Mary, Queen of Scots: Appearance and Character

Chapter 2 : Character

Whilst Mary did not have the academic bent of her cousin, she was intelligent and accomplished in accordance with the tastes of the time. French became her preferred medium of communication, although she never forgot her Scots, and she also learnt Italian and Latin.

She was a fine musician on lute and virginals and could also sing – unlike her father, whose voice was described as harsh. As an adolescent, she charmed the French court, being feted in poems by Ronsard and du Bellay. Her young husband adored her.

With so much adulation, and the emotional security of an affectionate upbringing at the French court, it is hardly surprising that Mary did not learn the hard lessons of politics in childhood that the English queens, Mary I and Elizabeth I, were both exposed to.

She was a deeply emotional woman – easily moved to tears or to laughter, and her early training did not require her to hide those feelings. Later, she learnt to dissemble both anger and any desire for revenge, but such secretiveness did not come naturally to her. Any sort of emotional turmoil told heavily on her health, and there are frequent reports of physical collapse from mental distress.

The other lack in her education, was the development of independence. Because she had been supported at every turn, taught to rely on her father-in-law, Henri II, and her Guise uncles, when she came to be a queen, she anticipated that those she relied on, such as her half-brother, Moray, her secretary, Maitland, or even her cousin, Elizabeth, would have her interests at heart. Sadly, fair words did not necessarily reflect inner loyalty and betrayal repeatedly surprised and hurt her.

One of the earliest assessments of Mary’s character as a queen, came shortly after she was widowed in 1560. Elizabeth’s envoy to the French court, Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, wrote:  

‘…she is both of great wisdom for her years, modesty and also of great judgement…and for my part, I see her behaviour to be such, and her wisdom and kingly modesty to be so great, in that she thinketh herself not too wise, but is content to be guided by good counsel and wise men (which is a great virtue in a prince or princess and which argueth a great wisdom and judgement in her).

As with many virtues, Mary’s willingness to take advice became a burden when she relied too much on others. At the same time, she was well aware of the duty that her subjects owed her. She complained to Throckmorton that:

‘My subjects in Scotland do their duty in nothing, nor have they performed their part in one thing that belongeth to them. I am their queen and so they call me, but they do not use me so…They must be taught to know their duties.’

It is the distinguished historian, Dr Wormald’s view, expressed in Mary, Queen of Scots: A Study in Failure, that Mary knew her duty no better than did her subjects, and that the queen’s troubles stemmed from a fundamental unwillingness to engage properly in the business of governing her country, because she was forever seeking other thrones – principally that of England.

Where Mary was clear, was in the demarcation in her mind between her personal faith and public policy. In many ways, her reign would have been smoother had she converted to Protestantism – or even if she had taken a strongly Catholic line – the Reformation in Scotland was only months old when she was widowed, and she could have made a pro-active attempt to undo it.

She told Throckmorton that:

‘The religion I profess I take to be the most acceptable to God; and neither do I know or desire to know any other. Constancy becometh all folks well, and none better than princes and such as have rule over realms and especially in matters of religion. I have been brought up in this religion and who aught would credit me in anything If I should show myself higher in this case?’

During this period of her life, Mary’s religion was a matter of custom and form, as much as of inner conviction. She was born and brought up as a Catholic, her ancestors had been Catholics, and she felt no inner religious urgings, although she would not change her faith for expediency. Later, her religion came to mean more to her on a personal level, and, as the years of captivity passed, it became a comfort to her, and at the end, she, and many others, perceived herself as a Catholic martyr.

What could never be doubted were Mary’s physical and moral courage, and her ability to think quickly in dangerous situations – her reactions to the murder of Riccio must rank as some of the fastest and cleverest manoeuvres that any beleaguered monarch exhibited.

Mary’s arch-enemy, John Knox, has left a pen-portrait of her that he certainly did not mean as a compliment, but which may recommend Mary as a woman of talent and courage:

‘If there be not in her a proud mind, a crafty wit and an indurate heart against God and His truth, my judgement faileth me.’ 

He claims to have recognised these traits after their first meeting, but since the account was written some years later, he may have projected later knowledge onto his first meeting with her.

The personal charisma Mary exhibited made her personal servants extremely loyal, and also seems to have inspired men with infatuation –the poet, Pierre de Châtelard, was executed for hiding in her bedroom. James, Earl of Arran, son of the former regent became obsessed with her and even when he had completely lost his mind, continued to rave about her.

Lord Ruthven, son of the man who had led the Riccio assassination, became so infatuated (although perhaps with her queenship as much as her person) whilst he was supposed to be guarding her at Lochleven that he promised to free her, if only she would love him. She eventually escaped Lochleven because the Douglas brothers, George and Willie, amongst her gaolers, were persuaded to help her escape, and Willie remained with her in captivity.

Even George Buchanan, once her Latin teacher and a great admirer of hers, until he became alienated after the death of Darnley and wrote the strongly anti-Marian ‘History of Scotland’ before Mary’s final end, wrote:

‘Apart from the fascination of her varied and perilous history, she was graced with surpassing loveliness of form, the vigour of maturing youth, and fine qualities of mind which a court education had increased, or at least made more attractive by a surface gloss of virtue’.

Throughout her imprisonment, the English government were concerned that her famous charm would suborn anyone who came into contact with her, and this was one of the reasons for keeping her strictly confined.  Perhaps we can leave the last word to one of Cecil’s agents wrote, after meeting her that:

‘She has withal an alluring grace, a pretty Scotch accent, and a searching wit, clouded with mildness. Fame might move some to relieve her and glory joined with gain might stir others to adventure much for her sake.’

Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots

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