Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Insipid Romanticism

Mary I Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of Scots is a favourite with the public in that if they know a ruler of Scotland they are more than likely to know that she was Queen of Scotland. One of only four reigning Queens of Scotland.1 Because of Mary I’s tragic fate, i.e., being overthrown and then imprisoned in England and then executed after more than a decade and a half of being imprisoned by order of Queen Elizabeth I of England, Mary – Queen of Scots, became a figure of romance and a figure in “popular” history. The number of fictional accounts, i.e., novels, about Mary – Queen of Scots, is huge and there is even a good play about Mary’s life by Schiller.2

This romanticism has spilled over into actual historical work and as coloured perceptions of Mary and her great antagonist Elizabeth I of England.

The Romantic legend has Mary – Queen of Scots being the victim of self seeking nobility, of her horrible second husband and most pertinently of Elizabeth I of England. In this scenario Mary is the victim of the self centered and cold blooded calculations of the Scottish nobility, but mainly of Elizabeth’s calculating intrigues. In this myth from the moment that Mary took of residence in Scotland she was manipulated, tricked and deceived by Elizabeth. Elizabeth in this scenario took every opportunity to undermine Mary including manoeuvring Mary into marrying the terrible Henry Stewart and intriguing with the Scottish nobility to overthrow Mary and then tricking Mary into fleeing Scotland and then imprisoning her and then after many years conducting a kangaroo court with fake evidence and unjustly executing Mary for plotting the death of Elizabeth.3

The above is a tissue of bias, distortion and incompleteness. But it fits the romantic picture of Mary as destroyed innocence.

The falsity of much of the above ignores much.

Let us start at the beginning. In the 1540’s Mary – Queen of Scots, born a few weeks before her father’s death, was because of wars with England was sent to live in France. Mary was raised at the French court, while regents governed Scotland led by Mary’s mother Mary of Guise. Mary – Queen of Scots, was married to the heir to the French throne Francis. When Henry II of France died Francis became Francis II of France. This threatened England with a France united dynasticaly with Scotland. By this time Elizabeth I had become Queen of England. Elizabeth was considered a heretic and bastard and a usurper by much of Catholic Europe including at this time France. Now Mary - Queen of Scots, was a descendant of a sister of Henry VIII of England and thus had a claim on the English throne. The French lost no time in proclaiming Mary – Queen of Scots, Queen of France and also legitimate Queen of England. Thus openly advertising that the French would look towards overthrowing Elizabeth by invasion or fomenting rebellion and putting Mary on the throne. Thus did Mary threaten Elizabeth. All such plans went nowhere because Francis II died after a short reign. Meanwhile Scotland was wracked by religious strife over the Protestant Reformation in Scotland and noble dissatisfaction over being ruled by regents. Mary had no reason to stay in France and to preserve her throne she had to return to Scotland. So she did.

Even so after arriving in Scotland, (Mary of Guise, Mary, Queen of Scots mother, having died in the meantime in Scotland.) Mary continued to claim the English throne and denounce Elizabeth has a usurper. Tension between the two monarchs was there from the beginning.

The long rather bitter dispute between Elizabeth and Mary along with the intrigues and machinations of the Scottish court and nobility do not have to be described in detail. A few highlights will suffice.

Because Mary was a Catholic that alone created much tension at the Scottish court, because by then most of the Scottish nobility was Protestant, further Mary brought with her an entourage which had great influence over her. The result was that things got off to a bad start. Further Mary was brought into negotiations by Elizabeth for making Elizabeth’s favourite Robert Dudley Mary's new husband. Mary didn’t even consider him as a possibility but instead married another Englishman, sent to Scotland as part of the negotiations for the possible marriage of Robert and Mary, Henry Stewart, Earl of Darnley, who also had a claim through his mother to the English throne. Elizabeth had thought that if Mary married Robert Scotland and Mary would no longer be a threat to her. Matters were made worst by the fact that Henry was also a Catholic. Things weren’t helped by Mary’s persistent refusal to recognize Elizabeth’s legitimacy and right to the English throne.4

The fantasy notion that Elizabeth deliberately sent Henry Stewart to ensnare Mary into marrying a worthless man is dubious.5 It is based solely on the fact that Henry Stewart was in all respects a disaster has a husband and a thoroughly horrible human being, along with being singularly incompetent. The fact is Elizabeth was furious when she found out Henry Stewart had married Mary and imprisoned a few people and confiscated property. The rages and rants Elizabeth had against both Mary and Henry Stewart and the fact Mary was still claiming the English throne are almost certainly genuine. The indications are that Elizabeth then found her position even more precarious.

The events in Scotland leading up to the murder of Henry Stewart and the disposition of Mary are not so much romantic has sordid, but they reveal with abundant clarity not just Mary’s bad luck but also Mary’s incompetence.6 As a ruler Mary failed. Mary was forced to abdicate and then imprisoned and after a failed attempt to regain the throne Mary fled to England, where Elizabeth imprisoned her.

Elizabeth had in very clear terms indicated her detestation of the Scottish Lords for overthrowing Mary. Elizabeth thought overthrowing a monarch was utterly despicable. And made her displeasure known. In fact Elizabeth did seriously consider restoring Mary. However on second thoughts Elizabeth realized that given that Mary had never publicly recognized Elizabeth’s right to the throne and given that Mary had been in touch with forces in England seeking to overthrow Elizabeth to say nothing of French moves to overthrow Elizabeth in favour of Mary it is not a surprise that Elizabeth did not agree in the end to restore Mary. Given also that Mary would give nothing to Elizabeth in exchange for this help Elizabeth's disinclinations to help Mary were reinforced. Of course it was too dangerous to allow Mary to go to France where Mary could and would almost certainly be willing to be used as instrument to plot Elizabeth’s overthrow. So not surprisingly Elizabeth imprisoned Mary. What is remarkable is that Mary was so foolish has to believe that Elizabeth would give her unconditional help and that Elizabeth’s quite sincere detestation of “rebels against their Lords”, would override her political sense. Especially when it involved a rival who had been aiming for much of the last 10 years to remove her from the throne, sometimes in earnest and always in word, and unwilling to give anything in return for Elizabeth’s help. Elizabeth rightly regarded Mary as a dangerous rival who aimed at her throne. Not a surprise then that Elizabeth locked her up.

Of course romanticists fudge away and / or deny any possibility of the involvement of Mary in the death of her first husband Henry Stewart. (His suite at Holyrood castle was blown up, but he managed to escape and he was strangled in the garden.) How much if anything Mary knew about or was involved in the murder plot is still debated, however the fact that a little over a month after the murder Mary was “abducted” by the man, rightly seen as the chief plotter of the assassination, the Earl of Bothwell, and then she married him is quite rightly seen a strong evidence of her complicity in the assassination. At the time it caused a scandal and at the least is strong evidence of incompetence.

Elizabeth used the incident as an excuse to imprison Mary and investigate her. At the same time, for years afterwards, Elizabeth, sometimes quite vehemently pressed the Scottish Lords to accept Mary back as queen. Even though Elizabeth was quite willing to accept that conditions would have to be made concerning Mary, the Scottish Lords did not want Mary back at all not even has a figurehead. Being ruled by Mary once was enough for them. The attitude of the Scottish Lords infuriated Elizabeth who found the imprisoned Mary a burden and wanted to be rid of her. So the romantic legend that Elizabeth set Mary up to be imprisoned by her is so much stuff and nonsense. In fact Elizabeth didn’t even want Mary overthrown. Elizabeth wanted Mary controlled not deposed and Mary’s deposition infuriated her. Hence Elizabeth’s efforts for years to get Mary reinstated if only as a figurehead. All this is ignored by the romancers.

Not surprisingly Mary deeply resented captivity and soon set to plotting to escape. Unfortunately for Mary her captivity in England made her a focus for Catholic resentment of Elizabeth and a focus for domestic and foreign plots to overthrow Elizabeth. Given that Elizabeth realized that a captive Mary would be a focus of plots; the idea that Elizabeth plotted to take Mary captive is so much nonsense. Mary proved to be in prison in England a continual source of crisis and worry for Elizabeth. And one that Elizabeth wanted to be well rid of. However execution and / or assassination were utterly unacceptable to Elizabeth. Elizabeth believed that crowned monarchs were the Lord's anointed and to kill an anointed monarch was in effect sacrilegious along with setting up a very bad precedent for her own overthrow / execution. Hence Elizabeth would not countenance a trial, much less an execution of Mary.

The tedious roll call of plots to overthrow Elizabeth involving Mary will not be repeated here except for the last plot. Elizabeth’s advisers over and over again pressed Elizabeth to execute Mary again and again Elizabeth refused, despite the plots and Mary’s deep involvement. Romancers repeatedly avoid dealing with Mary’s approval of plot after plot to overthrow and by definition kill Elizabeth.

The Romancers instead fantasize that Walsingham fabricated plots against Elizabeth to justify his spy hunting activities. That is mere supposition the evidence is that the plots were real. Further the romancers ignore the correspondence of Mary, the reports of foreign diplomats in contact with Mary, (Generally French or Spanish or both.), indicating Mary’s approval of plots to overthrow Elizabeth. Mary was however very careful to avoid putting in writing that she approved directly of killing Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s advisers were absolutely infuriated with Elizabeth’s refusal even in the face of these plots and the hard evidence of Mary’s plotting to overthrow Elizabeth to have Mary executed. The fact is plotting to overthrow a monarch was punishable by death at the time and in this case it was damn obvious that given that Mary was a Catholic and that the great bulk of English aristocracy was Protestant, Elizabeth would have to be killed for Mary to have any chance at all of being securely queen. So Elizabeth’s death was obvious from the beginning one of the goals. But Mary quite sensibly refused to put what was obvious in writing.7

The last plot was the infamous Babington plot. In this case Walsingham knew of it from the beginning. After another failed plot Mary was locked up more securely than ever. In an effort to keep a secure eye on Mary Wallsingham deliberately set up for Mary a “secret" route by which Mary could communicate "secretly" with the outside world. Mary and the people using the system were completely oblivious to the fact that Walsingham and his minions had complete access to all the documents. All the documents going to and from Mary were in a cipher. It didn’t matter. Walsingham's men opened them, copied them, deciphered them and then sent them on their way. The senders and receivers being none the wiser.

The plotter Babington sent messages to Marry and got back messages from Mary concerning his plans to free Mary and kill Elizabeth. The free Mary part was very important has a widely circulated pact signed by tens of thousands had promised that if Elizabeth was assassinated Mary would be killed immediately. Walsingham and his associates knew all about the plot. In reply to one letter Mary wrote explicitly that she approved of killing Elizabeth. Wallsingham in another letter from Mary added some lines requesting that the names of all of Babington’s co-conspirators. This addition was a mistake because Babington was suspicious when he read that letter. This complicated dealing with the plot. Of course to the romancers this effort by Walsingham to get Babington to reveal who his colleagues were is proof that Walsingham fabricated his proof that Mary approved in writing of Elizabeth’s death. So we read in some accounts that it is indisputable that the letter from Mary indicating approval of the plot to kill Elizabeth is a forgery. This is dubious.

As mentioned above Elizabeth was very reluctant to try let alone execute Mary so that getting direct evidence in Mary’s own handwriting that Mary was plotting to kill Elizabeth was needed to get Elizabeth to allow a trial and execution. So it is arguable that in order to get Elizabeth to try and execute Mary it is possible that that some of Elizabeth’s advisers may have forged a letter from Mary with Mary's approval to the killing of Elizabeth. The problem with this is that this was a very dangerous strategy in that if Elizabeth suspected for a moment such a forgery the people involved would likely pay for it, possibly with their lives. Further there simply is no evidence of such an interpolation. The Romancers while talking about forged evidence to wrongfully convict Mary studiously ignore that the great obstacle to getting Mary executed was not lack of evidence of her guilt but Elizabeth’s reluctance to execute her. The evidence would indicate that a forgery if in fact done would have been to convince Elizabeth, a very risky thing to do, not to prove Mary’s guilt. Of course Elizabeth’s involvement in forging the document, assuming that happened, would be zero considering that Elizabeth would be the person to be deceived by the forgery.

As it is Walsingham was in many respects a very sinister figure, but he was also an effective spymaster and police chief it is very unlikely that he would have deliberately forged such a document to deceive Elizabeth, especially considering the dire consequences if he was found out. So it is more likely that Mary slipped up and made a mistake.

The Babington plot was the most serious plot to overthrow and kill Elizabeth. It ended with the plotters rounded up and executed. Elizabeth was finally moved to try Mary. The romancers talk about perjury and fake evidence, but they are singularly short on specifics. They talk about the trial being a farce and the lack of council at Mary’s trial. They forget that such things were routine at the time. Further they accept without question Mary’s repeated statements at the trial that the documents against her were forged. This is nonsense. Of course the Romancers “forget” about the large cache of secret letters found in Mary’s apartments during the investigation of the Babington plot that reveal the truly formidable extent of Mary’s plotting.

The bottom line is that Mary was indisputably guilty of plotting, over and over again to overthrow Elizabeth and kill her. Just plotting to overthrow Elizabeth was a death penalty offence and of course plotting to kill Elizabeth was an additional reason to apply the death penalty. The romancers forget / ignore that even after the verdict of death in the trial Elizabeth hemmed and hawed, delayed and procrastinated for months over executing Mary and was deeply reluctant to execute her. When finally Elizabeth sent out the warrant she still hemmed and hawed and after Mary’s execution Elizabeth ranted at her advisers for “tricking” her into issuing the warrant and considered executing one of her advisers for it. The advisor was instead demoted and removed from all influence at court. Elizabeth’s anguish was quite real. The myth of a cunning Elizabeth coldly destroying the innocent Mary is a compete fabrication.

Mary – Queen of Scots was no innocent she was, to use a Watergate reference, “Guilty, Guilty, Guilty!!” The myth of Mary’s innocence is the triumph of romance over easily ascertained fact.8

Mary was not the victim of a miscarriage of justice but the victim of her own incompetence, bad luck and plotting.

Elizabeth I

1. This is of course of the period before Scotland and England were united into the United Kingdom in 1707. The four Scottish Queens are Margaret- the Maid of Norway, Mary - Queen of Scots, Mary II, (Who was also Mary II of England), and Queen Anne who before the creation of the United Kingdom in 1707 during her reign (r. 1702-1714) was Queen of Scotland, England and Ireland. The Act of Union of 1707 only applied to Scotland and England.

2. See Wikipedia, Mary Stuart Here, by Friedrich Schiller.

3. A short version of this myth can be found in Nash, Jay Robert, “I am Innocent”, Da Capo Press, Philadelphia PA, 2008, pp. 299-302., for a more scholarly version of the myth see Fraser, Antonia, Mary Queen of Scots, Phoenix, London, 2002, (Org. Pub. 1969).

4. Somerset, Anne, Elizabeth, Fontana, London, 1991, pp. 69-70, 104-106, 122-123, 148-150, 162-164, 168-170.

5. IBID, pp. 173-174, 208-213.

6. IBID, pp. 192-198. The incredible story of shortly after Henry Stewart’s assassination Mary being abducted, (Almost certainly with Mary’s prior approval.) by the Earl of Bothwell and then married to him reveal an almost sublime political stupidity.

7. Somerset, pp. 249-260, 400-402, Hutchinson, Robert, Elizabeth’s Spy Master, Phoenix, London, 2006, pp. 90-109.

8. IBID, Somerset, pp. 408-411, 425-442, Hutchinson, pp. 116-202.

Pierre Cloutier

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