans. Until its first, fatally weakening sack by the Crusaders in 1204, Constantinople presided over an empire which achieved an extraordinary integration of three main influences: Greek culture, Roman political organization, and Eastern Orthodox, or ‘Byzantine’ Christianity. Now, on this Tuesday in late May, 1453, the ancient Christian empire, long since reduced to a shadow of its former imperial grandeur, was no more.

Some 30,000 of Constantinople’s citizens of both sexes and all ages, irrespective of their former class or status, were taken as slaves. Numerous monks and priests were enslaved or killed, and thousands of horrified nuns, laywomen and boys raped as the Ottomans poured through the city. Both Christian and Ottoman accounts of the sack record that many Turkish soldiers brawled and even fought to the death over the most beautiful captives. When the Turks finally reached the renowned Augusteion plaza before Hagia Sophia, the spiritual and symbolic heart of the imperial city, they shouted and rejoiced, praising Allah and giving thanks to their god and Muhammad, whose ancient prophecy they had at last fulfilled.

After eight centuries of repeated failures by other Muslim armies, caliphs, and sultans to take the city, the soldiers of the House of Osman had finally attained their centuries-old dream of conquering ‘the Red Apple’ of Muslim legend. This legend was that the symbolic ‘apple’ rested in the towering, gilded equestrian statue atop the grand Column of Emperor Justinian. The towering statue dominated the plaza in the shadow of the great cathedral, triumphantly pointing east toward Asia Minor and the Asia that the Romans had at that time still dominated. The irony of the situation—a mostly Asian army of Muslim Turks and their Christian vassals conquering, from the western walls, what had once been Rome’s political and Europe’s cultural capital—must not have been lost on the Greek-speaking Romans who now found themselves slaves in what had been their capital city for over a millennium.

The Turks had long revered and feared Hagia Sophia, a building that had been erected when they were still a loose band of sky-and-nature worshiping pagans from the inner depths of Central Asia near Mongolia. Many Turks believed the building was enchanted, protected by the same mystical power that had, to their frustration, so long defended Constantinople from repeated attacks. Yet when some of the janissaries set about with axes and picks to demolish the great cathedral’s locked outer gates, and then finally breached Hagia Sophia’s massive bronze doors, no divine hand stopped their path or blocked their assault. The ancient cathedral—all its wealth, its symbolic importance, and all its horrified people within—was now theirs.

In a matter of seconds, between the shouts, screams, and commotion outside and the horrified, prayer-filled panic within, most of Constantinople’s surviving noblewomen, elderly noblemen, laypeople, and clergy found themselves suddenly prisoners and slaves. They suddenly came face to face with the armed, murderous infidels who considered them infidels, the Muslim soldiers who had, in the name of Allah, Muhammad, and their Sultan, slaughtered so many of their brothers, fathers, and husbands and conquered their ancient city. It is impossible to imagine the terror, horror, and dread that the civilians of Constantinople felt in this awful moment, or the triumph that their captors, rapists, and killers felt. Such was the horror of war in the late medieval and early modern period—regardless of religion, a city taken after a siege, after it had refused an offer of conditional surrender, could expect no mercy.

In fits of triumph and fury, the Turkish soldiers set upon the defenseless citizenry inside the cathedral, killing only a few laity who dared resist, and separating those women and boys they wished to rape and those they wished to sell at Muslim slave markets. The troops literally fought and some even killed each other over these human beings, the living spoils of their conquest. Several of the Muslim soldiers profaned the altar by throwing down the Holy Gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood, which had been offered in oblation only hours before. Triumphant in their religious zeal, the Muslims declared to the horrified crowd of prisoners that their idolatrous worship of a man as god was at an end, and that their city had fallen as divine punishment for their blasphemies. One can only wonder what the pious Christians of the ancient capital thought to hear such blasphemies against Christ God pronounced to them at the end of a sword.

The Ottomans set about looting as much gold, silver, porphyry, and bronze as they could from the fabulously adorned cathedral, which had until that moment been the hallowed center of Eastern Christian worship for almost a millennium. They terrorized the women, children, and elderly captives in their midst, but did not dare to torch or raze the magnificent edifice, which had captivated and haunted their imams, folk singers, and musicians for centuries. Their Sultan, they knew, was intent on claiming the greatest, oldest imperial cathedral in Christendom as his first imperial mosque.

Mehmed could not bear to think of his intended capital burning to the ground, and fires of various sizes were already burning throughout the sacked city by nightfall. Nevertheless, he had pledged to allow three days of unrestricted looting. Informed by his advance scouts that his rebellious soldiers had already stripped the city of most of its wealth, the enraged Sultan gave the order for the pillaging to cease by nightfall on the same day, the 29th. He wanted some semblance of order restored in what remained of the dilapidated city by June 1, Friday, the weekly holy day in Islam.

Accompanied by the full host of his triumphant imams, princes, and generals, the Sultan who had conquered the City of Constantine at only twenty-one years of age entered the burning, much dilapidated city on horseback, with his red and white Turkish standards and the green crescent flags of Islam billowing in the wood. This iconic image—capturing the glory and triumph of this moment when a young Turkish sultan became, by conquest, Caesar of the Second Rome— would be immortalized by painters and memorized by Turkish schoolchildren down through the centuries.

Mehmed II enters Constantinople

Mehmed proceeded at once on horseback to the already looted Hagia Sophia. Dismounting before the great Column of Justinian, the Red Apple of centuries-old Islamic lure, the sultan bent down, prostrated before the cathedral, facing east, and poured some dust on his turban as a sign of humility before God. Entering the cathedral narthex—whose nine centuries old-Christian mosaics and frescoes depicting the silent presence of Christ and His saints outraged Muslims’ iconoclastic beliefs—the sultan was horrified to find a Turkish soldier hacking away at the marble floor of the ancient structure. When Mehmed asked him why he was striking the floor of the looted cathedral, now reduced to a shell of its former glory, the man responded “for the Faith!” (Islam). The enraged Sultan struck him with his sword, and his guards carried the half-dead man away.

Turning to what remained of the sanctuary—his troops had already stripped away most of the holy altar, templon or iconostasis, gold candelabra, incense stands, imperial and patriarchal episcopal thrones, and various furnishings—Mehmed gave the fateful order to his chief imam. He ordered the man to go up into what had been the Christian pulpit and recite the Shahadah. According to Islamic theology, this action at once transformed the ancient cathedral into a mosque.

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Inside Hagia Sophia: Looking toward the eastern apse, which rises above where the altar and silver iconostasis of Justinian once stood, you can see the architecturally odd arrangement left in the wake of Mehmed II’s conversion of the Orthodox cathedral into the first imperial Ottoman mosque. Keeping with the anti-image, iconoclastic dictates of Islam, Mehmed had the magnificent Byzantine frescoes painted over (fortunately he did not have them destroyed) and ordered four pendants bearing the name of the first four Rashidun Muslim caliphs (political and spiritual leaders of the Ummah, the Muslim community) recognized in the Sunni tradition erected to hang over the nave, directly beneath the place where the Four Evangelists’ icons had stood under the central dome

 

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On Mehmed II’s orders, the remnants of the shattered, desecrated Christian altar were removed and in their place a mihrab erected. This elaborate niche in the wall indicates the qibla, the direction toward the Kaaba stone in Mecca. As you can see, this is obviously aesthetically off-center, as the building was clearly designed as an Orthodox cathedral to face cardinally east.

As part of his strategy to Islamicize and repopulate the devastated former Christian Roman capital, the Sultan subsequently forcibly imported tens of thousands of Turkish Muslims from Anatolia into the city. He allowed surviving Greek and Armenian Christians to return to the capital, ordered the construction of several new imperial mosques on the sites of destroyed Byzantine churches, and converted many of the most prominent Christian churches in the city into mosques. Disturbed by the haunting, somber images of the Lord Jesus Christ and His most pure Mother adorning the dome and apse of Hagia Sophia, Mehmed ordered the immediate whitewashing of its magnificent Byzantine mosaics and frescoes, which so offended Islamic theology. He subsequently commanded the removal of the outer dome’s crowning cross, the remaining incense stands, baptistery, and bells, and the erection of four huge minarets to summon faithful Muslims to prayer with the azan. Throughout the Ottoman Empire, Turkish soldiers repeated this pattern of converting, whitewashing, and re-purposing ancient Christian churches and cathedrals in the name of Islam.

Constantinople’s thousand-year legacy: Uniting Greek, Roman, and Christian cultural, literary, political, and theological ideas

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An artistic reconstruction of Constantinople in Late Antiquity, following Constantine’s establishment in AD 330 of the ancient port of Byzantion as the new Roman imperial capital, renamed Constantinopolis-Nova Roma in his honor. The view northward from the Imperial Palace of the Roman emperors looks out over the huge, colonnaded Augusteion, the plaza of the Augusti (emperors) with the grand Column of Justinian facing east, and Hagia Sophia in the background beyond.

From its re-founding by Emperor Constantine in AD 330 to its fall to the Ottomans over a millennium later, Byzantium—an anachronistic term, since the citizens of New Rome always considered themselves Romans—synthesized an extraordinary ancient cultural legacy and infused it with new vitality. Nova Roma on the Bosporus, straddling Europe and Asia, Greece and Asia Minor, was the heir to the greatest artistic, literary, and philosophical legacies of Classical Greece and the Hellenistic kingdoms. It also uniquely preserved and re-articulated Classical Roman law, political theory, and imperial government structure.

Its numerous, richly endowed monasteries, convents, and imperial libraries preserved thousands of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew classical and legal texts which were mostly lost or unknown to the contemporary West. Under St Emperor Justinian the Law-giver (482-565, r. 527-565), most of the full Roman Empire’s boundaries were (briefly) reconquered under the brilliant general Belisarius, the Hagia Sophia was rebuilt after a fire in only seven years, at huge expense, to become the marvel of the world, and the Emperor issued his famous Codex Justinianus, his revised and codified statute book of all existing Roman law.

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The magnificent painted gold and multi-colored frescoes of Hagia Sophia were ordered whitewashed by Mehmed II. They remained under the prohibitive, iconoclastic Muslim-directed paint until the 1930s, when, following Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s 1935 proclamation of the secular Turkish Republic, he ordered Hagia Sophia (Ayasofia Camii in Turkish) turned into a museum. The museum historians and artisans carefully uncovered many of the cathedral’s ancient mosaics in the 1930s and 40s, revealing much, though not all, of the formerly Byzantine splendor of the structure.

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An approximation of the territorial extent of the Christian Roman Empire in AD 555, at the height of the reign of St Emperor Justinian the Great (482-565, r. 527-565).

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Magnificent Byzantine fresco depicting Emperor Justinian and Bishop Maximianus in the Church of St Vitale in Ravenna, which served in the sixth century as the capital of Roman-controlled Italy under Constantinople’s rule.

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Stunning mosaic of the Lord Jesus Christ shown as a boy with angels at His side, overlooking the apse over the eastern wall altar inside the Church of St Vitale in Ravenna.

St Vitale in Ravenna

A crowning example of Late Antique, early Byzantine frescoes and interior church decor, the Church of St Vitale in Ravenna functioned under Constantinople’s rule as a monument to Justinian and Theodora’s imperial glory, a projection of Constantinople’s power and prestige, and a symbol of the enduring link at the time between Eastern and Western Christianity, all united then under shared recognition of the Pope in Rome and the Emperor in Constantinople.

Theodora in Ravenna

Opposite the apse wall showing Emperor Justinian and his advisors is his brilliant consort, Empress Theodora (500-548) shown with her female noble courtiers and advisors. Theodora ruled alongside Justinian as a kind of unofficial co-ruler despite her scandalously humble origins as a stage actress at Constantinople’s huge Hippodrome stadium. When in 532 the chariot-racing, politically-tinged rivalries between the Blue and the Green racing teams boiled over into mass rioting, brigandage, and near civil-war in the capital, the Emperor and his advisors considered fleeing the city and attempting to re-group elsewhere. The Empress, aware that she owed her position to the love and admiration of the Empress, famously addressed her husband and his advisors, urging them to stay, kill the rebels, and restore order. Her words are preserved as follows: “My lords, the present occasion is too serious to allow me to follow the convention that a woman should not speak in a man’s council. Those whose interests are threatened by extreme danger should think only of the wisest course of action, not of conventions. In my opinion, flight is not the right course, even if it should bring us to safety. It is impossible for a person, having been born into this world, not to die; but for one who has reigned it is intolerable to be a fugitive. May I never be deprived of this purple robe, and may I never see the day when those who meet me do not call me empress. If you wish to save yourself, my lord, there is no difficulty. We are rich; over there is the sea, and yonder are the ships. Yet reflect for a moment whether, when you have once escaped to a place of security, you would not gladly exchange such safety for death. As for me, I agree with the adage that the royal purple is the noblest shroud.”

For centuries, despite the Empire contracting and losing territory in the wake of regular Muslim Arab caliphate and later Seljuk Turkish conquests and incursions, the central arteries of East-West Mediterranean trade in spices, silks, slaves, furs, oils, perfumes, jewels, and much agriculture passed through Constantinople’s ports and markets. The city’s imperial treasury minted the gold standard of the Mediterranean commercial world at the time, the gold solidus nomisma. Christian Roman scholars in Constantinople made numerous new contributions and advances in all the fields of science, literature, philosophy, military technology, urban engineering, and law. Crucially, Constantinople’s endurance of eleven centuries of constant external pressures, including intermittent hostility with the northern Italian mercantile states after 1204, especially Venice and Genoa, served to prevent major Muslim westward expansion from Asia into Europe.

From an Orthodox Christian perspective, Constantinople’s stature as the patriarchate second in honor in Christendom as the New Rome after the Old caused it to become the center of what came to be called Byzantine, or Greek, Orthodox Christianity. Its bishops, monks, nuns, and saints over the centuries made a vast contribution in the Eastern Church liturgical tradition, Patristic writings, homiletics, mystical theology, and spiritual phronema. The fall of Constantine’s City, however long in the making, profoundly shocked all of Christendom, especially Rome, as the ancient patriarchate which had been second in honor in the Christian oikoumene was now transformed into the capital of the world’s most powerful Muslim empire which was to menace the Christian West for centuries.

The horror of the West and the Latin Church at the city’s fall

This video offers a profoundly beautiful example of the contemporary Roman Church’s horror over the fall of the city, which had been the Eastern Roman capital and thus the living embodiment and legacy of the ancient Roman Empire for over a millennium. At Pope Nicholas V’s urging, the brilliant Franco-Flemish choralist Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474), leading composer in the Burgundian School, composed this magnificent early Renaissance motet in 1454 in lamentation of the city’s fall.

The same Pope Nicholas invited many Greek refugees from Constantinople to Rome, where he hoped to add their intellectual luster and accumulated theological, historical, literary and artistic works to the splendor of Old Rome. Unsuccessful in his attempts to convince the squabbling northern Italian city-states and kingdoms of Hungary and the German states of the Holy Roman Empire to unite in a common cause to retake Constantinople from the Ottomans, Nicholas V died in 1455. He did so bitterly acknowledging that his papacy would be forever marred in history as that during which Nova Roma, the Queen City of Christendom, fell.

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Flemish master choralist Guillaume Dufay (of the Burgundian School) shown with Gilles Binchois.

Dufay modeled his ethereal dirge, “Lamentatio sanctae matris ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae” (“Lament of Holy Mother Church for Constantinople”), from a part of the Book of Lamentations on the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. Here are the song’s lyrics in Middle French, with translation into English below:

O tres piteulx de tout espoir fontaine,
Pere du filz dont suis mere esplorée,
Plaindre me viens a ta court souveraine,
De ta puissance et de nature humaine,
Qui ont souffert telle durté villaine
Faire à mon filz, qui tant m’a hounourée.

Dont suis de bien et de joye separée,
Sans qui vivant veule entendre mes plaints.
A toy, seul Dieu, du forfait me complains,
Du gref tourment et douloureulx oultrage,
Que voy souffrir au plus bel des humains.
Sans nul confort de tout humain lignage.

Translated into English:

‘O most merciful fount of all hope,

Father of the son whose weeping mother I am:

I come to complain before your sovereign court,

about your power and about human nature,

which have allowed such grievous harm to be

done to my son, who has honored me so much.

 

For that I am bereft of all good and joy,

without anyone alive to hear my laments.

To you, the only God, I submit my complaints,

about the grievous torment and sorrowful outrage,

which I see the most beautiful of men suffer

without any comfort for the whole human race.’

Triumph of the Turks: The Ottoman advance into Europe and its emergence as the leading Mediterranean hegemon

For the Ottoman Turks, the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 marked the crowning inauguration of their hegemony in the eastern Mediterranean, and the attainment of an eight centuries-old goal of all Muslim Arab and later Turkish kingdoms and caliphates dating back to Muhammad’s prophecies. Mehmed II declared himself “Caesar of Rome”, adding the Persian version of this title to his others of Padishah (Great King) and Sultan. It also marked their transformation from a powerful Turkish kingdom into a burgeoning world empire which could now harass Christian European shipping in the Mediterranean with impunity and begin to contemplate invasions beyond Thrace and Serbia into Central Europe. At only twenty-one, Mehmed II had, after almost eight hundred years of failed attempts by numerous earlier Umayyad caliphs and Seljuk Turkish sultans, conquered the Second Rome, the ‘Red Apple’ of Muslim legend.

Mehmed II’s vast, efficiently-supplied and well-trained armies of Turks, Uzbeks, Syrians, and Persians, as well as coerced Muslim converts from Christian Armenia, Georgia, Albania, Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria soon threatened all Christendom with a kind of reverse Crusade. By the Sultan’s death in 1481, Ottoman armies had conquered the last Byzantine bastions in Morea, Greece, subdued Serbia and Bosnia, raided Italy and threatened Rome itself, and cemented Ottoman rule over most of Wallachia and Transylvania (Romania). Mehmed II’s descendants would conquer most of Hungary, all the Middle East and North Africa, and push Ottoman ambitions twice to the gates of Vienna.

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The Venetian painter Gentile Bellini (1429-1507), official painter to the Doges of Venice, rendered this 1480 portrait of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II Fetih (“the Conqueror”) a year before the Sultan’s death at age 49. Feared and despised by Christians for his conquest of Constantinople, his ravaging of the Balkans, and his well-publicized sexual immorality, Europeans called him “the Eagle” for his harsh, aquiline features. Following his astonishing conquest of Constantinople, Mehmed took the Persian title Kayser-i-Rum, ‘Caesar of Rome’, believing himself to be the rightful Roman Emperor. This portrait now hangs at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

For Orthodox and Catholic Christians, what was in 1453 a nightmare at last come to reality was, for the Ottomans, the triumphant realization of their long-cherished dream. Alone of all the dozens of Muslim empires to rise and fall after Muhammad’s death in 632, they had finally gained the prize which they had been encircling for over a century after their fourteenth century conquest of most of Anatolia and their expansion behind Constantinople into Thrace and Serbia. For the city’s Greek and Armenian Christian populace, most of whom were sold into slavery or fled to Greece or Syria, the conquest was a tragedy which still evokes pain down through the centuries.

From the new Ottoman capital at Constantinople, successive sultans began to expand Ottoman territory ever further into Central Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, taking tens of thousands of male and female slaves for the Janissary corps, palace bureaucracy, and the imperial palace harem. After largely digesting his father Mehmed’s conquests in the Balkans, Beyezed II (1447-1512) shrewdly resettled most of the exiled Sephardic Jewish populations throughout his Empire following the 1492 Alhambra Decree by Fernando II and Isabel I, which expelled them from Catholic Castile and Aragon.

Notably, Bayezid also subdued the first of a series of Azeri Qizilbash rebellions against Ottoman rule by these Safaviyya tariqa Shia-aligned Sufi tribes. Most of the ‘Safavi’ Azeris were a mix of culturally Persianized Turks or Turkicized ethnic Iranians, united in their common adherence to the Jafari or ‘Twelver’ mazhab of Shia jurisprudence which the mostly Hanafi Sunni Ottomans viewed as heretical. In 1501, the head of the Savafid Turko-Kurdish Iranian dynasty, Ismail I (1487-1524, r. 1501-1524), proclaimed himself Shahanshah (king of kings) of Iran, capturing and making the mostly Azeri city of Tabriz his capital. Motivated as much by an intense religious desire to ensure Shia orthodoxy as his desire to create a unified Iranian state, Ismail rapidly commenced the forced conversion of the Iranian plateau to Twelver Shia Islam. He incentivized Sunni conversions by promising land grants, wealth, and meritorious advancement, destroying Sunni Sufi tariqa (religious schools) and confiscating their assets, and threatening Sunni ulema (scholars) and nobles with death or exile if they did not convert. The new Shah sought to impose Shia conformity in order to create a more unified Iranian imperial, ethnic, and religious identity distinct from his Ottoman rivals to the west and Sunni Turkic Uzbeks to the east.

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A European portrait of Safavid Shah Ismail I (1487-1524, r. 1501-1524), founder of the Twelver Shia Safavid dynasty in Iran (1501-1736)

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Shah Ismail I entering Tabriz with his Qizilbash army contigents in 1501. This victory commenced the start of his reign as Shahanshah over Persia and the establishment of the Shia Safavid dynasty, which would challenge the Ottomans on political, religious, and cultural fronts until its collapse in the 1730s.

Shah Ismail I and Sultan Bayezid II were thus not only political rivals contesting control over the disputed borderland regions of Armenia, Georgia, eastern Turkey, and Shirvan (much of modern Azerbaijan and northwestern Iran), but mortal religious enemies who viewed each other as contemptible heretics. Ismail billed himself as the champion ghazi (warrior) of Shia Islam, whereas Bayezid, like his Ottoman forebears, saw himself as the champion and caliph of Sunni Islam. Jafari ‘Twelver’ Shia Safavid Iranians and the Hanafi Sunni Ottoman Turks both viewed each other as heretics, but, ironically, the two rival dynasties both had mixed Turkic-Iranian-Central Asian origins. The Safavids had direct Turkic ancestry, with Shah Ismail speaking an Azeri variant of Turkish as his first language rather than courtly Persian, while the Ottoman sultans were ethnically a mix of Albanian, Serbian, Greek, and Turkish, but preferred to compose their poems and issue their decrees in classical Persian dialects.

Bayezid was ultimately forced to abdicate by one of his sons, Mehmed II’s grandson Selim I “the Grim” (1471-1520, r. 1512-1520). Selim continued the documented Ottoman tradition, established at least by Mehmed II’s time, of engaging in mass fratricide upon his accession; he had his half-brothers by his father’s different harem concubines strangled with bowstrings or silk chords to ensure that he had no rivals for the throne. A great conqueror, Selim used innovative tactics and the Ottomans’ artillery and musketry to defeat the previously expansionist Safavid Persian Shah Ismail I in battle at Chaldiran in 1514. One of the most decisive battles in Turkish and Iranian history, the outcome saw Ottoman guns and cannons triumph against the Safavid heavy and light cavalry, who, just as the Ottoman Turks used to do, formed the basis of most formerly nomadic peoples’ armies. Selim’s forces captured Ismail’s entire harem, including his two favorite wives.

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An illustration of the decisive 1514 Battle of Chaldiran which checked Ismail’s Safavid westward advances into Turkey, cemented Ottoman rule over most of Armenia and Georgia, and ended the Persian threat to Ottoman Turkish eastern borderlands.

The battle of Chaldiran halted Safavid Iranian expansion westward into the Ottoman Turkish heartland, and forced the increasingly distraught and despondent Ismail to return most of annexed Georgia and Armenia to Ottoman rule after Selim briefly occupied and sacked the first Safavid capital, Tabriz, before turning his attentions elsewhere. The Sultan’s armies most famously conquered the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, thereby taking over vast territories in Egypt, Syria, Palestine/Israel, and the entire Hejaz region of Arabia, the holiest region in Islam. This allowed the Ottoman sultans to proclaim themselves the caliphs, or chief religious-political leaders, of Sunni Islam as the guardians of the principal Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Selim’s conquests in his short reign of only eight years thus enormously increased the religious prestige of the Ottoman dynasty as the Sunni Muslim superpower, and dramatically increased the territorial size of the Ottoman Empire by some 70%.

The Sultan’s conquests gave the Turks control over the three holiest cities in Islam—Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem— as well as the ancient Sunni mazhab academies and tariqa of Cairo, the rich Mediterranean ports of Alexandria and Beirut, and the colossal Egyptian Mediterranean-Red Sea spice, jewels, and incense trade. Ottoman dominion over Egypt, the Hejaz region of western Arabia, and leading Red Sea ports also meant that the Sultans now dominated the ancient Islamic Trans-Saharan trade in sub-Saharan black slaves, and the gateway to trade unmolested with Indian ports. These conquests made the Ottoman sultans, already fabulously wealthy, into by far the wealthiest monarchs in the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions.

Selim’s son and heir, perhaps the greatest Ottoman emperor, inherited this great wealth and mantle of conquest, presiding over the Empire’s military, political, cultural, and economic zenith. Known to history as Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566, r. 1520-66), he was, like most of his forebears, equally a ruthless conqueror for Sunni Islam, colossal builder, a shrewd administrator, gifted poet, and pious endower of numerous imperial mosques, turbes (tombs), tariqa, and public baths. Known as ‘the Ottoman Justinian’, and similarly named ‘the Law-giver’ after his death, this Ottoman Solomon reigned for the longest of all the sultans. This forty-six-year period of constant territorial expansion, imperial projection, and administrative centralization saw Suleiman give orders to codify all existing Ottoman imperial decrees and statutes. The sultan personally presided over additional Ottoman conquests in Algeria, Serbia, Transylvania, key Mediterranean fortress strongholds on Rhodes and Crete, and, most importantly, the Carpathian basin. Suleiman’s rapid conquest of the Kingdom of Hungary (1526), his ambitious, though failed, siege of Habsburg Vienna (1529), and his admirals’ numerous raids across the Mediterranean world horrified Christian Europe.

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Titian’s 1530 portrait of the Ottoman Empire’s most successful and greatest Sultan, Suleiman “the Magnificent” (1494-1566, r. 1520-1566).

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A contemporary Persian-style Ottoman miniature of Suleiman at the 1522 Siege of Rhodes.

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Sultan Suleiman’s imperial tughra, or Arabic calligraphy signature, used in all imperial firmans (edicts), comparable to a royal seal.

Suleiman’s advance into the heart of Europe terrified all of Christendom. His well-trained army of some 250,000 men succeeded where Mehmed II had tried but failed in 1456, capturing in August 1521 the key Hungarian-controlled fortress of Belgrade, Serbia and deporting its entire Orthodox population to Istanbul. After the young, ill-prepared King Louis II of Hungary foolishly declared war on the Turks in summer 1526, Suleiman personally commanded the Ottoman troops at the decisive August battle at Mohacs, which saw the young king and the flower of the Hungarian nobility and knightly classes killed. Hungary’s twin political and spiritual centers, Buda and Esztergom, fell within the year, leading the Ottomans to annex and incorporate most of the ancient Magyar kingdom.

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Flemish painter Sebastian Vranck’s European-style portrait of the Ottoman Siege of Esztergom, the seat of the Catholic Primates of Hungary, in 1543. A depiction of the Ottoman emperor Suleiman on horseback in his yellow robes and turban is in the left foreground. The Sultan, as with so many of his campaigns, personally commanded the Ottoman armies.

Suleiman’s rapid path of conquests into Central Europe horrified his Christian contemporaries, especially the young Charles V (1500-1558, r. 1516-1556 as King of Spain, 1519-1556 as Emperor), the new Holy Roman Emperor who was also Carlos I of Spain, Flanders, and Burgundy.

Ottoman naval power grew so strong that throughout the 1520s and into the 1540s, Suleiman’s Grand Admiral of the imperial fleet, Hayreddin Barbarossa (1478-1546)—himself the son of a Greek Orthodox woman like so many of the Ottoman pashas, princes, and sultans—raided Spanish and Italian shipping across the Mediterranean. Barbarossa assisted the Sultan in expelling the stalwart Knights of St John Hospitaller from the Aegean Greek isle of Rhodes in 1522, thereby greatly easing Ottoman commerce and naval communications between Istanbul and Alexandria, Egypt. His fleet then captured the crucial North African western Barbary port of Algiers in 1525. This victory caused most of Muslim North Africa to become an autonomous part of the Empire by acknowledging the suzerainty of the Ottoman sultans. This meant that from Egypt to Algeria, almost the entire North African coast was now in Ottoman hands, significantly increasing the Turkish fleet’s ability to harass Spanish and Italian shipping and raid the coasts of Sicily, Malta, eastern Spain, and southern Italy.

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European style portrait of the Ottoman Grand Admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa (1478-1546).

In 1538, Barbarossa defeated the allied Christian Holy League—formed by Pope Paul III’s diplomacy and comprising a loose combination of the Imperial Habsburg (Spanish), Venetian, Genoan, and papal fleets under the overall command of Charles V’s Genoese admiral Andrea Doria (1466-1560)—off the western Greek coast at Preveza. The unified Ottoman force of some 120 galleys and 12,000 soldiers decisively defeated the 110 galleys, 50 heavy galleons, and 70 smaller barques of the 60,000 Christian forces, who were split with internal rivalries between the Genoese and Venetians. The victory ensured Ottoman dominance of the Mediterranean for the next 33 years until the decisive allied Christian victory over the Ottomans at Lepanto in 1571.

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The “Battle of Preveza” (1538) by Ohannes Umed Behzad, painted in 1866.

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At Suleiman’s command, under Barbarossa’s leadership the Ottomans established a sizable fleet on the Indian Ocean to ensure that Ottoman-Mughal commerce and the maritime passage of hajj pilgrims to and from Ottoman-controlled Mecca and Medina passed unimpeded.

In 1535, King Francis I of France successfully proposed a French-Ottoman alliance against his and Suleiman’s common Habsburg enemy, earning the ire of Charles V and the Pope, who was horrified that the French monarch, who bore the papal honorific title of ‘Most Christian King’, would ally with ‘the Grand Turk’, the infidel scourge of Christendom. Francis even permitted Barbarossa’s fleet to winter in Toulon on the French Mediterranean coast in 1543, following a joint French-Turkish fleet attack on Nice, which briefly captured the port from the city’s Habsburg-allied ruler, Charles III the Duke of Savoy.

In 1529, Suleiman embarked on his most ambitious undertaking yet: he set out into German lands to conquer the Austrian Habsburg city of Vienna, in the southern heart of Central Europe.

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This contemporary 1529 engraving shows clashes between the Austrians and Ottomans outside Vienna in September or October 1529 by the German painter and engraver Bartel Beham.

The Sultan’s forces of at least 200,000—who had to abandon many of their camels and heavy cannon as they marched northwest in the heavy summer rains of Hungary, Slovakia, and Austria—nevertheless invested and besieged a much smaller but stalwart force of 16,000 Austrian and Spanish Habsburg defenders. The Ottomans were only repulsed in October after the heavy rains caused morale to plummet and disease to spread in their camps. However, the escape of most of the Sultan’s army, sans his long imperial baggage trains stocked with riches, opened the door for a possible future Ottoman invasion of the German principalities or down into Italy from the north.

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Suleiman commissioned his chief architect, the great Armenian or Greek-born, Christian-turned-Muslim master Mimar Sinan (1488-1588) to design and build what would become Istanbul’s most famous imperial Ottoman mosque. Designed deliberately after Hagia Sophia, which Suleiman sought to surpass architecturally, Suleiman had the mosque dedicated in his own honor to the glory of Allah. The Suleymaniue Camii remains one of modern Istanbul’s greatest tourist attractions, and active mosque.

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The Suleymaniye Mosque as seen from the Galata tower.

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The mosque’s interior.

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The territorial extent of the Ottoman Empire upon Suleiman’s death in 1566. 

Ruling in their heyday in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries from Algeria to modern Ukraine, modern Yemen to Hungary, and northern Romania to the Horn of Africa, the Ottoman sultans saw themselves as the political heirs to the Roman Emperors of Constantinople. Declaring themselves “Lords of the Two Lands and the Two Seas”, originally this title assumed by Mehmed II referred to Ottoman control over the Balkans and Anatolia, and the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Seas. By Suleiman’s death, the Ottomans effectively ruled not only these seas, but the Red Sea and Persian Gulf as well. The Sultans of Constantinople, like their Safavid and Mughal contemporaries, used the Persian titles of Shahanshah (“King of Kings”) and Padishah (“Great King”), but most important to them, politically, were the title Kayser-i-Rum (“Caesar of Rome” [Constantinople]) and Caliph of Sunni Islam as the Amir al-Mu’minin (“Commander of the Faithful”). The latter title recognized the Ottoman sultans as the paramount religious and political authority among Sunni Muslims due to their position as rulers over the Hejaz and as custodians of the two principal Holy Mosques of Mecca and Medina. Acknowledging their dynasty and people’s ethnic origins from Central Asia, all sultans also bore the traditional Mongol title of khan.

Constantinople’s legacy

Constantinople’s place as a redoubtable Christian bastion even after the initial Ottoman ascendancy in the fourteenth century had, for almost four centuries, checked Turkish advances into Europe—their chroniclers called the city “A bone in the throat of Allah”, insisting that it must be conquered for Islam. Prior to the Seljuk Sultan Arp Arslan’s shock triumph over the Emperor Romanos IV at Manzikert in 1071, Constantinople had resisted repeated Arab Muslim attempts to capture the city for Islam. Throughout the Ottoman Empire, Turkish magistrates enforced the infamous devisherme system which exploited local Christian populations by forcibly conscripting numerous boys as janissaries (the sultans’ elite shock troops) or court eunuchs, and Christian girls, and sometimes boys, for the provincial beys’ harems and ultimately the imperial harem of the grand ‘Seraglio’ at Topkapı Palace.

Within a century of overtaking Nova Roma on the Bosporus, Ottoman forces had conquered the entire Eastern Mediterranean, and most of the Kingdom of Hungary, continuing to war with and regularly threaten the Habsburg German-controlled Holy Roman Empire until the end of the seventeenth century, when they last attempted in 1683 to conquer Vienna under Mehmed IV (1642-1693, r 1648-1687) and his ruthless Albanian Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha. Unsurprisingly, historians traditionally date the end of the Middle Ages to the fall of Constantinople, from which they also mark the official opening of the Renaissance and the early modern era as Greek refugees poured into Italy.

The great Christian empire of Constantinople is long gone, with the Turkish-speaking city of Istanbul teeming with some fourteen million people today. Every year on May 29, commemorated as Fetih day (“Conquest” day), Muslim Turks gather across the country and city, but especially in front of Hagia Sophia and Mehmed’s turbe at his commemorative Fetih Camii, to commemorate what is, for them, the glorious conquest of Constantinople. May 29 symbolizes for many Turks both their hopes for the triumph of Islam over Christianity, and the past greatness of the Turkish Muslim empire, whose complicated legacy the AKP’s ruling President Erdogan often evokes in nationalistic and pan-Islamic tones today. Haghia Sophia itself, while officially still a museum, has increasingly been publicly used as a mosque, especially during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan (currently going on now).

H.A.H. the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has repeatedly condemned Erdogan’s statements threatening to turn the ancient church-museum back into a mosque, while Turkey’s prime minister and deputy prime minister have variously spoken in favor of re-opening the building for regular Muslim worship. Prominent nationalist and Islamist politicians and religious figures in Turkey and the Turkish diaspora have cited Mehmed II’s 1453 decree, which declared Hagia Sophia to be the Sultan (and his heirs’)’s personal property by right of conquest, enjoining that the building remain a mosque ‘until the Day of Judgment’. H.H. Pope Francis, the president and prime minister of Greece, and various other political leaders, statesmen, and academics have all weighed in on the controversy.

Yet as Christians, there are lessons for us to learn from Constantinople’s fall. We know that as followers of Christ, this life is in many respects like a battle. We can never mistake or equate any earthly kingdom or power with the eternal, Heavenly Kingdom and its power from God alone. The apostle St Paul commands us to put on our spiritual armor in our daily lives because we are not playing on a neutral playing field. This means that in our personal lives, our spiritual lives, and our societal lives, we must constantly guard our defenses against sin and evil in all their forms. Yet those who mean us harm do not always attack from the front, but will hit us from a side where we were least expecting it. My prayer is that we constantly ask God to show us the Kerkaportas in our own lives, so that we can always be fixing our defenses in order to run the good race and fight the good fight. May the memory of Constantinople’s valiant defenders be eternal!

Hagia Sophia

May the church of Justinian’s glory—the imperial and patriarchal cathedral of the Roman Empire for almost a millennium—shine forth again one day with the splendor of the Christian Divine Liturgy.

Bibliography

Berkey, Jonathan. The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 600-1800. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Crowley, Roger. 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West. New York, NY: Hyperion, 2005.

Evans, James Allan Stewart. The Age of Justinian: The Circumstances of Imperial Power. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis, 2002.

Finkel, Caroline. Osman’s Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2005.

Herrin, Judith. Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Kaegi, Walter. Heraclius, Emperor of Byzantium. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Kaldellis, Anthony. Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood: The Rise and Fall of Byzantium, 955 A.D. to the First Crusade. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017.

McGeer, Eric. Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth: Byzantine Warfare in the Tenth Century. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Studies, 2008.

Meyendorff, Fr. John. The Byzantine Legacy in the Orthodox Church. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000.

Necipoğlu, Nevra. Byzantium Between the Ottomans and the Latins: Politics and Society in the Late Empire. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Norwich, John Julius. A Short History of Byzantium. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1997.

Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Decline and Fall. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1995.

Runciman, Steven. The Byzantine Theocracy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Runciman, Steven. The Eastern Schism: A Study of the Papacy and the Eastern Churches During the XIth and XIIth Centuries. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1955.

Wheatcroft, Andrew. The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans, and the Battle for Europe. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2008.

Treadgold, Warren. A Concise History of Byzantium. New York, NY: Palgrave, 2001.

 

Metropolitan Jonah leads Friends of Mount Athos trip to Cyprus

Accompanied by members of the Friends of Mount Athos society, of which he is a patron, His Eminence Metropolitan Jonah, the former Primate of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) from 2008-2012, is currently leading a nine-day pilgrimage to Cyprus with the blessing of the Primate of the Orthodox Church of Cyprus, His Beatitude Archbishop Chrysostomos II (r. 2006-). The Friends of Mount Athos invited Metropolitan Jonah to lead this year’s pilgrimage, hosted by the society, which bears the theme “Byzantine and Crusader Cyprus”, and lasts from 22-30 October. Approximately 40 people are participating in the pilgrimage, most of whom are British nationals.

On Sunday, 23 October 2016, at the invitation of His Beatitude Archbishop Chrysostomos II of Cyprus, His Eminence Metropolitan Jonah concelebrated the Divine Liturgy at the beautiful church of Agia Sofia (Holy Wisdom) in Strovolos, suburban Nicosia, along with His Beatitude the Archbishop and His Grace Bishop Gregorios of Mesaoria. Observing the Revised Julian calendar following the usage of the Church of Cyprus, the hierarchs with the other clergy and laity commemorated St Iakovos (James) the brother of the Lord and St. Patriarch Ignatios of Constantinople (d. 877) in the Archierarchical Liturgy on the occasion of their feast days.

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In Strovolos’ Holy Wisdom Cathedral, with His Beatitude the Archbishop of Cyprus speaking after the Divine Liturgy while Metropolitan Jonah and Bishop Gregorios of Mesaoria are looking on. This, and all photos appearing in this article, are used with the courtesy of Mr Simon Jennings, Treasurer of the Friends of Mount Athos.

Following the Divine Liturgy, His Beatitude the Archbishop consecrated a new school hall in Strovolos, with His Eminence Metropolitan Jonah attending the blessing along with many of the faithful members of Friends of Mount Athos and Nicosian Cypriot parishioners:

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Courtesy of Mr Simon Jennings, Treasurer of the Friends of Mount Athos.

Following their con-celebration of the Divine Liturgy on Sunday, 23 October in suburban Strovolos, accompanied by several close friends, Metropolitan Jonah met privately with the Archbishop at his Archepiscopal Residence in Nicosia, the capital of the Republic of Cyprus. The Archbishop’s assistant, His Grace Bishop Gregorios of Mesaoria, was present at the meeting and warmly received His Eminence and several close friends in the Archepiscopal Throne Room. Following this, the Archbishop hosted lunch for the company in his stately residence.

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His Eminence Metropolitan Jonah (L) sitting with (R) His Grace Bishop Gregorios of Mesaoria of Cyprus. Standing behind the bishops are two members of the Friends of Mount Athos. Courtesy of Mr Simon Jennings, Treasurer of the Friends of Mount Athos.

 

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Metropolitan Jonah sitting in the Archepiscopal Throne Room in the chair reserved for visiting Church dignitaries, to the immediate right of the primatial Throne of the Archbishop of Cyprus. Courtesy of Mr Simon Jennings, Treasurer of the Friends of Mount Athos.

His Eminence Metropolitan Jonah will remain in Cyprus with the Friends of Mount Athos until next Sunday. The group is enjoying an extended tour of the beautiful island and its magnificent ancient, Classical, and Hellenistic period Greek ruins, explore Byzantine and Crusader fortifications and sites, and visit historic village churches and monasteries. FoMA has already visited several ancient, holy monasteries and convents.

Mrs. Marilyn P. Swezey, one of the Friends of Mount Athos members who is on the pilgrimage, told me that “it is wonderful here. Cyprus is still a Christian country, dotted with little churches and monasteries everywhere, many very ancient. It’s truly a land of hidden spiritual treasures!”

I spoke with Mr. Simon Jennings, the Treasurer of the society, who had this to say about Metropolitan Jonah’s pilgrimage to Cyprus with FoMA:

Vladyka is here to lead a pilgrimage to Cyprus organised by the Friends of Mount Athos, of which I am Treasurer. Some of the group have been visiting the Byzantine monuments in the occupied part of Cyprus… [O]n Sunday, Vladyka served the Divine Liturgy at the Church of Agia Sophia in the district of Strovolos (a suburb of Nicosia) with the Archbishop of Cyprus, Chrysostomos – and his assistant Bishop Gregorios. After Liturgy, Archbishop Chrysostomos blessed a new School hall. Following that, and a reception, the Archbishop received us for lunch at his residence, and entertained us very well.

Today, we drove down to see some monasteries – Agia Thekla, which is a small and very pretty women’s monastery, where there was a Russian tour group. We went on to a 14th c. church dedicated to the Holy Archangel Michael, and from there to look at the famous monastery of Stavrovouni, at least to assess the chances of getting up to it, which we may try to do tomorrow. After lunch, we went on to a small monastery again dedicated to St Michael, and from there to a new women’s monastery dedicated to the Mother of God, where we were received by the Gerondissa. She sent us with one of her workmen to guide us to Deftera, where there is a diocesan ecclesiastical store… From there we went on to Tamassos, where there is a new Russian church being constructed with the blessing of the Bishop of that diocese, who has studied in Moscow.

Tomorrow, we will visit some more monasteries… On Wednesday, we will meet up with the rest of the group to tour Nicosia, and then on to the Troodos mountains to look at the painted churches there, which are amongst the most important treasures of the Island. We will travel back to London on Sunday. Vladyka Jonah is one of the patrons of the Friends of Mount Athos.

Here are some photos of the FoMA tour of several different historic Cypriot monasteries and village churches which they have visited so far in their pilgrimage:

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Monastery of the Holy Archangel Michael, Analiontas, Cyprus. Courtesy of Mr Simon Jennings, Treasurer of the Friends of Mount Athos.

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Courtesy of Mr Simon Jennings, Treasurer of the Friends of Mount Athos.

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The high walls of the Holy Archangel Michael monastery reflect the frequent wars and invasions Cyprus endured as a key strategic island in the eastern Mediterranean — Persians and Alexander’s Macedonians, Ptolemies and Seleucids, Roman consuls and emperors, Byzantines/Christian Romans, Arab Muslims, Norman and English Crusaders, Ottoman Turks, Venetians, and the British all vied for control of the island. Photo courtesy of Mr Simon Jennings, Treasurer of the Friends of Mount Athos.

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The small, lavishly decorated church of St Thekla in the women’s monastery (convent) dedicated to her in Mosfiloti. Courtesy of Mr Simon Jennings, Treasurer of the Friends of Mount Athos.

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The lovely courtyard and gardens of St Thekla Convent. Courtesy of Mr Simon Jennings, Treasurer of the Friends of Mount Athos.

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Metropolitan Jonah at St Thekla’s, where the abbess/Gerondissa warmly received the group of members from Friends of Mount Athos. Courtesy of Mr Simon Jennings, Treasurer of the Friends of Mount Athos.

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The warm and intimately quaint, ancient village church of St Marina (Αγία Μαρίνα). Courtesy of Mr Simon Jennings, Treasurer of the Friends of Mount Athos.

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The exterior of the small, stone Byzantine-era church of St Marina. Courtesy of Mr Simon Jennings, Treasurer of the Friends of Mount Athos.

Here is the link to the Facebook page for Friends of Mount Athos, whose president is His Eminence Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, best-selling Orthodox author and former Spalding Lecturer of Eastern Orthodox Studies at the University of Oxford (1966-2001). The Royal Patron of FoMA is His Royal Highness Prince Charles, The Prince of Wales.

A Rivalry in Letters: Mary and Elizabeth

Examining the two queens’ contest for power through the evolution of their quarter-century-long correspondence

Elizabeth I signature

Mary Queen of Scots signature

By Ryan Hunter

19 August 2016 – Setauket, Long Island, New York

I have dedicated this paper to the memory of the brilliant and ever-witty Dr Jenny Wormald FRSA, FRHistS, and HonFSA Scot (1942-2015) who departed this life in December 2015. Dr Wormald was an extraordinary historian of late medieval and early modern Scottish royal and ecclesiastical politics who re-evaluated the role of clan wars and noble feuds. She wrote and taught as well about Reformation-era religion, delighting in critiquing and demolishing the prevailing, established historical narratives on both sides of the Anglo-Scottish border. She stood out during my spring 2012 semester at the University of Edinburgh as one of the most brilliant among so many brilliant scholars, and the few lessons I was honoured to have with her were always tremendously enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. While I expect that she’d have quite a few arguments with the conclusions of this paper, and despite some of my own reservations about her conclusions on Mary Queen of Scots, I have profound admiration for her scholarship, especially her efforts to offer a critical but overall positive reinterpretation of the legacy and accomplishments of James VI and I. Requiescat in pace.

 

Introduction and Context: Why their letters are worth examining

Video et taceo.

-Elizabeth I’s motto (“I see and keep silent”).

Carry this message from me and tell my friends that I died a true woman to my religion, and like a true Scottish woman and a true Frenchwoman; but God forgive them that have long desired my end.

-Mary Queen of Scots’ parting words to her servants, 8 February 1587.

Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I’s letters to each other were their only direct sources of communication. They remain to this day historians’ most insightful and formative sources on the quarter century-long rivalry between the two queens, as they show how Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship changed and their enmity developed over time. They reveal fascinating insights into the two cousins and rivals’ personalities, and above all else, their fundamentally different approaches to their respective positions as two queens regnant living on the same isle with a contested claim to the same throne. The manner in which they wrote to each other, especially their choice of words and language, reflects the profoundly different and evolving approaches these two women employed in communicating to each other over time and, more broadly, in seeking to control the circumstances in which they found themselves. Above all, their letters serve as invaluable evidence of the shift in the queens’ attitudes toward each other: from youthful rivalry, to a brief period of sisterly solidarity, to increasing estrangement and profoundly hostile confrontation toward the end of their quarter century-long correspondence. Without the evidence these letters provide, historians would have only the testimony of those who knew and served the queens, and not the crucial words of the queens themselves, to piece together a contextual framework for Mary and Elizabeth’s evolving rivalry.

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Mary, Queen of Scots painted around the age of 18 or 19 during her first widowhood following Francis II of France’s 1560 death.

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Elizabeth I, aged 26, in this 1560 portrait by Clopton. (C) National Portrait Gallery, London.

Whereas Mary (1542-1587), the more passionate of the two women, is direct, emotional, and often uses either pleading or accusatory language depending on the situation, her cousin Elizabeth (1533-1603) is more circumspect, usually dispassionate in tone, and often gives admonishing words of caution or paternalistic, almost sisterly advice. The two queens’ rivalry emerges in four distinct stages. The first key turning point in their correspondence was 1567, when Mary’s second husband – she and Elizabeth’s mutual cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley – was murdered and Mary soon after married James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, the man the Scots public suspected of killing Darnley. Mary’s subsequent overthrow and forced abdication by the Scottish Protestant lords and her impetuous flight to England to seek Elizabeth’s assistance in 1568 marks the second turning point, and summer 1586—when Mary’s son James VI betrayed his mother and entered into an official alliance with Elizabeth, her captor—the third. By the end of their quarter century-long correspondence in fall of 1586, with Mary informed that her cousin would soon likely sign her death warrant, the tone of their exchange takes on a remarkably hostile direction, which is the fourth turning point.

Astonishingly, by the end of their correspondence, Elizabeth would directly and explicitly accuse Mary of plotting against her life, while Mary would hauntingly remind Elizabeth that she would face a dreadful eternal reckoning should she choose, as Elizabeth ultimately did, to sign the death warrant and execute her cousin and fellow queen. Ultimately, as in their lifelong rivalry, the two queens’ letters to each other reveal no clear winner, but instead, through the medium of these letters, we are left to wonder at the complex personalities of these two rival monarchs and just how and why their relationship deteriorated so significantly. What is certain is that, without these letters, we would have only the conjecture and potentially prejudiced opinions of the two queens’ senior advisors and ministers to attempt to piece together a fuller picture, a picture the letters are thus indispensable in constructing. The letters confirm and solidify the oft-repeated historical record that Mary was first and foremost a woman and only then a monarch, morphing during her English captivity from a desperate femme fatale into a would-be-martyr, while Elizabeth emerges as first and foremost a calculating monarch who only then allowed herself to be a woman, always subordinating her personal wishes to her political instincts.

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Elizabeth I painted in her coronation robes on 15 January 1559. She ascended to the English throne on 17 November 1558 upon her half-sister Queen Mary I Tudor’s death. Artist unknown. She was crowned, as all English monarchs had been since the Hundred Years’ War, as monarch of England and France — but, while Elizabeth took great umbrage at Mary’s claim to the English throne, she never addressed the fact that she was, til her death, a titular claimant to the throne which has belonged to Mary’s first husband.

Part I: A Dance of Youthful Rivalry: Two claimants to the same throne

Mary and Elizabeth’s rivalry begins over a confrontation between the two queens in the seminal year 1558, rooted in the two different destinies their lives took when in May the fifteen-year-old Mary—already queen regnant of Scotland from her infancy – married her first husband, Dauphin François of France, at Notre Dame de Paris, and the unmarried twenty-five-year-old Elizabeth became Queen of England on 17 November upon her childless Catholic half-sister Mary I Tudor’s long-expected death. The initial conflict between the Scottish and English queens was one of status and title centring on Mary’s passive acceptance of her father-in-law’s decision to claim the thrones of England and Ireland in her name, a decision that both outraged and disconcerted Elizabeth. Upon learning of Mary I of England’s death, Henri II of France immediately proclaimed his son and daughter-in-law King (consort) and Queen (regnant) of England and Ireland, since, in the eyes of Catholic Europe, Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII by ‘the whore’ or ‘witch’ Anne Boleyn, was illegitimate, and Mary, Queen of Scots was now the rightful monarch of England. [1]

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Mary’s altered royal coat of arms from 1559-1560 outraged Elizabeth I: they projected her titles as Queen consort of France (the blue and gold fleur-de-lis pattern to the left), Queen regnant of Scotland (the Stuart red lion on the yellow background) and her claim to be the rightful Queen regnant of England (the three English lions quartered with the fleur-de-lis).

 

The young Mary seems not to have understood how deeply she offended her older cousin Elizabeth by allowing her father-in-law King Henri II and her powerful Guise uncles, François le Duc de Guise and Charles, Cardinal de Lorraine, “to claim the title Queen of England and Ireland for the house of Valois, and quarter Mary’s arms with those of France, Scotland and England.” [2] Although, Jane Dunn points out, “this act of acquisitiveness was not initiated by Mary, her acceptance and overriding pursuit of it altered her destiny forever” [3] and made Elizabeth view her from her accession as a serious rival for her throne. Dunn notes that Mary’s assumption of the royal arms of England in November 1558 “gave her a compelling idea of herself as rightful heir to the English throne, an aspiration she maintained throughout her life.” [4] From the moment Mary first imagined herself as Queen of England, the two cousins and sister queens were set upon an inevitable rivalry that ultimately would end only with Mary’s death.

What is rather ironic and not a little hypocritical is that while Mary was never actually crowned as Queen of England in the September 1559 ceremony which saw her crowned as queen consort of France beside François II, at Elizabeth’s coronation on 15 January 1559, she was proclaimed and crowned as monarch of both England and France, as all English monarchs before her had been since the Hundred Years’ War. While Elizabeth took great umbrage at Mary’s claim to the English throne, she never addressed the fact that she was til her death a titular claimant to the French throne which had belonged to Mary’s first husband.

Mary_by_Clouet

Mary, Queen of Scots sketched by French royal portraitist Francois Clouet in 1558 shortly before her wedding to Francis, Dauphin (Crown Prince) of France, son of Henri II.

Elizabeth first refers to Mary politely in the first peace treaty she signed during her reign, a treaty with France and Scotland, which was then governed by Mary’s formidable French mother, the Scottish Queen Mother and Regent Marie de Guise, widow of James V and sister of France’s powerful Guise brothers. [5] In asserting that Mary was not Queen of England, Elizabeth deliberately chose diplomatic language in defending her own claim to be England’s rightful monarch. She tactfully accepted the provision “that the title to this kingdom injuriously pretended in so many ways by the Queen of Scotland has not proceeded otherwise than from the ambitious desire of the principal members of the House of Guise” [6], Mary’s uncles. Elizabeth, in an almost chiding tone, went on to patronize the young Mary and her husband François de France for their youthful error in claiming what she asserted was her rightful title: “the King, who by reason of his youth…the Queen of Scots, who is likewise very young…have [not] of themselves imagined and deliberated an enterprise so unjust, unreasonable, and perilous” [7] as to brazenly quarter their arms with England’s.

Thus, as early as 1558, we have evidence that Mary claimed to be the rightful Queen of England and that Elizabeth instructed her envoys to respond firmly but evenly in contesting her view. While her claims unnerved Elizabeth, at this stage the rivalry between the two queens seems more indicative of a youthful concern for status and image which, while not unserious, was a far cry from the verbal valedictory broadsides the queens would ultimately launch at each other before Mary’s execution.

When, in December 1560, Mary’s sixteen-year old husband King Francois II died, leaving her a widow and dowager queen of France at 17, the stage was set for Mary and Elizabeth’s first serious confrontation. [8] Within several months, after experiencing what seems to have been a profound depression and possible nervous collapse [9], the widowed Mary – ostracised from and unwelcome at the new royal court of Charles IX dominated by Henri II’s widow, her hostile, formidable former mother-in-law Catherine de Medici, who governed in her young son’s name as Queen Regent – made up her mind to return to her native Scotland. This prospect alarmed Elizabeth, who was horrified and threatened at the idea of her Catholic cousin and rival suddenly arriving on her northern doorstep. Citing Mary’s refusal to ratify the recent Treaty of Edinburgh conducted after her mother and regent Marie de Guise’s sudden death – in which Scotland’s newly ascendant Protestant leaders both obliged French troops to leave the kingdom and acknowledged Elizabeth as rightful Queen of England –  Elizabeth refused her cousin a warrant of safe passage through English waters on her return from France to Scotland. [10]

Mary-Queen-of-Scots-Dowager-Queen-France-51245486a

Mary, Queen of Scots pictured in her first widowhood as the dowager Queen of France, 1560, by Clouet. White was, at this time, the standard colour for mourning, but Mary so deeply mourned Francois II that she became known at the French Court as “la reine blanche” — “the white queen”.

Mary responded with her first known letter in reference to her English cousin. Exhibiting what was to become a lifelong flair for self-dramatisation, the now dowager queen of France wrote to the English ambassador: “I am determined to adventure the matter, whatsoever come of it; I trust the wind will be so favourable that I shall not need to come on the coast of England; for if I do, then… the Queen your mistress shall have me in her hands to do her will of me; and if she be so hard-hearted as to desire my end, she may then do her pleasure and make sacrifice of me.” [11]

Part II: Brief Sisterly Solidarity: The Darnley Affair and the forced abdication

By the early 1560s we see a more positive shift in the queens’ relations, with Mary ensconced in Scotland, having seemingly forgotten about Elizabeth’s refusal to grant her safe passage through England to Scotland. Both queens were now writing in “amenable, even affectionate” terms to each other. [12] Mary seems clearly to be the more emotional partner in their letters, once kissing a letter Elizabeth had written for her, saying to the English ambassador “I will kiss it also…for her sake it commeth from.” [13]

mary-stuart

Mary, Queen of Scots painted as a young woman near the time of her first marriage.

In spring and summer 1565, the twenty-two-year-old Mary shocked her courtiers with the speed and intensity with which she fell in love with and impetuously married her first cousin and second husband, nineteen-year-old Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Tall, athletic, and charming, Darnley possessed the perfect lineage and pedigree to woo the young (and also exceptionally tall) queen, though he would shortly reveal himself to be utterly devoid of integrity, decency, tact, or much intelligence. The great-grandson of King Henry VII of England through his mother, Henry was the heir to his father’s earldom of Lennox, and his ambitious parents owned lands across Scotland and England. In a dizzying span of just over a month, Mary had abruptly created her suitor sui iuris Earl of Ross at Stirling on 15 May [14] and then the Duke of Albany only a week before their Catholic marriage at the Queen’s chapel in Holyrood Palace on 29 July. [15] Reflecting her impulsive nature during this period of profound infatuation, Mary actually ordered that the proclamation announcing her marriage and granting Darnley the royal style and title ‘His Grace the King of Scots’ be read from Mercat Cross in Edinburgh on 28 July, the day before their wedding. [16]

In the absence of any natural heirs of Mary or Elizabeth’s bodies at that time, Mary’s choice of Darnley for a husband was, in theory, a calculated political move designed to strengthen her claim to the English throne, since he was the nearest blood heir to both the Scottish and (after Mary herself) English thrones, and a cousin of Elizabeth through his mother, Lady Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox. Lady Margaret was herself the daughter of Elizabeth’s paternal aunt Margaret Tudor from the latter’s stormy second marriage to Archibald Douglas, the sixth Earl of Angus. Margaret Tudor, Mary’s paternal grandmother, was the elder daughter of Henry VII of England, older sister to Henry VIII, queen consort to James IV of Scots from 1503 to his death ten years later, mother of King James V, and dowager queen of Scots from 1513 to her death in 1541.

Knowing something of Darnley’s darker side from his time at her court, Elizabeth had deliberately sent the “lang lad” north in the hopes of seducing Mary (and destabilising her reign) after the offended Queen of Scots had rejected Elizabeth’s scandalous offer of proposing her own rumoured paramour — the Protestant Robert Dudley, the only recently entitled Earl of Leicester and the son of an attainted and executed traitor — as a suitable husband for Mary. Elizabeth’s scheme to weaken Mary by having her marry Darnley worked far more than she likely ever anticipated. Within weeks of the Queen’s wedding, it became clear to all that Mary had rushed into a disastrous marriage; Darnley emerged as a drunk, a boor, and an intemperate womaniser rumoured to frequent Edinburgh’s brothels by night. [17]

The Queen’s husband was deeply unsatisfied with his largely empty and unprecedented role as the male royal consort of Scotland; he carried only the title, but not the monarchical authority of a true, reigning ‘King of Scots’. By marrying Scotland’s first reigning female monarch, Darnley did not become a co-reigning king de iure uxoris as Fulk of Anjou had with Queen Melisende in Jerusalem, Władysław II Jagiełło had in Poland-Lithuania (even retaining the crown, remarrying, and starting his own dynasty after Queen Jadwiga’s untimely death), or Fernando II had in Castile where he served as co-ruler with Isabel I, nor was Darnley a powerful force in the kingdom or royal council in his own right as Philip of Spain had become when he married Mary I Tudor and became king consort of England a decade earlier. While all acts of Parliament after their marriage bore both Mary and Darnley’s names, and he as king technically took precedence over his wife despite him being the consort, Darnley was peevishly outraged that his wife steadfastly refused to grant him the Crown Matrimonial, which would have left him as her heir had she died childless.

While Mary achieved perhaps her most important life’s goal, securing the future of the Stuart dynasty by giving birth to a son and heir, Prince James Charles, in June 1566 [18] – news which dismayed Elizabeth [19] – the Queen’s misery in her marriage led to a whirlwind of drama culminating in the February 1567 murder of her husband at Kirk o’ Field. Mary had not hidden her marital woes from Darnley’s enemies, even going so far as to apparently say to some of her attendant lords that “unless she were quit of [Darnley] by one means or another, she could never have a good day for the rest of her life”. [20]

Mary_Stuart_James_Darnley

1565 or 1566 painting of Mary, Queen of Scots and her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, titular King consort of Scots until his February 1567 murder at Kirk o’ Field.

The scene of Darnley's murder

Portrait of Darnley’s murder at Kirk o’ Field on 10 February 1567, commissioned for Mary’s nemesis, Elizabeth’s Secretary of State and chief of the English Royal Privy Council, William Cecil, the future Lord Burghley. Mary’s soon-to-be third husband, James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, was widely believed to be responsible for the murder. Many of Mary’s supporters would ultimately blame Elizabeth I herself, since she had encouraged Mary to receive back into her favour Moray and the other rebellious Lairds of the Congregation who, Mary believed, were behind Darnley’s murder.

On February 24, 1567, Elizabeth wrote the following impassioned letter to Mary, using what G.B. Harrison describes as “great frankness without any of the usual circumlocutions common in her diplomatic correspondence”. [21] It marks the first major turning point in relations between the two queens. The letter is remarkable in that the usually prescribed Elizabeth pointedly eschews the usual formalities, urging Mary in extremely direct language to act immediately to preserve her reputation and distance herself from her husband’s alleged killer, James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell:

Madame: My ears have been so deafened and my understanding so grieved and my heart so affrighted to hear the dreadful news of the abominable murder of your mad husband and my killed cousin that I scarcely have the wits to write about it… I cannot dissemble that I am more sorrowful for you than for him… I will not at all dissemble what most people are talking about: which is that you will look through your fingers at [ignore] the revenging of this deed… However, I exhort you, I counsel you, and I beseech you to take this thing so much to heart that you will not fear to touch even him [Bothwell] whom you have nearest to you if the thing [the murder] touches him, and that no persuasion will prevent you from making an example [of justice] out of this to the world: that you are both a noble princess and a loyal wife. . . [22]

As Elizabeth’s words here illustrate – “you will look through your fingers at the revenging of this deed” – gossip was already rife that Mary would not punish her estranged husband’s murderer. This letter is remarkable in that Elizabeth speaks plainly to Mary as her equal, as a fellow queen, and also, on an emotional and direct level, as a fellow woman. Her unusually direct and emotional words, full of solidarity and sympathy for Mary, nevertheless contain heartfelt and practical advice to defend her honour and distance herself from Bothwell, the man at the centre of Darnley’s murder. It is in this letter that Elizabeth revealingly observes that “I am not ignorant that you have no wiser counsellors than myself” [23], casting herself as Mary’s chief advisor and defender against her enemies’ machinations. Despite receiving Elizabeth’s letter, Mary, seemingly under Bothwell’s control, took the worst route possible, ensuring her own downfall and the premature end of her reign.

Almost as soon as Darnley was dead, Bothwell began to establish a strong emotional and psychological hold over Mary, to the point that Mary arranged a show trial in April 1567 which acquitted Bothwell of all charges in Darnley’s murder. [24] Prior to hearing about the outcome of the show trial, Elizabeth wrote again to Mary, writing in uncharacteristically emotional, motherly terms: “Madam, I treat you as my daughter, and assure you that if I had one, I could wish for her nothing better than I desire for you… the one for whom one wishes the greatest good that may be possible in this world.” [25] There is no evidence that Mary, by then completely in thrall to Bothwell, responded to this warm letter of sympathy from Elizabeth.

Disturbed by Mary’s silence, soon after, Elizabeth wrote touchingly yet again to Mary in her own hand, in French, Mary’s mother tongue, in anticipation of the hearing against Bothwell: “For the love of God, Madame, use such sincerity and prudence in this matter [the hearing], which touches you so nearly, that all the world may feel justified in believing you innocent of so enormous a crime, which, if you were not, would be good cause for degrading you from the rank of princess, and bringing upon you the scorn of the vulgar.” [26] Once again, Elizabeth showed herself to be concerned above all else for Mary’s honour as her fellow queen and cousin; she knew that by associating publicly with the man all of Edinburgh blamed for Darnley’s murder, Mary delegitimised herself before her many enemies and only furthered the scandalous rumours that she had been involved in the murder. As a fellow queen regnant, Elizabeth was acutely aware that all of Europe was closely watching Mary’s actions, and she was concerned that Mary not act in any emotional or impulsive way that would denigrate female rulers’ perceived capabilities in the eyes of men.

When Elizabeth heard in late May 1567 that Mary had – after being kidnapped and allegedly raped by Bothwell – first made him Duke of Orkney and then on 15 May married the man publicly held responsible for Darnley’s murder [27], she wrote yet another impassioned, incredibly direct letter to her cousin, warning her in no uncertain terms that Mary’s actions had scandalised Europe and threatened the future of her reign in Scotland:

How could a worse choice be made for your honour than in such haste to marry such a subject, who besides other and notorious lacks, public fame has charged with the murder of your late husband, besides the touching of yourself also in some part, though we trust in that behalf falsely. [28]

By marrying Bothwell, in Elizabeth’s view and all the world’s, Mary showed herself incapable of ruling independently and asserting her own will. Worst of all, by marrying the man “public fame has charged with the murder of” Darnley, Mary showed a fatal, utter indifference to public opinion and a deafeningly reckless refusal to heed her cousin and fellow queen’s impassioned pleas for caution and deliberation. Elizabeth, used to speaking to Mary like an older to a younger sister, makes it clear in no uncertain terms that she thinks Mary’s decision was the worst possible choice.

Elizabeth was clearly horrified that, not only had Mary married the man publicly charged with murdering her late husband, but that Bothwell “hath another lawful wife alive, whereby neither by God’s law nor man’s yourself can be his leeful wife, nor any children betwixt you legitimate.” [29] Elizabeth wrote explicitly of the threat Mary’s new marriage posed to her continued rule in Scotland, urging Mary “to be careful how your son the prince may be preserved, for the comfort of yours and your realm, which two things we have from the beginning always taken to heart…” [30] Elizabeth signed herself, emphatically, “a good neighbour, a dear sister and a faithful friend.” [31]

Mary’s response to Elizabeth marks an equally poignant turning point in the cousins’ relations. In the following letter, defending her marriage to Bothwell, Mary revealed her own belief that she could not rule Scotland alone as Elizabeth ruled in England. Unlike Elizabeth, Mary now had neither the political authority nor the personal willpower to govern Scotland unaided:

Destitute of a husband, our realm not truly purged of the factions and conspiracies that for a long time has continued therein, which occurring so frequently, had already in a manner so wearied and broken us, that by our self we were not able for any long continuance to sustain the pains and travail in our own person… for their satisfaction, which could not suffer us long to continue in the state of widowhood, moved by their prayers and requests, it behoves us to yield unto one marriage or other. [32]

Mary fails to give a convincing defence of her marriage; all she can muster in response to Elizabeth’s horror and outrage is a defeated “it behoves us to yield unto one marriage or other”. These are hardly the words of a capable, confident queen making a deliberate, strategic marriage to solidify her power or manoeuvre against her enemies; one develops a clear sense that the Queen is not only “wearied and broken”, as she revealingly writes, but nearing another one of her oft-noted episodes of severe melancholy and depression. She openly admits to her fellow female monarch that she cannot rule alone, as Elizabeth does; Mary needs a husband by her side, and, as one reads between the lines, she did not even eagerly or even freely choose Bothwell, but rather, as she writes rather dejectedly, was obliged to “yield” to remarrying.

The collapse of Mary’s reign came swiftly. By 11 June, most of her supporters – horrified that she had married Bothwell – had deserted her, and Bothwell’s enemies openly took to the streets of Edinburgh, calling on the Queen to repudiate him and pledging in a printed proclamation to deliver her from his thrall, preserve Prince James, and avenge the King’s murder. [33] Inexplicably, Mary did not desert Bothwell – something her entire kingdom would have praised her for doing. Only four days later, with a mere 2,000 men supporting them, Mary and Bothwell faced an equally-sized force of confederate lords at Carberry Hill – led in absentia by Moray and Knox – who were determined that she divorce him. Mary’s soldiers bore the royal banners with the red and gold Lion of Scotland – the ancient Stuart symbol – while the rebels bore an improvised banner replicating the murder scene, depicting Darnley dead under a tree with the infant James, with the motto, “Judge and Revenge my cause, O Lord. [34]

James_Stewart_Earl_of_Moray

Hans Eworth portrait of James Stewart (Stuart) (1531-1570), illegitimate son of James V by Lady Margaret Erskine, and one of the leaders of the Protestant Lairds of the Congregation. James’ half-sister Mary created Earl of Moray shortly after returning to Scotland, where he worked to undermine her reign especially after her marriage to Darnley. He served as Regent for his half-nephew, James VI, Mary’s son, from shortly after her forced abdication in 1567 til his assassination in 1570.

Following the 15 June defeat of their forces at Carberry Hill – in which Bothwell ignominiously fled the field and escaped for the heavily fortified Dunbar Castle and the Queen surrendered herself to her enemies’ custody after receiving a solemn oath from the rebel lords promising to uphold her safety and inviolability [35] –  the Protestant lords violated their word and took the Queen captive. The captured, heavily pregnant Mary was then led dishevelled through the streets of Edinburgh, all illusions of royal authority gone, her husband having fled the battlefield leaving her utterly without support or defence. [36] Crowds of her Protestant subjects – who uncritically bought into Knox’s propaganda depicting her as a Jezebel and idolater – verbally assaulted their captive queen as she passed, shouting “Burn the whore!” and holding up placards depicting Mary as a mermaid—a then-universal symbol for a prostitute and female adulterer. [37] None of her assassinated or forcibly deposed male predecessors among the Stuart kings had ever been so publicly degraded or humiliated, nor any king of England. A prisoner of her Protestant enemies, who now controlled her son the infant prince James, Mary’s reign was effectively over. This was her life’s nadir.

Despite her horror at Mary’s reckless behaviour, Elizabeth was first and foremost concerned with Mary’s security and status as a fellow monarch. Dedicated to the absolute majesty and divine right of kings, Elizabeth was outraged that Mary had been so outrageously treated by her own subjects. She furiously argued that “it does not appertain to subjects so to reform their prince, but to deal by advice and counsel, and failing thereof, to recommend the rest to Almighty God”. [38] Incensed that the Scottish lords would dare assault their God-anointed sovereign, Elizabeth “threatened war” [39] against them and talked of sending an armed force to relieve Mary. She talked, yet, in keeping with her motto, besides offering written encouragement to Mary, she did nothing to liberate her cousin from her enemies.

Upon hearing of her cousin’s capture by the rebellious Protestant lords in mid-June 1567, Elizabeth wrote to Mary “We assure you that whatsoever we can imagine meet for your honour and safety that shall lie in our power, we will perform the same…you [shall not] lack our friendship and power for the preservation of your honour in quietness.” [40] Elizabeth told her ambassador to Scotland that she “would not suffer her [Mary], being by God’s ordinance the prince and sovereign, to be in subjection to them that by nature and law are subjected to her” [41]; simply put, Elizabeth viewed with alarm Mary’s outrageous treatment by her rebellious subjects, identifying it as a threat that might undermine the entire concept of monarchy and the sacred inviolability of the person of the sovereign. While Elizabeth continued to rail in support of her beleaguered cousin, she tellingly did not send troops to free Mary from the Protestant lairds or restore her to her throne.

On 24th July 1567, while she was imprisoned at Loch Leven castle immediately after miscarrying Bothwell’s twins, Mary’s gaolers forced her to sign a pre-written letter of abdication. [42] Mary would contend for the rest of her life that she had been compelled to sign the abdication under physical duress, and that Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, her old friend and Elizabeth’s ambassador to Mary since before her marriage to Darnley – a man who somehow retained the goodwill and confidence of both queen – had advised her that an abdication signed under such duress could not be counted as legally valid. [43] Led by John Knox and her hated half-brother the Earl of Moray, the Protestant lords who had engineered her unlawful “demission” from the throne duly installed her infant son as James VI, crowning him less than a week after the crown was so brazenly taken from his mother. Fearing that recognising James as king would demean the authority of monarchs generally, and female ones in particular, but also wary of driving the Scottish lords away from English support and back into the arms of France, Elizabeth acted mildly, simply forbidding Throckmorton from attending the infant prince’s coronation [44].

A retroactive December 1567 Act of the Scottish Parliament –  of dubious legality as it was held at the behest of her Protestant enemies – confirmed that Mary had freely abdicated of her own volition on her son’s behalf, therefore making her son’s accession and coronation, in their view, entirely valid. [45] Despite managing to harness all her considerable charm, scheming abilities, and physical energy to eventually escape from her prison at Loch Leven and ultimately flee to England in 1568, where she sought Elizabeth’s direct material assistance to help her win back her throne, Mary never again ruled Scotland. [46] For the next nineteen years, despite Mary’s naïve expectation that Elizabeth would make good her promises of loyalty and support and help restore her to the Scottish throne, the exiled queen would be imprisoned on her cousin’s orders.

367px-King_James_I_of_England_and_VI_of_Scotland_by_Arnold_van_Brounckhorst

The young James VI of Scots (de facto King of Scots from July 1567, de jure from February 8, 1587 with his mother’s death). James was raised by strict Presbyterian Calvinists who encouraged him to hate his mother, whom he had no memory of since he had been separated from her shortly before her forced abdication. The Dutch painter Arnold van Brounckhorst painted then 7 or 8-year old James in 1574.

Part III: “The Daughter of Debate”: Increasing mutual estrangement, resentment, and suspicion

In keeping with her impulsive and highly emotional nature, Mary wrote to Elizabeth as soon as she had crossed into England. From Workington, Mary wrote to Elizabeth on 17 May, only a day after crossing the Solway Firth via a tiny fishing boat with a handful of her most loyal supporters. She addressed Elizabeth courteously and as her equal, as “Madame my good sister”, urging her to “send to fetch me as soon as you possibly can, for I am in a pitiable condition, not only for a Queen, but for a gentlewoman; for I have nothing in this world, but what I had on my person when I made my escape, travelling across the country…”, pointedly signing the letter “Mary R”, for ‘Regina’. [47] This letter is one of the most remarkable in the two queens’ exchange, as, in it, Mary relays at length the ordeals she suffered in Scotland, beginning with David Rizzio’s murder (which, curiously, she does not blame on her now-dead second husband) and continuing up through what she claims was her generous granting of clemency to her rebellious Protestant lairds at Elizabeth’s request in the aftermath of the Chaseabout Raid. She then goes on to detail her forced abdication at Loch Leven, and argues that Darnley’s murder was contrived by her Protestant enemies as a pretext for attempting to overthrow her:

You know how they purposed to seize me and the late king my husband [Darnley], from which attempt it pleased God to protect us, and to permit us to expel them from the country, where, at your request, I again afterwards received them; though, on their return, they committed another crime, that of holding me a prisoner, and killing in my presence a servant of mine [Rizzio], I being at the time in a state of pregnancy. It again pleased God that I should save myself from their hands; and… I not only pardoned them, but even received them into favour. They, however, not yet satisfied with so many acts of kindness, have, on the contrary, in spite of their promises, devised, favoured, subscribed to, and aided in a crime [Darnley’s murder] for the purpose of charging it falsely upon me, as I hope fully to make you understand. They have, under this pretence, arrayed themselves against me… [After Bothwell escaped from Carberry Hill] I, feeling myself innocent, and desirous to avoid the shedding of blood, placed myself in their hands, wishing to reform what was amiss. They immediately seized and imprisoned me. . . I demanded to be heard in council, which was refused me. . . They threatened to kill me, if I did not sign an abdication of my crown, which the fear of immediate death caused me to do, as I have since proved, before the whole of the nobility, of which I hope to afford you evidence. [48]

This letter stands out for its immense attention to detail, and the obvious difference in tone between it and Mary’s earlier defeated, dejected letter to Elizabeth from May 1567 when she had so resignedly accepted Bothwell as her husband in the wake of Darnley’s murder and the public furore that ensued. In this letter, Mary seeks to recount in vivid, forceful terms to Elizabeth – as her kinswoman fellow monarch –  a chronological account of all the wrongs done her by her rebellious subjects. She flatly denies any responsibility for Darnley’s murder, instead directly accusing the rebellious confederate lords led by her brother Moray of perpetrating the crime in an attempt to discredit her and legitimise rebellion. What Mary does not recognise from this letter, as is clear by her wording, is that perhaps her most fatal mistake was to heed Elizabeth’s self-serving advice in permitting the rebellious lords back at her court, and not doing with them as Elizabeth surely would have done – beheading them for treason and confiscating their lands.

Now that Mary was in England, an extremely unwelcome prospect for Elizabeth, the two cousins’ relationship had changed once again. Elizabeth responded coolly to Mary’s first letter, leading Mary to write another impetuous letter to her in which she again urged Elizabeth to meet with her in person so that she could explain everything to her sister queen and cousin. In this letter, Mary hinted that, should Elizabeth not help her regain her lost throne, she would look elsewhere for assistance, chiefly France, where most of her advisors had implored her to seek refuge rather than England: “If for any reason I cannot come to you, seeing I have freely come to throw myself in your arms, you will I am sure permit me to ask assistance of my other allies”. [49]

By this time, Mary had sensibly already contacted her strongest natural ally in Europe – the powerful Queen Mother and Regent of France, her own former mother-in-law Catherine de Medici, who would rule France for some thirty years in her sons’ names until her death in 1589. In support of Mary’s cause, Catherine had taken the initiative of writing to Elizabeth on 26 May, adroitly quoting one of the English Queen’s own sympathetic letters to her about Mary’s pitiable condition, in which Elizabeth had promised Catherine that she believed that all “princes are bound to assist one another to chastise and punish the subjects who rise up against them, and are rebellious to their sovereigns”. [50] In the same letter, again quoting Elizabeth’s own words to her, Catherine pledged that “inasmuch as this touches us to the heart”, both she and her son Charles IX were ready to “take part for the protection of “this desolate and afflicted queen,” that she may be restored to her liberty and the authority given to her by God, which in right and equity pertains to her and not to another.” [51] Catherine then threw down a gauntlet urging Elizabeth to make good on all her so far only verbal promises to help Mary:

I beseech you, madame, my good sister, that you would make manifest to every one, especially to the king, my son, how much you desire the authority of sovereign princes to be preserved, and their rebellious and disobedient subjects to be chastised and punished. Above all, that you will use her [Mary] with that good and tender treatment that you have promises us, and which we hope from you, and that you will benignantly vouchsafe to her all the aid, favour, and service which she will require for the restoration of her liberty, and the authority that appertains to her. [52]

The de facto ruler of France ended with a postscript which she wrote in her own hand, attesting to the seriousness with which she viewed Mary’s case and how deep an impression she wished to make on Elizabeth. The French Queen Regents hints that she did not trust Elizabeth to go much beyond offering her usual words but that, instead, Elizabeth would act in her usual self-interest and forget that she had helped destabilise Mary’s reign in Scotland by helping the Scots Protestants remove the French garrisons in 1560, and then in 1567 Elizabeth had failed to take any military action in Mary’s defence. Catherine once again adroitly quoted Elizabeth’s last letter to her:

Madame my good sister, I will write to you one word to pray you to put me to ease… on this occasion, I should desire not only to write to you myself [in her own hand], but to see you in person. Not that I doubt your goodness; having no other fear than this, that you will not remember sufficiently that you have often been unjust towards this queen, my daughter-in-law, and how this is a case that touches all princes, and especially a princess who has made me the assurances that you have done, “that, as much as lies in your power, you will make perfect in deeds that which you have shewn to her [Mary] in words”. [53]

As Catherine’s letter shows – part diplomatically phrased entreaty, part not-so-subtle pressure on Elizabeth to act decisively – Mary’s arrival in England, and the question of how and when to restore her to the Scottish throne, now became an international affair, “a case that touches all princes”. Elizabeth knew that she could not safely return her dethroned cousin to Scotland with Mary’s Protestant enemies in control of the country, but her Protestant advisors warned her that to let Mary pass to Catholic France risked possible French military involvement against the lairds, which would only further destabilise Scotland and possibly threaten Protestantism England. As Elizabeth continued to prevaricate, Mary found her cousin’s behaviour “maddening and her even-handedness galling in the extreme”. [54]

Mary_Stuart_Queen

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (1542-1587, r. de facto 1542-1567, de jure 1542-1587), Queen consort of France (1559-1560).

As Mary gradually came to realize that her cousin had no intention of seeing her restored to rule in Scotland, she wrote a flurry of letters to Elizabeth, insisting and then begging for a personal audience with her. 1568 marks yet another major shift in writing style and tone between the two queens’ letters. Denied access to Elizabeth’s presence, Mary’s agony over her “anguished impotence of her enforced isolation” from her cousin “had Mary resorting to the language of unrequited love. [55] If allowed to see Elizabeth, Mary wrote, she would “discover to you the secrets of my heart…I shall devote myself more and more to love, honour, and obey you…” [56] These letters, extremely unconventional in their submissive phrasing, betrayed how out of touch Mary was with the political reality of her situation.

The detained Queen of Scots became increasingly frustrated with Elizabeth, who, to her outrage, sanctioned a 1568 hearing at York to determine the authenticity of the so-called “Casket Letters”, which Mary’s great enemy and half-brother, James VI’s uncle and regent the Earl of Moray, alleged she had written adulterously to Bothwell, urging him to kill Darnley. Mary furiously decried the letters as forgeries, but neither she nor her supporters were permitted to look at the copies. As Elizabeth had desired, the inquest – whose very legitimacy Mary rejected, as she was not an English subject, but a foreign prince living there against her will – found Mary neither guilty nor innocent of adultery and murderous conspiracy against Darnley, giving the English Queen the excuse to continue keeping her Catholic cousin a prisoner while also freeing her from having to license Mary’s trial or execution for murder.

Mary had, through her own incompetence and lack of ruthlessness as a ruler, lost her throne to her more ruthless Protestant enemies when she was only 24, a younger age than Elizabeth had been when she became queen in 1558. After a year in captivity, despite no evidence from Elizabeth, Mary still naively expected that her cousin would risk all to restore her to rule. Any willingness Elizabeth might have initially had to restore her Catholic cousin to her rightful throne in Scotland soon dissipated when leading Catholic earls and gentry in northern England rose in rebellion against the Protestant queen in autumn 1569. Reminiscent of a latter-day Pilgrimage of Grace which had so haunted Henry VIII in fall 1536, the Catholic rebels echoed the concerns of their fathers over thirty years earlier under Henry, insisting on full freedom of worship for Catholics while hoping to remove the ‘usurper’ Elizabeth and put Mary on the English throne in her place.

While English Catholics were motivated by a desire to defend and restore their ancient religious traditions and beliefs from what they saw as the theological heresies and blasphemous innovations of the persecuting Protestant reformers, abroad in Europe the rival Catholic kings of Valois France – Mary’s former brothers-in-law Charles IX and later Henri III – and Habsburg Spain – Philip II was Elizabeth’s former brother-in-law and one-time suitor – had more overtly political designs for restoring toppling Elizabeth and restoring Catholicism: by placing Mary on the throne, they hoped to bring England within their own respective spheres of political influence, as the Spanish had contrived to do in England when Philip II married Mary Tudor and became King consort of England in July 1554, and as the French had done in Scotland for centuries with the Auld Alliance and again when Mary’s mother Marie de Guise was Queen Regent there from 1554-60.

The rebellion had wide support among northern Englishmen, most of whom were still Catholic, and Elizabeth’s generals suppressed it with considerable difficulty and a colossal cruelty which many historians to this day omit from their analyses of her reign. Whereas her Catholic half-sister was demonised by the sinister sobriquet “Bloody” Mary Tudor for burning some 280 Protestants for heresy in a five-year reign, as a severe measure to punish and terrorise the “papists” in the north of her realm, the Protestant “Good Queen Bess” ordered at least 600 northern Catholic rebels hanged for treason in early 1570, surpassing her father’s blood-soaked legacy in the north of England from three decades earlier. [57] Here the contrast between the two queens could not be greater; during her brief period of direct rule in Scotland (1561-67), Mary – vilified both in her lifetime and afterwards by her victorious Protestant foes in Scotland and England as a wicked Jezebel and murderess – executed none of the men who rebelled against her in the wake of the Chaseabout Raid, whereas throughout her forty-four-year reign, Elizabeth pursued bloody reprisals and executions against her mostly Catholic enemies with as much vengeance as any of her male counterparts, predecessors, or successors.

Mary certainly knew of the Catholic risings in her favour, but said nothing on the subject to Elizabeth, who also never mentioned the rebellion in any of her letters to her imprisoned cousin. In the wake of the rebels’ crushing defeat, Mary continued to petition her English cousin to allow her greater freedom of movement. Elizabeth demurred, and Mary continued to write her increasingly complaining letters. Exasperated with Mary’s numerous plaintive letters to her, in a letter dated February 20, 1570 Elizabeth railed against her cousin: “Good madame, what wrong did I ever s[eek] to you or yours in the former part of my reign, when y[ou] know what was sought against me, even to the sp[oil] of my crown from me?” [58] The two queens’ relationship only continued to deteriorate after this letter was written, especially given that Pope Pius V issued his papal bull Regnans in Excelsis in April of 1570 formally excommunicating Elizabeth, whom he derided as “the pretended queen of England and servant of wickedness”, releasing English Catholics from obedience to her, and urging them to do all they could to depose her. [59]

From this point onward, Elizabeth began to view both Mary as a nuisance and the source for Catholic opposition to her reign; why she never thought to simply send Mary off to her beloved France, where she would have possibly remarried to a French grandee and served as a dowager queen bereft of any real political power, remains unclear. Her Protestant Privy Councillors increasingly pressured her to put her imprisoned cousin on trial and execute her for her suspected role in encouraging the failed 1571 Ridolfi Plot. This plot – orchestrated by Florentine nobleman and banker Roberto di Ridolfi with Elizabeth’s former brother-in-law King Philip II’s active support – sought once again to raise the Catholic North against Elizabeth, assassinate her, restore Catholicism, and put Mary on the English throne. Elizabeth’s cousin, England’s most powerful landowner Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, plotted to marry Mary and rule England alongside her, despite that her husband Bothwell was still alive, imprisoned in a Danish prison, and despite that Norfolk had led Elizabeth’s forces into Scotland in 1560 supporting the Protestant Lairds of the Congregation in ousting Mary’s mother, the Queen Regent Marie de Guise. As senior MPs and her councillors continued to push for Mary’s preemptive execution, Elizabeth prevaricated in her usual manner, increasingly referring to her Scottish cousin as “the Daughter of Debate”. [60]

Mary_Stuart_James

A supporter of Mary’s cause painted this portrait of the Queen and her teenage son, James VI of Scots, in 1583. In reality, Mary never again saw her son after he was taken from her in 1567 shortly before her forced abdication.

 

By 1580, Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship deteriorated even further. As the years went on, and Elizabeth took steps to ensure that Mary’s son James VI was raised as a Calvinist Protestant by the regents governing Scotland during his minority, Mary bemoaned her lack of control over her own son and heir. When James wrote to Mary “declining to associate her with himself in the sovereignty of Scotland”, offering to treat her merely as a “Queen-Mother” [61], the devastated Mary wrote a nearly hysterical letter to Elizabeth in which she fumed that “Without him I am, and shall be of right, as long as I live, his Queen and Sovereign…but without me, he is too insignificant to think of soaring.”[62] Refusing James’ offer for her to return to Scotland as a retired, non-reigning queen, Mary wrote frenziedly to her cousin that “I do not acknowledge one [queen mother]; failing our association, there is no King of Scotland, nor any Queen but me.” [63] Again, Mary was utterly out of touch with political reality; while it is true that she had been forced to abdicate against her will, and that therefore, legally, she remained the Scottish monarch de jure, she had not ruled in Scotland for over thirteen years, and by 1580 her son was beginning to take some part in the governing of his realm, with the rest of Europe acknowledging him as a legitimate monarch.

Writing in early May 1580 to Elizabeth, whom she still addressed courteously as “Madam, my good sister”, Mary bemoaned that while she had “written to you several times during the last year; to lay before your consideration the unworthy and rigorous treatment which I have received in this captivity…” [64], Elizabeth had not responded to her. Alarmed that Elizabeth was growing distant from her, Mary felt obliged to point out to Elizabeth how her enemies were constantly conspiring to blacken her reputation and name: “I am constrained to beg and entreat you, as I humbly do, by my liberation out of this prison, to relieve yourself from…the continual suspicions, mistrusts, and prejudices with which [my enemies surrounding you] daily trouble you against me…” [65] Mary at this point was once again employing conventional speech toward Elizabeth, though it was, typical of her preferred style, wrought with emotion.

By July 1585, Elizabeth’s hold over James was so strong that he was addressing her in his letters as “madame and mother” [66]; fortunately for Mary’s sake, she seems never to have known that he addressed Elizabeth as if she were his own mother. However, James’ continued close association with Elizabeth seems to have pushed Mary over the edge; amidst her stream of correspondence with to her Spanish and French supporters, word reached Mary of her son’s defensive treaty with Elizabeth in July 1586, right when the young, zealous Sir Anthony Babington asked her blessing for his plot to assassinate Elizabeth and put her on the English throne. [67] Mary left no written record of her thoughts regarding her only son’s betrayal of her in favour of the woman who had kept her a prisoner for nineteen years, but if she had heard of her English cousin’s wry statement (once made when discussing her marriage prospects with Mary’s ambassador to England, William Maitland) that “princes cannot like their own children, those that should succeed them” [68] for fear of being deposed by them or having their child used against them by their enemies, the Queen of Scots likely would have agreed.

James_VI_of_Scotland_aged_20,_1586.

James VI of Scotland in 1586, aged 20, with the Latin caption to the right reading “James VI by the grace of God King of Scots”, and the one to the left indicating that 1586 was the twentieth year of his age (also the twentieth year since his mother’s forced abdication). This was the year he betrayed his mother by agreeing to a defensive treaty with Elizabeth I, Mary’s erstwhile captor.

Part IV: The Beginning of the End: Foiled Plots, an Unprecedented Trial and an Inevitable Verdict

In March of 1586, the threat to Protestant England reached a new dimension when Philip II of Spain asked for and received a papal blessing and financial support from Pope Sixtus V for his planned ‘Enterprise of England’ to overthrow Elizabeth in Mary’s favour. This gave the King a crucial element of moral support from the epicentre of the Catholic Church, and influential political leverage from the papacy itself in making his case to other Catholic princes as to why they should also join in the invasion. [69] As Allison Weir notes, the papacy’s blessing of the Enterprise meant that “the invasion now assumed the nature of a crusade against the Infidel, a holy war that was to be fought on a grand scale”. [70] Aware of this development from her correspondence with Don Mendoza, Philip’s ambassador to England, Mary wrote to the envoy on 20 May offering to “cede and give, by will, my right to the succession of the [English] crown to your King [Philip] your master, considering the obstinacy and perseverance of my son [James] in heresy.” [71] Since Philip – already the ruler of Spain and Portugal, the Spanish Netherlands, parts of modern Italy, and vast holdings in the New World – had no desire to add England to his vast domains, as he told the Pope that if the Enterprise succeeded he intended to “resign any claim to the English succession to his daughter, the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia.” [72]

The summer and fall of 1586 marks the fourth and final stage of the two queens’ relationship. In June, Elizabeth’s agents – chiefly Sir Francis Walsingham, her chief spymaster, and his decoder and assistant Thomas Phelippes –  discovered a new plot to depose her, liberate Mary, and place her on the English throne with Spanish military support and the anticipated rising of northern English Catholics. [73] Thomas Morgan, Mary’s agent in Paris, informed her of the plot’s overall goals and designs, and on 25 June she wrote from her Chartley prison to the young, foolhardy gentleman at its centre, Sir Anthony Babington, a wealthy man of twenty-five who had once served her as a page in the Earl of Shrewsbury’s household. (74) The Catholic plotters – Babington, an idealistic English Jesuit priest, Father John Ballard, and six of Babington’s trusted men – planned to go to the English Court and assassinate Elizabeth either in her Presence Chamber, in her gardens, or when she was moving publicly by open coach. (75)

Mary seems to have responded positively to the overall plan to free her without having directly countenanced her cousin’s regicide. When Babington replied to Mary on 6 July, addressing her ass “My dread Sovereign Lady and Queen”, he referred to the help of “six noble gentlemen, all my private friends” who would “despatch the usurper’, Elizabeth, while he himself would liberate Mary from Chartley. (76) Mary did not respond to him by writing in support of the assassination, but sent an initial brief response promising to write again within several days. (77) Phelippes reported to Walsingham in mid-late July that Mary’s chief secretaries had transcribed a coded note on 17 July which they later claimed (after threat of torture from their English interrogators) that she had written in her own hand. (78)

In this letter, the writer endorses the Babington Plot’s goal of overthrowing Elizabeth but, again, did not explicitly support her murder, instead vaguely writing that “the affair being thus prepared, and forces in readiness both within and without the realm, then shall it be time to set the six gentlemen to work: taking order upon the accomplishment of their design, I may be suddenly transported out of this place.” (79) The obvious questions here are 1) did Mary actually write these words, or were they forged by Phelippes? and 2) if Mary did write these words, does the phrase “the accomplishment of their design” refer to assassinating Elizabeth, or simply deposing her and putting Mary on the throne in her place? The legal issue is one of culpability: were Mary Elizabeth’s subject by law, her apparent support for overthrowing Elizabeth would, of course, be treason, yet Mary was not an English subject, but an illegally dethroned sovereign monarch confined by Elizabeth in England against her will. It is rather revealing that as soon as he received the letter and managed to decode it, as he later admitted, Phelippes himself drew a small gallows on it, inferring that Mary had at last given Walsingham enough rope, so to speak, to hang herself. (80) Mary and her supporters would claim that Phelippes had forged her answer which vaguely hinted at supporting Elizabeth’s assassination.

Alerted to these developments by Walsingham, and apparently trusting that neither he nor his assistants would dare to forge a letter by Mary, Elizabeth at last consented for her cousin’s belongings to be thoroughly searched by her gaolers. On 9 August, three of Mary’s personal wooden chests filled with her letters to and from her supporters were impounded and their contents sent to Walsingham, Mary’s two secretaries, Gilbert Curle and Claude Nau, were seized and interrogated, while Paulet himself arrested the Queen of Scots – who had been riding out on the moors – on the charge of treasonous conspiracy against Elizabeth. (81)

Babington, Ballard, and the other hapless conspirators were quickly captured, arrested, questioned, and tortured, and then duly tried and convicted for treason on 13 September. (82) Whereas the normal contemporary English practise for men sentenced to death for treason was to let them hang until dead before “drawing and quartering” their bodies, in this instance Elizabeth, who was particularly enraged by their ‘horrible treason’, insisted that at their public executions on 20 September at St Giles’ Field, Holborn, the condemned men suffer the fully horrors of a traitor’s death. This meant being hanged only briefly, cut down while alive and revived with water, “drawn” (disembowelled and castrated) while conscious, and only then, in extremis, beheaded and their corpses “quartered”. (83) While public executioners were a common form of entertainment in most societies during this period, the particularly savage butchery of the Catholic traitors on Elizabeth’s direct orders served to disgust the crowds of Protestant Londoners who had assembled to vindictively watch them die; wary of public opinion, Elizabeth gave orders that the seven remaining condemned men be hanged til fully dead on the following day before being drawn and quartered. (84)

Only five days after the executions of the plotters, Elizabeth again turned her attention to her arrested cousin, whom her advisors continued to insist must, for justice’s sake, be brought to trial as the men had been. After much prodding, on 25 September she ordered Mary transferred to Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire (northeast of Oxfordshire), where she would ultimately stand trial for treason against Elizabeth and be executed. [85]

It is around this time that Elizabeth seems to have finally determined, after months of delayed, torturous soul-searching, that Mary was in fact guilty of conspiring against her. In a mid-August letter to Mary’s gaoler, the strict Puritan Sir Amyas Paulet, ordering him to dismiss most of Mary’s servants, Elizabeth refers to Mary as a “wicked murderess” [86], the only evidence that Elizabeth ever believed Mary to be guilty of Darnley’s 1567 murder. Interestingly, this is an allegation against Mary which, at the time of Darnley’s murder, Elizabeth had vehemently denied believing, both to Mary and to all her courtiers and foreign ambassadors. Thus, Elizabeth’s reference to Mary as a “wicked murderess” shows just how much their relationship had changed by the summer of 1586, to the point that Elizabeth now viewed Mary as her guilty and implacable enemy. In this same extraordinary letter, Elizabeth urges Paulet to tell Mary that “her vile deserts compelleth these orders [dismissing most of Mary’s servants], and bid her from me ask God forgiveness for her treacherous dealings towards the saviour of her life many a year, to the intolerable peril of my own”. [87] Astonishingly, Elizabeth views herself as Mary’s “saviour” for keeping her imprisoned over the past nineteen years!

The cousins’ final letters to each other are stark proof of how their relationship had deteriorated over time from a youthful rivalry, to sisterly solidarity immediately following Darnley’s murder, to increasing estrangement and resentment on Mary’s arrival in England, to ultimately deadly confrontation beginning in autumn 1586. Convinced of Mary’s involvement in the Babington Plot, Elizabeth’s last letter to Mary was “an imperious broadside”. [88] Furious at Mary’s continued dissimulations, and particularly her refusal to acknowledge the right of English noblemen to try her since she was an anointed queen, Elizabeth’s letter carried no formal titles or polite address, “just a peremptory statement of fact and intent” [89] and a command that Mary duly answer Elizabeth’s judges, who represented the full authority of the English Queen:

You have in various ways and manners attempted to take my life and bring my kingdom to destruction by bloodshed. I have never proceeded so harshly against you. . . It is my will, that you answer the nobles and peers of the kingdom as if I myself were present. I therefore require, charge, and command you make answer for all I have been well informed of your arrogance. [90]

Even now, convinced of Mary’s guilt in the Babington Plot to assassinate her, Elizabeth still offered Mary a way out of certain death. She closed her above letter with this admonition, exhorting her sister queen to admit her guilt in playing a role in the Babington Plot, and throw herself upon Elizabeth’s mercy: “Act plainly without reserve, and you will sooner be able to obtain favour of me.” [91] Mary never responded. Sometime before her trial, Mary embroidered her royal cloth of estate with the French motto “En ma fin git mon commencement” (“In my end is my beginning”). By all accounts, she had begun to think seriously of her impending, inevitable death sentence as a martyrdom for her Catholic faith.

During her trial from 14-15 October before a court of 36 English noblemen – including her enemies Cecil and Walsingham – Mary at last had the opportunity to put her great charm to use, a charm Elizabeth could never bring herself to face in person. Through Elizabeth’s appointed commissioners at the trial, the Scottish Queen sought to remind and warn her cousin, urging her judges to remember “that the Theatre of the whole World is much wider than the Kingdom of England”. [92] She sought to impress upon Elizabeth that Mary was above all “a European prince and a Catholic queen” who “could look to her fellow Catholic princes to avenge her and to future generations to absolve her” [93] of her earlier misdeeds in ruling Scotland. When pressed to enter a plea of either guilt or innocence to the charges, Queen Mary heatedly denied that the trial had any legitimacy, flaring “I am no subject, and would rather die a thousand deaths than acknowledge myself to be one!”. [94] When told that she must answer the charges against her, Mary emphatically insisted on her innocence and claimed that the Babington papers purporting to show her sanctioning Elizabeth’s murder were forgeries engineered by duplicitous English spymasters [e.g. Walsingham and Burghley], declaring that “I would never make shipwreck of my soul by conspiring the destruction of my dearest sister!” [95]

When several of her servants and secretaries’ confessions to her alleged plotting were read aloud before the court, particularly he purported responses to Babington, Mary insisted that her letters must have been tampered with after she had first dictated them to her aides. She forcefully argued that the confessions were false, and that no monarch or ruler could be found guilty of a crime based off the altered, tampered-with writings or false testimony of their own servants:

The majesty and safety of all princes falleth to the ground if they depend upon the writings and testimony of their secretaries… I am not to be convicted except by mine own word or writing. [96]

trial-of-mary-queen-of-scots-in-fotheringay-castle

Mary Queen of Scots standing at her trial by the court of 36 English noblemen appointed by Elizabeth I to judge her case.

Mary pointed out in vain that “My Papers and Notes are taken from me, and no man dareth step forth to be my advocate …”. [97] She was permitted no attorney to speak in her defence, a right usually afforded to the lowliest of Englishman accused of a major crime. Recognising that the Protestant English noblemen present all had a vested interest in seeing her convicted of treason and put to death, the Scottish Queen flatly refused to acknowledge their pretensions of legitimacy to try her, insisting that as a sovereign monarch – “queen by right of birth” – they had no authority to judge her in any capacity:

I am an absolute queen, and will do nothing which may prejudice either mine own royal majesty, or other princes of my place and rank, or my son … I am a queen by right of birth and have been consort of a king of France; my place should be there, under the dais … I am the daughter of James V, King of Scotland, and grand-daughter of Henry VII …To the judgment of mine adversaries, amongst whom I know all defence of mine innocence will be barred flatly, I will not submit myself. [98]

trial-from-a-drawing-in-possession-of-lord-calthorpe

Drawing of the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots. The empty dais in the top center signified the royal authority of Queen Elizabeth as the English Sovereign in whose name the trial was conducted; Mary, seated in a lower chair to the top right, argued in vain that she, as a queen in her own right, should also have a throne.

By this time, Mary had become convinced that she would die a martyr’s death at Elizabeth’s hands. As with all treason trials in Tudor England, Mary’s was a foregone conclusion; while she protested her innocence to the last, on October 25, 1586 she was pronounced guilty of high treason for conspiring to assassinate Elizabeth and duly sentenced to death by beheading. Almost immediately as news of the verdict at Fotheringhay reached Westminster, church bells rang through London and Parliament pressured Elizabeth to sign Mary’s execution warrant. Elizabeth, in characteristic fashion, demurred and stalled, hoping to find a way to spare herself the horror of ordering her fellow queen and kinswoman’s death. Despite her harsh words about Mary, Elizabeth still balked at the prospect of allowing an anointed queen and monarch to be executed under her order: she naturally feared what kind of precedent it would set if the law established that a monarch could be legally put to death. Responding to a delegation of twenty noble peers and forty MPs who petitioned her at Richmond Palace on 12 November to draw up the warrant of execution, Elizabeth demurred, telling them that by pressuring her to execute Mary,

in this late Act of Parliament you have laid a hard hand on me, that I must give directions for her [Mary’s] death, which cannot be but a most grievous and irksome burden to me. We princes are set on stages, in the sight and view of all the world. It behoveth us to be careful that our proceedings be just and honourable. (99)

When Parliament unanimously reaffirmed its support for the death sentence against Mary on 24 November, sending another audience to Richmond to petition Elizabeth to execute Mary for her own safety, the preservation of Protestantism, and the good of the kingdom, Elizabeth responded with her characteristic penchant for studied indecision (brackets are my own comments):

Since it is now resolved that my surety cannot be established without a princess’s head, full grievous is the way that I, who have in my time pardoned so many rebels and winked at so many treasons, should now be forced to this proceeding against such a person. What will my enemies not say, that for the safety of her life a maiden queen could be content to spill the blood even of her own kinswoman? I may therefore well complain that any man should think me given to cruelty, whereof I am so guiltless and innocent [Evidently Elizabeth had forgotten about ordering the Babington plotters drawn and quartered while still alive]. Nay, I am so far from it that for mine own life I would not touch her. If other means might be found out [keeping Mary imprisoned or exiling her], I would take more pleasure than in any other thing under the sun. (100)

Elizabeth concluded her remarks with words which must have both impressed her MPs in their masterful rhetorical eloquence yet infuriated them by her dissemblance: “I am not so void of judgement as not to see mine own peril, nor so careless as not to weigh that my life daily is in hazard. But since so many have both written and spoken against me, I pray you to accept my thankfulness, to excuse my doubtfulness, and to take in good part my answer answerless.” (101)

While her English cousin remained deeply tormented over whether or not to order her execution, Mary received the trial verdict with serene equanimity. When Paulet tore down her royal canopy of estate and coat of arms following the issuing of her death sentence – haughtily declaring that in the eyes of English law she, a woman condemned to death, was already considered legally dead, and therefore had no right to such trappings of earthly sovereignty (102) – Mary simply hung a crucifix and pictures of Christ’s passion in its place. Sometime following the verdict – according to Catholic tradition passed down from numerous English, French, and Scottish Catholic priests and bishops during these past five centuries, which numerous clergy have related to me orally – the Queen of Scots composed in Latin her last known poem praying God to release her from her earthly prison and “chains” and “liberate” her to the heavenly realm:

O Domine Deus!
Speravi in te;
O care mi Iesu!
Nunc libera me:
In dura catena
In misera poena
Desidero te;
Languendo, gemendo,
Et genuflectendo
Adoro, imploro,
Ut liberes me!

I have translated the prayer as follows, opting for a more literal Latin to English transition:

O Lord God! I have hoped in Thee;
O Jesus my Beloved, set me free:
In rigorous chains, in piteous pains,
I am longing for Thee!
In weakness appealing, in agony kneeling,
[lit. “languishing, sighing, and kneeling]
I pray, I implore Thee to liberate me!

Mary’s last letter to Elizabeth — written on December 19, 1586, less than two months before her execution on February 8, 1587 — puts the final touch on the complete degeneration of their relationship over the past nineteen years. Convicted of conspiring to assassinate her fellow queen — a charge Mary vehemently denied to her death — she knew that Elizabeth would likely be forced by parliamentary petitions and Protestant public opinion to have her beheaded. Describing her nineteen-year imprisonment in religious terms as a “long and weary pilgrimage”, Mary’s last letter to her cousin and gaoler contains a plea for her remains to be conveyed to France after her death, as well as a curious plea that Elizabeth not send an assassin to deny Mary the martyr’s death she now longed for as a kind of absolution for the sins of her earlier life:

Now having been informed, on your part, of the sentence passed in the last session of your Parliament, and admonished… to prepare myself for the end of my long and weary pilgrimage, I prayed them to return my thanks to you for such agreeable intelligence, and to ask you to grant some things for the relief of my conscience. . . I require you, Madam, for the sake of Jesus, that after my enemies have satisfied their black thirst for my innocent blood, you will permit my poor disconsolate servants to remove my corpse, that it may be buried in holy ground, with my ancestors in France, especially the late Queen my mother, since in Scotland the remains of the Kings my predecessors have been outraged, and the churches torn down and profaned…

…Dreading the secret tyranny of some of those to whom you have abandoned me, I entreat you to prevent me from being dispatched secretly, without your knowledge, not from fear of the pain, which I am ready to suffer, but on account of the reports they would circulate after my death… I beseech the God of mercy and justice to enlighten you with His Holy Spirit, and to give me the grace to die in perfect charity, as I endeavour to do, pardoning my death to all those who have either caused or cooperated in it [a veiled reference to Elizabeth herself]; and this will be my prayer to the end. [103]

Most disturbingly for Elizabeth, Mary’s final letter to her contained an explicit threat that her judicial murder at Elizabeth’s hands would outrage all of Catholic Europe and likely provoke retaliation by the Catholic powers (chiefly Philip II of Spain) against England:

Accuse me not of presumption if, leaving this world and preparing myself for a better, I remind you that you will one day to give account of your charge, in like manner as those who preceded you in it, and that my blood and the misery of my country will be remembered…Your sister and cousin, wrongfully a prisoner, Marie Royne [104]

Mary’s valedictory words to her cousin – “my blood will be remembered” – must have seared themselves into Elizabeth’s soul. True to Mary’s haunting prophecy, even today the blackest stain on the Virgin Queen’s reign – more than the many hundreds of English Catholic priests and laity her government brutally executed for treason – remains her fateful decision to ultimately judicially murder her own cousin and fellow sovereign to, as she saw it, protect her own crown and her own life.

Elizabeth I signature on Mary Queen of Scots death warrant

Queen Elizabeth I’s famous signature (‘Elizabeth R’ — ‘R’ for Regina) at the top of a copy of the death warrant she signed on 1 February, 1587 for the execution of her imprisoned cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. Courtesy of Lambeth Palace Library, the official library of the Anglican Archbishopric of Canterbury, Lambeth, Greater London, England. Mary Queen of Scots Execution Warrant (detail, MS 4769, f.1r). The warrant begins “Elizabeth by the grace of God Queen of England, France, and Ireland” and orders that the English Queen’s commissioners for the execution journey north to Fotheringhay to “Mary Queen of Scots daughter of James the Sixth late King of Scots” and there “cause execution to be done upon her person”. This warrant authorising the execution of an anointed monarch was wholly unprecedented in British, and, indeed, known European history.

When word reached Mary on 7 February that Elizabeth had at last signed her death warrant, the Queen of Scots responded calmly, thanking God and saying to the English messengers present that

In the name of God, these tidings are welcome, and I bless and praise Him that the end of all my bitter sufferings is at hand.  I did not think that the Queen, my sister, would ever have consented to my death; but, God’s will be done.  He is my principal witness, that I shall render up my spirit into His hands innocent of any offence against her, and with a pure heart and conscience clear before His divine majesty of the crimes whereof I am accused.  That soul is fair unworthy of the joys of heaven, whose body cannot endure for a moment the stroke of the executioner. [105]

Even after bringing herself to sign the death warrant authorising Mary’s execution, Elizabeth still searched desperately for a way to rid herself of having to take upon the heinous crime of murdering her own kinswoman and fellow queen. The Queen suggested that Mary could be quietly murdered by her English guards. Her request that Mary’s life should be artificially ‘shortened’ was taken to Sir Amyas Paulet, Mary’s gaoler. The horrified Paulet replied to Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s chief spymaster and one of the chief witnesses against Mary at her trial, only six days before Mary’s execution:

I am so unhappy to have lived to see this unhappy day, in the which I am required, by direction from my most gracious Sovereign, to do an act which God and the law forbiddeth… God forbid that I should make so fowle a shipwracke of my conscience, or leave so great a blot to my posteritie, or shed blood without law and warrant…  thus I commit you to the mercy of the Almightie.

From Fotheringhay, the 2nd of February, 1587 [106]

When Paulet informed Mary the night before her death of her impending execution on the morrow, the Queen received the news calmly, while her servants, deeply devoted to her, collapsed in tears and wailing lament. Mary expressed her shock that she would be allotted no time to finalise her will and testament, but the Protestant lords who had come to Fotheringhay to see her die responded coldly that she had already had two months to do so since she was initially sentenced to die. [107] Using this moment with so many of her enemies present to maximum effect, the Queen then placed her right hand on a copy of the New Testament and swore a solemn oath that “I take God to witness, that I never desired, sought, nor consented to the death of your Queen.” [108] That night, after supper, the Queen wrote to her Catholic chaplain Fr. De Prean, who was elsewhere in the castle –her Puritan gaolers steadfastly refused to admit him to see her despite both their earnest entreaties – and since he could not offer her the chance to make a final confession and receive the Eucharist, she expressed her sorrowed resignation that she must make only a general confession and urged him to remain awake all night with her, standing in solidarity with her vigil before her death. [109]

Part V: “In my end is my beginning”: Mary as convinced martyr and Elizabeth as reluctant executioner

Mary, Queen of Scots spent the last hours of her earthly life in quiet prayer and writing to her Catholic allies in Europe, especially her former brother-in-law, King Henri III of France (1551-89, r. 1574-1589). [110] In her final earthly letter, written at two in the morning with a steady, calm hand in her pristine French, Mary once again declared herself innocent of the charge of conspiring against Elizabeth, claiming to her fellow king that she was about to die as a martyr for their shared Catholic faith. [111] Addressing the note familiarly to “Au Roy tres chrestien monssieur mon beau frere & ansien allye” [“to the Most Christian King Monsieur my good brother and ancient ally”], [112] Mary implored Henri II to pay her longsuffering servants their due wages, to have prayers and proper funeral Masses offered for her soul, and she also reiterated to him that she desired to be buried next to her mother in France on consecrated ground, a request which neither Elizabeth nor her own son James would ever fulfil (my notes in brackets):

Royal brother [lit. “Monsieur my good brother”], having by God’s will [lit. “the permission of God”], for my sins I think, thrown myself into the power of the Queen my cousin, at whose hands I have suffered much for almost twenty years, I have finally been condemned to death by her and her Estates [Parliament].

I have asked for my papers, which they have taken away, in order that I might make my will, but I have been unable to recover anything of use to me, or even get leave either to make my will freely or to have my body conveyed after my death, as I would wish, to your kingdom where I had the honour to be queen, your sister and old ally.

… I am to be executed like a criminal at eight in the morning… I scorn death and vow that I meet it innocent of any crime, even if I were their subject.

The Catholic faith and the assertion of my God-given right to the English crown are the two issues on which I am condemned, and yet I am not allowed to say that it is for the Catholic religion that I die, but for fear of interference with theirs. The proof of this is that they have taken away my chaplain, and although he is in the building, I have not been able to get permission for him to come and hear my confession and give me the Last Sacrament, while they have been most insistent that I receive the consolation and instruction of their minister, brought here for that purpose. …

It remains for me to beg Your Most Christian Majesty, my brother-in-law and old ally, who have always protested your love for me, to… [have prayers] offered to God for a queen who has borne the title Most Christian [Queen of France], and who dies a Catholic, stripped of all her possessions. As for my son, I commend him to you in so far as he deserves, for I cannot answer for him. . .

Again I commend my servants to you. Give instructions, if it please you, that for my soul’s sake part of what you owe me should be paid, and that for the sake of Jesus Christ, to whom I shall pray for you tomorrow as I die, I be left enough to found a memorial mass and give the customary alms.

Wednesday, at two in the morning
Your most loving and most true sister   Mary R [113]

Mary Queen of Scots last letter to Henri III de France

The first page of Mary’s last letter, written around two in the morning on February 8, the day of her death, to her former brother-in-law King Henri III of France. This is the Queen’s own handwriting; note that it is in an extremely clear, crisp, even style betraying no evident distress or fear.

At eight o’clock on the morning on Wednesday, February 8, 1587, Mary, Queen of Scots walked calmly to the scaffold in the Great Hall of Fotheringhay Castle accompanied by her devoted ladies-in-waiting and several male assistants, all of whom were weeping with horror at the thought of their mistress’ impending death. Eyewitnesses reported that the Queen “entered the hall with a firm step and unruffled composure” [114], exuding in these last moments of her earthly life a serene and queenly demeanour which deeply impressed those three hundred men – the local Earl Marshall’s guards and about a hundred local gentlemen – who had come to watch her die. [115] Outside the hall, in the Castle courtyard, hundreds of local Protestant Englishmen and women had gathered to see the woman they regarded as a traitor and murderess be put to death. Bede records, as does Strickland, that the rabble were entertained with a band of musicians playing an old folk song “Jumping Joan” used commonly to amuse crowds of spectators at the burning of witches. [116] In keeping with their astonishing brutality in allowing such a mocking song to be used at a queen’s execution, the Protestant lords also refused to allow Mary’s Catholic chaplain to accompany her to her death. [117]

One eyewitness described how the Queen was beautifully and carefully attired in splendid dress, deliberately evoking the image of a Catholic martyr. To her very end, in this, her last public appearance, she would play the part of a martyr for her faith:

On her head a dressing of lawn edged with bone lace; a pomander chain and an Agnus Dei; about her neck a crucifix of gold; and in her hand a crucifix of bone with a wooden cross, and a pair of beads at her girdle, with a medal in the end of them; a veil of lawn fastened to her caul, bowed out with wire, and edged round about with bone lace. A gown of black satin, printed, with long sleeves to the ground, set with buttons of jet and trimmed with pearl, and short sleeves of satin, cut with a pair of sleeves of purple velvet. [118]

On approaching the scaffold erected at the centre of the great hall, Mary turned to her weeping ladies and manservants to console them, saying: “Thou hast cause rather to joy than to mourn, for now shalt thou see Mary Stuart’s troubles receive their long-expected end.” [119] She continued, exhorting them to remember that “all this world is but vanity and full of troubles and sorrows. Carry this message from me and tell my friends that I died a true woman to my religion, and like a true Scottish woman and a true French woman; but God forgive them that have long desired my end and thirsted for my blood.” [120]

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Mary walking onto the scaffold on 8 February 1587. Robert Inerarity Herdman, 1867. (C) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Mounting the scaffold, the Queen heard the charges and sentence of death read against her, which she greeted with a serenity and “a joyous countenance” that astonished the onlookers. [121] After sitting in the chair provided her on the scaffold, she espied the executioner, clad in the customary black velvet, “holding his axe with the edge turned towards her. . . She saw them, and the block, and the crowd in the hall, thirsting for her blood; and she saw it all without betraying any trepidation or fear.” [122] Gazing out over the crowd of hundreds of hostile locals come to see her lose her head, Queen Mary then addressed the assemblage in English, arguing that “although she was a sovereign princess, and not subject to the Parliament of England, she had been unjustly accused of crimes of which she was altogether innocent” [123], solemnly declaring that “she had never devised any harm against the Queen of England” and that, after her execution, she firmly believed “much would be brought to light that was now hid”, revealing the treacherous objectives of those who had worked so long toward her death. [124]

Gently but firmly refusing the offer of Dr Fletcher, the Protestant Dean of Peterborough’s services, to pray with her in English according to the Reformed rite, Mary again requested her Catholic chaplain and was refused. [125] She then had her rosary taken from her, in direct defiance of Elizabeth’s orders that she be allowed all her Catholic devotional items in her last earthly moments. The Queen addressed the obstinate Dean, saying “Trouble not yourself nor me, for know that I am settled in the ancient Catholic religion, and in defence thereof, by God’s grace, I mind to spend my blood.” [126] In mocking defiance of the woman who was about to end her life serenely settled in her ancestral faith, the Dean – who insisted even then, as Knox once had a quarter century earlier, on lecturing Mary that she must abjure “popish superstition” and embrace Protestantism, or risk eternal damnation – began praying aloud according to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. [127] He attempted to drown out the Queen, who insisted on praying her own prayers in Latin; Mary uttered her Catholic prayers in a louder voice, weeping as she recited psalms 31, 51, and 91 from memory. [128]

She switched to French, praying for herself, and then for the Roman Catholic Church whose faithful were suffering so greatly in England and Scotland. [129] Then, continuing on her knees in English while holding her crucifix, Mary prayed audibly for the life and health of Queen Elizabeth, publicly forgiving her cousin of her death. She then prayed for her son James, whom she had not seen in twenty years. [130] Her last prayer spoken loudly enough for all to hear was one for her own forgiveness and salvation: “As Thy arms, O Christ, were extended on the cross, even so receive me into the arms of Thy mercy, and blot out all my sins with Thy most precious blood.” [131] Even at this moment, as Mary was only minutes away from her death, the Protestant Earl of Kent mocked her Catholic piety, insolently telling her that “it would be better for her to eschew her popish trumperies, and bear Christ in her heart”, to which she replied gently “Can I hold the representation of my crucified Redeemer in my hand, without bearing Him, at the same time, in my heart?”, at last silencing him. [132]

Her prayers finished, she refused the help of the executioner and his assistant to undress her, saying with a slight smile, “I was not wont to have my clothes plucked off by such grooms, nor did I ever put off my clothes before such a company!” [133] Mary’s ladies then took off her black gown to reveal a bodice and petticoat of deep scarlet, the traditional colour of Catholic martyrdom representing willingness to shed one’s blood in the defence of that religion.

The chief executioner then knelt, as was custom, and begged the queen’s forgiveness for what he had to do. Queen Mary replied softly, “I forgive you with all my heart, for I hope this death will give an end to all my troubles.” [134] After Mary laid aside her devotional items, one of her attendant ladies and oldest friends, Jane Kennedy, had been extremely agitated when the executioner moved to take the Queen’s crucifix and rosary beads as a form of compensation for him, and wrenched them from his grip. The Queen spoke calmly to the executioner, bidding him leave her dear old servant the small consolation of keeping her crucifix: “Friend, let her have it; she will give you more than its value in money.” [135] Blessing her weeping ladies and servants several times with the sign of the Cross, the Queen bid them pray for her til the last moment, and to see that her remains were not abused by the mob. [136]

Mary then knelt, gently laid her head on the block before her, and repeated several times her final earthly supplication: “In manuas tuas, Domine, confide spiritum meum” (“Into Thy hands, Lord, I commend my spirit”; paraphrasing Jesus’ last words when dying on the Cross). [137] In the ensuing moments of her death, it took three brutal blows of the incompetent headsman’s clumsy axe to sever Mary’s head, during which time she remained motionless, and several eyewitness accounts report that her lips carried on moving for fifteen minutes after her death. [138]

Alison Weir describes how the executioner then picked up Mary’s head by the hair, as was custom, declaring that it belonged to a traitor and enemy of Queen Elizabeth. To the astonishment of the onlookers, when he did so, her cap fell off along with a red wig, revealing that the once beautiful Mary’s real hair was grey and “polled very short”, reflecting how much she had aged prematurely during her imprisonment. [139] Immediately after Mary’s decapitation, the executioners began collecting her belongings and burning all of them, so as to leave no relics for Catholics who might venerate the dead Queen as a martyr. [140] Even her blood was wiped up with rags and the rags duly burned. Weir also relates the story of Mary’s loyal dog, who had secretly accompanied his mistress to her death, saying that when the executioner went to remove Mary’s clothes, as had been ordered:

he found her little dog under her coat, which, being put from thence, went and laid himself down betwixt her head and body, and being besmeared with her blood, was caused to be washed… [141]

By all accounts, the poor dog, traumatised by the violence he had witnessed and depressed at being parted from his unfortunate mistress, refused to eat, grew weak, and died. [142]

When Elizabeth received the news of her cousin’s botched execution several days later, while all of London rejoiced with the ringing of church bells and the setting of celebratory bonfires [143], the Queen shut herself away for several days, alternately weeping with horror and fear of divine judgment against her regicide and kin-slaying, and railing against her councillors who, she now claimed in a letter to James VI, had acted precipitously and sent the signed warrant to Fotheringhay without her express permission. [144] In this astonishing letter to the son of the woman she had just had executed, Elizabeth referred to Mary’s execution as “this unhappy accident” and swore that she had never intended for the warrant to be carried out. [145] She threw William Davidson – the loyal palace clerk who had sent the warrant north after consulting with the lords of Elizabeth’s Privy Council – into the Tower of London, declaring that she would see him hanged, while she banished both Lord Burghley and her long-time favourite, Sir Robert Dudley, from Court. [146]

She railed and stormed, but the whole world knew that she would do, and ultimately, did, nothing of great consequence against the men she deemed responsible for precipitously dispatching the warrant north without her direct approval. In Europe, Elizabeth’s long-time nemesis and one-time suitor Philip II of Spain – whom many Catholics believed Mary had named as her successor to her claim on the English throne, since her estranged son was an avowed Protestant – observed that “it is very fine for the Queen [Elizabeth] now to give out that it was done without her wish, the contrary being so clearly the case”, and he duly began to plan his invasion of England to depose the heretic queen and avenge Mary’s death. [147] Pope Sixtus V called for a new crusade against Elizabeth and urged Philip to invade England as soon as possible. Large black-clad crowds of the faithful in Paris and Madrid clamoured for Mary’s canonisation as a martyred queen and defender of the faith, while placards and tracts poured forth across Catholic Europe condemning Elizabeth as a ‘bastard and shameless harlot’, heretic, blasphemer, kin-slayer, and Jezebel – not dissimilar to the denunciations against Mary which had appeared in Edinburgh in spring and summer 1567. [148]

After her execution in 1587, despite the pleas of her disconsolate servants and in violation of all semblance of decency and respect for royalty, Mary’s severed head was exhibited from a window for several hours to the crowds outside Fotheringhay Castle before being embalmed by English surgeons. [149] Even in death, her chaplain was not permitted to pray over or anoint the Queen’s body. A disgraceful six months after Mary’s initial embalming, she was initially buried — with much irony, and against her wishes — in the nearby Anglican Cathedral of Peterborough, the formerly Catholic cathedral of the same Dean who had so annoyed her in her last moments on the scaffold by insisting that he read from the Book of Common Prayer. [150] As Cuthbert Bede notes, during the six-month period that Elizabeth refused to authorise Mary’s burial, her devoted servants were kept prisoner at Fotheringhay. Even after Mary’s Protestant funeral, the late Queen’s servants were detained a further three months before, at last, James VI prevailed upon Elizabeth to release his mother’s devoted friends. [151]

By June 1587, Elizabeth had fully forgiven both Lord Burghley and Dudley, inviting herself to Theobalds – the grand Hertfordshire estate she had gifted the former in gratitude for his years of service to her – for three weeks, her longest visit she ever spent at her old counsellor’s chief residence. [152] While there is no reason to believe that Elizabeth – a pious Protestant in her own devotions who firmly believed in the divine authority of kings – was insincere in her horror and regret over Mary’s execution, the inescapable fact remains that as soon as she had signed the death warrant, even though she later claimed never to have wished it to be sent forth to Fotheringhay, she had immediately schemed for a way to have Mary assassinated to avoid forcing her to execute her own cousin in the eyes of the world. She undeniably wanted Mary dead, but would have preferred the assassin’s knife or poison over the public scaffold and the axe.

Execution_of_Mary_tcm4-556886

Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots at Fotheringhay Castle, 8:00am on February 8, 1587. One can see her male servants kneeling in prayer and supplication on the scaffold to the left, and to their left some of Mary’s weeping ladies also praying just before she is beheaded. To the far left, outside the Great Hall, the fire burns into which all the Queen’s bloodstained clothes and objects will be thrown to prevent anyone from taking trophies or relics from the execution.

Elizabeth I Armada portrait

The famous Armada portrait of Queen Elizabeth I showing the summer 1588 destruction of the Spanish Armada by the English Royal Navy assisted by the “Protestant wind” which whipped up the English Channel, scattering the Spanish ships out of their formation. Attributed to George Gower, 1588.

Conclusion

It is impossible to deduce from their war of letters which of the two queens “won” in their lifelong rivalry with each other. If we are to go by the letters alone, by the end of the correspondence Mary clearly has eked out the moral high ground, aware that her cousin would attempt to have her assassinated, and seeing herself as unjustly condemned by her heretical cousin to die what she chooses to view as a martyr’s death for the Catholic faith. After ordering her troublesome cousin to accept the legitimacy of her judges—which Mary never does—Elizabeth is silent. In terms of their final communications, Elizabeth’s last message to Mary was, ultimately, the death warrant she dispatched to Fotheringhay Castle on February 1, 1587. Yet even there, Mary appears triumphant, for by her dignity at her execution and her deliberate casting of herself as a martyr, she managed to redeem herself in the eyes of much of history for her earlier marital problems and far worse failure as an effective ruler.

In the realm of political posturing, Mary’s death at last allowed Elizabeth to live without the fear of constant plots for her assassination, but in executing her cousin and rival queen, Elizabeth opened the way for the Spanish Armada, which, had it succeeded, would have not only deposed and likely killed Elizabeth, but forcibly re-imposed Catholicism on still newly Protestant England. She also created an extremely disturbing legal precedent: that a court could, somehow, legally sentence to death a crowned and anointed monarch, and that a monarch could somehow be found guilty of committing treason against another monarch to whom she never swore loyalty or allegiance. This precedent of “legal regicide” would come to haunt Mary’s male descendants when Charles I, her grandson born over a decade after her execution, would be beheaded in 1649 as “a traitor, tyrant, and public enemy” on the order of the Cromwell-controlled, Puritan-dominated Parliament.

Ultimately, the two queens’ letters reveal Mary to be a hopelessly politically incompetent monarch who failed to bring any of her many enemies to heel, a failed queen who lost the kingdom that was hers by birth right because she was unable to harness and convert her considerable personal gifts and talents into becoming an effective governor and ruler. She never managed to forge her own alternate centre of power against Moray and Knox, or gain control of the political circumstances in which she found herself. While I suspect that this is because Mary was groomed and educated primarily to be Queen consort of France rather than a ruling Queen of Scots, the tragedy of her political incompetence is made all the more manifest in that her own mother Marie de Guise was a markedly effective regent during the six years she ruled while the young Mary was growing up at the French court.

Despite her obvious political limitations, Mary emerges sympathetically on the moral or ethical scale as a woman possessed of deep conviction, in both her faith and the majesty and authority of monarchs. She emerges as the braver and more charismatic, if less adroit and politically astute, of the two women, while Elizabeth emerges as a solitary, lonely figure whose cunning, craftiness, dissembling, and bouts of cruelty inspire little in the way of personal sympathy. Elizabeth, as the oft-repeated phrasing goes, was first and foremost a monarch and only then allowed herself to be a woman; no one can read her writings and not be convinced of the truth of this old sentiment.

While one cannot help but see Elizabeth as a hopelessly self-isolating figure, whose unstable, at times traumatic childhood differed so markedly from Mary’s pampered and indulgent one, one detects in Elizabeth the steely resolve and political ruthlessness that made her such a magnificent and formidable prince by the opinion of all who dealt with her. As Pope Sixtus V – the very man who had blessed the armada which sailed against Elizabeth – said in praise of her after its ignominious defeat, this woman who was reviled by over half of Europe as an illegitimate heretic unfit to reign or rule astonished the world in that she unquestionably managed to make herself the absolute master of her realm, and, through the Protestant regents she maintained north of the border, Scotland as well before James VI’s majority. Elizabeth was undeniably a cunning, masterful politician, yet she remains a profoundly tragic figure, a woman who ultimately feels obliged to murder her own cousin under the shallowest of legal pretences in order to guarantee her own security and satisfy her people’s bloody demands for Mary’s head.

While Elizabeth has triumphed in the selective Protestant national memory as England’s Gloriana – still widely regarded as its most beloved monarch –  it is Mary who ultimately gains a kind of final revenge in the historical record, as her ungrateful son James and his posterity succeeded the childless Virgin Queen in 1603. It is Mary whose distant descendant, another Protestant Elizabeth, to this day still reigns over an only-nominally Protestant England and Scotland, in a United Kingdom where most of her subjects are no longer religiously observant, yet where more Catholics attend Mass on Sundays than Anglicans attend the Established Church’s communion services. Ironically, today the two rival queens are entombed only yards apart from each other in the most iconic symbol of the dying Church of England, Westminster Abbey. It was here in July 1603 that Mary’s son was anointed and then crowned in St Edward’s Chair – over the ancient, confiscated Stone of Scone –as King of England and Ireland, uniting in his person the three crowns of the kingdoms over which his mother and Elizabeth, and their male predecessors in Scotland and England, had warred and contested for so long.

800px-James_I_of_England_by_Daniel_Mytens

Alternately hailed as “Scotland’s Solomon” or derided as the uncouth yet brilliant “Wisest Fool in Christendom”, James VI of Scots became King of Scots when he was only thirteen months old following his mother Mary’s forced (and therefore, strictly speaking, illegal) abdication on 24 July 1567. At the age of 36, he became the first Stuart King of England and Ireland on 24 March 1603 following Elizabeth I’s death. He reigned over the three legally separate kingdoms in a ‘personal union’ or ‘Union of the Crowns’ under the same monarch until his own death at the age of 58 in March 1625. Daniel Mytens, 1621.

Queen Elizabeth I tomb

James VI and I, successor to both Mary, his mother, and Elizabeth, his mother’s killer, had his English predecessor buried below this magnificent marble tomb in Westminster Abbey’s Lady Chapel of Henry VII in 1603. It would be nine years before he would show the same pious consideration for his murdered mother. Ironically, Elizabeth’s marble effigy here was erected immediately over that of her Catholic half-sister and predecessor, Mary I Tudor.

A Rivalry in Letters 22

The Latin inscription on the joint tomb of Mary I of England and Elizabeth I reads: “Regno Consortes et Urna Hic Obdormimus Elizabetha et Maria Sorores in Spe Resurectionis”: “Partners [it. “consorts”] in throne and grave, here rest we two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, in the hope of the Resurrection.”

Tomb_effigy_of_Mary,_Queen_of_Scots_(copy)

Six months after her execution in 1587, Mary was initially buried — against her wishes — in the Protestant Cathedral of Peterborough, the cathedral of the same Dean who had so annoyed her in her last moments on the scaffold. In 1612  James VI and I ordered his mother’s remains unearthed and transferred to Westminster Abbey, where he paid for this magnificent marble tomb for her to be erected only yards from her hated cousin and murderer, Elizabeth I. Bede relates that all historians who have studied the effigy consider it a true likeness of the Queen of Scots. 

Epilogue:

Reassessing the complicated legacy of the much-maligned Mary Queen of Scots – and Elizabeth’s role in her cousin’s dramatic fall

For most of my intellectually conscious life, I have read widely about the political and religious revolutions which transformed, for better and for worse, England, Scotland, and Ireland under the Tudors and Stuarts. I tended to deeply admire Elizabeth I of England, and viewed Mary I of Scotland with a mixture of pity for her tragic end and dismissal of her failures in the art of governance. I was a non-practising Catholic during much of this period, and of a generally uncritical liberal persuasion so that, in many ways, I was a natural sympathiser to the Protestant cause without ever remotely considering that any of the Protestant claims against Rome were true or accurate. In the past six years or so, many things served to alter my view toward Mary in a more positive, though certainly not uncritical, direction. This, in turn, naturally somewhat diminished my estimation of Elizabeth. One obvious factor was, undeniably, my own conversion to Orthodox Christianity in 2010-2011, which, theological dogmatic differences between Rome and the Christian East aside, is far closer in spirit and ethos to much of traditional, local Catholicism than to the violent, often state-imposed Protestant movements of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Elizabeth I, and, of course, Knox and Moray in Scotland.

What I struggled with in writing this paper was the simple phenomenon that the more thoroughly I examined all the available evidence, the more it emerged that both the prevailing English and Scottish Protestant narratives – that the Reformation “rescued” these countries from an abysmal Dark Age, that most were deeply estranged from the Catholic religion and had little to no knowledge of the faith they blindly followed – were simply fabrications intended to gloss over what can best be described as a form of traumatic cultural and religious violation. Likewise, while I never bought into the idea that she was an entirely innocent martyr and victim of hateful conspiracies, I came to see – based on all that I read, often from many English historians and authors – that Mary’s reign in Scotland was sabotaged from even before its onset. Her many failures as a ruler rest not so much in her own incompetence – which was considerable and undeniable – but in the fact that she was simply out of her element, trained to be a French queen consort rather than a ruling Queen in Scotland, and she found herself unequal to the massive task of trying to rule a kingdom whose elites were, by 1561, pitted against everything she had been raised to cherish and value.

I have often read and heard critics – many of whom I admire – blaming Queen Mary (1542-1587, r de facto1542-1567, de jure 1542-1587) for her perceived lack of ruthlessness and fatal inaction in not moving harshly or swiftly enough against her Protestant enemies in Scotland. While I agree that it would have been ideal had she been able to do these things, practically she never could have realistically hoped to have done so without bathing her kingdom in the kind of bloody religious wars that convulsed France during her adolescence there. While Mary should have, in hindsight, endeavoured to have Knox arrested and either executed or at least permanently exiled as a heretic and traitor, and her brother James Stewart, Earl of Moray tried, attainted, and beheaded as such after the Chaseabout Raid, the reality is that Mary had no large enough power base of her own in Scotland to carry out such political manoeuvres on her own initiative. She simply had no entrenched or expandable political support system loyal to her and powerful enough to help her carry out such objectives needed to solidify her control and weaken or eliminate her enemies.

It is intriguing, though ultimately futile, to think of the many “what ifs” of Mary’s reign, in particular, and her life, generally. Had her politically effective mother, the dowager Queen and Regent Marie de Guise (1515-60), lived just a year longer, to 1561, long enough for Mary to return home and receive command of her mother’s army of French troops, Mary could have had this powerful army at her back and either subdued the Calvinist Lairds of the Congregation, or at least forced them to tolerate her and many of her subjects’ Catholicism. Had Marie de Guise died at age 65 (1580) and not 45 (1560), and Mary been able to benefit from her brilliant political insight as a veteran political actor, Queen Mary almost certainly could have kept her throne, in part because Marie de Guise would have strongly pushed for a second French marriage for her widowed daughter and thus the disastrous Darnley marriage and all its problems could have been avoided.

James_V_and_Mary_of_Guise_02

Detailed oil painting showing James V, King of Scots (1512-1542, r. 1513-his death), and his second wife Queen Marie de Guise (1515-1560), daughter of Claude, duc de Lorraine and head of the powerful House of Guise. Marie served effectively from 1554-1560 as Regent for her daughter while the young Queen Mary was being educated at the French Court of Henri II.

South Leith Parish Church Marie de Guise arms 1560

Beautiful stone engraving showing Marie de Guise’s coat of arms as Queen (consort and then regent) of Scotland. She is referred to as Maria of Lorraine because she was born in Lorraine, where her father Claude was Duke and Head of the House of Guise. Her arms and those of Lorraine are quartered with the Scottish royal lion, her husband and daughter’s royal standard.

Had Marie de Guise lived longer, and the majority of the Lowland Scots gentry and burghs thus not gone over so strongly to the Calvinist Reformation attempt of 1560, the Reformation could either have been avoided outright, defeated in the early 1560s with Catholic Highlanders’ and French armed support, or partly undone early on in Mary’s personal reign in Scotland. Even if Marie de Guise had died in 1561, with French troop support the young Queen Mary could conceivably have raised the Catholic Highland clans in a bloody religious war to massacre or drive out Lowland Protestant Scots — just as her hated mother-in-law Catherine de Medicis, widow of Henri II and mother of three French kings, did intermittently in France against the Huguenots.

Had Mary done this successfully, she might have kept her throne and even ultimately restored Catholicism in Scotland (allowing, in her characteristic leniency, for some religious toleration for Protestants like the future French king Henri IV de Bourbon) but it bears examining: at what cost could Mary have prevailed? Protestant critics damn her either way — her weakness and lack of ruthlessness enabled Moray and Knox to ultimately triumph and defeat and depose her. Yet what would they say and write had Mary openly defied them, worked to isolate them politically, and ultimately confronted them with arms?

The reality is that this aggressive course of action was never an option for Mary. In 1561, with no French troops to support her and no veteran, experienced politician mother to guide her in governing and establishing effective control over Scotland, the politically weak and isolated Mary, with few trustworthy allies and even less military strength at her disposal, diplomatically and sensibly chose to work toward maintaining an uneasy, fragile peace with Moray and Knox — in other words, with the new pro-English Reformation establishment– instead of risking civil war.

The extreme weakness of Mary’s political position from 1561 can be illustrated by the fact that, in the opening months of her personal reign in Scotland, the Queen’s Catholic chaplains were set upon by a violent Calvinist Edinburgh mob inflamed by Knox’s preaching, and the priests were nearly torn to pieces for the “capital offense” of offering Mass for their Sovereign Queen’s worship. What had been the State religion of Scotland in 1559 was, two years later, banned and outlawed. Thus, only a year after the tenuous, English (and thus, Elizabeth)-backed establishment of the Calvinist Kirk, the young Catholic Queen Mary could barely worship freely in her own country! In this same time period, Mary felt obliged to permit Knox to lecture her about her “Romish superstitions and idolatry”, and effectively allowed the Calvinist Kirk, her ideological enemy, to shore up its power in the Lowlands. Mary thus, essentially, tragically recognized the brutal Scottish Reformation that had occurred only a year earlier as a fait accompli.

Why did she do this? The Queen clearly felt she had no better or realistic alternatives besides accepting the status quo as she found it. Arriving in Edinburgh after over a decade of exile in France, where she had been queen consort to François II, Mary had no real political power base loyal to her in Scotland in 1561. She was, culturally, a Frenchwoman, and many of her subjects, especially Protestants, regarded her with suspicion as a foreigner. Abroad, Catholic Valois France was now ruled de jure by her young brother-in-law Charles IX, but governed de facto by her hateful mother-in-law the regent Catherine de Medicis, under whom the Guise Catholic League and Huguenots would soon become embroiled in bloody religious wars. To the south, newly Protestant England under her cousin Elizabeth (previously Catholic under Mary I Tudor, but now once again Anglican since November 1558) had actively worked before Mary’s 1561 return to Scotland to actively undermine the regent Marie de Guise and the Catholic Scottish-French “Auld Alliance”. Elizabeth herself had politically, financially, and intellectually supported the Scottish Reformation and invaded Scotland to weaken Mary’s mother and her French alliance, and thus the English Queen was hardly going to support any attempt by Mary to re-impose Catholicism, restore the Auld Alliance, or weaken the new Protestant Kirk in any way.

Perhaps, by affecting a politique conciliatory approach toward the Lairds and the Kirk til she managed to build up her own political support base to oppose them, Mary hoped to bide her time and ultimately isolate and outmanoeuvre Moray and outlive Knox and then begin, having raised Prince James as a Catholic, to gradually undo the Reformation. Alas, she never could, and thus it is hardly surprising that the baby James VI’s first regents were his mother’s enemies: his paternal grandfather Lennox, Darnley’s father, and his half-uncle, Mary’s great enemy and half-brother the cunning bastard Moray. The inflammatory Knox preached the main sermon at the baby king’s spurious coronation, which, despite his mother baptizing him a Catholic, was done according to Kirk rites.

Remember, a forced abdication as Queen Mary’s was — signed at knifepoint at Loch Leven castle immediately after she miscarried twins by Bothwell — is completely legally invalid. Thus, from a monarchist perspective, Mary remained the sole and rightful Scottish Sovereign and queen regnant until her equally unlawful execution, a regicide, at Elizabeth’s orders on 8 February 1587. This is something which all Anglocentric histories on this subject conveniently gloss over, as do most of the older Calvinist-dominated Scottish hagiographies (one can hardly accurately call them historiographies) of the Reformation-era period.

Protestant critics of Mary from 1567 through to today blame her, also, for not doing enough to punish Rizzio and Darnley’s killers. Again, practically, what could she have done? Her own horrid, feckless husband Darnley actively supported and colluded in the first murder, a murder which seriously endangered Mary’s life as well as her pregnancy with the future James VI. As for the second murder, which Queen Mary was slanderously accused of having either participated in or directed via the forged Casket Letters, the act itself, and her subsequent politically disastrous marriage to Bothwell all served the ends of those who wished to overthrow her. Effectively, the Darnley murder enabled her Protestant enemies — chiefly Moray, Knox, and Buchanan — to produce the effective political propaganda — Mary as Jezebel, siren, as adulterer and murderess — needed to further isolate, delegitimize, and ultimately (illegally) depose her by July 1567.

The reality is that sadly, in 1561, Queen Mary, unlike Elizabeth in 1558, had terribly disobedient subjects among the effective leaders of Scotland; their goals and interests were diametrically opposed to her political and literal survival. She returned to her kingdom only a year after the violent Calvinist Reformation, in which many centuries of Roman Catholic religious art, architecture, liturgical and musical patrimony, and local traditions were abruptly destroyed and iconoclastically overturned in the wake of Mary’s mother Marie de Guise’s untimely death.

It cannot be emphasised enough that the new Calvinist de facto rulers of Scotland in power at the time Mary returned to her kingdom in 1561 as the young, widowed queen dowager of France — the Lairds of the Congregation led by Moray and Knox — all had strong and obvious political, ideological, and material interests in toppling her from the throne as soon as possible. Removing Mary would enable the Lairds and their allies in the new Kirk to preserve and strengthen their extremely new, vulnerable Protestant establishment by ensuring that the young Catholic Queen was deposed before she could become powerful enough to undermine or oppose them. This would in turn ensure that her baby son and heir would be raised a Protestant and taught to hate her. James’ long minority would free them to continue to appropriate large sums from the national treasury, especially the vast, illegally and violently acquired, looted wealth of confiscated monasteries, abbeys, stripped cathedrals, shrines, and church benefices.

In hindsight, it certainly seems a shame to those who find themselves sympathetic to her cause that Mary did not act swiftly to arrest Rizzio’s murderers and execute them to re-establish a degree of political authority, but one must seriously ask: Who would have obeyed her order to arrest them, and how could she have ensured their conviction? Most of the leading Scots nobles at her court either wanted Rizzio dead, lost nothing by his death, or had actively conspired toward his murder. Probably only Bothwell was personally loyal enough to the Queen to have dared to arrest these murderous lairds, but he, one man without a great clan army at his back, would hardly have been able to deal with all her enemies.

One must remember that the idea of any armed Englishmen bursting in on Queen Mary Tudor or Queen Elizabeth I dining at supper and holding a gun to her stomach, and proceeding to stab to death one of her closest male friends and advisors was unthinkable. The Scottish crown in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries simply didn’t possess the same level of enforceable political authority as did the English crown, nor did the Scots monarchs enjoy the same kind of personal security, inviolability, or prestige as did the English monarchs after 1485 when Richard III of York fell in battle to Henry VII Tudor at Bosworth Field. From Henry VII’s accession-by-conquest in 1485 to Henry VIII’s death in 1547, England enjoyed over half a century of rule by adult kings who were usually powerful enough to keep their leading nobles under control either through careful patronage and politicking or overt force.

Scotland’s vying noble houses and factions, on the other hand, consistently manoeuvred politically to their own ends at the Crown’s expense. While England had its own share of murdered monarchs and forced abdications (Edward II, Richard II, Henry VI, and the princes in the tower including Edward V), in Scotland literally all of Mary’s recent predecessors as kings from James I onward had either died in battle (or shortly thereafter, as with her father James V) or been murdered. This meant that for most of the fifteenth century and all of the sixteenth, Scotland’s monarchs ascended the throne as infants, with the effective rule of the country in the hands of successive partisan, factional and self-interested regents. After 1485, no English King died in battle or by murder; in contrast, James III was murdered in 1488, leaving his minor son as heir, while James IV himself died in battle at Flodden in 1513. James V thus became King as a babe and himself died of psychological collapse in 1542 following a devastating loss to the English at Solway Moss and the depressing news that his queen had given birth to a daughter.

Mary’s paternal forebears James I and James III had both been murdered, while both her father James V and grandfather James IV came to actually rule only after long, highly factional, divisive, and partisan minorities. Thus, compared to her English paternal great-uncle Henry VIII and her cousins Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I, as Queen of Scots, Mary Stuart simply didn’t have a comparable level of actual, real command over Scots nobles, nor of practical political power and enforceable royal authority, as did these English sovereigns over their nobles.

Mary’s rival and half-brother Moray and Elizabeth’s chief Privy Councillor Cecil were essentially working in tandem to orchestrate every aspect of Mary’s eventual downfall, and profiting from and exploiting her political missteps (chiefly marrying Darnley, not executing Moray, and sparing and then marrying Bothwell). Had Mary done the sensible thing and left Scotland for France in 1568, she likely would have lived in comfortable retirement on her dower estates into old age, perhaps remarried to a rich, powerful French prince or become an abbess like her aunt Renee. Had she done the latter, she would have certainly died in her bed. Had she done the former, she perhaps might have launched an armed attempt to retake her throne with eventual French or Spanish military and financial support. She may well have been successful at retaking Scotland and reclaiming her throne, especially in the 1570s when James was still young and his regents divided among themselves. Yet by 1568, when confronted with the life-altering decision of where to flee, Mary had few allies still in power in France: the hostile Catherine de Medicis remained in effective control and offered her no real support, and the Queen Regent viewed Mary’s powerful Guise family as just as dangerous to her sons’ crown as the Huguenots. Thus, a French welcome for the exiled Mary was hardly guaranteed in 1568, and, had Mary sailed for France, she could potentially have faced house arrest or internal exile on Catherine’s orders. The other alternative was of course the one Mary ultimately chose to take: England, and Elizabeth. Why did she make this decision which, in hindsight, seems so fatal?

Perceptions of a man or woman’s honour meant a great deal in late medieval and early modern Europe, and a person’s honour was held to reflect on their family’s status, dignity, and prestige. This prioritisation of honour was especially the case among kings and queens and great nobles; note that this valuing of honour does not mean that all rulers and nobles actually were truly virtuous and honourable, but that they all felt they had to be seen as such in order to maintain their prestige and dignity. Hence why at the height of the Darnley murder scandal, Elizabeth repeatedly wrote to Mary expressing her grave concern for Mary’s life, but especially for her honour — -her reputation which had been so sullied by the rumours of her alleged complicity in her husband’s murder. Thus, in 1568, Mary could not possibly have conceived that her own flesh and blood, her til-then supportive sister monarch Queen Elizabeth, was capable of being so deceitful as to first detain and then ultimately imprison her once she arrived in England seeking assistance to regain her lost throne. Elizabeth’s audacious actions toward Mary– refusing to see her in person, keeping her detained in northern castles, staging a stacked hearing to purportedly determine the authenticity of the Casket Letters, and ultimately holding her sister queen prisoner — not just Elizabeth’s ultimate decision to bring Mary to trial and execute her — outraged Catholic Europe at the time precisely because they were seen as being so dishonourable.

In terms of political theory, Mary’s ultimate execution, which she and Catholic Europe chose to view as a martyrdom – the “third crown” of a type of kingdom she never obtained in her earthly life — is one of the most fascinating, and, from a conservative perspective, disturbing events in history. This was the first time in European history that a monarch – in fact, a woman who was doubly a queen, once anointed and crowned as a queen regnant whilst a babe, and then anointed and crowned as a queen consort whilst a young teenager – was, in the eyes of those who killed her, legally put to death. Elizabeth’s own mother, Anne Boleyn, obviously comes to mind, but she was a queen consort, wife of the king, not a monarch in her own right. Mary’s execution did not just horrify Catholic Europe because they chose to believe she was a martyr for their shared faith – it horrified all the crowned heads of Europe because she was, or, rather, had been, one of them.

To murder a monarch in a political assassination, a treasonous regicide, was something that happened often enough in Stuart Scotland and Plantagenet England, and on the Continent, but Mary’s execution was something entirely different. We know of course that Elizabeth tried at the last moment to arrange for Mary such an “accident in the night”, but to Mary’s last gaoler’s credit – a man who could not have despised Mary more, nor she him – he refused to sully his name and his posterity with such a craven act. Mary’s execution proclaimed to the world that it was legally possible to put to death a person who, in the eyes of the Church and state in medieval and early modern Europe, was considered a representative of God on earth, the chief intercessor before Him for his (or her) people, whose reign God divinely blessed, whose triumphs He celebrated and whose failures He allowed as a form of chastisement. To proclaim that such a person could legally be killed – and somehow be found to have actually committed a crime that not only deserved, but necessitated the ultimate punishment – struck at the core foundations of the entire medieval and early modern political and religious worldview. This is partly why Elizabeth so deeply feared divine retribution for spilling a prince’s blood, for cutting off a head which had twice been anointed with sacred oil and crowned with divine authority.

In our modern world where most countries are republics – either actual democracies with varying levels of open elections, or name-only oligarchies or dictatorships under a republican guise — it may seem hopelessly anachronistic or idle for me to speculate on this issue. Many will ask, incredulously, why does it matter that, in 1587, one woman who happened to be a reigning monarch signed the death warrant executing her own cousin, another reigning monarch? The reality is that, if in fact, in a monarchical system, absolute inviolability and sovereignty rests in the person of the monarch, then to kill a monarch – regicide – is a crime, so that therefore even trying to do so is a capital offense. Indeed, in any traditional Christian polity, regicide has been regarded as a sin of profound and enormous consequence. This is why Elizabeth believed herself entirely justified – and her contemporaries agreed with her – in ordering the Babington Plot conspirators to be disembowelled and castrated while still alive. It is also why Europeans of all manner of religious conviction were horrified to hear that Elizabeth had taken the unprecedented step of having her courts sentence a fellow monarch, an anointed queen, to death, and then taken the additional, harrowing step of signing the warrant that let the sentence be carried out.

This very act – a supposedly legal regicide – marks a profound rupture in the political and religious consciousness of early modern Europe. Aside from the tragic drama of the story—England’s Protestant Queen executing her Catholic Scottish cousin and rival—and the resultant war Mary’s death inspired between England and Spain, the Queen of Scot’s unlawful 1587 execution marked something far more profound with far more long-term repercussions: the “beginning of the end” for monarchies as an effective, fully functional political system.

The 1215 Magna Carta marks the “beginning” of the devolution of monarchical authority, as it was the first time a king had had to recognize himself bound to an authority besides God Himself. Similar measures in Hungary, Scotland, Poland, and the Holy Roman Empire developed in the ensuing centuries to establish certain limits on kings’ power to abuse or misuse their nobles. The 1689 Glorious Revolution and its English Bill of Rights marked the “end”, the death throes of the British monarchy toward unlimited Crowned Oligarchic Parliamentarianism, but what marked “the beginning of the end”? What heralded in the bloodless revolution that transformed Britain from a partly-limited, traditional monarchy into a crowned oligarchy where Parliament rules and monarchs largely reign?

1789 (the outbreak of the French Revolution which saw Jacobin France guillotine its King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette in the prelude to the infamous Reign of Terror) is too recent…

1689 (William III and Mary II’s granting of the Bill of Rights which recognised the political supremacy of Parliament and granted English Protestants—not Catholics—many basic protections from the Sovereign but not from Parliament) is too recent….

1649 (The Cromwell-controlled English Parliament voting to convict King Charles I of being a “tyrant, traitor, murderer, and public enemy” and subsequently beheading the King) is too recent…

Where may we look to see the origins of the monarchy’s long descent from a de facto absolutist state under the Tudors to the largely ceremonial figurehead regime we see in place today? We must look, not to the tumultuous reigns of the English Stuarts or the increasingly ceremonial reigns of the Hanoverians, but to the Tudors themselves, to a decision made by England’s still most beloved Queen, the “Gloriana” of famous memory, Elizabeth I. We must look to two seminal years: 1586 and 1587. In 1586, without any legal precedent, without any attorney to aid her or even the benefit of having her own papers and documents to consult, Mary— ruling Queen of Scots from 1542-1567 and Queen of France from 1559-1560—was tried for treason and ultimately executed at the behest of her reigning cousin, Elizabeth I.

Mary had fled to England in 1568 following her deposition from the Scottish throne seeking Elizabeth’s help and protection, expecting that her cousin and fellow queen would naturally commit money and troops to restore her, a Catholic Queen, to the throne of her rebellious and (since 1560) newly Protestant kingdom. Mary had been forced to sign her abdication in July 1567 immediately after she had miscarried twins by her third husband while imprisoned at Loch Leven Castle. Following her escape from that prison, Mary’s armies were then twice defeated by Protestant forces under her treacherous half-brother James Stuart, Earl of Moray, who was in Queen Elizabeth’s pay.

As we know, Elizabeth refused to help her cousin. Instead, as she had done previously before Mary had returned from France to rule Scotland, Elizabeth secured a Protestant regency in Scotland, ensuring that Mary’s only son and heir, James VI, was raised a Protestant and taught by his Calvinist tutors to despise his mother as an adulteress and murderer. Elizabeth had Mary imprisoned for the next 19 years, during which time Mary actively plotted to regain her lost freedom and, so she was accused at her trial, to overthrow her Protestant cousin. For in the eyes of Catholic Europe, it was Mary Stuart, not the Protestant Elizabeth Tudor, who was the lawful Queen of England.

Mary’s plotting made her the enemy of all English Protestants, and by 1586 Elizabeth was essentially forced by her advisers to bring her Scottish cousin Mary to trial for treason. As with all Tudor treason trials, Mary’s trial verdict was a foregone conclusion, as the jurors were all English nobles subject to Queen Elizabeth. As a Queen in her own right, Mary vehemently denied that the English court had any authority to try her, and, she famously stated, she would “rather die a thousand deaths” than acknowledge herself to be subject to the laws of England.

So it came to pass that, on February 1, 1587, Elizabeth I regretfully signed her own cousin and sister queen’s execution warrant.

While two medieval English kings, Richard II (1367-1400, r. 1377-1399) and Edward II (1284-1327, r. 1307-1327), had been unlawfully murdered shortly after their illegal deposition from the throne, neither men were executed lawfully; an assassin in the night is entirely different from a public, state-sanctioned, royally-ordered execution. Mary’s state-sanctioned murder was different from Richard II or Edward II’s killings in that, from the English Protestant point of view, Mary’s execution represented, somehow, incredibly, an entirely legal act in conformity with the existing laws of Parliament. That is what makes it so horrendously appalling. Edward II and Richard II were murdered after being deposed — they never freely abdicated. Mary, too, was unlawfully forced to abdicate by her political enemies, but then she was only put to death almost two decades later after a formal trial by English lords acting at Queen Elizabeth’s behest.

Walking to her execution dressed as a Catholic martyr, Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded with three strokes of the axe at Fotheringhay Castle on February 8 at the age of 44.  The most heinous aspect of the entire spectacle was that Elizabeth, a God-anointed sovereign queen, had convinced herself that signing the death warrant of her own cousin and kinswoman – a woman who was, by all right, still the lawful Queen of Scotland the morning she died in February 1587 – was the only way to preserve her own life and her kingdom’s relatively new Protestant established Church.

With this execution, a sovereign queen regnant had ordered the judicial murder and execution of a fellow queen regnant. This marked the inevitable beginning of the end. Ever since Elizabeth, the childless Protestant ‘Virgin Queen’, ordered her luckless Catholic cousin Mary’s execution, Mary’s grandson Charles I’s execution, and the execution of King Louis XVI of France and his Queen Marie Antoinette, were all but inevitable. From Mary’s execution on February 8, the world experienced as a horrid reality the notion that a God-anointed monarch could be lawfully and legitimately put to death. From that moment, farewell to true monarchical sovereignty, farewell to the organic, ancient basis of medieval and early modern political society: the union between Church and Crown, altar and throne.

 

Bibliography

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Bede, Cuthbert. Fotheringhay, and Mary, Queen of Scots. London, England: Simpkin, Marshall,and Co, 1886.

Buckingham, Stanhope F. Memoirs of Mary Stuart: Queen of Scotland (Volume 2). London, England: Richard Bentley, New Burlington Street, 1844.

Cheetham, J. Keith. On the Trial of Mary Queen of Scots. Edinburgh, Scotland: Luath Press Limited, 2000.

Daniel, William S. History of The Abbey and Palace of Holyrood. Edinburgh, Scotland: Duncan Anderson, 1852.

Donaldson, Gordon, ed. The Memoirs of Sir James Melville of Halhill, Folio Society, London, 1969.

Dunn, Jane. Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

Education Scotland: Foghlam Alba. “Renaissance, Reformation and Mary Queen of Scots: Elizabeth I signs the death warrant”. Scotland’s History. Accessed 12 August 2016. http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/scotlandshistory/renaissancereformation/deathwarrant/index.asp

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Endnotes

[1] Dunn, Jane, Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. 2004, 22.

[2] Ibid, 22-23.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 92.

[6] Ibid, 23.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 169.

[9] Ibid, 171.

[10] Ibid, 180.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, 206.

[13] Ibid, 215.

[14] Goodare, Julian, ‘Queen Mary’s Catholic Interlude’, in Mary Stewart Queen in Three Kingdoms: Innes Review, vol. 37 (1987), p.158; Bain, Joseph (editor), Calendar of State Papers, Scotland: Volume 2, 1563-69. London, England: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1900, p. 161 no. 181. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/scotland/vol2

[15] Bain, Joseph, ed., Calendar of State Papers, Scotland, vol. 2 (1900), p. 184. Randolph to Bedford, 28 July 1565; Education Scotland: Foghlam Alba, “Renaissance, Reformation and Mary Queen of Scots: Lord Darnley”. Scotland’s History. Accessed 17 August 2016. http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/scotlandshistory/renaissancereformation/lorddarnley/index.asp

[16] Daniel, William S, History of The Abbey and Palace of Holyrood. Edinburgh, Scotland: Duncan Anderson, 1852, p. 67.

[17] Harrison, G.B, The Letters of Queen Elizabeth I. New York, NY: Funk & Wagnalls, 1968, p. 27.

[18] Dunn, 274.

[19] Upon hearing the news that her rival and cousin had fulfilled her dynastic duty in providing for the Scottish succession, giving birth to a boy who would one day, Elizabeth knew, succeed her as the first Stuart King of England, Elizabeth cried “the Queen of Scots is lighter of a fair son, and I am but barren stock!” (Ibid).

[20] Ibid, 283.

[21] Harrison, p. 49.

[22] Marcus, Leah S. et al, Elizabeth I: Collected Works. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000, p. 116.

[23] Ibid, 117.

[24] Dunn, 296.

[25] Ibid, 294, 297.

[26] Ibid, 296-297.

[27] Bain, Joseph, ed., Calendar of State Papers, Scotland, vol. 2 (1900), p. 331.

[28] Marcus et al, 118.

[29] Ibid, 118-119.

[30] Harrison, 51.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Dunn, 301.

[33] Bain, p. 331.

[34] Labanoff, A, Lettres de Marie Stuart, vol. 7. London, England: Dolman, 1852. Folio 212, M. Du Croc to Charles IX, 17 June 1567.

[35] Donaldson, Gordon, ed., The Memoirs of Sir James Melville of Halhill, Folio Society, London, 1969, 68-69.

[36] Dunn, 307.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid, 308.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid, 311.

[42] Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707, “Procedure: letters of demission from Mary queen of Scots: Act concerning the demission of the crown in favour of our sovereign lord and his majesty’s coronation”. University of St Andrews. 6 December 1567. Accessed 10 August 2016. http://www.rps.ac.uk/trans/1567/12/104

[43] Ibid.

[44] Bain, p. 363.

[45] Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707, “Procedure: letters of demission from Mary queen of Scots: Act concerning the demission of the crown in favour of our sovereign lord and his majesty’s coronation”.

[46] Dunn, 313.

[47] Ibid, 320; Strickland, Agnes, Life of Mary Queen of Scots. London: George Bell and Sons, 1888, 70.

[48] Strickland, 67-68.

[49] Dunn, 321.

[50] Strickland, 73.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid, 74.

[54] Dunn, 323.

[55] Dunn, 332.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Kesselring, K.J. The Northern Rebellion of 1569. London, England: Palgrave MacMillan UK, 2010, 119.

[58] Marcus et al, 122.

[59] McGrath, Patrick. Papists and Puritans under Elizabeth I. Poole, England: Blandford Press, 1967. 69.

[60] Wormald, Jenny. Mary, Queen of Scots: Power, Passion and a Kingdom Lost. London, England: Tauris Parke, 2001. 12.

[61] Marcus et al, 369.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Ibid, 370.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Ibid, 263.

[67] Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1998, 365.

[68] Pryor, Felix. Elizabeth I: Her Life in Letters. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003, 43.

[69] Weir, 363.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Ibid, 363-364.

[74] Ibid, 364.

[75] Ibid, 363.

[76] Ibid, 364.

[77] Ibid.

[78] Ibid.

[79] Ibid.

[80] Ibid.

[81] Ibid; Guy, John, My Heart is my Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots. London, England: Fourth Estate, 2004, 484-485; Fraser, Lady Antonia, Mary Queen of Scots. Amazon. New York, NY: Delta Book, Bantam Dell, 1993, 493.

[82] Weir, 367.

[83] Ibid.

[84] Ibid, 367-368.

[85] Harrison, 179-181.

[86] Ibid, 180; Weir, 366; Dunn, 393.

[87] Weir, 366, Dunn, 393.

[88] Harrison, 180; Dunn, 395.

[89] Harrison, 180.

[90] Ibid, 181; Dunn, 395-396; Weir, 369.

[91] Harrison, 181; Dunn, 396.

[92] Guy, 488.

[93] Weir, 369.

[94] Ibid.

[95] Ibid, 370.

[96] Weir, Alison, Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2003. 574.

[97] Ibid, 575.

[98] Lambeth Palace Library. “Mary Queen of Scots Execution Warrant Saved for the Nation”. Accessed 12 August 2016. http://www.lambethpalacelibrary.org/content/executionwarrant

[99] Weir, The Life of Elizabeth I, 372.

[100] Ibid, 373.

[101] Ibid, 373-374.

[102] Ibid, 372.

[103] Strickland, 436-437.

[104] Ibid, 437; Weir, The Life of Elizabeth I, 372.

[105] Bede, Cuthbert. Fotheringhay, and Mary, Queen of Scots. London, England: Simpkin, Marshall, and Co, 1886. 111-112.

[106] Education Scotland: Foghlam Alba. “Renaissance, Reformation and Mary Queen of Scots: Elizabeth I signs the death warrant”. Scotland’s History. Accessed 12 August 2016. http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/scotlandshistory/renaissancereformation/deathwarrant/index.asp

[107] Bede, 113.

[108] Ibid.

[109] Ibid, 114.

[110] Strickland, 441-442.

[111] Ibid.

[112] National Library of Scotland. “The last letter of Mary Queen of Scots”. French transcription. http://digital.nls.uk/mqs/letter1.html

[113] National Library of Scotland. “The last letter of Mary Queen of Scots”. English translation. http://digital.nls.uk/mqs/index.html

[114] Bede, 121.

[115] Ibid, 121-122.

[116] Ibid, 122.

[117] Ibid, 120.

[118] Weir, Alison, The Life of Elizabeth I, 378-79; Bede, 116.

[119] Weir, 379; Bede,

[120] Buckingham, Stanhope F. Memoirs of Mary Stuart: Queen of Scotland (Volume 2). London, England: Richard Bentley, New Burlington Street, 1844. 237-238.

[121] Bede, 123.

[122] Ibid, 122.

[123] Ibid, 123.

[124] Ibid.

[125] Ibid, 124.

[126] Weir, 379.

[127] Ibid.

[128] Bede, 126.

[129] Ibid.

[130] Ibid.

[131] Ibid.

[132] Ibid.

[133] Weir, 379.

[134] Bede, 127.

[135] Ibid, 127-128.

[136] Ibid, 128.

[137] Ibid, 129.

[138] Bede, 129; Weir, 379.

[139] Weir, 379; Bede 130.

[140] Bede, 139-140.

[141] Weir, 380.

[142] Bede, 130, 144-145.

[143] Ibid, 140.

[144] Weir, 381.

[145] Bede, 145.

[146] Bede, 145-146.

[147] Ibid.

[148] Weir, 382.

[149] Bede, 146.

[150] Weir, 381.

[151] Ibid.

[152] Ibid, 382.

Creative Writing Prompt 1: The Quiet Ascent

The Quiet Ascent: Finding Noetic Meaning in Dynamic Silences

What cannot be said will be wept. – Sappho of Lesvos

This is one of those quotes that brings to mind all sorts of daily scenarios in interpersonal relationships. The give-and-take of any conversation which results in an uncertainty: does the other feel the same, does he or she relate to what I am saying, does he or she enjoy our exchange? Sometimes the doubt or uncertainty can be subtle; other times it can be profound. Each one of us has encountered these situations in our daily interactions with those closest to us, those known to us but not on an intimate level, and then, of course, the many strangers. A lingering glance unacknowledged. A smile left unreturned. A revealing word of deeper meaning or intent left unanswered. A word of concern left without reply.

As we try to process on a daily basis our interactions with other people – some of which give us joy, some of which give us anxiety, some of which simply give us general stress – we often fail to think of all of the processing that we don’t manage to do during the day. Even the most extroverted person, as I am, can only process so much when interacting with so many different people in a given twenty-four hours. Sometimes it is the most meaningful encounters we have in a day that allow us to experience brief periods of genuine joy, the kind that makes the rest of the day’s stresses vanish into the manageability of an adjusted perspective. Sometimes these encounters allow us to experience – later on, once the bustle of the day has died down – the quiet joy of silent contemplation, of constructive silence.

This positive, organic, naturally occurring reflection of one soul on the depth and immensity of what another person has said can awaken in the soul the quiet, higher spiritual joy that is the very essence of what gives any meaningful life solid purpose, and which is at the heart of the Christian faith in particular. These ‘little joys’ are, for we who are called to be ‘little Christs’, glimpses into the deeper mystagogical and symbolic reality of living the Faith – when we experience spiritual joy from our conversations with other human beings, whether they are our spouse, family, friend, or stranger, we are drawn inexplicably, unconsciously into the deeper joy of Christ who made us all.

Paradoxically, sometimes on a given day when we get so caught up in the minutia of simply going about the day’s business – our various responsibilities, tasks, duties, chores, deadlines, et cetera – we do not fully process what we either wished we had said or wish that someone had said to us. For any one of us who is noetically aware, for anyone who is spiritually alive and awakened to the use of the noetic faculties (the “eye of the heart” or the “heart of the soul”) vibrant within himself or herself, it is often in the still, quiet hours of the late night or even carrying over into the pre-dawn when all the world around us is asleep that we do begin to process what we could not earlier.

Often one of the most profound ways a human being does process the depth of the interactions he or she had earlier is through the quiet contemplation that results in the shedding of tears. I could speak to this on a scientific level – what it means for the brain, what is taking place in the moment when someone is crying, there are different kinds of tears and so many different reasons for weeping, of joy, of anxiety, of feeling overwhelmed by an emotional depth and breadth of a certain situation, and these can all cause tears to flow – but relating the original quote, the quote implies a person’s regret for not saying something that they felt deep down, or someone else not saying something that the person wished they had said.

It is often in these blessed moments when we are most truly alone, engaging in a healthy period of solitude, rather than loneliness (one can be alone and not be lonely, and one can be with other people yet feel lonely or detached) that the whole person – the body, soul, and spirit – naturally recharges. One of the most basic ways that anyone who is noetically aware is going to recharge is by contemplative silence. If we are frustrated or disappointed or anxious, or feeling regret about words left unsaid in a conversation we had, if we are upset for not saying something that we wish we had said, we all know what this can mean and how it plagues us. Reflecting on whether or not we said the right thing, whether or not we said the right thing correctly, whether or not we should have said something that we did not say – we come to see that words left unspoken, consigned to the inner heart of the soul, unexpressed publicly but still deeply there, will be wept.

CW The Quiet Ascent 2

I think this applies to words that come from the deeper nature within us, the deeper part of each person, that reflects man’s higher, divine attributes (In other words, that which animates us at the core of our being). If the words we say and use in a given conversion reflect that higher, divine love and consideration, we will experience profound spiritual joy in that conversation. If, however, we fear that we did not communicate what we wished to say in keeping with these higher attributes, or if we were hoping for the other to say something he or she did not, this often gives us cause to weep. If we fail to say something of the higher impulse within us, something that recognizes and speaks directly to the noble aspects of the other’s soul, that is something we will naturally regret. When we process that regret, and the very depth of the emotions and sentiments regarding the lack of saying that, we do so most naturally through the shedding of tears.

From an Orthodox perspective – St Silouan wrote about this quite frequently, and that is one of the primary reasons I was inspired to take him for my patron – it is a profound virtue and sign of noetic life and kenosis to weep for all of the world, as well as our own sins. Not to do so deliberately or ostentatiously, but simply to do so organically when moved and prompted by the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth. To reflect on our own sins, whatever they might be on a given day, and to reflect on the sins present in and afflicting the greater world – all of the ways people harm and fail each other, all of the ways people remain disconnected or disinterested in others’ sufferings – is entirely natural. To reflect on these things, I think, is a core part of being truly human in the highest sense of what that word actually means. To be truly human is not to sin and excuse the sin out of the idea that “we’re only human”, but to aspire to live, manifest, and reach toward the Eternal Good, to the divine love united to and contained and manifested in Christ, while ever recognizing our own fallibility and imperfections. To be human is to constantly strive, despite repeated failings, to ascend on the ladder, as we say, toward God, toward theosis – and to seek to raise oneself toward the heavenly in all things, in all ways, in synergy or cooperation with the Holy Spirit. As Lewis said, we are not truly divine sons of God unless we realize our God-given humanity, which raises us above the angelic ranks, and we are not truly human unless we realize that we are actually made, we exist, to become ever more divine like unto God Himself.

CW The Quiet Ascent 1

Taking this into account, words let unspoken, words left unsaid, that we wish we had said in an ‘angelic conversation’ which raises us and the other toward God together, are naturally a source of regret and, even, some lamentation. We only live as sojourners on this earth for such a time, and so amidst having, on a certain day, a certain number of routine interactions with the medley of people in our lives, to regret not saying something of great import in one of the exceptional interactions of the day is quite normal. We process that loss, that sense of a missed opportunity, often with the flowing of tears.

One of the greatest lies of secular modernity – an emotional and spiritual, and even psychological aspect of what the Russians call дегуманизация, dehumanizatsiya) – is the idea that somehow it is either weak or less ‘mature’ or ‘stable’ to weep in situations when the heart naturally laments. Obviously the death of a loved one is a time in which all human societies say it is acceptable to weep, but in cases of great joy as well, we have cause for weeping different tears; those of rejoicing. The quote refers more to tears of sadness and of an overflow of emotion, of pricks to the conscience or noetic stirrings. Truly, it is a man who is most animated by love for God who weeps in certain situations, not out of a misplaced passive sentimentality, but an active love for the world. Men and women naturally experience a greater animation, a greater earnestness, in talking with those who they esteem and love; thus, to regret not saying something is a natural response after such a discussion.

It is natural for man to experience wonder – all the awe-inspiring thoughts we have in certain conversations as we come to connect deeply with the other and know him or her better, and, of course, wonder and awe at the divine majesty which we encounter in the Church’s holy services and in the stunning beauty of the natural world. Man is made to delight in God’s creation, and above all to delight in His fellow-man as icons of the love and life that exists between the Persons of the Holy Trinity. The Lord made man for each other, and so by, to delight in each other and thereby draw closer to delight, corporately, in Him. In drawing closer to another, we draw closer to God insofar as our relationship with this person is a godly one. When we encounter God, touched by His grace directly in a noetically palpable way, or we are touched by the grace of another person – the grace of God flowing through that person – these experiences are also unspoken moments that are very much real and alive in our souls. They speak wordlessly to the soul; sometimes words deliberately left unspoken, words carefully omitted, give us greater cause for rejoicing, or for grief, than those explicitly stated.

CW The Quiet Ascent 4

Words unspoken yet understood nonetheless through silence may sound like thunder or a lion’s roar – they may give us cause for rejoicing, or weeping. An implied but delicately unexpressed spiritual affection of the highest order (philia – ‘affection’ being a rather pale, deflated translation, a cheapening of that concept) becomes a very real attraction to the soul of the person, to the nobility which par la grace de Dieu resides in that soul and animates its very being. Encountering such a noble soul is something which can move any man or woman to tears; when a soul encounters another soul of such beauty, that moves it to glorify God and respond with tears of astonishment and radiant joy. How can we not be moved by our interactions and exchanges with a person who – in their intelligence, their wit, or their thoughtfulness or compassion, or any combination of these things – reminds us of the higher order of things to which all of our souls naturally aspire? That is a natural and entirely human thing; the noble, God-loving soul is dawn to a noble, God-loving soul. This dance of souls, of budding attraction between two persons, is a chaste foretaste of the delights of marriage; an unspoken promise of the drawing ever-nearer to God with another person. This dance beckons us to the divine, as it itself reflects, like a light reflecting off a mirror, the love of God and His providence for each person.

When we perceive in another soul these intellectual sparks, these long-nourished flames, of the highest inspiration, we are in an imperfect yet very real way touching the divine, aspiring toward He who is beyond all yet in all, He who creates all from nothing and entreats us to unite to Him. The human soul is, like our God, no autonomous solitary monad; rather, the soul is meant, like the Persons of the Trinity to each other, to live eternally in loving relationship; we are exhorted as human beings to live in relationship to those around us, drawing, ideally, ever closer in webs of work, friendship, motherhood or fatherhood, and marriage. Along with communing of the Body and Blood of our Lord Himself, the love between two souls, between two people, is the most intimate spark or bond of the encounter with God that we can hope to have in this earthly life. God reveals Himself to us above all else in the Eucharist, but beyond that, yet very much connected to it, in and through other human beings. We are made for each other; God made us to delight in each other on every level of human existence, from the more intimate levels (the most intimate ‘little kingdom’ of husband and wife, and of parents and children, and then, still very close but radiating outward, the bonds of a true, high friendship, and then, beyond that, our neighbors and colleagues) to, finally, the outer – the many strangers we meet who are all made in His image.

The challenge is, as we process on a daily basis our interactions with those of all different spheres and reaches – those who are closest to us, those who are at an intermediate level, and then those who are on the outer periphery of our lives – to respond to so many stimuli in a given moment as best we can. Because of this necessary multitasking, which itself can be overwhelming or sometimes dehumanizing, the centering prayers – especially the Jesus Prayer – offer us a tremendous consolation to center our lives, our thoughts, and put things in the proper perspective. These prayers go a tremendous way in allowing us to recover our equanimity and our sense of inner peace after a day of tremendous stimulation and likely stress.

I initially viewed the quote as a negative one, hinting primarily at feelings of regret, but now I see a positive element: sometimes, as St Isaac says, we cannot approach God, or His presence in another person, with adequate words truly appropriate to or measuring the situation. We are left in a state of sublime wonder and adoration; the highest feelings we can have toward God when married with the three loves in their highest forms. On a microcosmic level, but still profoundly important, when we have that kind of higher love for someone, or for multiple people to differing degrees, then we are truly – as Lewis said – realizing our true ‘spiritual inheritance’ and potential as Christians, as little Christs. It is on that note that I think, ultimately, we are to aspire on a daily basis to ideally speak the words we wish to speak to others, and to appreciate, in profound contemplative silence, the breadth, the majesty, and the beauty of the words spoken to us by another noble soul, and all those in our lives who matter.

Language is one of the greatest gifts that man has; it is directly a gift from God. Human speech cannot ever perfectly praise Him, and so in moments when our languages themselves fail to adequately do so, as magnificent as they are, we resort firstly to using language married to sacred song, to music in which the nous and the voice of the heart pray as one, and then, when even chanting and hymnody fails to fully capture that magnificence and wonder of the Lord, we are silent. We have recourse to silence not as a consolation for estrangement or loneliness, but as a silence of intimate communion. Whether this is communion with God, or with a beloved friend or other such esteemed person, or with a spouse, or children or parents, it is that intimate communion relative to each circumstance and each person in our life to which we are called to aspire. We are called simultaneously to ascend and descend; as St Isaac wrote, to raise our noetic consciousness to “the place where thoughts dry up, and stirrings vanish…where human nature becomes serene, and is transformed as it stands in the other world”, and to bring this same refuge, this same eternal placidity and majesty, to all that we do in this life and all we meet. As St Seraphim of Sarov so beautifully remarked, the foremost goal of our lives as Christians is to acquire the Holy Spirit, and, by doing so, aid in the salvation of those around us.

To the noetically aware, words unspoken carry a meaning all their own, never audibly expressed yet clarion in their meaning. Words unspoken turning to weeping is a natural, emotive impulse in the human person, a reflection of the activity of the soul which wants to connect in the deepest possible way with every other person, and, as life goes on, particularly with those closest to it. We are, simply, to imitate the angels in our mortal conversations, as best we can, so as to have a better taste of the heavenly choirs which ceaselessly praise the King of kings. When we encounter a high soul, a noble soul, in a mortal body, whose soul cannot but rejoice, and weep either tears of joy for the growing bonds, or tears of woe for fear of any loss in the connection? In drawing closer to another, we draw closer to God, and any noble soul recognizes the nobility of another like it.

 

Follow my public Facebook page “Ryan Hunter – Historian”

Dear friends,

Here you may find and, if you wish, subscribe to my new public Facebook page! A number of you have suggested that it would be a good idea to set up a single place or forum where those interested could easily access all my published works. Currently I have over 60 articles published across a lengthy spectrum of academic subjects — from historical essays on English and Scottish monarchs to Orthodox Church history, culture, and politics. I have linked in the “About” section to the main websites where you may find most of my published writings. Here they are again:

My conversion narrative (the first part was written in June 2011, the rest between December 2011 and May 2012) describing my process of converting from Roman Catholicism to the Eastern Orthodox Church is in the process of being edited for publication as a print book, “Why Orthodoxy?” by Pokrov Publications.

My articles for The Crown Chronicles, one of Britain’s leading monarchist and royal news organizations:
http://www.thecrownchronicles.co.uk/author/ryantcc/

My articles for Pravoslavie.ru (English site), a popular Orthodox web site published through the historic and prominent Moscow Stretensky Monastery:
http://www.pravoslavie.ru/authors/4360.htm

My articles for the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative multi-denominational (ecumenical) think tank in Washington DC:
https://juicyecumenism.com/author/ryan-hunter/

My personal blog “Orthodox in the District”, which as of now has had over 134,000 readers from almost every country:
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Reassessing the complicated legacy of the much-maligned Mary Queen of Scots

I have often read and heard critics blaming Queen Mary Stuart (1542-1587, r de facto 1542-1567, de jure 1542-1587) for her perceived lack of ruthlessness and fatal inaction in not moving harshly or swiftly enough against her Protestant enemies in Scotland. While I agree that it would have been ideal had she been able to do these things, practically she never could have realistically hoped to have done so without bathing her kingdom in bloody religious wars. While I naturally would have liked to have seen Knox arrested and either executed or at least permanently exiled as a heretic and traitor, and her brother James Stewart, Earl of Moray tried, attainted, and beheaded as such after the Chaseabout Raid, the reality is that Mary had no large enough power base of her own in Scotland to carry out such justice. She simply had no political support system loyal to her and powerful enough to help her carry out such objectives to solidify her control and weaken or eliminate her enemies.

Had her mother the dowager Queen and Regent Marie de Guise (1515-60) lived just a year longer, to 1561, long enough for Mary to return home and receive command of her mother’s army of French troops, Mary could have had this powerful army at her back and either subdued the Calvinist Lairds of the Congregation, or at least forced them to tolerate Catholicism. Had Marie de Guise died at age 65 (1580) and not 45 (1560), and Mary been able to benefit from her brilliant political insight as a veteran political actor, Queen Mary almost certainly could have kept her throne, in part because Marie de Guise would have strongly pushed for a second French marriage for her widowed daughter and thus the disastrous Darnley marriage and all its problems could have been avoided.

Had Marie de Guise lived longer, and the majority of the Lowland Scots gentry and burghs thus not gone over so strongly to the Calvinist Reformation attempt of 1560, the Reformation could either have been avoided outright, defeated in the early 1560s with Catholic Highlanders’ and French armed support, or partly undone early on in Mary’s personal reign in Scotland. Even if Marie de Guise had died in 1561, with French troop support the young Queen Mary could conceivably have raised the Catholic Highland clans in a bloody religious war to massacre or drive out Lowland Protestant Scots — just as her hated mother-in-law Catherine de Medicis, widow of Henri II and mother of three French kings, did intermittently in France against the Huguenots.

Had Mary done this successfully, she might have kept her throne and even ultimately restored Catholicism in Scotland (allowing, in her characteristic leniency, for some religious toleration for Protestants like the future French king Henri IV de Bourbon) but it bears examining: at what cost could Mary have prevailed? Protestant critics damn her either way — her weakness and lack of ruthlessness enabled Moray and Knox to ultimately triumph and defeat and depose her. Yet what would they say and write had Mary openly defied them, worked to isolate them politically, and ultimately confronted them with arms?

The reality is that this aggressive course of action was never an option for Mary. In 1561, with no French troops to support her and no veteran, experienced politician mother to guide her in governing and establishing effective control over Scotland, the politically weak and isolated Mary, with few trustworthy allies and even less military strength at her disposal, diplomatically and sensibly chose to work toward maintaining an uneasy, fragile peace with Moray and Knox — in other words, with the new pro-English Reformation establishment– instead of risking civil war.

The extreme weakness of Mary’s political position from 1561 can be illustrated by the fact that, in the opening months of her personal reign in Scotland, the Queen’s Catholic chaplains were set upon by a violent Calvinist Edinburgh mob inflamed by Knox’s preaching, and the priests were nearly torn to pieces for the “capital offense” of offering Mass for their Sovereign Queen’s worship. What had been the State religion of Scotland in 1559 was, two years later, banned and outlawed. Thus, only a year after the tenuous, English (and thus, Elizabeth)-backed establishment of the Calvinist Kirk, the young Catholic Queen Mary could barely worship freely in her own country! In this same time period, Mary felt obliged to permit the heretic Knox to lecture her about her “Romish superstitions and idolatry”, and effectively allowed the Calvinist Kirk, her ideological enemy, to shore up its power in the Lowlands. Mary thus, essentially, tragically recognized the brutal Scottish Reformation that had occurred only a year earlier as a fait accompli.

Why did she do this? The Queen clearly felt she had no better or realistic alternatives besides accepting the status quo as she found it. Arriving in Edinburgh after over a decade of exile in France, where she had been queen consort to François II, Mary had no real political power base loyal to her in Scotland in 1561. She was, culturally, a Frenchwoman, and many of her subjects, especially Protestants, regarded her with suspicion as a foreigner. Abroad, Catholic Valois France was now ruled de jure by her young brother-in-law Charles IX, but governed de facto by her hateful mother-in-law the regent Catherine de Medicis, under whom the Guise Catholic League and Huguenots would soon become embroiled in bloody religious wars. To the south, newly-Protestant England under her cousin Elizabeth (previously Catholic under Mary I Tudor, but now once again Anglican since November 1558) had actually worked before Mary’s 1561 return to Scotland to actively undermine the regent Marie de Guise and the Catholic Scottish-French “Auld Alliance”. Elizabeth herself had politically, financially, and intellectually supported the Scottish Reformation and invaded Scotland to weaken Mary’s mother and her French alliance, and thus the English Queen was hardly going to support any attempt by Mary to reimpose Catholicism, restore the Auld Alliance, or weaken the new Protestant Kirk in any way.

Perhaps, by affecting a politique conciliatory approach toward the Lairds and the Kirk til she managed to build up her own political support base to oppose them, Mary hoped to bide her time and ultimately isolate and outmaneuver Moray and outlive Knox and then begin, having raised Prince James as a Catholic, to gradually undo the Reformation. Alas, she never could, and thus it is hardly surprising that the baby James VI’s first regents were his mother’s enemies: his paternal grandfather Lennox, Darnley’s father, and his half-uncle, Mary’s great enemy and half-brother the cunning bastard Moray. The vile Knox preached the main sermon at the baby king’s spurious coronation, which, despite his mother baptizing him a Catholic, was done according to Kirk rites.

Remember, a forced abdication as Queen Mary’s was — signed at knifepoint at Loch Leven castle immediately after she miscarried twins by Bothwell — is completely legally invalid. Thus, from a monarchist perspective, Mary remained the sole and rightful Scottish Sovereign and queen regnant until her equally unlawful execution, a regicide, at Elizabeth’s orders on 8 February 1587.

Protestant critics of Mary from 1567 through to today blame her, also, for not doing enough to punish Rizzio and Darnley’s killers. Again, practically, what could she have done? Her own horrid, feckless husband Darnley actively supported and colluded in the first murder, a murder which seriously endangered Mary’s life as well as her pregnancy with the future James VI. As for the second murder, which Queen Mary was slanderously accused of having either participated in or directed via the forged Casket Letters, the act itself, and her subsequent defense of, likely rape by, and politically disastrous marriage to Bothwell all served the ends of those who wished to overthrow her. Effectively, the Darnley murder enabled her Protestant enemies — chiefly Moray, Knox, and Buchanan — to produce the effective political propaganda — Mary as Jezebel, siren, as adulterer and murderess — needed to further isolate, delegitimize, and ultimately (illegally) depose her by July 1567.

The reality is that sadly, in 1561, Queen Mary, unlike Elizabeth in 1558, had terribly disobedient subjects among the effective leaders of Scotland; their goals and interests were diametrically opposed to her political and literal survival. She returned to her kingdom only a year after the violent Calvinist Reformation, in which many centuries of Roman Catholic religious art, architecture, liturgical and musical patrimony, and local traditions were abruptly destroyed and iconoclastically overturned in the wake of Mary’s mother Marie de Guise’s untimely death.

It cannot be emphasized enough that the new Calvinist de facto rulers of Scotland in power at the time Mary returned to her kingdom in 1561 as the young, widowed queen dowager of France — the Lairds of the Congregation led by Moray and the vile Knox — all had strong and obvious political, ideological, and material interests in toppling her from the throne as soon as possible. Removing Mary would enable the Lairds and their allies in the new Kirk to preserve and strengthen their extremely new, vulnerable Protestant establishment by ensuring that the young Catholic Queen was deposed before she could become powerful enough to undermine or oppose them. This would in turn ensure that her baby son and heir would be raised a Protestant and taught to hate her. James’ long minority would free them to continue to appropriate large sums from the national treasury, especially the vast, illegally and violently acquired, looted wealth of confiscated monasteries, abbeys, stripped cathedrals, shrines, and church benefices.

In hindsight, it certainly seems a shame that Queen Mary did not act swiftly to arrest Rizzio’s murderers and execute them to reestablish a degree of political authority, but one must seriously ask: Who would have obeyed her order to arrest them, and how could she have ensured their conviction? Most of the leading Scots nobles at her court either wanted Rizzio dead, lost nothing by his death, or had actively conspired toward his murder. Probably only Bothwell was personally loyal enough to the Queen to have dared to arrest these murderous lairds, but he, one man without a great clan army at his back, would hardly have been able to deal with all her enemies.

In all seriousness, one must remember that the idea of any armed Englishmen bursting in on Queen Mary Tudor or Queen Elizabeth I dining at supper and holding a gun to her stomach, and proceeding to stab to death one of her closest male friends and advisors was *unthinkable*. The Scottish crown in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries simply didn’t possess the same level of enforceable political authority as did the English crown, nor did the Scots monarchs enjoy the same kind of personal security, inviolability, or prestige as did the English monarchs after 1485 when Richard III of York fell in battle to Henry VII Tudor at Bosworth Field. From Henry VII’s accession-by-conquest in 1485 to Henry VIII’s death in 1547, England enjoyed over half a century of rule by adult kings who were usually powerful enough to keep their leading nobles under control either through careful patronage and politicking or overt force.

Scotland’s vying noble houses and factions, on the other hand, consistently maneuvered politically to their own ends at the Crown’s expense. While England had its own share of murdered monarchs and forced abdications (Edward II, Richard II, Henry VI, and the princes in the tower including Edward V), in Scotland literally *all* of Mary’s recent predecessors as kings from James I onward had either died in battle (or shortly thereafter) or been murdered. This meant that for most of the fifteenth century and all of the sixteenth, Scotland’s monarchs ascended the throne as infants, with the effective rule of the country in the hands of successive partisan, factional and self-interested regents. After 1485, no English King died in battle or by murder; in contrast, James III was murdered in 1488, leaving his minor son as heir, while James IV himself died in battle at Flodden in 1513. James V thus became King as a babe and himself died of psychological collapse in 1542 following a devastating loss to the English at Solway Moss and the depressing news that his queen had given birth to a daughter.

Mary’s paternal forebears James I and James III had both been murdered, while both her father James V and grandfather James IV came to actually rule only after long, highly factional, divisive, and partisan minorities. Thus, compared to her English paternal great-uncle Henry VIII and her cousins Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I, as Queen of Scots, Mary Stuart simply didn’t have a comparable level of actual, real command over Scots nobles, nor of practical political power and enforceable royal authority, as did these English sovereigns over their nobles.

It is true that Moray and Elizabeth’s chief Privy Councilor Cecil were essentially working in tandem to orchestrate every aspect of Mary’s eventual downfall, and profiting from and exploiting her political missteps (chiefly marrying Darnley, not executing Moray, and sparing and then marrying Bothwell). Had Mary done the sensible thing and left Scotland for France in 1568, she likely would have lived in comfortable retirement on her dower estates into old age, perhaps remarried to a rich, powerful French prince or become an abbess like her aunt Renee. Had she done the latter, she would have certainly died in her bed. Had she done the former, she perhaps might have launched an armed attempt to retake her throne with eventual French or Spanish military and financial support. She may well have been successful at retaking Scotland and reclaiming her throne, especially in the 1570s when James was still young and his regents divided among themselves. Yet by 1568, when confronted with the life-altering decision of where to flee, Mary had few allies still in power in France: the hostile Catherine de Medicis remained in effective control and offered her no real support, and the Queen Regent viewed Mary’s powerful Guise family as just as dangerous to her sons’ crown as the Huguenots. Thus, a French welcome for the exiled Mary was hardly guaranteed in 1568, and, had Mary sailed for France, she could potentially have faced house arrest or internal exile on Catherine’s orders. The other alternative was of course the one Mary ultimately chose to take: England, and Elizabeth. Why did she make this decision which, in hindsight, seems so fatal?

Perceptions of a man or woman’s honor meant a great deal in early modern Europe, and a person’s honor was held to reflect on their family’s status, dignity, and prestige (hence why Scots law and custom at the time obliged a rape victim — such as Mary probably was — to marry her attacker). This prioritization of honor was especially the case among kings and queens and great nobles; note that this valuing of honor does not mean that all rulers and nobles actually *were* truly virtuous and honorable, but that they all felt they had to be *seen* as such in order to maintain their prestige and dignity. Hence why at the height of the Darnley murder scandal, Elizabeth repeatedly wrote to Mary expressing her grave concern for Mary’s life, but especially for her honor — -her reputation which had been so sullied by the rumors of her alleged complicity in her husband’s murder. Thus, in 1568, Mary could not possibly have conceived that her own flesh and blood, her friendly sister monarch Queen Elizabeth, was capable of being so deceitful as to first detain and then ultimately imprison her once she arrived in England seeking assistance to regain her lost throne. Elizabeth’s audacious actions toward Mary– refusing to see her in person, keeping her detained in northern castles, staging a stacked hearing to purportedly determine the authenticity of the Casket Letters, and ultimately holding her sister queen prisoner — not just Elizabeth’s ultimate decision to bring Mary to trial and execute her — outraged Catholic Europe at the time precisely because they were seen as being so dishonorable.

On repentance, forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation

You have already asked what love is. Forgiveness is just as difficult. Learn to pity, and find, if not justification, then an explanation for the actions of those who have hurt you, and always put yourself in the place of these people. Hatred only burns you. Do not seek justice from God, but seek mercy. If we are to be judged, we are all condemned. But through mercy and grace we are forgiven and loved.
Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (1914-2003)

To forgive means to restore a bond of love and communion when there has been a rupture. Sin ruptures our relationship with God and others, as also do offenses taken and given among people. When the bond is broken with other people, we tend to objectify them and judge them, not seeing them as persons, but only as objects of our anger and hurt. This is our sinful reaction. We categorize people in terms of their transgression against us. The longer we nurture the anger and alienation, the more deeply the resentment takes hold in our heart, and the more it feeds on our soul.

Reconciliation presupposes forgiveness. If we forgive someone, we need to be open to reconciliation, if possible. Reconciliation is forgiveness in action—the actual restoration of the interpersonal bond between two people, in mutual acceptance of each other for who each one is. Forgiveness and reconciliation can lead to a stronger bond than previously existed. Each time an offense occurs, we can learn more about both the other and ourselves. This can lead to a deeper knowledge and understanding of each by the other, and thus can also lead to a more authentic bond of intimacy. Reconciliation should always be the goal.

– Metropolitan Jonah, then a hieromonk and Abbot of the monastery of St John near Manton, California, in an interview with the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America on “Forgiveness and Reconciliation”.

As my spiritual mother and father have both said to mewhat is the Gospel without forgiveness? The very incarnation of the Lord Himself stems from it — it’s right there in John 3:16. Christ forgives all-comers again and again and again in all the Scripture accounts we have of His life — and married, inextricably, to that forgiveness, that absolution, is redemption and healing of soul, mind, spiritual core or consciousness (nous), and body. The entirety of the Church’s message — which always has been, and remains, Christ’s message — is of forgiveness for sins. But what is needed before forgiveness to occur is repentance — the Greek word is “metanoia” (μετάνοια), literally “to change one’s mind” or “to turn around”. So, true forgiveness is completely married to and inseparable from true repentance. For the wronged person to be able to forgive the offense(s) against him or her, the person who wronged them must sincerely regret what they have done, turn from such behaviour, and, literally, turn away from the sinful deed or thought or mentality, and to God. The wrongdoer must appeal to God for mercy and absolution, but also to the person he or she has wronged.

Only in a mutual, self-sacrificing love for God can true forgiveness occur between two people. When one party refuses to repent, no real forgiveness can occur, and without repentance and forgiveness, no real reconciliation can take place — and thus, no true healing. The entirety of Christ’s ministry was a mercy to the world — not just His voluntary death and harrowing of Hell, so that we might live eternally, but, indeed, His entire earthly effort was to preach repentance and forgiveness so that the whole world might know healing reconciliation, the overcoming of sinful passions, and true redemption and liberation from being in bondage to these passions to freedom in, through, and by Christ.

Think of one of Christ’s most well-known examples of forgiveness — He saved the life of the guilty woman about to be stoned to death for adultery, but after He saves her, He doesn’t just tell her “what you did is fine, keep on sinning”! No, instead, He says “Go and sin no more”. This is the kernel of this particular Gospel story. Christ gives her life, he allows her to physically live and carry on, so that she, in gaining earthly freedom, might undergo real repentance and transformation and flee from her sins. Thus, dying to our sins, so to speak, we have, in Christ, especially through His sacraments/Mysteries in the Church, the freedom and grace to rise anew and repent, and cleave instead to Him and all that is holy and saving.

Think of confession and the abundant, palpable grace we receive in our souls. Then the grace we receive in all the other sacraments — Baptism, Chrismation, and especially the Lord’s own Body and Blood. So, if we hope for the Lord to forgive us, how can we hold anger and hatred in our heart? We must forgive out of genuine Christlike love if we ourselves hope to be forgiven.

That being said, abuse of any kind is never justified or justifiable. Certain cases of abuse — physical, emotional, etc — are cases where we can choose to forgive and not allow ourselves to become consumed with hate for the person who has abused and hurt us, but that does not mean we can or should accept abusive treatment. Trust in any human relationship must be earned, and once lost, the person who was in the wrong needs to earn it back gradually if she or he wishes for any kind of reconciliation. Ultimately, the decision to forgive is not a right the abuser has, but a gift, an honor, and a grace only the wronged person can ever possibly bestow with their own healing and God’s grace and mercy. An abuser has no right for automatic forgiveness, especially when they repeatedly hurt the person.

An abuser must ask for forgiveness, and only with genuine repentance can they ever hope to earn it — above all by stopping any abuse, and letting the victim leave if she or he wishes. Any abusive treatment blasphemes God Himself, since He made every man and woman in His ineffable image. So, if a man hits his wife, for instance, he has committed a kind of blasphemy against God by spitting in the face of his marriage — he attacks the woman he has sworn to love, honor, and protect, and therefore attacks himself, since he and she have become one flesh. There are so many reasons the Church in her mercy sanctions and blesses divorce as a sad but sometimes necessary thing — she is not so barbarous as to try to preserve as a fiction what no longer exists. But likewise, she urges the abuser to repent and change, and prays that the wronged person will not hate, and will be able to ultimately forgive. She urges reconciliation where possible, and, where this is impossible, she blesses separation for the preservation of the dignity, spiritual life, and often the physical safety of the abused person in the marriage. This is the definition and very embodiment of therapeutic, salvific, and healing — of true and careful stewardship of human souls and bodies.

Forgiveness

Whether you, reader, are married and suffering in an abusive marriage, or, God forbid, you are reading this and realize you yourself are the abuser, run to the Church and in her mercy she can and will help you, above all else in the sacramental life. Whether you are an abusive parent, a wayward child, or a dishonest boyfriend or girlfriend, you are not beyond redemption. We all need the same redemption through Christ. Seek the Church’s timeless wisdom in the counsel of her priests in confession. Do violence to no one, and if you have done violence, repent of it with all your heart and soul. Value the other — whether the ‘other’ is your husband or wife, your child, your co-worker, your mother or father — and see above all else in them the ineffable image of the God who made us all. Learn to practice and live out, as far as you are able, Christ’s all-merciful co-suffering love. Tremble to inflict even the most minor of suffering on your fellow icon of God. Strive in all your relationships to follow in the footsteps of that “great cloud of witnesses”, the triumphant saints of the Church, in practicing the highest, ancient Christian virtues, whose purpose is to bring us to God in noetic ascent, to manifest His love for all people and all the world, and to heal all our relationships by our active cooperation with His saving grace. As one of the greatest modern Serbian saints and elders wrote on how to bring “divine love” — the love which radiates as the energy of the Holy Trinity — into all human relationships:

Patience, forgiveness and joy are the three greatest characteristics of divine love. They are characteristics of all real love – if there is such a thing as real love outside divine love. Without these three characteristics, love is not love. If you give the name ‘love’ to anything else, it is as though you were giving the name ‘sheep’ to a goat or a pig.

St. Nikolai Velimirovic (1881-1956)

Letter to a formerly Orthodox friend who became a Roman Catholic

To an agnostic-turned Orthodox friend who left Orthodoxy for Catholicism at the time of his marriage to a Roman Catholic. December 2015.
Dear  _______,
Congratulations on your marriage! Many years! I hope you both are doing well. I appreciate your thoughtfully detailed comments. I am in the midst of exams, so I will respond to your specific points in more detail later.
I remember that at a Bible study Metropolitan Jonah was hosting at St Mark’s OCA parish in Bethesda some years ago, probably late fall 2013, you commented that you hadn’t felt Christ truly present when you communed of the Eucharist. That always astounded and saddened me, since it was entirely the opposite of my own experience upon becoming Orthodox. I hope and pray you did come to experience Him noetically while you were still Orthodox, or, if not, that you have begun to experience this when communing now as a Catholic. I fell in love with Orthodoxy above all else because I encountered Christ in a way I never had as a Roman Catholic. I saw Him acting and alive in the Orthodox around me, in the beauty, truth, and majesty of the divine services, and in the words of her Saints and the ancient Fathers’ writings which simply breathe grace. Immersed in living (and failing repeatedly to live up to) Orthodoxy, God touched my soul and illumined my heart in a way I had never encountered as a Catholic. Time and again since becoming Orthodox, I have experienced profound grace and God’s healing (salvific and therapeutic) presence, mainly through moments in church, communing of the Eucharist, reading the Bible and the Fathers’ writings, talking with the poor, and in deep noetic prayer. I pray that you have found and continue to enounter Christ in this real, intimate way, above all in your marriage and in becoming a Catholic. Although I naturally was sorry to hear you had left Orthodoxy, and am grieved for you, I respect you too much to think you could ever make such a decision lightly.
I guess I’m wondering: what inspired you to leave Orthodoxy for Rome? Are you predominantly worshiping now according to one of the Roman Rites (Ordinary Form/Novus Ordo Missae/Mass of Pope Paul VI, or the Extraordinary Form/Tridentine Latin Mass) or one of the Eastern rites? I have several Melkite and Ukrainian Greek Catholic friends, so I couldn’t help but wonder which rite(s) you and your wife decided on in terms of worship.
A major factor for me in moving from Roman Catholicism (my faith for the first 21 years of my life) to Orthodoxy was not so much the papal claims in theory (these were problematic enough) so much as what I saw as their utter failure in practice. By this I mean: it’s all well and good and right (and apostolic) to have the Pope of Rome serve as the “servant of servants”, as St Gregory the Great called himself. The Pope ought to be Primus in rank and Protos in authority and honor, exercising a supreme archpastoral role, presiding in love, mediating conflicts between local Churches (jurisdictions), etc. I and most Orthodox would welcome this someday. Metropolitan John Zizioulas has written superbly in this area (a man whom Metropolitan Kallistos Ware has recently and publicly referred to as the best Orthodox theologian alive today).
To be honest — this may surprise you — the papal claims themselves aren’t nearly as unnerving as what many of my Orthodox friends call among ourselves “the L factor”. Both the papal claims and “the L factor” are supremely interrelated — the latter could never have taken place without such a concentration of power over the fate of the sacred liturgy itself in the papacy’s hands. We are terrified — genuinely — and deeply concerned more than anything else about the radical innovations which have taken place in Rome’s liturgical worship since the implementation of the Novus Ordo Missae/Mass of Pope Paul VI beginning in 1969. Put simply, Pope Benedict’s well-intended but, I believe, ultimately futile efforts to defend the Ordinary Form as a valid Mass when properly and reverently offered does not convince me. Where the Holy Father insists on defending both the Mass of Pope Paul VI and the Tridentine Mass as equally valid forms of the Roman liturgy, as much as I respect him, I can’t accept this view. Rather than accept his earnest contention that faithful Catholics must try to understand, reform, and improve the Novus Ordo rite through a “hermeneutic of continuity”, Benedict himself admitted to observing with alarm a noticeable “hermeneutic of rupture” between the 1969 Missal/Ordinary Form and the previous, organically developed missals of the Roman Mass. In his Introduction to the French edition of The Reform of the Roman Liturgy by Msgr. Klaus Gamber, then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote:

  What happened after the [Second Vatican] Council was something else entirely: in the place of the liturgy as the fruit of development came fabricated liturgy. We abandoned the organic, living process of growth and development over centuries and replaced it, as in a manufacturing process, with a fabrication, a banal on-the-spot product (produit banal de l’instant). [Introduction by Cardinal Ratzinger to La Reforme Liturgique en question (Le-Barroux: Editions Sainte-Madeleine), 1992, pp. 7-8.]

Bearing this in mind, how can we Orthodox possibly consent to lowering and denigrating the Divine Liturgy and our other ancient, holy services and admit, as Pope Benedict and certainly Pope Francis would have us do, that the Mass of Pope Paul VI — as it is commonly and usually offered — is on the same level as the Orthodox divine services when spiritually, noetically, and liturgically it simply and obviously isn’t? How can we be seriously be expected to say that the Novus Ordo, as usually offered, is right glory and right worship truly befitting God when so often its celebration is marked with profound irreverence, liturgical abuse, and an overall Protestant atmosphere? How am I, or anyone with eyes to see and noses to smell and ears to hear, supposed to seriously believe that a solemn, reverent High Church Anglican service is supposed to count as less valid in God’s eyes than the most sloppily offered Ordinary Form Mass? Because one is offered in communion with Rome, and the other not?
Such a claim astonishes me in both its sweeping arrogance and its utter dismissal of the crucial importance virtues like beauty, reverence, solemnity, and dignity play in leading and beckoning the worshiper to God. All these things, Rome says, matter less than being in communion with one man. How can you expect me to explain to my Russian or Greek or Antiochian friends that the Novus Ordo Mass as commonly offered is, in Rome’s view, actually equal to the Divine Liturgy? Even if liturgical abuse were not nearly as widespread as it is among so many Novus Ordo parishes, these kinds of abuses should not be taking place at all. Yet these abuses have gone on for decades with little to no real interference from Rome, because, I suspect, she values 1) even a nominal communion with her See no matter how skin-deep or threadbare, and 2) Novus Ordo parishioners’ continued tithes rather than risking driving them from the pews by restoring traditional, reverent worship to replace what they’ve gotten used to since 1969, all over an actual fidelity to orthodox, organically developed Catholic worship and spiritual tradition.
How can you justify these liturgical abuses or explain them away, when many of them take place with the full knowledge and support of local Catholic bishops and archbishops, even the papacy itself?
To illustrate my point, think on the sad reality that every year the horrifically irreverent Los Angeles Religious Education Congress occurs, sponsored by the L.A. Archdiocese, one of the nation’s largest, and attended by numerous faithful laity, priests, and bishops, including the Archbishop himself. Far from only occurring in a few tiny, marginalized liberal name-only Catholic parishes such as this one in Seattle, these liturgical abuses are taking place at major stadium events, major “valid but illicit” Masses celebrated with the full knowledge and blessing of Church leaders as high as the L.A. Archbishop himself. You then might say, in defense of Rome, “well at least this wrong, unfortunate toleration of liturgical abuse and error is only a problem among liberal bishops and archbishops. At least it does not extend all the way up to the Papacy itself!” Sadly, Rome is entirely complicit in not only allowing such abuses and turning a blind eye, but as recent as 2011, the man who is now the Pope of Rome himself happily presided over a “Children’s Mass” replete with liturgical abuse. Think on the sad reality that in this public “Children’s Mass” celebrated in Argentina in 2011, the presiding celebrant was none other than then-serving Buenos Aires Cardinal and Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis.
According to the video,
El 15 de octubre de 2011 se realizó la Misa Arquidiocesana de Niños en el Estadio del Parque Roca. La jornada se llenó de sol y alegría con la participación de muchísimos niños acompañados por sus catequistas, dirigentes y delegados. La Misa fue presidida por el Cardenal Jorge Bergoglio.
[My translation] On the 15th of October 2011 was celebrated the Archdiocesan Children’s Mass in the Parque Roca stadium. The day was filled with sunshine and joy with the participation of many children accompanied by their catechists, leaders and delegates. The Mass was presided over by Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio.
Think of the reality that not only was this event somehow seen, indefensibly, as a proper form of catechetical instruction for Catholic youth, but that the man who is now the Roman Pope, allegedly the Vicar of Christ Himself, willingly presided over such a Mass! How does this kind of banal, ugly worship lead anyone to salvation? Yet we Orthodox are often accused of chauvinism and triumphalism (“our liturgical life could never get that bad!”). We are somehow expected to “mind our own house” and not express our horror that, were we to reunite with Rome anytime soon, we would be obliged and expected to accept as entirely legitimate this kind of “worship” as a valid Mass! This is theological-liturgical minimalism — “let’s set a low baseline standard of what has to take place in a service for it to be counted as a valid Mass. The rest doesn’t matter”. This overly permissive, I would argue fundamentally lazy attitude to offering the Eucharistic liturgy could not be more estranged from the ancient Orthodox phronema which holds instead that we are to offer the most beautiful, glorious, reverent, and majestic worship to our King and Creator. Man’s primary purpose, his intrinsic end, is to worship God and grow closer to Him — so how can such irreverent, minimalist  “I guess this is good enough to count as valid” worship be pleasing to Him? Why do we presume to offer anything less than the most beautiful and sublime worship to God?
Perhaps the sad truth is that we, Rome and the Orthodox, have gradually, in the past millennium of intermittent levels of cultural and liturgical and theological estrangement, but more rapidly in the past five decades, developed apart from each other fundamentally different understandings of what true beauty and true sublime worship actually are, and thus, we sincerely believe in worshiping God in very different ways? From an Orthodox perspective, this chasm has only occurred because Rome, by giving a primacy of emphasis to her political and jurisdictional claims, has tragically over centuries cut herself off from her organic roots, from the single, united deposit of apostolic Faith and post-Nicene worship which defined the pre-Schism Church, East and West. (Let us leave the Arians and Nestorians and Non-Chalecedonians aside here, since both Rome and the Orthodox view these divisions as ruptures by heretical groups from and out of the one Catholic Orthodox Church). Thus we Orthodox are forced to ask, especially when we walk into most Novus Ordo liturgies and are confronted with the spectacle of what is clearly another faith separate from our own: what have we carried on and preserved which Rome has lost, and what has Rome accrued and accepted which we reject as, at best, unhelpful, and at worst, heretical? There is, I believe, a close interconnection between the two components.
I understand and have processed the intellectual draw of the papacy and its claims, yet all my research using numerous patristic sources and Greek language scholars over the past five years supports an Orthodox understanding of the papacy (pre-Schism), an understanding which is very different from how Rome has gradually come to define its understanding of the proper universal powers and role of the papacy from 1213-15 (Fourth Lateran), to  Trent (1545-63), to Vatican I (1868-70) and Vatican II (1962-65), and of course in the latest edition of the constantly updated Catechism (CCC).
Fundamentally, I believe that the Orthodox are correct in arguing that the Roman papacy has evolved its theological views, and more recently ruptured its ancient, inner liturgical life, to become, since the Schism gradually became reality, something now which it was not prior. Put another way, the papacy tragically claims today for itself a degree of absolute spiritual authority and power which it simply did not always have.
Then you have the disturbing theological and pastoral implications of Rome’s opposing approach to chrismation/confirmation between the Roman and Eastern rites. Rome delays confirmation and communion in the two Roman rites, but now encourages and supports the ancient Catholic and Orthodox practice of chrismating and communing infants among Byzantine and other sui iuris Eastern Catholic Churches. This disparity is extremely disturbing to me. How can they both be right? Regarding ministering chrismation and communion to infants, it is either an apostolic, orthodox practice and therefore essential for the good of the young souls being chrismated and then communing, or it is, on the other hand, wrong to offer confirmation and communion, as the Scholastics argued, to those who could not begin to rationally discern what they were consuming. One approach being right/orthodox logically and rationally necessitates the other one being wrong/heterodox. That Rome endeavors to try to allow and maintain these two fundamentally contradictory approaches to such major questions is to me astonishing, and reinforces my belief that she values maintaining communion with her to the great expense of any notion of enforcing orthodox of belief and practice. My same concern applies with equal weight to the Latin/Western Church’s longstanding custom (with almost the force of law) since the 13th century of requiring celibacy vows of all priests. This innovation goes against the pre-13th century universal practice in West and East alike of married clergy (excluding monks who were always celibate, from whose ranks bishops in the East are selected). There are numerous other examples of Rome departing from the pre-Schism practices of the Church, but for time’s sake i will not delve into them here. Suffice it to say that, far from serving as the universal conservator of Truth and the early apostolic and pre-Schism Faith, Rome seems to have become a great innovator and enabler of new theological ideas, customs, and pastoral practices.
Far worse, in my estimation, the Magisterium has colossally failed in the past fifty years (since the conclusion of the nebulous, much-misinterpreted and much-misunderstood Second Vatican Council and the subsequent issuing by Pope Paul Sixtus of the revised, much abbreviated Roman Missal) to preserve intact the most basic and important of all things — orthodox, reverent, holy Catholic worship. Isn’t it a scandal that something like the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress exists, much less that it is so expensive and yet continues to be held and publicized annually? I was raised in the Novus Ordo/Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. I attended two parishes when I was a child and went to Mass every Sunday with my family, one parish from 1990-1997 when I was in northern VA and then one in suburban Long Island, NY from 1997-2010, when I started exclusively going to Orthodox divine services. These churches were both very modern, ugly (built, of course, in the 60s), and everything there was conscientiously done to adhere to the so-called, nebulous, somehow decidedly progressive “Spirit of Vatican II”.
The vast majority of Masses offered by the Catholic Church today are Novus Ordo (Mass of Pope Paul VI/Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite). I know that the Revised Missal’s rubrics prescribe great reverence, assume that the priest is celebrating ad orientem and using incense, defend the continued pride of place of Gregorian chant and the organ to the exclusion of “secular” instruments and music bands. Yet visit most OF/NO parishes around the Catholic world and this is never the case. Ask yourself: why and how is this? What is the purpose of the Pope’s supposedly universal spiritual authority and jurisdiction if not precisely to enforce such rubrics’ liturgical orthodoxy, while working to forbid and prohibit liturgical abuse and innovations?
Every year I dread going to Western Christmas Eve Mass with my mom and sisters because of how fundamentally Protestantized, how “happy clappy”, how fundamentally irreverent and banal the ethos of the service is, how ugly the building is, etc. I try so hard to find beauty there, but compared to Orthodox worship it is like night and day. Beauty points to holiness and witnesses to and conveys inner spiritual truths. Its absence is jarring to me. 
The “Spirit of Vatican II” as interpreted by theologically progressive liberal bishops and priests has been devastating to Catholic orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Where is Rome in all this? What has Rome done to restore proper, orthodox Catholic catechism, discipline flagrantly heretical, progressive”social justice warrior” priests and nuns such as the defiant LCWR groups, and encourage the restoration of dignified, reverent, orthodox worship in its Ordinary Form? Pope Benedict’s “New Evangelization” was laudable, but all of his efforts seem to be quietly, and sometimes not so quietly opposed, by his perplexing successor. This highlights another major vulnerability to the papal Church’s governmental structure — one more traditional, orthodox Catholic pope can work so diligently to reform and undo decades of poor catechism and liturgical abuse, but then his more liberal successor can in turn undermine, slow, or undo all his efforts. The hypercentrality of the Papacy–which has the practical effect of rendering all Catholic diocesan bishops worldwide as essentially little more than deputies or vicars of the Pope, who thus becomes the only one true ruling bishop– has the major liability of allowing successive popes to greatly disrupt, interfere with, and disturb the organic liturgical life of the Church via papal fiat, Vatican council, or committee agenda. This kind of concentrated power to alter or revise or even do away with the sacred liturgy is incomprehensible to the Orthodox.
It is deeply saddening, and terribly ironic to me, that at the end of the day we Orthodox are being asked to sacrifice our commitment to absolute, organic, high and ancient standards of truth-conveying beauty in our liturgical life for the sake of external unity. We are being told “keep your liturgy as you like, for now, but if you enter into communion with Rome, you have to recognize even the most irreverent Novus Ordo Mass as valid.” This is theological and liturgical minimalism and I just can’t bring myself to accept it. I can’t see how it is right to offer second-rate worship to God in purposely-built ugly buildings with banal services but still pride oneself on being in communion with Pope Francis. What would one gain from entering into communion with him which one does not already have as an Orthodox Christian? My spiritual life would be greatly impoverished were I to do that, and I would lose so much of my relationship with God which the Orthodox Church has helped me deepen and cultivate.
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We so clearly have two different religions, two different faiths — Rome and the Orthodox. At our worst we Orthodox are factious and feuding. We need papal primacy properly exercised. But at Rome’s worst, you have archbishops and bishops presiding over the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress every single year, with either Rome’s tacit approval or her inability to stop the madness. Then you have the current Pope himself happily and freely presiding over, enabling, and doing nothing to correct a Children’s Mass in Buenos Aires filled with numerous examples of liturgical abuse. This man is supposed to Christ’s Vicar on earth? The idea is really laughable, were it not so sad.
My studies of all the Vatican I and Vatican II documents — and my years of seeing their poisonous fruits firsthand (appallingly bad-to-nonexistent parish Catholic catechesis, openly heretical “Spirit of VII” priests and nuns who deny the Real Presence and the Trinity and Christ’s maleness and even His (and thus all of our hope for) bodily resurrection, all sorts of liturgical abuse uncriticized and unchecked)– have convinced me that Rome has fundamentally erred and has lost in various ways the pre-Schism deposit of Faith which she once shared with the Orthodox. Put simply, if you go into almost any Novus Ordo/Ordinary Form parish on a Sunday, and then visit an Orthodox Divine Liturgy the next weekend, you will not be able to believe that these two services, worlds apart in content, ethos, atmosphere, decorum, style, and reverence, are somehow of the same religion and a shared faith.
We Orthodox are asked and expected to acknowledge the full, immediate, and supreme jurisdictional authority of a Pope, resting by virtue of his office in and on a man who, in the case of Pope Francis, willingly presided over flagrant liturgical abuse. Seriously? I just can’t believe that this man is who Rome claims him to be.
My point in all this is that the Orthodox have preserved, over centuries, in a living Faith, an astonishing degree of beauty and inner truth without the externally-imposed unifying power of a theoretically (in certain situations) infallible and unerring Pope. We have, despite centuries of Ottoman Turkish and then communist Soviet oppression, preserved something in and by and through the inner life of our Church — the divine services above all — and defended and kept and passed down such an inheritance of beauty united with Truth. Sadly, despite having her theoretically universally-ruling and situationally infallible Pope, or more likely because of this overcentralized papal structure, Rome could or would not preserve and keep intact this same rich and timeless deposit of Faith.
This is by no means to argue that the Orthodox Church does not have serious problems of its own, especially concerning evangelism and petty jurisdictional disputes, or that every Novus Ordo Catholic parish is a nest of irreverence or liturgical abuse. One can search hard and find a OF/Novus Ordo Mass properly offered according to the prescribed, rarely followed rubrics. These are a tiny minority — and this reality speaks volumes. With Catholic parishes in most Atlantic and Pacific coast towns and many even in more Protestant Midwestern states, something is really wrong if one has to drive hours, even across state lines, to find a reverently offered Novus Ordo Mass or Tridentine Mass. One can also remain in communion with the Pope and choose to worship in the different Eastern Rites or the Extraordinary Form (TLM) and shut one’s eyes and ears to flagrant liturgical abuse in Ordinary Form parishes. That defensive, withdrawing attitude of “what isn’t around me can’t harm me” is understandable for Catholics looking for a healthy, liturgically orthodox parish, but it is ultimately a kind of head-in-the-sand denial of the reality of how things are for the vast majority in the Catholic world. The sad reality is that the vast majority of Roman Catholics will never experience anything beyond a banal (to use Pope Benedict’s word), protestantized Mass of Pope Paul VI, which, as it is usually offered, is such a profoundly impoverished, sad departure from the glorious musical, artistic, liturgical, theological, and architectural patrimony of ancient and medieval Catholic tradition. 
Despite the laudable attempts at restoring Catholic orthodoxy via the recent New Evangelization, this movement has made very little headway outside of elite Catholic intellectual circles. I can guarantee that, once again on Western Christmas Eve this year, my local Catholic Novus Ordo parish will celebrate Mass on the second-holiest day of the year without incense, versus populum, clapping for the choir’s performance during the service against Pope Benedict’s ethos, a full music band, communion in the hand in an assembly line, etc. This kind of worship can’t possibly somehow be passed off as “basically the same thing” as the Orthodox Liturgy. No one can seriously be that blind. The ethos of the Mass will feel more like a banal, lovey-dovey Unitarian Universalist assembly than an authentic, reverent, traditional Catholic liturgy where Christ’s Sacrifice at Calvary is fully made reality and He is offered, by and of Himself, on the altar to be worshiped and consumed body, soul, and divinity. Yet if I were to ask the parish priest beforehand to celebrate ad orientem and use incense, he would either be confused, laugh at me, or be annoyed that I dared to question or disrupt the “new normal” of post-VII life. Most Catholic laity have in this environment only a tiny glimmer of the glorious patrimony of Catholic sacred music or art or architecture. This is so sad.
How do you explain or reconcile yourself to all this? How did you come to terms with the rampant liturgical abuse, the poor state of parish catechism, or the hundreds of radical feminist liberal pro-abortion nuns (LCWR) who openly espouse various heresies, whom Benedict XVI sought to discipline but whom Francis let go free? How do you view the internal Vatican reaction to the child abuse scandals, or the reality that the Orthodox have preserved liturgical integrity and orthodoxy of belief far better without a supreme Pope than Roman Catholicism has managed to do with popes? I’d love to hear your thoughts when you have time. Thanks, and God be with you.

2014 Nativity Reflection by Metropolitan Jonah

A 2014 Nativity Reflection by His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah, ROCOR bishop and former Primate of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) from 2008-2012:

In silence let us behold the Incarnate God
as an infant,
Radiant with glory,
Swathed in rough cloth and lain in a manger.
Let us stand struck with awe
At the Presence of the Infinite Eternal One,
Born of the Virgin,
And exalted by the Angels.

We look through the cave of His Tomb
To the cave of the Nativity, overflowing with grace.
Swaddled in grave clothes, wrapped in swaddling clothes,
The same Christ comes forth clothed in glory.
We see the radiance of the Godhead in His face,
As an infant lying in the manger, and as a man hanging on the cross,
Coming forth from the tomb, a man reveals Himself as God,
Coming forth from the manger, God reveals Himself as man.

He became an infant to take on our weakness,
He became a man to identify with us in our suffering.
He showed our flesh to be a vessel of His Divinity,
And that His Divinity might contain our humanity:
God became flesh that we might become Divine,
The fullness of His Divinity indwelling our humanity,
That we might behold with our spiritual sight
The radiance of His Presence in our hearts.

He is baptized into our human life,
And takes on our death;
He is baptized into our death,
And imparts to us His eternal life.
He transforms our death by His life,
And transfigures our life by His death.
He buries us in the waters,
And shares with us His own life, enlightening and sanctifying us.

Look into the Cave,
And behold the Infant God;
Look into the Tomb,
And behold the Resurrected Christ.
Plunge into the depths of the waters,
And partaking of His death, be raised with His life,
That we too may be born
In the Kingdom of Heaven.