Mary, Queen of Scots: Life Story

Chapter 6 : Queen of France

The year 1558 was a busy one for Mary. As well as her new position as Queen-Dauphiness, there was a good deal of political turmoil in the French court as the factions around the king argued for and against peace with Spain. Her Guise relatives were disinclined to pursue peace, as Duke François’ military prowess was one of their greatest strengths.

On the other side of the argument was the Constable of France, Anne de Montmorency, who had been captured by the Spanish troops. Montmorency’s party (of which Diane de Poitiers was a prominent member) argued for a peace which would have enabled him to return home. It is likely that Mary, in so far as she had an opinion, would have supported the Guise arguments. 

In November 1558. Mary’s cousin, Mary I of England, who was also Queen of Spain as the wife of Philip II, died. Most Europeans, and many in people in England, believed that Mary of England’s half- sister, Elizabeth, was illegitimate and therefore ineligible to inherit the English crown. In their eyes Queen Mary’s rightful successor was Mary, Queen of Scots, descended from the eldest daughter of Henry VII. Unsurprisingly, Henri II was firmly of this belief; to have his daughter-in-law as Queen of England would be of enormous benefit to France, breaking the alliance between England and Spain.

He immediately arranged for Mary to be proclaimed as Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland – naturally overlooking the English claim to the throne of France. Mary and her husband quartered the arms of England with those of France and Scotland and they were frequently displayed in court ceremonial, as well as being engraved on their household plate.

This action of Henri II’s had a most damaging effect on the rest of Mary’s life. Aged only 16, she probably had little say in the matter, but it made the English government, which had immediately accepted and proclaimed Elizabeth as Queen, deeply suspicious of Mary. As a French influenced Catholic, Elizabeth’s new Protestant government was certain that Mary had her eyes on the English throne – a view from which it never wavered.

Henri II and Philip II of Spain finally ended the long Italian Wars with the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis signed in April 1559. The treaty included provisions for Mary’s sister-in-law, Princess Elisabeth, to become Philip’s third wife, and for Princess Marguerite, sister of Henri II, to marry the Duke of Savoy, Philip’s cousin and chief commander. An ostentatious double wedding was planned and it was during a celebratory joust in late June 1559 that King Henri was killed.

Mary was now Queen of France alongside her 15-year-old husband, King François, although, as a sovereign queen, she did not share his coronation. With the approval of his mother, the Dowager-Queen Catherine, Mary’s Guise uncles were immediately confirmed as his chief advisors, although they were theoretically part of a Grand Council, over which François was to preside, and in which Queen Catherine took part.

Unhappy with this arrangement, others of the French nobility objected that François was under age, and could not appoint counsellors. They argued that the regency should be taken by his distant cousin, the oldest Prince du Sang (all-male descendant of Louis IX, with a right to the throne). This prince was Antoine de Bourbon, who was King of Navarre, in right of his wife, Jeanne III. King Antoine was a Catholic, but his wife, and his brother, Louis, Prince de Condé were both committed Huguenots.

The Guise faction argued successfully that 15 was the age of majority for French kings, and that, even if it were not, the proper regent was not necessarily the King of Navarre, but could be Queen Catherine. The brothers tightened their hold on power and Mary’s grandmother, Antoinette, and her three aunts-by-marriage, were appointed as her chief ladies.

Catherine supported the Guises, partly because they were the opponents of Montmorency and Diane de Poitiers, and revenge on Diane was sweet to the long-humiliated queen.  Mary, too, was keen to expunge Diane from royal circles, and immediately requested that an inventory of the crown jewels be made, and any items in Diane’s keeping sent to her.

As well as the loss of her father-in-law, Mary was saddened in November of that year by the departure of Princess Elisabeth for Spain. She maintained a correspondence with Elisabeth until the Queen of Spain’s untimely death in 1568.

France was in a parlous state. Inflation was rampant and the growing intolerance in religious matters was splitting the country. The young François was neither physically nor intellectually capable of dealing with the situation. Not only was he young, but he showed little or no aptitude for taking part in the duties of kingship, preferring to hunt and otherwise amuse himself. He was happy for the Guise family to undertake the routine aspects of governance.

A plot was laid by the Huguenots to capture Francois and Mary at Amboise and ‘liberate’ them from the Guises. As François and Mary had changed their plans and gone to Blois, the plot was foiled. Nevertheless, vicious reprisals were exacted on the rebels, with public hangings ordered by the Cardinal of Lorraine. The Duchess of Guise, Anna d’Este was so appalled when she saw the savagery with which her brother-in-law punished the insurrection that she foresaw that revenge would against her own children – a prophecy which turned out to be correct.