John Guy’s “Mary Queen of Scots” – book review

I picked up this copy of  John Guy’s “Mary Queen of Scots” at Sainsbury’s for 4 pounds, with a film tie-in cover, and I do not regret it. The book was published originally as “My Heart is My Own” and won the Whitbread Biography Award in 2004.

I had read David Starkey’s biography of the young Elizabeth when I was in my early teens, but my knowledge of Mary Queen of Scots was restricted to the Horrible History books. I knew she was beheaded, and I knew her son eventually became King of England. But that was about it.

John Guy’s well-written biography is very easy to read- at times, I would find myself beginning the next chapter when I had told myself I would stop at the end of a previous one. He uses original documents extensively and often quotes Mary’s letters and other archival material. “My heart is my own”, which was the original title of the book, refers to a letter in which Mary writes of her choice of a potential husband to her cousin Elizabeth.

Mary was destined for great things. Crowned the Queen of Scots as a baby, she was brought up in France to marry the Dauphin.  She was known as a beauty: tall (five foot eleven inches) and pale, with auburn hair  But not long after a fairytale wedding at Notre Dame, Mary’s fortune turned. Her beloved father-in-law, Henry II, died, and her husband soon followed him.  A widow at twenty-one, she returned to her native land as an almost complete stranger.

Soon, Mary faced the challenge of ruling a split country with Protestants terrified of the Catholic Queen clinging to the English for help, and Catholics trying to re-establish their position.

Unlike Neil Oliver in BBC’s Rise of the Clans, Guy portrays Mary’s marriage to Darnley’s as a political move, made in order to bolster her claim to the English throne (Darnley was Mary’s cousin). Guy does much to fight the stereotype (established by John Knox) that Mary ruled from the heart and not from the head. Elizabeth, the good Protestant Queen in Knox’s view, was God’s exception to the rule of women and ruled with the use of here reason. Mary, however, was seen by Knox as a Catholic Jezebel, a lewd seductress who was governed by her emotions. According to Knox, she was not fit to be a Queen.

If anything, Guy is rather partial to Mary. After a careful close-reading of the Casket Letters, he concludes that they exonerate her from the charge of having her second husband murdered. He suggests that instead, the Scottish Lords used Mary’s letters that had been written to Darnley and pretended they were intended for Bothwell. The Lords’ accusation was that Mary had had an affair with Bothwell before Darnely was murdered, but Guy does not believe this was the case. His analysis of the Darnely assassination shares much with detective work – he evaluates the testimony of the witnesses and even mentions a map of the surrounding buildings by one of Cecil’s correspondents.

Mary’s life makes a gripping read. There’s plenty of plotting, violence, ambition, and sex. What makes it more gripping still is Guy’s attention to his textual sources which allows us to imagine the details as they were experienced by the historical witnesses.

One might be tempted to see Elizabeth as Mary’s main antagonist. After all, it was she who ordered her execution, wasn’t it? So it is easy to be astonished at the letter exchanges Elizabeth and Mary had at the beginning of Mary’s reign. They were planning a meeting together, negotiating the possibility of Mary’s succession to the throne in England. Mary gave Elizabeth advice about avoiding smallpox scars.

Elizabeth wanted Mary to marry her favourite, Dudley: “Mary, Dudley, and Elizabeth would all live together at Elizabeth’s court after Mary was married, where the English Queen would bear the costs of the ‘family”.  The idea seems completely absurd now, and it was certainly strange even at the time. Mary would not agree to marry a man who was happy to remain Elizabeth’s subject. Dudley didn’t really fancy marrying Mary either.

Guy’s thesis throughout the book is that it was Cecil who was Mary’s true nemesis. It was he, who was determined to cut-off Mary from the English succession and then get rid of her completely if at all possible. He was aware of the plot to kill Rizzio, and was most likely aware of the plot to get rid of Darnley too. He supported the Lords in their attempts to depose Mary, and ultimately was the man responsible for sending the signed execution order without Elizabeth’s knowledge (although Guy suggests that Elizabeth only lingered with the order because she would rather have had Mary assassinated rather than executed).

I really enjoyed reading this book and I highly recommend it. It makes me feel like reading more historical biographies! (Insert Virginia Woolf quote here)

My favourite facts from the book:

  • Mary’s height – being rather tall, I always find it exciting to hear about other tall women. Mary was known to be taller than her first husband. This makes me smile
  • Mary’s embroidery – during her long imprisonment, Mary amused herself by embroidering – often times emblems with a symbolical meaning. Guy argues that this embroidery of a ginger cat with a crown on its head( which was black and white and uncrowned in the book Mary took it from) is an allusion to Elizabeth. In such an interpretation, Mary would be depicted as the mouse.

    A catte Mary Queen of Scots
    Mary’s embroidery of a ginger cat
  • Mary’s charge against her half-brother  (Chase-about-Raid)- when her half-brother Moray objected to her marriage, Mary rode by the side of her husband (Darnely)  at the head of her army “She sported a pistol in her saddle holster and a steel cap on her head (…) She was at ease and in her element”

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