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 Fran├žois 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.