John Guy is an experienced and well-respected historian who has written on topics as diverse as Thomas Becket and Henry VIII’s children. His academic credentials, however, have not damaged his ability to write a clear narrative of events – something that is very necessary in the extremely complex political world that surrounded Mary, Queen of Scots.
Mary has been a controversial figure from the time of her second marriage, and given her obvious intelligence and charisma, it has always been hard to understand how she could have acted in ways that, in retrospect, appear to be completely lacking in the most basic common sense, let alone political skill. By using, wherever possible, the contemporary letters and papers Guy demonstrates that most (if not all) of Mary’s actions were logical and understandable within the context of the information she had available. For what comes across very clearly, is that Mary did not always have the facts in her possession that would have enabled her to make different choices.
In so far as history books have villains, then William Cecil, Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth I of England, is, in this book, a villain of the deepest hue. In Guy’s interpretation, his constant interference in Scottish politics and his unshakeable enmity towards the Catholic Queen whom he saw as a threat to a Protestant succession in England destabilised an already unstable Scottish court. Guy is also very scathing of the part that Queen Mary’s Guise relatives played. Her devotion to them, and her trust in their advice are shown to be misplaced – they cared far more for their own aggrandisement in France than for their niece in faraway Scotland, although they never hesitated to use her for their own ends.
Guy is clearly sympathetic to Mary, but he cannot avoid the judgement that she threw her Crown away when she became entangled with Bothwell. His interpretation is that, although her abduction was forced, she was not raped, and that she married Bothwell willingly. This is a different interpretation from that of Porter, in Crown of Thistles, and a comparison of both books is valuable.
Guy’s review of the investigation into the murder of Darnley, and the Casket Letters, is extremely detailed and gives a very welcome analysis of the actual evidence against the Queen – he also shows how and why it may have been fabricated.
Similarly, he gives a coherent and structured narrative of the various political imperatives that Mary was subjected to once she was imprisoned in England, and how, eventually, Mary had no choice but to support plots against Elizabeth, if she were to have any hope of regaining her freedom.
All in all, this is an excellent retelling of a well-known, but complex, story that has invited blind partisanship from many authors. Guy is clearly a supporter of Mary, and inevitably gives a positive interpretation of events where motivations are in question, but where Mary’s actions were obviously wrong or foolish, he does not hesitate to say so.