Queen of Scots Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Being queen of Scotland in the sixteenth century was not a position; it was a predicament. The difficulties began with Scotland itself, which was still feudal. In Queen of Scots, John Guy observes that “violence was endemic in [the country]. Politics were tribal, based on organized revenge and the blood feud.” Adding to the factionalism were religious differences arising from the Reformation. While Scotland's official religion was Protestantism, many, if not most, of its subjects were Catholic.

Compounding tribal and theological differences were foreign allegiances and hostilities. Ever since the 1290's, England had been trying to annex Scotland, which maintained an uneasy independence despite repeated military defeats. To balance England's greater military resources, Scotland allied itself with France; but some within Scotland favored an Anglo-Scottish accord. Even a French alliance did not always help England's northern neighbor. James IV of Scotland had been killed at the battle of Flodden Field in 1513, and in late 1542 James V's forces suffered a humiliating defeat when a border raid went badly wrong. Already ill from syphilis and other maladies, James V died on December 14, 1542, six days after the birth of his daughter Mary, his only legitimate child.

Mary Stuart thus became an infant queen, as her father had been an infant king. In both cases a regency was established, exacerbating power struggles, factionalism, and political instability. Mary Stuart would be a pawn. England's Henry VIII wanted to annex Scotland by force or marriage, and when Mary was only a few months old he sent Sir Ralph Sadler to Edinburgh to negotiate her marriage with his five-year-old son, Edward. Mary's mother, a member of a leading French family, wanted no part of such a union, favoring closer ties with France.

Thwarted politically, Henry turned to military action in what was known as the “Rough Wooings,” which would persist even after Henry's death. While the English never conquered Scotland, they did inflict severe casualties. These repeated invasions prompted the new French king, Henry II, to promise to help Scotland and to engage his heir, Francis, to Mary Stuart, who sailed for France in 1548.

This union put Mary, already queen of Scotland, in line to become queen of France. As great-granddaughter of Henry VII of England, she also had a claim to the English throne. Catholics never recognized the marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, so in their eyes Henry and Anne's daughter, Elizabeth, was illegitimate. In 1536 the English Parliament, at Henry's urging, had declared her so, and that statement had never been revoked. In his 1544 Third Act of Succession, Henry VIII had restored Elizabeth's claim to the throne and excluded the Stuarts, but Catholics did not accept this law. They regarded Mary Stuart as third in line to succeed Henry, after Edward VI (Henry's son) and Mary Tudor (Henry's elder daughter, herself a Catholic).

In France, Mary Stuart was well educated. Though she was not the scholar that her cousin Elizabeth Tudor was, she did learn Latin, Italian, and some Greek. She studied French poetry under Pierre de Ronsard, France's leading writer of the day, and became his patron. A decade after arriving in France, Mary wed Francis. He was fourteen, she fifteen. The marriage occurred in April, 1558.

In November, Mary Tudor, the queen of England, died. Elizabeth became queen, but France refused to recognize her as such. Instead, the French court added the heraldic arms of England to those of Scotland and France on the plates and furniture of Mary and Francis. Mary's uncle Charles Valois, cardinal of Lorraine, lobbied Pope Paul IV to declare Mary queen of England instead of the Protestant Elizabeth. Philip II of Spain, however, hoped to marry Elizabeth, and the papacy needed Spanish support. The pope therefore rejected Mary's claim. Even Henry II feared the ambitions of Mary's French relatives.

Again, death soon intervened to influence Mary's fortunes. On July 10, 1559, Henry II died after being wounded in a joust. At the age of sixteen, Mary was queen of France. Her Guise relatives were free to pursue their dynastic ambitions. The new royal seal of Scotland called Francis and Mary “by grace of God, king and queen of France, Scotland, England and Ireland.” The Guises also sought to impose Catholicism on Scotland, thus provoking a revolt led by James Stuart, Mary's illegitimate half brother. Mary of Guise was deposed as regent and...

(The entire section is 1831 words.)