Mary Queen of Scots, the spirited 16th-century monarch played by Saoirse Ronan in the new biopic, Mary Queen of Scots, has been as much “a victim of the pen as the executioner’s ax,” according to British historian Dr. John Guy. During exhaustive research for his 2004 biography, also titled Mary Queen of Scots, Guy realized how false her centuries-old reputation was. She was not “a femme fatale and manipulative siren who ruled from passion,” but a forward-thinking female ruler entrapped by the impossible circumstances of the 16th-century patriarchy.
When the young monarch asserted her claim on the British throne—then occupied by her cousin, Elizabeth I—Mary and Elizabeth, both in childbearing years, were in similarly tricky predicaments. Their monarchies would, in theory, only be secured if they married and produced heirs or named successors. Elizabeth, whose father Henry VIII had her mother Anne Boleyn executed, understandably chose to pass on these options. Mary, meanwhile, opted for marriage and a baby. But her husband Lord Darnley—still in serious contention for worst husband of the millennium—slept with her male secretary (more on that later); murdered said secretary in front of Mary while she was pregnant; and then attempted to wrest control from her. The inept power maneuver set into motion an ugly sequence of succession-related events involving murder, scandal, abdication, imprisonment, and execution.
Guy recently explained to Vanity Fair that Mary’s reputation—which persisted for the approximately 400 years before his book’s publication—was built from “‘alternative facts,’ as we would say today, designed to destroy her reputation and to encourage Queen Elizabeth I to kill her.” Elizabeth succumbed to evidence fed to her by advisers and sentenced her cousin to execution in 1587.
Ahead, Guy takes us through the real-life events that informed the film—describing the traumatic events of Elizabeth’s adolescence that turned her against marriage; the love triangle between Mary’s husband Lord Darnley and her sexually-fluid secretary David Rizzio; and why Elizabeth I and Mary never actually ended up meeting face-to-face.
Queen Elizabeth I’s Traumatic Backstory
Elizabeth, played in the film by Margot Robbie, “was absolutely forged in the fire of the tribulations of her adolescence,” said Guy, recounting how Elizabeth’s father had her mother executed. When Henry VIII re-married Jane Seymour, he stripped Elizabeth of her princess title—decreeing that she should be known as “Lady Elizabeth.”
After Henry VIII died, his final wife Catherine Parr took Elizabeth into her household. “Catherine Parr married her true love Thomas Seymour, who was incredibly ambitious, swashbuckling, and brazen. He imagined that, if Catherine Parr died in childbirth, which she eventually did, he would perhaps marry Elizabeth himself. While Catherine Parr was still alive and the three were in the household together . . . Thomas Seymour would come into Elizabeth’s bedroom early in the morning and he would touch her up and make up to her a bit. This reached the point where Catherine Parr sent Elizabeth away to a safe house in Hertfordshire.” After Parr’s death, Seymour was executed for treason for scheming to marry Elizabeth and assume power. A 15-year-old Elizabeth was interrogated but exonerated. Some historians believe that the public nature of the scandal made Elizabeth more determined to protect her sexual reputation.
Queen Elizabeth I’s Own Imprisonment
As if Elizabeth had not endured enough trauma in her adolescence, the reign of her half-sister, Mary Tudor (“Bloody Mary”), was just as problematic. “Elizabeth was sent to the tower for about a week, suspected or accused of being involved in a plot to overthrow her half-sister,” explained Guy of Elizabeth’s imprisonment. “And then she was sent to Woodstock, where she was put under house arrest for almost a year. She feared for her life.”
Mary Queen of Scots, meanwhile, had been largely “sheltered,” living in the court of France between the ages of 5 and 18—when her first husband, the Dauphin of France, died, and she returned to Scotland. “She was not exposed to risks and plots and conspiracies,” said Guy, explaining that Elizabeth, by her teenage years, was already seeing treacherous power grabs all around her.
Naming a Successor
As depicted in the film, Elizabeth refused to name a successor—a savvy move that could have been her saving grace. By the time Elizabeth took the throne, according to Guy, “she was more realistic where men were concerned. She had learned by the way she was treated by men as an adolescent. She knew what men were like and how dangerous they could be. My own personal view is that she had decided that she would never marry, because she had foreseen what would happen—and what could well happen is exactly what happened to Mary.
“Although she in her heart regarded Mary Queen of Scots as her true heir should she die without having married or having had children, [Elizabeth] would never name a successor because she feared the kinds of plots and conspiracies she had seen in her adolescent years.”
Queen Mary’s Love Triangle with David Rizzio and Lord Darnley
In Mary Queen of Scots, the titular ruler has a close relationship with her male secretary David Rizzio. Rizzio has a sexual encounter with Mary’s second husband, Lord Darnley. And, when Queen Mary is pregnant with Lord Darnley’s child, the monarch is forced to watch while Darnley and rebels stab Rizzio to death—after it is claimed Rizzio impregnated the queen. As outrageous as this story line seems, it is very much based in history.
“Rizzio was Northern Italian, and had been brought up in courts in France,” explained Guy. “The vogue in France, among young hedonistic courtiers, was essentially that they were bisexual. And they were looking back to ancient Greece and Rome . . . the idea of men and sexuality then was very different from what it is now. Straight and gay were not so clearly defined in those days. It was not frowned on as much . . . and Mary was also a very tolerant person.”
Rizzio was a crucial fixture in Mary’s court. “He was very good at organizing masks and courtly games,” explained Guy. “He was often alone with her and her ladies-in-waiting, or alone with her in her private chambers. Some of those games [they played] were quite intimate, and, because in the Renaissance this courtly life didn’t necessarily mean that you were having a relationship, you imagined and pretended to be in love with the Queen and with each other. You wrote each other verses and that sort of thing. It was the same in Henry VIII’s court. Rumors did spread that [Rizzio] was too close to Mary, but of course they would—they were in Scotland among these more Protestant laws where it was more of a Puritanical sort of society.”
“The friendship was used against Mary”—even by Darnley, who had his own relationship with Rizzio. “They absolutely had a sexual relationship,” said Guy. “There is absolutely no doubt in history because they were found in bed together. As far as Darnley is concerned, for a man in the 16th century, he was effeminate and bisexual.”
Lord Darnley and Mary’s Downfall
“The challenge that all female rulers faced in this male-dominated, patriarchal society was the minute they marry and choose a husband, then he wants to become king,” explained Guy. “The way patriarchy works is that they then try to push their wife aside and govern as king and make their wife some sort of subordinate. And that’s exactly what Darnley was trying to do. The effect of that is two-fold—in the first place, husband and wife fall out. The second difficulty is that the courtiers and nobles around the court who had gotten used to a woman ruler were faced with a man they now found objectionable, as they did with Darnley.”
By marrying, Mary did what a monarch ought to do “because she settled succession in her country,” said Guy, noting that even Mary’s enemy—Elizabeth’s adviser, William Cecil—acknowledged that Mary acted properly. “But the difficulty as a woman ruler in this time period was, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Because if you do marry and you have a son, as Mary does—paradoxically that now means that there is a male heir in the picture—and the nobles can turn against the woman ruler. In this film and in history, they try to make a brief alliance with Darnley, who they promise [would be] king if he will basically do what they want. Darnley then falls out with them so basically the nobles get rid of both of them.”
Mary and Elizabeth’s Fictional Meeting
In spite of the secret meeting depicted in the film, Mary never actually met her cousin Elizabeth face-to-face. “After Mary returned to Scotland to take her throne, there was a lot of talk of a meeting,” explained Guy. “It very nearly happened near Nottingham. They had sent food and supplies up there. They had gotten as far as setting up an exchange bureau, where people could change their Scottish money into English money. But it was canceled because of events in France related to the outbreak of the wars of religion.”
Guy posited in his biography of Mary that a face-to-face meeting would have altered the fates of both women. “If only these two women could have gotten together and had a conversation, one with the other, they could have settled their differences. If they could have liberated themselves from these conspiratorial, Machiavellian, sometimes even reptilian men who populated their courts, they could have actually done a deal. . . . These women were the only two people on the planet at that time who knew what it was to be in the shoes of the other one.”
Guy explained that the climactic meeting was manufactured for the film as “a theatrical exaggeration” because the filmmakers believed “that a movie could only work if the two principal protagonists actually met and looked each other in the eye.”
In reality, Queen Elizabeth I did continue communicating with her cousin, sending letters that were to be read to Mary by her jailer. Guy summarized one letter as saying, “‘Here we were, two laboring queens on the same island.’ Basically: ‘Where did it go wrong? I tried to make it work. Why’d you conceive this jealousy against me.’” These letters turned up in the last decade, and only bolstered the opinion that Guy had formed during his research. “I always knew that these two women, in their hearts, could have done right by one another. But events, courtiers, and counselors got in the way.”
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