Mary, Queen of Scots: Life Story

Chapter 4 : French Education

Mary joined the rather strange ménage à trois that made up the French court. Henri II had been married to Catherine de’ Medici for some 15 years by now but for the first 11 years of their marriage they had had no children, presumably because Henri was otherwise occupied with his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. The royal couple now had three children and Queen Catherine was expecting her fourth. Nevertheless, Henri still spent the majority of his time with Diane, who took as active an interest in the royal nursery as Queen Catherine, famous for her devotion to her children.

Mary took her place amongst the royal children, sharing a room with the eldest French princess, Elisabeth, however she was given precedence over Elisabeth and Claude, both as a sovereign queen and the betrothed of the dauphin, François. Mary became attached to all the French children, and fortunately, soon struck up a close friendship with François.

Amongst the other relatives with whom Mary now became acquainted was her formidable grandmother, Antoinette of Bourbon, Duchess of Guise. Antoinette was delighted with her granddaughter but less impressed with her entourage. She confided to her daughter, Marie of Guise, that she was not sure that all of them were as thoroughly washed as was desirable.

The other Guise influences in Mary’s young life were her oldest uncle, another François, who became duke in 1550, and her next uncle, Charles, known as the Cardinal of Lorraine. A third uncle, Louis, was Cardinal of Guise. Whilst these uncles were no doubt fond of the little girl, her real value to them was as a means for furthering the inordinate ambition that they displayed, and their desire to control the French crown. 

Mary’s position as queen regnant of Scotland was nowhere near so important, in French minds, as her role as a future queen consort of France. French interest in Scotland was purely self-interested – it was to enable them to threaten England, and have a spring-board to invade their old enemy, should England again encroach on French territory. The whole thrust of Mary’s education was thus to make her a queen-consort. Scotland would be ruled by a French nominee, and then united with France through Mary’s putative son.

Marie, however, was more considerate of the feelings of Mary’s countrymen, and insisted that Lady Fleming be retained as her governess, and that Jean Sinclair, her nurse, remain in post. She also ensured that Mary continued to speak Scots, although her main language soon became French. Scots is not Gaelic, but an Anglo-Saxon language – similar to English, and mutually intelligible, but more divergent then than modern Scots and English are. Her other Scots companions, including the four Marys, were sent away.  

Mary arrived in France at the age of five and a half. For the next ten years, from 1548 to 1558, she lived in the delightful palace of the Loire valley, and Paris, surrounded by wealth, luxury and throngs of servants. She was educated to a high standard – Latin, Italian, Spanish and some Greek were studied, as well as French and Scots, but does not seem to have had the academic bent of her Tudor cousins. She played the lute, and danced extremely well. Religion, of course, was a major part of her life, and she was brought up in all the traditions of the Catholic Church. Unlike his aunt, Marguerite of Angoulême, Henri II had no interest in evangelicalism, and her Guise relatives were strictly orthodox (although her uncle François of Guise’s wife, Anna di Este, was the daughter of Princess Renée of France, a committed Calvinist).

Two years after her arrival, Mary had the delight of a visit from her mother. In a touching scene, Mary, who had been practising a speech of welcome, broke all the rules of etiquette and ran towards her mother. Another breach of etiquette was committed by her governess, Lady Fleming, who found herself pregnant by the king, and was visited by the wrath of both Catherine and Diane. She was sent home in disgrace, and replaced with a French governess.

In 1553, tensions broke out between the French and the Scots over Mary’s position. The princesses, Elisabeth and Claude, were considered old enough to leave the nursery and join their mother, Queen Catherine, at court and the French, including Mary’s uncle, the Cardinal of Lorraine, thought that she should have her own royal household. The problem was that the Scots crown could barely afford her maintenance as part of the French princesses’ household. The French troops that Henri had sent were welcome in that they gave some protection against the English, but the cost of them was enormous, and resentment was building.

Mary herself, aged twelve, was beginning to show the independence of adolescence and added her pleas to those her mother had already received. Marie of Guise had little choice but to comply, and Mary became head of her own royal household. During this period, her contact with her Guise relatives increased. The Guise brothers were enormously powerful and ambitious, as well as deeply attached to each other and their siblings. Their ambition, and their non-French origins (the Duchy of Lorraine, from which they sprang, was part of the empire) made them many enemies.