Saturday, 29 August 2015

Mary I of Scotland, Queen Consort of France

Mary Stuart, or Mary Queen of Scots as she is more widely known, was born in Scotland in December 1542. Her father was James V of Scotland and her mother Marie de Guise, a member of a powerful French Catholic family. Within six days of her birth she was Queen of Scotland and her father dead.

A child on the throne is always a recipe for unrest, and in addition, civil war was brewing in Scotland just like it was in France, in the guise of the Reformation. Henri II was on the throne in France and just about keeping a lid on it. Henri suggested a betrothal between his infant heir and Mary, so when Mary was five years old her mother sent her to live with the French royal family. Marie de Guise felt the situation in Scotland was just too dangerous for little Mary to stay, but Marie herself stayed behind and ruled in Mary's sted as regent. 

Portrait medallion of François II and Mary, on display at the Chateau of Chenonceau.
On arrival in France Mary formed immediate friendships with the two oldest of Henri II and Catherine de Medici's children, the Princesse Elisabeth, later to become Queen of Spain, and the Dauphin François, her betrothed. Like the French royal children, Mary's education was put into the capable hands of the King's mistress, Diane de Poitiers and Mary became close to her too. The Chateau of Amboise served as the children's principal residence.

Mary grew into a lively and intelligent young woman. Her looks were striking as she was red-haired, pale skinned and extraordinarily tall. At 180cm (5'11") she towered over most people at court, including her husband to be, who was rather short. Average height for men at this time was 168cm (5'6") and average height for women 157cm (5'2").

She and François were married in May 1558. Secretly, Mary had signed an agreement that would have France control Scotland should she die childless. Later that year her second cousin, the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne of England. For Catholics, she was illegitimate, and Mary, the granddaughter of Henry VIII's sister, was the legitimate heir to the English throne. The plots were thickening. In July 1559 Henri II was killed in a jousting accident and François and Mary found themselves the teenaged king and queen of France. Her powerful uncles stepped in to control the tangled web of intrigue that was being woven all around Mary.

The Protestants increased their political agitating in both Scotland and France during 1559-60, culminating in France in what is known as the Tumult of Amboise. Huguenots planned to kidnap young François and arrest the Guises. Word of the plot reached the ears of the Guise brothers and they hastily moved the young king and queen from the Chateau of Blois to the Chateau of Amboise as it was easier to defend. The conspirators stormed the chateau but were defeated and well over a thousand Protestants executed and their bodies hung from the Chateau. It caused such a stench that the court decamped and Amboise never regained the status it had previously enjoyed.

 17th century copy of a François Clouet portrait of Mary in mourning, hanging in the Chateau of Blois. She wears white as it was the royal colour of mourning.
1560 was a year of unmitigated misery and trouble for Mary. After the Amboise conspiracy in March her mother died in June, then her husband in December. Left a childless widow at 17, with her mother-in-law, Catherine de Medici making it plain that she was no longer welcome in France, due to her close relationship with Diane de Poitiers, and Scotland at grave risk of being overrun by its southern neighbour England, Mary made the inevitable and fateful decision to return to her country of birth in 1561.

Well out of her depth politically now, and without the close presence of her uncles for protection and advice, nothing went right for her from this point onwards.


  1. Thank you Susan...
    you just filled in some of my lack of historical knowledge...
    I did the Tudors very thoroughly at school...
    it was our history master's pet UK period....
    but was there a history behind Mary, Queen of Scots [Upstart]....
    But now I know and the reason for her demise becomes apparent!
    [The history master's other period was a limited chunk of American history...
    the period from the War of Indepenance and their Civil War....!!???]

    1. Upstart is definitely going too far. In the minds of more than half the population she had a legitimate claim. It makes you wonder what the retrospective view would be had Elizabeth not proved such a remarkable leader.

  2. Susan

    You've brought back memories of my 'O' Level History class.

  3. A very fascinating and helpful post - I probably spent a whole term on this at school but learned nothing.
    Our history teacher was a fusty old spinster in twinset and pearls called Miss Northrop and her classes were so confusing that I dropped history at the first opportunity, even though I loved historical novels and films.

    1. The trick with history I think is making the connections -- who's related to who, and why it mattered. Historical novels can be a blessing or a curse. They imbue the historical characters with a personality which may or may not be realistic and it colours the readers judgement.