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Authors: Roderick Graham

An Accidental Tragedy

BOOK: An Accidental Tragedy
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An Accidental Tragedy


Roderick Graham was educated at the Royal High School of Edinburgh and Edinburgh University, before serving with the Royal Army Education Corps as Staff Officer (Education) East Africa Command. He subsequently enjoyed a long and varied career in television and radio as a writer, freelance director and producer, and worked for a period as Head of Drama for BBC TV Scotland. He has also taught writing and directing at Napier and Leeds Metropolitan Universities, Edinburgh College of Art and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. He is the author of the critically acclaimed
John Knox: Democrat
(Hale, 2001) and
The Great Infidel: A Life of David Hume
(Tuckwell Press, 2005). His latest book,
Arbiter of Elegance: A Biography of Robert Adam
(Birlinn), is due for publication in autumn 2009.

This eBook edition published in 2012 by
Birlinn Limited
West Newington House
Newington Road

Copyright © Roderick Graham 2008

The moral right of Roderick Graham to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.

ISBN: 978-1-84158-803-2
eBook ISBN: 978-0-85790-497-3

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.


Jane and Peter, Marian and Hugh

(originally Anna Throndsen and Erik Rosencrantz),

Michael and Melissa, and Robert and Valerie

Thank you for your friendship


List of Illustrations



Family trees

Scotland, 1542–48

1 As goodly child as I have seen

2 One of the most perfect creatures

France, 1548–61

3 We may be very well pleased with her

4 The most amiable Princess in Christendom

5 She cannot long continue

6 She universally inspires great pity

Scotland, 1561–68

7 We had landed in an obscure country

8 Dynastic entity

9 The dancing grows hot

10 Yonder long lad

11 She wished she had never been married

12 Some evil turn

13 It does not appertain to subjects to reform their prince

England, 1568–87

14 Whistling in the dark

15 A lawful prisoner?

16 My fortune has been so evil

17 Stranger, papist and enemy

18 To trap her in a snare

19 You are but a dead woman

20 A place near the kings

Appendix: The Scots Tongue

Note on sources



List of Illustrations

Mary of Guise, Queen of Scotland, wife of James V and mother of Mary, Queen of Scots

James V, King of Scotland and father to Mary, Queen of Scots

Linlithgow Palace

Stirling Castle

Mary, Queen of Scots aged nine years and six months

Henri II, King of France and father-in-law to Mary

Catherine de Medici, Queen of France and wife to Henri II

Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse de Valentinois and mistress of Henri II

François II aged eight

The chateau of Chenonceau

The chateau of Amboise

The death of Henri II

Mary in
Deuil Blanc
, the white mourning of France

Lord James Stewart, the illegitimate son of James V and half-brother to Mary

William Maitland of Lethington, nicknamed ‘Michael Wylie – Scotland’s Machiavelli’

John Knox, the spiritual leader of the Scottish Reformation and an implacable enemy of Mary’s way of life, both religious and social

Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley and Mary’s second husband

The north wing of the Palace of Holyrood House

Edinburgh Castle

Elizabeth I of England, Mary’s cousin

James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, and Mary’s third husband

Craigmillar Castle, a few miles south of Edinburgh, where the Confederate Lords plotted the murder of Darnley, almost certainly with Mary’s knowledge

Hermitage Castle, Bothwell’s implacable fortress in the Scottish borders

The banner carried by the Confederate Lords at the battle of Carberry

Lochleven Castle

Mary’s last letter, written to her brother-in-law Henri III of France

The replica of Mary’s Westminster tomb in the Museum of Scotland


Mary Stewart was the victim of a golden childhood snatched away by widowhood, and her tragedy was an accidental one. This book seeks neither to blacken her character, by portraying her as a murderess of husbands, nor to sanctify her as the lonely champion of her faith, but to recount the circumstances which formed her character and to explain the events which determined her fate.

Mary was undoubtedly one of the great beauties of her era. Since the golden age of Hollywood, many technical tricks have been used to enhance the beauty of the subject when photographing the stars: the focus of the camera might not be entirely sharp, the lens might be smeared with oil or grease, sometimes a gauze might be stretched across the front of the lens – often with holes strategically placed to allow the sitter’s eyes to sparkle – and smoke might even be diffused across the studio; all that before the negatives passed into the hands of the retouchers. The result has been a totally unreal icon of beauty. This is how we now see not only a Garbo or Dietrich, but also many of today’s celebrities. The same gauze, smoke and retouching have been liberally applied to the memory of Mary Stewart.

She was born in Scotland to a French mother, crowned at the age of nine months and, to avoid a forced marriage with an English prince, was sent at once for safekeeping to her relatives in France. Here she was educated to be a fairy princess, betrothed to the Dauphin – sadly, he was retarded both mentally and physically – and she was destined to become a glittering queen of France. When she gained the throne, her uncles and their allies
ruthlessly used her position to wield power for themselves until she was rendered useless by the death of the feeble boy-king. Therefore, still a virgin and now a widow at the age of eighteen years and seven months, her career in France was over, and, with her carefully protective education abandoned, she returned to Scotland.

She had been educated in a time of aggressively masculine rulers and had been taught the skills of female empowerment by two eminently powerful women of contrasting personalities: Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medici. She had seen direct female rule in its full effect under her cousin Elizabeth I of England, but such was the gilded cage that had been constructed around her that she never put any of her lessons into practice. She had been thoroughly taught the skills of, and excelled at, life in a Renaissance court, accepting extravagant praise, riding, dancing, singing, organising masques and pageants, flirting and presiding over a bejewelled court of lavish splendour. She knew nothing of politics or international diplomacy – except where it involved the marriage of her friends. Now, deprived of the advice of her uncles, she had to rule Scotland alone.

Mary, during her short time in Scotland, lived on a self-created fantasy island of delights modelled on the Valois court of France. At her arrival, in 1561, the nobility had looked for leadership, hopefully one working to their advantage, and had found instead a disinterested docility. Having assured the people that she would not interfere with their religion, Mary had taken no further interest in their affairs, provided that they adored her as she rode past on her progresses away from her court at Holyrood. Her council ran the country, she signed what she was advised to sign and made suitable noises towards her southern neighbour. Mary had no interest at all in politics, and on the rare occasions when she attended Privy Council meetings she took her embroidery.

As a marriage prospect she carried with her everywhere the twin infections of religion and dynasty. Mary did not govern personally and gave no firm instruction to her council to rule on her behalf. This left the sometimes divided nobility trying,
occasionally, to interpret her whims, thus causing a near fatal separation of monarchy and legislature.

The skills required to decorate the court of France as a beautiful and graceful queen were very different to those needed to control a naturally quarrelsome nation just emerging from the Reformation. Having, metaphorically, been coached in the skills of a talented amateur to play selected exercises on the harpsichord with grace and charm to a sycophantic audience, she was suddenly thrust onto a very public platform to play entire Beethoven sonatas on a concert grand piano. Mary simply ignored this daunting task and was finally deposed by her exasperated aristocracy, escaping to leave a civil war raging while she threw herself on the mercy of her cousin Elizabeth Tudor.

In England, Mary endured a form of house arrest of varying severity until, stupidly, she made an identifiable endorsement of a plot to assassinate Elizabeth. The latter was finally forced to act and Mary Stewart was executed aged forty-four.

Mary was an enthusiastic dancer, gracefully slim and tall – her first dancing partner of her own height was her husband-to-be Henry Darnley – with fair, probably red-gold hair and a clear complexion. She was an enthusiastic horsewoman, often riding astride, and seldom happier than when at full gallop with the sun on her back.

Men fell in love with her at an amazing rate, often with disastrous consequences. A French court poet hid in her bedroom and was executed for his pains, a Scottish earl tried to abduct her and was declared insane, and some fell on their knees with declarations of undying love.

Mary lived, over two periods, for eleven years and six months in Scotland, thirteen years in France, and seventeen years and nine months in England, but she remained at heart a princess of France, more at home speaking French amid the châteaux of the Loire than anywhere else. She never took charge of her life, but was controlled by events, and the few decisions she did make all ended tragically.

BOOK: An Accidental Tragedy
9.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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