Tag Archives: mary queen of scots

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.

Screening History: Mary, Queen of Scots (2018)

For some time now I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of the newest film to focus on the tumultuous and tragic life of Mary, Queen of Scots and her tempestuous relationship with her cousin Elizabeth I.

The film focuses primarily on the fraught relationship between Mary, Queen of Scots (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). Once Mary returns from her youth in France, she finds herself confronted by her scheming Scottish lords, a disloyal husband, and by the machinations of her cousin and rival Elizabeth. Despite her best efforts, Mary is ultimately deposed by her lords (who are egged on by David Tenant’s fiery and bigoted John Knox), flees to England, and is ultimately executed for her participation in a plot against Elizabeth’s life and throne.

While the film is more historically accurate than some, it does contain what has become something of a requirement in films about these two feuding monarchs: a face-to-face meeting that never (so far as we know) actually occurred. In this meeting, arguably the film’s climax, Elizabeth finally reveals the truth: that she has long crafted her own persona around her fear of her cousin and rival queen. However, and just as importantly, she also asserts that it is precisely Mary’s most noteworthy qualities–her impetuousness, her heightened emotion, her youth–that have ultimately brought about her downfall. Elizabeth, meanwhile, continues to hold onto her throne and her power.

Ultimately, the film seems to agree with Elizabeth. Mary is passionate and intelligent, but she refuses to put her duty to country above her own wishes and desires. What’s more, she tends to be far too naive to be able to survive the cutthroat world of her Scottish nobility, who balk at her efforts to bring them to heel. She also allows herself to fall perilously in love with Darnley and indulges her fondness for her Italian secretary David Rizzio to a degree that leaves her open to an attack from her disaffected brothers, particularly her brother Moray. (Somewhat implausibly, the film suggests that Mary is totally okay with Rizzio’s explicit queerness).

The film is visually  splendid, and the costumes rustle and glitter with the wealth of the era. There are also some truly splendid shots of the Scottish scenery. Having just returned from an all-too-brief sojourn in that country, I can assure you that the films’ cinematography does it complete justice. Yet Mary struggles to make this beautiful land her own, her many years in France creating a distance between herself and her nobles that she proves incapable of effectively bridging.

What really makes the film shine, however, are the performances. Ronan does an excellent job as the youthful Queen of Scots, bringing her signature brand of fiery passion and steely determination to the role. Ronan’s Mary is a woman determined to forge her own path, regardless of what others advise her to do. She does a fine job at conveying the inner strength that motivated and sustained Mary through some of the darkest moments of her life, though at times her portrayal gives the doomed Scottish queen a bit too much credit. (I’ll try not to nitpick her accent, which still sounds more Irish than Scottish, and yes I know the real Mary would most likely have sounded French and not Scottish in any case).

As great as Ronan is at capturing Mary’s fiery spirit, it is Robbie who truly shines as Elizabeth (full confession: I’m Team Elizabeth, now and forever).  Though at times she is wracked by her sense of vulnerability in the face of Mary’s charisma, youth, and beauty, in their last fateful encounter she finally bares her true self to her cousin. In doing so, she reclaims the agency and assurance that she almost lost and proves once again that she is the queen most willing to sacrifice her own personal emotions and desires–particularly her love for her dear Robert Dudley. Unlike Mary, who refuses to acknowledge political reality, Elizabeth always has her pulse on the real world. She knows, and ultimately accepts, that she will have to give up her some essential parts of herself is she hopes to rule as a wise and just queen in a man’s world. And Elizabeth, even more than Mary, recognizes that there is room on their isle for only one of them.

The script, however, has some major weaknesses that the film struggles to overcome. For one thing, it is too short to adequately explore the various plot threads that it puts into play. For someone who is already well-acquainted with the history and politics of the period this isn’t too significant of a handicap, but I can see how someone who doesn’t know much about the depicted events would quickly become lost.

More significantly, the rushed nature of the script means that some of the key players–particularly Darnley and Bothwell–are woefully underdeveloped, their motives and actions left largely unexplained. A number of pivotal points of character development–Darnley’s betrayal, Bothwell’s rape of Mary–seem to come out of left-field. Had the writers either trimmed out these portions or had the director given some more time for the story to flex its muscles, it would have made a stronger drama. As it is, the performances of the two leads are definitely the best part about it.

All in all, I quite enjoyed Mary, Queen of Scots, despite some of its flaws. Is it as strong a film as some of the other fictional tellings of the doomed Scottish queen? Probably not. However, it does reveal the extent to which this tragic tale continues to hold on the imagination, and how extraordinary these women were in their efforts to rule in a man’s world. What’s more, it does at least attempt to convey the complicated politics of the era (hardly surprising, given that it is based on John Guy’s very popular and applauded biography of Mary) . For both of those reasons, it deserves a great deal of credit, and I look forward to seeing it again.

Review: “Reign” (CW)

Like most people, I went into the premiere of the CW series Reign with more than a little trepidation.  After all, this network doesn’t have a good reputation as far as the “quality TV” department is concerned.  However, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by what I found, namely:  a decent cast (Megan Fellows threatens to steal the show as the villainous, cunning, yet somewhat sympathetic Catherine de’Medici), acting that wasn’t horrible, and some adherence to the historical record.  Though it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, those who enjoyed The Tudors (I did, for the record) or Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (I enjoyed that too), will probably enjoy Reign.

Before we go any further, let me just say that yes, I realize that the costuming is laughably anachronistic.  But hey, it’s pretty much that way with any historical drama, though admittedly some take at least a little more effort to adhere to a sense of authenticity, even if they don’t adhere to strictly the dress code of the era.  And yes, I also realize that the characters are not acting like men and women of that period would have acted.  All of that said, there are other aspects of the series that make it worth watching and, just perhaps, taking seriously as at least a type of history.

Two things stood out the most in the premiere.  The first of these is the fact that Mary (ably if not superbly played by Adelaide Kane) may be more than a little smitten with the charming, dashing, and dishy Francis (Toby Regbo), but she also has a streak of iron in her that she will definitely need as she struggles to survive in the deceptive and dangerous French court.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was a female character that had a little bit of backbone and, furthermore, that she is willing and able to stand up to those who seek to put her down, including Francis.  Though he tells her in no uncertain terms that she is to be seen and not heard, and that his concern for France will always come before his affections for her, she pertly reminds him that she, too, has a country to keep in mind.  While a seemingly insignificant moment, it reveals two things:  one, that the series has at least some awareness of the fact that royals couldn’t just love like everyone else and two, that this Mary might have a bit of spirit and bite to her.

The second thing that stood out in the premiere was the splendidly and sweetly poisonous Catherine, Mary’s scheming mother-in-law.  Having been advised by her pet astrologer Nostradamus that Mary will bring about the death of her beloved son Francis, Catherine makes it her mission to ruin the marriage arranged between the two young royals.  I was prepared to find this Catherine cloying, but instead she threatens to steal the series from its ostensible lead.  Indeed, we cannot help but sympathize with her (at least a little), considering that her husband is openly having an affair with Diane de Poitiers, not to mention any other woman he can get his hands on.  What’s more, her antipathy toward Mary stems at least in part from her conviction that the young Scotswoman will lead to her son’s death.  All in all, she comes across as a woman who knows the place that her society, and her husband, have afforded her and, as such, also knows what she has to do in order to assert what little agency is allowed her.

What emerges from these two women is an indication of how 21st Century American culture conceives of the past and, particularly, the role that women played in that past.  Much as with The Tudors and its successor The Borgias (as well as other countless television historical dramas), Reign asserts that Renaissance women’s only access to power was through their men, i.e. through the marshaling of their sexual desirability to bend men to their will.  While this does of course run the risk of essentalizing these women as nothing more than walking vaginas, I would contend that there is a hidden complexity here, an open acknowledgment of the fact that, unfortunately, patriarchy often forces women to rely on the only weapons that patriarchy lets them have, their cunning and their bodies (and often a combination of the two).  The trick, of course, is how to bring this unfortunate fact to life without merely replicating the mechanisms of that oppression.  At this point, it is far too early to say whether Reign will plumb such complexities—as did The Tudors, at least in its highest and most compelling moments—but it has certainly gotten off to a good start.  There are at least two strong female leads to give the show a center of gravity, which is one of the essential ingredients to a truly and satisfyingly complex portrayal of historical women’s subjectivity.  Don’t worry, though, this feminist media critic will be right there to nail them if they start to betray the promise that they have shown already.

Is Reign historically accurate or even authentic?  Absolutely and unequivocally not.  As is usual with such series, the people are far too pretty and clean to be accurate representations of what life was like in the 16th Century, even for royalty.  There is also the strand of the supernatural that has already reared its head (this could end up working really well or just being corny).  However, to ask those kinds of questions, and to condemn a series or a film for failing to live up to those standards, risks losing sight of exactly those issues I have touched upon in this review.  Sure, Reign might not be “good” history (whatever that means) but, whether we like it or not, it is a type of history, and we as cultural critics and consumers would be well served to ask and interpret exactly what kind of history it is that we are looking at.