Reading History: “The Scourge of Henry VIII: The Life of Marie de Guise” (by Melanie Clegg)

Marie de Guise is one of those Renaissance women who’s suffered something of an image problem. Since she doesn’t shine as brightly as her contemporaries or her descendants–Elizabeth I, Catherine de Medici and, of course, Marie’s infamous daughter Mary, Queen of Scots–she tends to be glossed over by most histories of the period. Since she reigned as Queen of Scotland for such a short time as the consort of the ill-fated James V and was, for most of the rest of her life a regent rather than a regnant, it’s perhaps understandable.

However, as Melanie Clegg argues, this is a grievous injustice, and Marie deserves a great deal of respect for her ability to navigate not only the cutting world of French politics, but also those of the Scots. Born into a family that gradually rose in power, she ultimately found herself wedded to the mercurial James V of Scotland. Upon his death, she did everything in her power to make sure that the throne was kept secure for her daughter Mary, even though this often put her at odds with the Scottish nobility. In Clegg’s deft hands, we find ourselves swept along with Marie’s later life as she skillfully navigates the unfriendly political world of Scotland.

Unfortunately, as Clegg amply demonstrates, Marie’s life was doomed to be marred by tragedy and disappointment. A great deal of this stemmed from the nature of the Scottish nobility, who were always consumed with their own internecine feuds and attempts to grab power for themselves. However, her life was also marred by personal tragedies, most notably her years-long separation from her daughter. For all of her success in keeping Scotland in line, she ultimately died abandoned by all but, ironically, the very men who were her most steadfast enemies.

Despite the book’s title, Henry VIII actually plays a relatively minor role in the book and in Marie’s life as a whole. However, it is true that England’s rulers, both Henry and his successor Edward (as well as Edward’s guardian and uncle Edward Seymour) were to prove formidable enemies to Scottish independence. Marie actually deserves quite a lot of credit for managing to keep the English at bay as much as she did, though they did of course inflict a great deal of damage on the Borders and, at times, even the capital Edinburgh itself.

Clegg has a keen sense of narrative momentum, and she doesn’t allow her biography to get bogged down in the mundane details in the way of some other historians (I love Alison Weir, but she does have a tendency to get down into the weeds a bit). Clegg shows us the highs and lows of Marie’s political life, giving us a good idea of the type of woman she was and how she managed to succeed in the world of Renaissance politics. She also gives us enough details about the material world to give us a sense of the everyday life of the period.

As informative and readable as this book is, however, it does suffer a number of handicaps. Foremost among these is the lack of a comprehensive biography or any notes. Now, for the lay reader this probably doesn’t really pose much of a problem. I daresay that most people read biographies and popular histories for the information, not for the rigour of the historian. However, for someone who wants to know exactly how Clegg is reaching her conclusions, it can be a little frustrating to not have a paper trail of any kind to follow. I don’t hold Clegg entirely accountable for this, as it seems to me that the editors at Pen & Sword should be a little more diligent in ensuring that they’re providing their readers with accurate material.

All of that being said, Clegg deserves a great deal of credit for bringing Marie out of the shadows into the light of day. She truly was one of the most extraordinary women of the Renaissance and, while not native to Scotland, she clearly cared deeply for her adopted country and did her best to govern it as effectively as possible under incredibly difficult circumstances. I’d definitely recommend this book to others, though with the caution about reliability.

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