Reflections on a superb article on the differing childhoods of rival queens Mary and Elizabeth

Conor Byrne is a history student at the University of Exeter whose research interests include gender, cultural, and social history. His excellent blog focuses on historical issues but also touches upon contemporary political and social events. 

The Creation of Anne Boleyn, a fascinating website maintained by controversial feminist author Susan Bordo and her former research assistant Natalie Sweet, republished this incisive short article by Conor Byrne, a graduate of the British University of Exeter, who maintains a superb blog here.

I would urge you to read Mr Byrne’ essay in its entirety. It is very well done. I offer but one small correction to this otherwise excellent article:

Byrne writes that
John Knox, the vehement Scottish Protestant preacher, opined in his The first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women, attacking the rule of female monarchs such as Mary Tudor and Mary of Guise and published in 1558, that female rule was contrary to Biblical law.
Knox did indeed write this 1558 polemical treatise, which he published in exile at Geneva, arguing that, as Byrne notes, “female rule was contrary to Biblical law”. The treatise was all well and good for him when Scotland and England were both ruled by Catholic queens he despised, but in November 1558 his enemy Mary Tudor, first queen regnant of England, died, leaving her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth as monarch. While Elizabeth should have been a natural political ally to Knox, she took tremendous umbrage at his scathing treatise, which has the worst possible timing of release, and refused to treat with him. Mr Byrne’s one error here is his description of Mary of Guise as a “monarch” alongside England’s first queen regnant, Mary I Tudor.
While it is common enough to refer to both a king and his queen consort as “monarchs”, this is factually incorrect. In a royal marriage, the monarch is the sovereign, he or she to whom the throne has passed and in whom sovereignty resides. His or her consort is the royal spouse, the husband or wife of the monarch. The indomitable Queen Marie de Guise (1515-1560), a widow before her second marriage to the also widowed King James V of Scots (1512-1542) and mother to Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587), was not a monarch, a queen regnant in her own right. She was a queen consort as the wife of her sovereign husband and then, after his December 1542 death when their only surviving daughter Mary as only six days old, Marie de Guise remained a dowager queen of Scotland and Queen Mother (the mother of the reigning monarch) until her own death in 1560.
Born to Claude de Guise (1496-1550), duc de Lorraine, and his intelligent wife Antoinette de Bourbon (1493-1583), in 1534, at 18, Marie married Louis II d’Orléans (1510-37), duc de Longueville and comte de Dunois (1). Theirs was a happy marriage, but short-lived; the Duke did in 1537, leaving Marie a young, pregnant widow (she had given birth to a son, Francois, in October 1535, and after Louis’ death gave birth to a son, Louis, who lived for only four months). (2)
Detailed oil painting showing James V, King of Scots, and his second wife Queen Marie de Guise, daughter of Claude, duc de Lorraine and head of the powerful House of Guise.

Detailed oil painting showing James V, King of Scots, and his second wife Queen Marie de Guise, daughter of Claude, duc de Lorraine and head of the powerful House of Guise.

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.

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.

Marie married James V of Scots, Henry VIII’s nephew, in May 1538. Prior to this triumph, when the widowed Henry was looking for a new queen after Jane Seymour’s death, he sent representatives to propose marriage to the widowed Marie, then the dowager duchess of Longueville. Marie was all too aware of the fate that had befallen Anne Boleyn less than two years earlier. Anne had quipped before her May 1536 execution that the Calais swordsman should find beheading her easy because “I have a little neck”. Keeping this in mind, Marie responded to the King’s envoys with words that must have mortified them: “I may be a big woman, but I have a very little neck”. (3)
After her husband’s premature death following his nervous collapse in the wake of the decisive English defeat of the Scots at Solway Moss, Marie struggled to keep her infant daughter safe from various conspiracies that sought to control the baby queen regnant and, thus, to control Scotland through her. (4) After initially being excluded from power, Marie de Guise governed in her daughter’s stead as the official Regent of Scotland from 1554-60 with strong French support against the English who had been attacking Scotland since late 1543. (5) Marie insisted on being personally present to watch the siege at Haddington, and was nearly killed when English cannons fired upon the Scottish position, killing many in her entourage. (6). Under Henry VIII’s ‘Rough Wooing’, the English devastated Scotland, seeking to force the young Queen Mary to be sent to England and marry Henry’s heir, Prince Edward, uniting Scotland and England with Edward as king of both kingdoms (the opposite of what ended up happening in 1603 when Marie de Guise’s grandson James VI inherited the English throne as James I). Scotland’s reigning Queen regnant was just a child at the time, and Marie strategically sent her daughter to France in August 1548 to marry into and secure an alliance with the royal Valois House of France to strengthen then-Catholic Scotland’s position with the French against the English. (7). Henry VIII, who had twice sought Marie’s hand in marriage, was furious: he had earned the hatred of the Scots and his sought-after prize, his great-niece the child Queen Mary, had eluded him and gone to ally with France, his main rival.
In 1558-59 — right when Marie’s daughter Queen Mary married the Dauphin Francois of France and became, in 1559, queen consort of France — violent Calvinist-inspired iconoclastic mobs began destroying and ransacking Catholic shrines and churches across Scotland. (8) Popular anger linked the Queen Regent’s French political and military support — including the presence of French troops in key bastions — with anti-Catholic sentiment, and the ‘Lairds of the Congregation’, a group of leading Protestant lords, sought English support from Elizabeth I to remove Marie de Guise from power. Elizabeth’s natural religious sympathies and political desire to see a Protestant Scotland free of French Catholic soldiers were buttressed by her her offence at Mary, Queen of Scots’ naive provocation of quartering her and her husband Francois’ royal arms with those of England after Mary Tudor’s death in November 1558. Henri II of France, Mary’s father-in-law, had publicly proclaimed his son and daughter-in-law King and Queen of England, since most Catholics regarded the Scottish queen regnant as the rightful heir to the English throne after Mary Tudor, seeing Elizabeth as unacceptable due to her bastard status and her religion.
Portrait of James Stewart (Stuart), Earl of Moray, by Hans Eworth. He served as Regent for his half-nephew, James VI, Mary Queen of Scots' son, from her forced abdication in 1567 til his assassination in 1570.

Portrait of James Stewart (Stuart), Earl of Moray, by Hans Eworth. He served as Regent for his half-nephew, James VI, Mary Queen of Scots’ son, from her forced abdication in 1567 til his assassination in 1570.

Despite the Queen Regent’s best attempts to suppress it, the Calvinist-inspired Scottish Reformation was underway with strong English support; Marie de Guise combated it diligently, even offering a degree of religious toleration in the Articles of Leith as a means to avoid further bloodshed. (9). Bolstered by French arms, the Queen Regent maintained control of most of the key Scottish fortresses, and by late 1559 the Protestants were dreading their imminent defeat. Despite Elizabeth sending an English fleet to the Firth of Forth in January 1560, temporarily forcing the French to withdraw to Leith, Marie retained control of Edinburgh Castle and, with it, the Scottish capital. (10).
By early spring, however, Marie’s health began to fail: she succumbed to dropsy (edema), with which she diagnosed herself, in June 1560, devastating her daughter in France, whose husband, the frail King Francois, would die in December, leaving Mary a bereft widow just before her eighteenth birthday. Some of Marie’s French and Scottish Catholic supporters believed she had been poisoned on either Queen Elizabeth’s orders or by her late husband’s Protestant illegitimate son James Stuart, the Earl of Moray (who ultimately cooperated and helped organise her daughter Mary, his half-sister’s, forced abdication in 1567, ruling Scotland as regent afterward ). Most modern historians believe Queen Marie died of natural causes (dropsy/edema). As per her wishes, after the situation began to stabilise in Scotland, Marie’s remains were removed from Edinburgh Castle and transported to France, where in March 1561 the Scottish Queen, by then already widowed and thus a dowager queen of France, attended her mother’s June funeral along with a host of Guise relatives and French royalty. Marie de Guise was buried at the Convent of Saint Pierre in Reims, where her sister Renée was abbess.
Compared to her own politically ineffective daughter, Marie is generally regarded as a much more effective and capable ruler in Scotland. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Mary Queen of Scots’ immensely tragic life was that her mother sent her to France for her own safety from the English, and thus Mary did not have the enormous political education of growing up close to her politically capable mother and seeing her govern Scotland with wisdom, fortitude, and, when needed, the ruthlessness which Mary herself never proved able to use in wielding power. Whereas her cousin and rival Queen Elizabeth grew up witnessing the example of her father’s sixth queen Catherine Parr serving as regent in England during Henry’s last French campaign (and thus Elizabeth developed a powerful personal and psychological impression of women’s capabilities at ruling in their husbands’ absence), Mary instead grew up at the Valois French court where all political power derived either from a very much male king (the womanising Henri II) or from women’s ability to clandestinely influence their husbands or lovers (especially the strong influence exerted over Henri’s long-term official mistress, Diane de Poitiers). Thus, while Mary showed a willingness to refer in her numerous letters to her “absolute” status as a queen regnant, she never seems to have learned how to effectively wield power and establish herself as supreme or even predominant over Scotland’s factious noble clans who were even more riven by the Catholic-Protestant religious divide. As I expand upon in my essay here, Mary was never able to conceptualize her own power apart from that which a husband could give her; in contrast, Mary’s own mother, like Elizabeth, learned firsthand the reality of what it meant to exercise power in the absence of a husband.

Apart from her bitter enemy Knox, the preeminent leader of the Scottish Reformation, historians have generally regarded Marie de Guise favourably. Historian Rosalind K. Marshall says that “her biographers, Strickland in the nineteenth century, McKerlie and Marshall in the twentieth, [have] been unanimous in praising her intelligence and fortitude”. In evaluating her life, Marshall observes that:

Sacrificing her own comfort, interests, and ultimately her life, Mary of Guise had fought a long, desperate, and, in the end, hopeless struggle to preserve Scotland as a pro-French, Roman Catholic nation for her daughter….Charming, highly intelligent, and hard-working, with a diplomatic manner and an ability to fight on regardless of hostility, disappointment, and ill health, Mary was never merely a pawn of the French king.

End Notes:

  1. Wood, Marguerite, ed., Balcarres Papers: The French Correspondence of Marie de Lorraine, vol. 1, Scottish History Society (1923), p. 228, c. 1542.
  2. Marshall, Rosalind K, Mary of Guise, Collins, (1977), 36–39: Wood, Marguerite, ed., Balcarres Papers, vol. 1, SHS (1923), 1.
  3. Fraser, Antonia, Mary Queen of Scots, Weidenfield & Nicholson, (1969), 7.
  4. Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, vol. 9 (1911), 195.
  5. Ritchie, Pamela, Mary of Guise, Tuckwell Press, Ltd. (2002), 94
  6. Calendar of State Papers Spain, vol. 9 (1912), 569: Teulet, A., ed., Relations politiques de la France et de l’Espagne avec l’Écosse au XVIe siècle, vol. 1 (1862), 220-221
  7. Marshall, Mary of Guise, 175.
  8. Ritchie, Pamela, Mary of Guise, 205–207.
  9. Magnus Magnusson, Scotland: the Story of a Nation (New York: Grove Press, 2000) p. 337.
  10. Ibid.

Further Reading (besides the sources above):

  • Lee, Patricia-Ann (1990). “A Bodye Politique to Governe: Aylnter, Knox and the Debate on Queenship”. The Historian 52 (2): 242. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6563.1990.tb00780.x.
  • Healey, Robert M.; et al. (1994). “Waiting for Deborah: John Knox and Four Ruling Queens”. The Sixteenth Century Journal 25 (2): 371–386.doi:10.2307/2542887. JSTOR 2542887.
  • Fitzsimmons, Tracy (2000). “A Monstrous Regiment of Women? State, Regime, and Women’s Political Organizing in Latin America”. Latin American Research Review 35 (2): 216–229. JSTOR 2692141.
  • Brammall, Kathryn M. (1996). “Monstrous Metamorphosis: Nature, Morality, and the Rhetoric of Monstrosity in Tudor England”. The Sixteenth Century Journal 27 (1): 3–21. doi:10.2307/2544266. JSTOR 2544266.
  • Richards, Judith M. (1997). “‘To Promote a Woman to Beare Rule’: Talking of Queens in Mid-Tudor England”. The Sixteenth Century Journal 28 (1): 101–121. doi:10.2307/2543225. JSTOR 2543225.
  • Felch, Susan M. (1995). “The Rhetoric of Biblical Authority: John Knox and the Question of Women”. The Sixteenth Century Journal 26 (4): 805–822.doi:10.2307/2543787. JSTOR 2543787.
  • Kyle, Richard G. (1988). “The Church-State Patterns in the Thought of John Knox”. Journal of Church and State 30 (1): 71–87. doi:10.1093/jcs/30.1.71.
  • Abernethy, Susan. “Marie of Guise, Queen of Scotland”. The Freelance History Writer. 1 October 2012. Accessed 11 November 2015.
  • Abernethy, Susan. “Antoinette of Bourbon, Duchess of Guise”. The Freelance History Writer. 17 May 2013. Accessed 11 November 2015.
  • Abernethy, Susan. “Claude, Duke of Guise”. The Freelance History Writer. 24 August 2012. Accessed 11 November 2015.

Remembering the death of a Queen

Queen Elizabeth I's famous signature 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.

Queen Elizabeth I’s famous signature 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.

428 years ago yesterday, an anointed queen was put to death by the order of her cousin and fellow queen. One of the most tragic and controversial figures in English Tudor and Scottish Stuart history, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (1542-1587) died on the scaffold at eight o’clock on the morning of February 8, 1587 at Fotheringhay Castle. After months of anxious delay and tortured soul-searching, Mary’s nearest kinswoman and first cousin once removed, England’s Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), had reluctantly signed her death warrant on February 1. Mary had been tried for treason—a charge of dubious legality since Mary was not an English subject, but Queen of Scotland by birth—and convicted by a court of English noblemen in October 1586.

When Queen Mary learned that Elizabeth had at last signed her death warrant, her response was composed and brief:

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.

Here is Queen Mary’s last letter to her English cousin. She wrote this letter to Elizabeth after having been informed of her trial’s foregone conclusion: convicted of conspiring to assassinate her cousin and fellow Queen — a charge Mary vehemently denied to her death — Mary knew her cousin would be pressured to have her executed. Mary’s last letter to her rival and cousin contains a plea for her remains to be conveyed to France after her death, as well as a warning which would haunt Elizabeth for the rest of her life.

Now having been informed… 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 will not accuse any person, but sincerely pardon every one, as I desire others, and, above all, God, to pardon me. And since I know that your heart, more than that of any other, ought to be touched by the honour or dishonour of your own blood, and of a Queen, the daughter of a king, 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. . .

… 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; and this will be my prayer to the end.

Accuse me not of presumption if, leaving this world and preparing myself for a better, I remind 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, wherefor from the earliest dawn of your comprehension we ought to dispose our minds to make things temporal yield to those of eternity.

Your sister and cousin wrongfully a prisoner,

Marie R

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: 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. The 1689 Glorious Revolution and its English Bill of Rights marked the “end”, the death throes of the British monarchy toward unlimited Parliamentarianism, but what marked “the beginning of the end”? What heralded in the bloodless revolution that transformed Britain from a partly-limited monarchy into a crowned republic where Parliament ruled and monarchs simply reigned?

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 recognized 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 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 British 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 reign of the English Stuarts or the increasingly ceremonial reigns of the Hanoverians, but to the Tudors themselves, to a decision made by England’s 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—Queen of Scots from 1542-1567 and Queen of France from 1559-1560—was tried for treason at the behest of her reigning cousin, Elizabeth I of England. 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 commit money and troops to restore the Catholic Queen to the throne of her rebellious and (since 1560) newly Protestant kingdom. The heavily-pregnant Mary had been forced to sign her abdication in July 1567 while imprisoned at Loch Leven Castle. Her rebellious Protestant lords forced Queen Mary to sign the papers immediately after she had miscarried twins. Following her escape from that castle, Mary’s armies had been twice defeated by Protestant forces under her treacherous half-brother James Stuart, Earl of Moray, who was in Queen Elizabeth’s pay.

Elizabeth, troubled by Mary’s lack of judgment and highly controversial marital history (in May 1567 Mary had married her third husband, James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell, who was publicly accused of having murdered her estranged second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley in February 1567), refused to help her cousin. Instead, as she had done previously, Elizabeth secured a Protestant regency in Scotland, ensuring that Mary’s only son and heir, James VI, was raised a Protestant and taught to despise his mother. 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, for which all England bears responsibility before God, but especially Queen Elizabeth I who signed Mary’s death warrant, 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 put to death after a formal trial by the 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, signed 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, a forced abdication being null and void under both English and Scottish law.

With this execution, a Sovereign Queen had ordered the judicial murder and execution of a fellow Sovereign Queen. A reigning monarch had put to death her own cousin, a former monarch and by birth a Queen regnant. This marked the inevitable beginning of the end. 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.



  1. Bede, Cuthbert. Fotheringhay, and Mary, Queen of Scots. Amazon. 1886. Accessed February 8, 2015.
  2. Cheetham, J. Keith. On the Trial of Mary Queen of Scots. Edinburgh, Scotland: Luath Press Limited, 2000.
  3. Dunn, Jane. Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. Amazon. Vintage Books: New York, NY, 2003. Accessed February 8, 2015.
  4. Fraser, Lady Antonia. Mary Queen of Scots. Amazon. Delta Book, Bantam Dell publishers: New York, NY, 1993. Accessed February 8, 2015.
  5. Guy, John. Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart. Amazon. Houghton Mifflin Company: New York, NY, 2004. Accessed February 8, 2015.
  6. Guy, John. My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots. Amazon. Harper Perennial: London, UK, 2004. Accessed February 8, 2015.

Update on 28 September 2015: As of three days ago, according to this report by the Scottish Legal News website, and corroborated by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots has been cleared of the slanderous charge of murdering her second husband. Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley and King consort of Scots (tenure 1565-1567, 1545-1567) was found dead with his valet at Kirk o’ Field, Edinburgh in February 1567. The Royal Society of Edinburgh’s panel of expert historians, pathologists, explosive experts, and forensic scientists determined that Darnley was likely assassinated by angry relatives and political rivals furious with him for betraying them after David Rizzio’s March 1566 murder, which Darnley collaborated in and executed in the pregnant Queen’s presence.