Mary, Queen of Scots: In Fact and Fiction

A Reading List

Chapter 1: Fact

Mary is one of the most written about women in Western history. During her own life and shortly after, she was not just the subject of copious diplomatic correspondence but also of the often violently partisan polemics, portraying her as either the devil incarnate or a martyr for her religion.  

The earliest supporting publication about Mary dates from 1570, written by John Leslie, Bishop of Ross, who had supported Mary throughout her personal reign, and continued to represent her in Europe. Two years later, George Buchanan, who had once been her Latin teacher, and a great admirer, wrote of her heinous crimes, mainly for the benefit of Mary’s son, James, whom the Protestant government of Scotland wished to think of his mother without sympathy.  

The fascination with the queen continued after her death – throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. An excellent analysis of the place of Marian historiography as part of a wider set of political theories and arguments was made in The Tragic Histories of Mary, Queen of Scots by John D. Staines in 2009.   

Less seriously, Jane Austen, in her humorous The History of England praised Mary, whilst criticising Elizabeth. The work can be found in Austen’s juvenilia, and in an edition introduced by Dr David Starkey.  

A far more serious biography is that by Agnes Strickland, as one of the component parts in her 8 volume Lives of the Queens of Scotland and English Princesses Connected with the Regal Succession of Great Britain, first published 1851-1859. Whilst Strickland’s determinedly romantic world-view is perhaps considered rather unhistorical today, she researched widely and located quantities of original documents, on which later historians rely. Before The Lives… she published The Letters of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1842 – 3.  Her volumes can often be found in second-hand book shops. Strickland was one of Mary’s partisans. 

Male historians of the nineteenth century were rather more disapproving, contrasting what they perceived as her ‘femininity’ which made her barely capable of rule, with the perceived ‘masculinity’ of her cousin, Elizabeth of England. This view of her, as a woman ruled by heart, rather than head, continued.  

The most famous biography of Mary is Mary, Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser, first published in 1969. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that Fraser reinvigorated history, and almost single-handedly created the genre of serious, well–researched history that is aimed at the popular market, which is graced in the current generation by a whole range of popular writers from Helen Castor to Marc Morris.  

Fraser also tended to a positive interpretation of Mary.  

This adulation of the queen received a bucket of cold water from the highly-respected Scottish historian, Dr Jenny Wormald, in her Mary, Queen of Scots: A Study in Failure, published in 1988. This was not so much a biography, as a study of Mary’s reign. In Wormald’s view, Mary was an incompetent monarch, who cared little for her country or her duty towards it, and was far more interested in pressing her claims to the English throne than ruling Scotland effectively.  

The book produced a storm of outrage, but as Wormald said, that was, in part, the intention – to ask honest questions, and sweep away the centuries of myth-making.  

Partially in refutation of Wormald, there was John Guy’s 2004 My Heart is My Own (reviewed here), which is an extremely sympathetic account of the queen.

The following year saw a different approach, in Susan Watkin’s illustrated Mary, Queen of Scots, which saw to place her in the context of the material culture and artefacts of her life.

In 2006, the respected Routledge Historical Biographies issued Mary Queen of Scots by Retha M. Warnicke.  Consistent with her other works, Warnicke takes an approach that considers issues of gender, in regard to Mary, and to assessments of her reign and personality.

There was a clutch of new biographies in the early 2010s: Rosalind K. Marshall’s Mary, Queen of Scots: Truth or Lies concentrates on clear refutations of myths that have sprung up. Marshall writes in a straightforward fashion, and this book is an excellent starting point for those wanting the maximum information in an accessible format.

Marshall has also written biographies of Mary’s mother, Marie of Guise, and a useful volume about the other women surrounding Mary – Queen Mary’s Women: Female Friends, Family, Servants and Enemies. This gives brief briographies of her grandmother, Antoinette of Bourbon, and her mothers-in-law, Catherine de' Medici and Lady Margaret Douglas, amongst others.

Less sympathetic than Guy, but broadly favourable to Mary is Linda Porter’s, Crown of Thistles: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary, Queen of Scots (reviewed here).  

There have been joint approaches, comparing and contrasting Mary and Elizabeth, such as Alison Plowden’s Two Queens in One Isle: The Deadly Relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, first published in 1984, and reissued in 2011, and also Jane Dunn’s Cousins, Rivals, Queens of 2012.  

Looking at Mary in a wider context of her times, there is Jane Dawson’s John Knox (reviewed here).   

The Rough Wooings: Mary, Queen of Scots 1542 - 1551 by Marcus Merriman is an intricate study of the Anglo-Scots war that plagued Scotland in the early 1540s, and led to Mary taking refuge in France.

The murder of Darnley attracted the attention of Alison Weir, who wrote a study of it in Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Darnley published in 2004, and reissued in 2011.

Mary, of course, plays a supporting role in the numerous biographies of Elizabeth and her ministers, particularly Cecil and Walsingham, and also in studies of Bess of Hardwick, married to Mary’s gaoler, the Earl of Shrewsbury.