History is often a matter of perspective; what you see depends on where you sit. This is especially true of a subject as vast and contested as Mary Stuart. My biography was first published in January 2004; it already seems a long time ago. And yet, as the finer points of detail blur, I retain, if anything, a sharper sense of outline. The single, most significant event in Mary’s life is the Darnley marriage. More so than her first or third marriages (or the explosion at Kirk o’Field), it holds the key to unfolding events. Up until 1565, Mary was a successful, popular ruler who’d held together a divided and fatally unstable country in a way Elizabeth and her advisers could only envy. Contrary to John Knox’s well-worn stereotype, Mary knew how to rule from the head as well as the heart. She’d made the transition from France back to Scotland so successfully that, within six months, William Maitland of Lethington could exclaim, ‘the Queen my Mistress behaves herself so gently in every behalf as reasonably we can require. If anything be amiss, the fault is rather in ourselves!’
Opinions inevitably differ, starting with William Camden’s Annals or History of the Most Renowned … Elizabeth. Of Darnley, Camden observed, ‘He was a young gentleman, of beauty most worthy of a crown, of a very goodly personage, a most mild disposition, and sweetest manners.’ Maybe that ‘mild disposition’ and ‘sweetest manners’ were evident at first, since Darnley seems to have been capable of courtly wit and charm for just as long as necessary. They were scarcely visible once he was safely married to Mary, but then Camden wrote in the shadow of James VI and I, Darnley’s son. The disjunction pales into insignificance when compared to Camden’s treatment of Elizabeth’s chief councillor, Sir William Cecil (later Lord Burghley). Camden turned Cecil into the ‘Teflon’ minister to whom nothing would stick. To depict James Stuart, Earl of Moray, and to a lesser degree Maitland as the villains of Mary’s personal rule in Scotland, while presenting their cross-border ally, Cecil, in so anodyne a light, is almost ludicrous. Camden’s smoke and mirrors involve blaming Elizabeth’s favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and his puritan friends for the covert, conspiratorial activities that Cecil had masterminded, leaving Elizabeth’s chief minister – who of course, until his death, was Camden’s patron – in the clear. There is nothing in the Annals more mischievously playful to anyone who’s trawled the State Papers, Scotland, or the British Library and Hatfield House manuscripts, than Camden’s throwaway line that in the matter of the English succession, Cecil ‘kept his own judgement in this point secret to himself, and always determined to do, unless the Queen (as he would say) commanded him to speak his mind.’
The devil is in the detail, and for historians the detail is in the archives. Two accessible, illuminating ways into the ‘Mary Stuart’ debate are documents written by Cecil: one his minutes and memos on the eve of the Darnley marriage, the other a memo drafted shortly before the Parliament of 1572. When Cecil wrote in 1565, he openly acknowledged that a majority of Elizabeth’s subjects – he spoke repeatedly of ‘the people of England’ – favoured Mary. They would flock to a Queen, he said, who, unlike their own, was prepared to marry. The test of dynastic achievement was a legitimate heir. Mary, by marrying Darnley, would do what Cecil and every other male councillor and head of household wanted a female monarch to do. She would put a man at the head of the royal family; would recreate a truly regal monarchy, proving that it would be her heirs, not Elizabeth’s, who would unite the English and Scottish crowns. Subjects hitherto loyal to Elizabeth would revert. They would start to ‘favour all devices and practices that should tend to the advancement of the Queen of Scots’; far too late, Cecil decided that Darnley was even more threatening as a choice of husband than Don Carlos. The ‘people of England’ would be ‘alienated in their minds from their natural duties’ giving Mary the opportunity to re-establish Catholicism. Cecil exploited this language, resonant (as it was) of the syntax of the treason law, to conclude that Mary’s marriage was tantamount to an act of war. It is a fascinating insight, as is Cecil’s belief that many likely be drawn away from their allegiance to Elizabeth were ‘not of the worst sort’. ‘The worst sort’ is Cecilian code for ‘papists’. A married Queen who settled the succession would appeal to Protestants and Catholics alike, suggesting that the English Reformation Settlement of 1559 had barely scratched the surface, and exposing Cecil’s paranoia that, when debating the succession, the majority of English landowners and local magistrates would put dynasty and hereditary right before the cause of the reformed religion.
When Cecil wrote his second memo in 1572 , Mary was a prisoner in England. Cecil by then had moved on, nurturing the concept of Protestant citizenship and of a Protestant nation represented in Parliament to which Mary (and perhaps Elizabeth too if she failed to act) was somehow accountable, and which, if Elizabeth unexpectedly died, would be empowered to choose the ‘lawful’ successor on the basis of a religious test. Cecil wanted Mary executed for her alleged part in the Ridolfi plot, or if Elizabeth declined, then ousted from the succession by an Act of Exclusion. In his memo, Cecil rebuked Elizabeth, his own Queen, for her ‘doubtful dealing with the Queen of Scots’. His analysis is a blistering attack on everything he thought Elizabeth had mishandled since her accession, and there was plenty of it, all framed by his opinion of Mary. Top of the list is Elizabeth’s refusal to marry. It had led to dangers at home and abroad, producing ‘discomfort’ and confusion among her subjects and servants. It would have been better if Elizabeth had followed Mary’s example, marrying and bringing forth a male heir. Instead, Elizabeth had spent the last thirteen years helping the Catholics to avoid the obligations and penalties of her own Religious Settlement, while turning her back on the Protestants. ‘From the beginning’, regaled Cecil, Elizabeth had dealt with Mary as if ‘she meaneth to reclaim her by gentleness and benefit …’ It was a tactical mistake; Mary was far too popular, and therefore so incredibly dangerous. The ‘greater number’ regarded her as Elizabeth’s lawful successor, and by many she was regarded even as the ‘lawful Queen’. ‘She doth daily win the hearts of her Majesty’s subjects from her….’
Back in 1565, Cecil had to drop the idea of sending troops and munitions to reinforce Moray in his revolt, dispatching hidden subsidies across the border instead, if to little avail before the Rizzio plot. In 1572, however, he was determined to spur Parliament, and so Elizabeth, into more resolute action. Even as he penned his memo, his ‘tame’ printer John Day, who during Mary Tudor’s reign had distributed illicit Protestant propaganda from a shed not far from Cecil’s home at Stamford in Lincolnshire, was rushing out a pamphlet under the tortuous but highly informative title: A Detection of the doings of Mary Queen of Scots, touching the murder of her husband, and her conspiracy, adultery, and pretended marriage with the Earl of Bothwell…. This, of course, was none other than a vernacular edition of George Buchanan’s dossier against Mary, submitted by Moray at her first trial before commissioners at York and Westminster in 1568, to which an appendix mainly comprising the eight ‘Casket Letters’ had been added. The dossier, originally in Latin apart from the appendix, underscored the accusations of the ‘Casket Letters’, the so-called adulterous letters from Mary to the Earl of Bothwell in which Darnley’s murder had allegedly been plotted. Versions of some of these letters, perhaps two or three, perhaps as many as five or six, had been in Buchanan’s possession at the time he had compiled his dossier.
And yet, the 1572 pamphlet is still more revealing. Buchanan had nothing to do with it. He himself complained about the ‘over-officiousness of my friends’ who had ‘precipitated the publication of what was yet unfit to see the light.’ The compilers of the Detection, he said, in a remark meant to strike a chord with any scholar who has attempted to go into print, had ‘altered many things and corrupted others according to their several humours.’ It was Cecil, not Buchanan, and least of all Leicester, who had commissioned the brilliant classical scholar and rhetorician, Thomas Wilson, to splice together the contents of the Detection from numbered texts, including a damning ‘oration’ by Wilson himself that encapsulated Moray’s side of the story, and then to translate everything from Latin (or French in the case of the appendix) into phoney Scots to create the illusion that the tract was authorized by the government of Scotland and not by anyone in England. The pamphlet, a political ‘leak’ of the highest order, since it nudged the ‘Casket Letters’ into the public domain to a degree unimaginable when Moray had first gingerly produced them, was, I think, too controversial and sensational to put on public sale, and was privately distributed to those of Cecil’s network whom he already knew would be members of the Parliament. One of these, Cecil’s ‘assured’ friend, Thomas Norton, directly quoted from the pamphlet in the Commons. The tract was meant to stir up a frenzy, as Mary realized. Her enemies were not just out to kill her, but to destroy her reputation; she ended up not so much a victim of the axe as of the pen.
Cecil’s allies spoke on cue in Parliament; speaker after speaker rose to echo each other. The Scottish Queen, they argued, had disqualified herself. She was no longer Queen, but ‘the late Queen of Scots.’ She was ‘a Queen of late time and yet through her own acts now justly no Queen.’ She was Elizabeth’s kinswoman ‘and yet a very unnatural sister.’ ‘She hath sought to dispossess the Queen’s Majesty of her crown ….’ She was ‘this Jezebel’, this ‘Athalia’, this ‘idolatress’, this ‘most wicked and filthy woman.’ She was ‘the monstrous and huge dragon and mass of the earth.’ There was no ‘safety’ for Elizabeth as long as she lived. ‘She hath been a killer of her husband, an adulteress, a common disturber of the peace of this realm, and for that to be dealt with as an enemy. And therefore my advice is to cut off her head and make no more ado about her.’ The resonances are so strong, one could be forgiven for believing such speeches had been scripted by Knox, another of Cecil’s cross-border correspondents, whose latest missive, written (like Victor Meldrew) ‘with his one foot in the grave’, urged Cecil to kill Mary with all convenient speed, since if he ‘struck not at the root, the branches that appeared to be broken would bud again with greater force.’
Elizabeth refused. She declined to hand Parliament an axe, instead inviting members to seek an Exclusion Bill. And yet, when such a bill was passed, she vetoed it. She claimed it was not technically a veto, but in this she played with words. The idea of monarchy was too powerful; she could not bring herself to proceed against an anointed Queen. Of the failed Exclusion Bill, Cecil wrote to Walsingham, then ambassador to France: ‘All that we have laboured for and had with full consent brought to fashion – I mean a law to make the Scottish Queen unable and unworthy of succession to the crown – was by her Majesty neither assented to nor rejected, but deferred.’ And in another letter, he made a shrill, scarcely veiled complaint about how the ‘highest person’ in the realm had failed to act, and so brought shame on her councillors.
Cecil rewrote Mary’s story by issuing the Detection. Still too few historians realize that the whole interminable wrangle isn’t just about the kaleidoscope of Scottish politics, Mary’s strengths and weaknesses of character, her taste in husbands, or solving the mystery of who killed Darnley; it’s also a debate about the way our national history has been scripted from sources like the Acts and Monuments of John Foxe (another of Cecil’s clients, whose work was also printed by John Day), the revised and expanded edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles, and later writings through and beyond the Revolution of 1688, to the moment, whenever precisely it arrived, that historians dethroned the whig interpretation of history and learnt to distance their professional from their confessional beliefs.
I’ve chosen this point of entry to re-establish the thesis underpinning my biography. There was an ideological rift between Elizabeth and Cecil over Scottish affairs. Despite their ability to work together over almost every other issue, Elizabeth and her chief minister were often split over Mary. The traditional model of ‘rival British Queens’ goes only so far. Cecil had a messianic Protestant vision of a united British Isles. Like Maitland, the so-called ‘Scottish Cecil’, he put service to ‘the Religion’ ahead of service to his Queen – this on those occasions when the ideals were (regrettably) in conflict. When debating the English succession, Cecil put religion ahead of hereditary right, whereas Elizabeth took the opposite approach. Although she was a Protestant, she kept religion and politics apart, putting the ideal of monarchy ahead of religion. Although never willing to identify Mary or anyone else as her named successor, Elizabeth found it utterly repugnant that legitimate dynastic rights should be overridden by Cecil’s religious preconditions. Mary, too, had a keen appreciation of ideological difference. When, shortly before the Darnley marriage, Moray left Holyrood to muster his forces, Mary castigated her opponents to the French ambassador, Castelnau, calling them ‘republicans’ – she used the word – set on destroying ‘the ancient monarchy’. The rebels would depose and kill her and her husband, then establish a ‘republic’ in which sovereignty was vested in the nobles. Since we already know from Cecil’s other memos that the idea of a ruling council of 24 nobles as the government of Scotland was precisely his aim, we appreciate Mary’s acumen. As it might whimsically be said, Elizabeth and Mary were fully-paid up members of the women monarchs’ trade union. Each saw the pitfalls of allowing religion to dictate policy. And each became frustrated by their councillors’ guerilla tactics and cross-border collusion intended to undercut them and push them in directions in which they might not wish to go.
It is, of course, central that Elizabeth was a Protestant, but nothing like as Protestant as Cecil wished her to be. Elizabeth always rejected the reformers’ claims that she was ‘exceptional’ as a Queen and a woman. That idea lay at the core of Knox’s letters from Dieppe attempting to justify and explain himself after the publication of The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Knox wriggled and squirmed as he protested that Elizabeth could indeed lawfully be Queen, but only by a ‘miracle’ or an ‘extraordinary dispensation’ of God’s mercy. Elizabeth’s outright rejection of that defence was recorded in 1563 or 1566 by the same Thomas Norton who quoted from the Detection in 1572. As Norton summarized her reply: if her title were to be established ‘by God’s special and immediate ordinance’ without due regard to hereditary right, it ‘setteth all her subjects at liberty, who acknowledge no such extraordinary calling.’ A title established by an ‘extraordinary miracle’ of God left the validity of the dynastic claim open for grabs, exposing Elizabeth to danger.
Of course, history is never black and white. In Mary Stuart’s case, the Darnley marriage highlights the delicate shades of grey. We know that it failed spectacularly, and yet it might so easily have worked. No one supposes royal marriages then were meant otherwise than as dynastic unions. And since Darnley, like Mary herself, was a great-grandchild of Henry VII and they shared the same grandmother in Margaret Tudor, they could well have been the dream team. Camden was extraordinarily positive. He judged Mary to be ‘a wise and provident woman’ in this matter. She saw that if Darnley, ‘a young man, of the blood royal, born in England, and of the Englishmen most dearly beloved, should match into some potent family of England’, then he ‘might be some let unto her in her title to the succession in England, forasmuch as in the opinion of most men, he was holden to be the next heir after her to the Kingdom of England.’ By marrying him herself, Mary made her dynastic claim all but impregnable unless Elizabeth married and had children. It was common knowledge that Elizabeth loathed the Grey sisters, the residuary legatees of the succession by the terms of Henry VIII’s will. They were Protestants supported by Cecil, who promoted their claim to the point that he was covertly vetting Catherine Grey’s letters to Elizabeth from the Tower to make sure they were politically correct. But the Grey sisters were upstarts in Elizabeth’s eyes, whereas Mary was a proper Queen, chaste and free of the faintest whiff of scandal until after the Darnley match, and although privately a Catholic, in public she had accepted the official Protestant Reformation.
The crux of the ‘Mary Stuart’ debate is how far the failure of the Darnley marriage erodes any attempt to reach a positive verdict about her. There are, of course, alternative ways to impugn her. ‘Tell me that she didn’t marry Bothwell!’ is a familiar challenge, one that I think is much overdone. In my biography, I found myself agreeing with Patrick Fraser Tytler – a Victorian pioneer of archival history who’d also tried to work his way through all the relevant documents – that, given Mary’s predicament after Darnley’s assassination, the decision to take as her protector the one noble – Bothwell – consistently loyal to her and her mother (and who was financially solvent and able to muster an army) is explicable, defensible, even shrewd. True, marriage is a different matter, although Bothwell clearly felt wholly insecure without it. Not that Bothwell treated Mary decently when he had it, and yet Margaret Tudor, after her husband, James IV’s death at Flodden, had fared little better by taking Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus, as her protector and then marrying him. She, too, lost influence and reputation as her life disintegrated into a sex scandal.
More insidiously corrosive is Mary’s so-called ‘Catholic interlude’. It took shape within weeks of her marriage to Darnley. That Mary was a Catholic who did nothing for the Catholics – one of the two principal charges levelled against her by Dr Jennifer Wormald – seems to me to be a positive, not a negative attribute. Mary, like the rest of her Guise family before the 1570s, as Dr Stuart Carroll has brilliantly shown, was then a politique, aware that nothing was more damaging to an early-modern monarchy than a religious civil war. Mary’s adherence to the Scottish Reformation Settlement – this despite the deposition of her mother as Regent and the humiliation of the Treaty of Edinburgh in 1560 – is a tribute to her pragmatism and common sense. The second of Dr Wormald’s charges, that Mary was deluded to spend so much time attempting to become the successor to a woman who was only nine years older than she was, is superficially damning. And yet, in that donnish soundbite, the ‘cross-border point’ is overlooked. Only by considering the ‘British’ dimension of Scottish politics can Mary’s aims and priorities be adequately judged. To restore the crown’s authority in Scotland, Mary needed to prevent her leading councillors (and Knox) from corresponding (often weekly) with Cecil, as if checking in with him was the measure of their virility and viability. To smother such clandestine dealing, Mary needed Elizabeth’s recognition, if possible her endorsement as the ‘second person of the realm’, until such time as Elizabeth herself married, in return for which Mary would renounce her immediate dynastic claim. It was a reasonable, generous offer – one that Cecil interpreted as a sign of weakness, causing him to double the stakes. And yet, Elizabeth was tempted to accept it on four separate occasions in a six-year period, as long as Mary’s title was identified by claim rather than name. In the last of these diplomatic tussles, Elizabeth was even prepared to sanction a judicial review in England of Henry VIII’s will to see if it was valid – that is, until Darnley’s murder interposed.
The Darnley marriage, however, put the religious balance in question. Darnley’s own beliefs may be doubted – he probably didn’t know them himself – but within two days of the wedding, the drift of his thinking emerged when Thomas Randolph, the English ambassador, overheard him saying ‘that he cared more for the papists in England than he did for the Protestants of Scotland.’ At Christmas 1565, Darnley showed just how Catholic he meant to be. He attended Midnight Mass and then Matins, followed by High Mass, where he prayed ‘devotedly upon his knees’. Earlier on, he’d equivocated by attending Knox’s sermons at St Giles Kirk. The verdict then had been that Darnley was ‘indifferent to both the religions’; but now he talked menacingly of restoring the mass in Scotland and of granting ‘liberty of conscience’ to the Catholics at the next Parliament, due to assemble in the spring to confiscate the lands of Moray and his fellow rebels.
Darnley jeopardized the compromise that Mary had worked so shrewdly to nurture. She tried at first to distance herself from his campaign. Over Christmas, she stayed up all night playing cards, thereby deliberately missing the services. But he persisted, daring her to prove that she really was a true Catholic. Mary always had a competitive side to her, and Dr Julian Goodare is, I think, absolutely correct to suggest that this game of high-level poker is what set her ‘Catholic interlude’ in motion. Darnley, the narcissistic consort of a woman ruler, sought to boost his ego through international recognition as a hero of the Counter-Reformation, then dared his wife to trump him. In these dark manoeuvres which involved Philip II as well as Charles IX, he was oblivious to how dangerous a game it was. Unlike Mary, he had no explicit concession to worship privately as a Catholic in the Chapel Royal. It didn’t even occur to him to ask whether his actions were likely to be divisive. Arrogant and insensitive, he gloried in what he took to be a crusade against the Protestants. Darnley planned to bring his campaign to its climax during the week of the Catholic festival of Candlemas in early February 1566. He was then to be invested with the Order of St Michael, secured by Castelnau on his behalf. He eagerly looked forward to the ceremony, which he imagined to be a surrogate coronation. Already a grand delegation of the European powers had arrived in Edinburgh. Charles IX’s ambassador was accompanied by another from Mary’s uncle Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine, who brought a letter from the Pope congratulating Mary and Darnley on the official restoration of Catholicism. Of course, nothing of the sort had yet been attempted, and it was known to M. Mignet and his correspondents in the nineteenth century from the archives at Simancas that the Pope’s letter was the result of Darnley’s maverick diplomacy, in which he’d marketed himself as the man who would overturn the Scottish Reformation.
The day before his investiture, Darnley summoned as many of the nobles as he could find and invited them to mass. Only the Catholics accepted. The Protestants, and in particular Bothwell and Huntly, refused. Darnley lost his temper and left the ground floor room petulantly, locking the door and threatening to throw away the key. Mary came downstairs from her apartments to see why her husband had been shouting, anxious to avoid a scene. She did her best to pacify Darnley, who was abusive. She even took Bothwell and Huntly by the hand and tried to lead them to mass. Still they refused, Bothwell stoutly so. Darnley then said loudly that he meant to restore High Mass at St Giles Kirk. One suspects he had largely staged the contretemps to enmesh and subordinate Mary. And yet, even if he’d championed the Catholic cause only because he felt it won him international prestige, it seems that he had pricked her conscience. When I tried to piece this together in my biography, I reached a similar conclusion to Dr Goodare that Darnley had capitalized on Mary’s own devout Catholicism to plant in her mind the idea that she had failed her Church and fellow Catholics, and that he proposed to exploit this sense of inadequacy for all it was worth.
At the high mass at Candlemas, Mary and Darnley bore candles to the altar in the Chapel Royal accompanied by Lennox, Atholl and a congregation of three hundred. Darnley had partly got his way. If Randolph is to be believed, this is the moment Mary volunteered sweeping concessions to the Catholics, promising that ‘she will have the mass free for all men that will hear it.’ If she spoke as Randolph reported, it was a spectacular U-turn. A week or so later, Darnley and his friends swaggered up the High Street in Edinburgh, boasting that they had overthrown the Protestant Reformation. And yet, Mary had no sooner intervened to promise religious toleration for the Catholics, possibly for no other reason than to recoup the initiative from Darnley, than there were fresh ructions. ‘Jars’ or quarrels had first arisen between the newly-weds over the rivalry between Lennox and Bothwell to command the royal army against Moray. Lennox afterwards claimed that everything had come to a head ‘about November’ 1565, when Mary had ‘suddenly altered’ in her affection for his son. She knew then that she was pregnant. And it must surely have occurred to her that she would not need to indulge her husband’s every whim for ever, now that he had served his basic reproductive function.
When I wrote my biography, I concluded that Mary was not personally committed to the restoration of Catholicism. Her Catholic ‘interlude’, which as Goodare had all along suggested was tantalisingly brief, simply provided a frame or setting for the underlying conflict triggered by Darnley’s insecurity. Things had taken a turn for the worse on grounds that had nothing to do with religion in December 1565, when Mary had pardoned the Hamiltons for their role in Moray’s revolt. Darnley was furious about the pardons. He told her bluntly that as her husband and superior, he forbade any further remissions. No one had ever talked to Mary like that and got away with it. Her reaction was predictable. She would not be dictated to by a man she now maintained she had raised up from nothing. This estrangement over the pardons ran in parallel with the poker game played over Christmas. Whereas, said Randolph, ‘a while [ago] there was nothing but “King and Queen, His Majesty and Hers”, now “the Queen’s husband” is the most common word.’ Having ill-advisedly agreed to allow Darnley to style himself King of Scots, Mary had decided to demote him. Upon her marriage, she’d proclaimed a system resembling that of Philip and Mary in England between 1554 and 1558 in which both parties signed official documents and power was exercised ‘conjointly.’ We can instantly see the pitfalls. Despite an Act of Parliament that had declared Mary Tudor to be ‘sole Queen’, the informal practice quickly overruled the theory, and to all intents and purposes Philip was King. He was actively involved in, and often determined matters of patronage, finance and defence from which he was technically barred by the marriage treaties. He even appointed a Spanish-Habsburg-style ‘Select Council’ or ‘Council of State’ to advise him, and in particular to watch over his wife for her ‘protection’ when he was out of the country. I have elsewhere argued that Mary Tudor’s failure had far more to do with her dysfunctional relationship with her husband after her false pregnancy in 1555 than it did with any structural defects in the institutions of government or Privy Council.
And so it was with Darnley. Where, as Randolph gleefully noted, Darnley’s name had appeared first in state papers after his marriage, now it was placed second. And where on the coinage the legend had read (in Latin) ‘Henry and Marie, by the Grace of God, King and Queen of Scotland’, now it was altered to say ‘Marie and Henry … Queen and King….’ Ironically, a motto on the coin had read: ‘Those whom God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.’ This, too, was expunged, replaced by the verse of Psalm 68, ‘Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered’ – this in celebration of Mary’s victory over Moray’s revolt. At Darnley’s investiture, Mary denied him the right to bear the royal arms, to my mind the most significant derogation of all. Nothing could have been more humiliating to Darnley, who saw himself by right of gender and blood as de facto King. Three days later, Randolph informed Leicester (towards whom the ambassador was more candid than in his reports to Cecil), ‘I know now for certain that this Queen repenteth her marriage: that she hateth him and all his kin.’ Almost as quickly as Mary had granted Darnley a royal title, she had decided to strip him of it. She could hardly prevent him from signing his letters ‘Henry R’ if he chose to do so, but she could deny him the ‘crown matrimonial’. Fortunately for her, that could only be granted in Parliament. And if the ‘crown matrimonial’ were to be withheld, then Darnley would never be crowned. He would enjoy no legal status as King, and could make no claim to the succession should Mary die childless or to the regency if her successor was a minor.
Mary meant business, because when she refused Darnley the right to bear the royal arms, she made it clear the ‘crown matrimonial’ would indeed be denied. So the Lennoxes decided to wrest it from her. When Randolph described the ‘mislikings’ between the royal couple in his subsequent reports to Cecil, he knew that the chief cause was Darnley’s ambition for the crown, ‘which she is loathe hastily to grant, but willing to keep somewhat in store, until she know how well he is worthy to enjoy such a sovereignty.’ And yet, when Mary finally decided to deny Darnley his coronation, it was as if the air cleared. Her mood lightened and she was happy again. The clue is provided by two dispatches from Randolph to Sir Nicholas Throckmorton in the archives in Edinburgh. One was written on 7 February and the other on the 10th, the same day as the investiture. Mary, as Randolph reported, was preparing to renew her immediate Catholic claim to the English throne. This, the ultra-dynastic centrepiece of the ultra-Catholic swing of her so-called ‘interlude’ was on the grounds that she had been informed that her supporters in England were ‘never so great’. Who had told her this? Possibly Charles IX’s or her uncle’s ambassador? Or maybe Cecil had been correct that the ‘people of England’ – whether Protestants or Catholics – would flock to Mary’s cause if she married Darnley? We know that Cecil habitually spent hours poring over lists of the northern gentry and JPs, pinpointing their houses on a map which showed the pathways in and out of Scotland.
Mary’s pregnancy must have greatly reinforced her self-esteem. With Elizabeth still unmarried, it would have made her think that she could vindicate her claim one way or the other. Despite the fragile state of her relationship with Darnley, their union had been a triumphant success in dynastic terms, which was all that royal marriages were then intended to be, and she could begin planning a new campaign to assert her rights in England. Camden believed there was nothing Mary ‘more desired’ than to unite England and Scotland by her pregnancy, although no specific evidence is offered for his view. Still, a few days before the investiture, a banquet was held in the great hall at Holyrood in honour of the ambassadors. Catching sight of a portrait of Elizabeth that had no doubt been deliberately set in position for the purpose, Mary rose and declared in the full glare of publicity that ‘there was no other Queen of England but herself.’ This was a step change. Ever since the Pope had failed to endorse her dynastic claim at the time of Elizabeth’s accession in November 1558, Mary had accepted that her only viable option was to secure recognition as the English Queen’s successor and as the ‘second person of the realm’. But then the Pope had died, as had his immediate successor, and now a new Pope, Pius V, had been elected. Almost his very first public act had been to write the letter to Mary that was delivered by her uncle’s ambassador at the request of Philip II after Darnley’s diplomacy in Spain.
Mary’s claim at the banquet that she was the rightful Queen of England must have caused a sensation. Doubtless the Catholic ambassadors applauded (and it is likely these ambassadors were Mary’s intended audience), but Randolph predicted disaster, saying ‘this court is so divided that we look daily when things will grow to a new mischief.’ Whereas three years before, Randolph had confidently assured Cecil that Mary was ‘not so affectioned to her mass that she will leave a kingdom for it’, now he found her ‘bent to the overthrow of religion’. What is so striking is that no one on the (Protestant) English side could separate out Mary’s dynastic claim from the issue of her (alleged) desire to reintroduce Catholicism. The one, in their minds, automatically triggered the other. Camden remarked on this when he visited the archives and looked, as it appears, at many of the same documents we have been considering. Elizabeth and her advisers, he said, ‘easily believed that the Queen of Scots’ design by this marriage tended to strengthen her right and title to the Crown of England, and to lay claim to it again, and withal to bring back the Romish religion’.
Whether or not Mary seriously intended to restate her immediate dynastic claim as Queen of England, I do not think she meant to restore Catholicism. Her comment at the banquet reflected her need to take command of the occasion and the degree to which she had been goaded by her husband. When she denied Darnley the use of the royal insignia at his investiture and at the same time tried to lead Bothwell and Huntly by the hand to mass, a massive contradiction arose in her policy. She was unwilling to be manipulated by her selfish and conspiratorial husband, and yet she had become embroiled in his ‘enterprise’ to restore Catholicism, not (as he so evidently wished) to impress a putative Catholic League, but because for a brief, hubristic moment she believed she had liberated herself from the constraints imposed by Moray, Maitland and the rest, and could now exploit her Catholicism as a dynastic lever. Unfortunately, of all possible rhetorical flourishes, it was the one most likely to set alarm bells ringing in England and reunite Elizabeth and Cecil in seamless opposition to her, fulfilling Cecil’s direst predictions and dissolving the empathy between Mary and Elizabeth nurtured by their experiences as ‘sister’-Queens harassed by the ‘cross-border’ collusion of their councillors. The rift between Elizabeth and Mary over the Darnley marriage lasted for eighteen months, and surely had more to do with Mary’s reiteration of her immediate dynastic claim and its supposed religious consequences than in the fact that by choosing Darnley she had spurned Leicester, Elizabeth’s preferred candidate for her hand.
Meanwhile, Darnley was furiously plotting. Randolph knew that there were ‘practices in hand’, contrived between Lennox and Darnley against Mary, ‘to come to the crown against her will.’ The new session of Parliament was imminent. It had always been intended that it would begin on 12 March 1566, when the leaders of Moray’s revolt (other than the pardoned Duke of Châtelherault) would be punished and their lands forfeited to the crown. Here lay the seeds of the Rizzio plot: the nobles, whether Protestant or Catholic, had an overwhelming motive for seeking to disrupt, or preferably cancel, the new session. If Parliament were to meet as planned, Moray and his allies would be stripped of their lands and titles, which could become the prelude to a more general reconfiscation. It was the norm for the rulers of Scotland to renounce grants of lands and offices periodically, especially when they acceded to power after a long minority. Bothwell was keen to assuage similar fears when, on the eve of the Ainslie’s Tavern bond, he helped his allies to secure their rights to their ancestral lands in Parliament and obtain confirmation of their rights to new estates.
Mary’s ‘Catholic interlude’ rebounded on her. When she had struck out on her own, marrying Darnley as a fait accompli and defeating her rebels in the Chaseabout Raid, she had triumphed. But with Moray and the exiles, their allies and the Lennoxes all plotting against her, the balance of the factions tilted back against the crown. Mary’s position reverted from one of considerable strength to one of dangerous isolation. Warned of a plot by her ever loyal servant Sir James Melville, she dismissed his fears. ‘She had’, she said, ‘also some advertisements of the like bruits, but that our countrymen were well worthy.’ If this was indeed Mary’s response, she was too trusting. She had acted impulsively, riled by Darnley’s faux Catholicism and demands for a coronation. She believed she could just say no, and yet he would never take no for an answer. He was, he believed, her husband, her superior, her King. He believed he was right, since Mary had promised to make him King, then reneged on the deal. His game of poker over religion had pricked her Catholic conscience at the very moment when she first knew that she was pregnant, which in turn tempted her to overplay her dynastic hand at the banquet – something she had avoided since leaving France.
It would be easy to castigate Mary for these mistakes. If her promises of toleration for the Catholics were merely tactical, then she was playing with fire. If they were genuine, she was heading for a resurgence of the civil war of 1559-60. If we knew exactly what Darnley had said to Mary when he protested against her pardon for the Hamiltons, we would be on much stronger ground. What happened then is the key to Mary’s decision to deny Darnley even the semblance of a coronation at his investiture. And yet, there is a wider point to consider. Not dissimilar, if considerably less public, disruptions had arisen in England under Philip and Mary Tudor, climaxing over the issue of Philip’s coronation. I believe they would have been repeated if Elizabeth had finally accepted Cecil’s and Parliament’s petitions and married. This is surely the ultimate irony. It seems that in the sixteenth century, women rulers were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. If they refused to marry and settle the succession, their dynasty died with them and their realm risked civil war. If they did marry, their husbands were likely to quarrel with their ministers and Parliaments, also leading to conflict. Had Elizabeth married, I believe she could easily have ended up like Mary and the story of the golden-haired girl who became our national heroine would have been very different. To have married Leicester – probably the only man Elizabeth ever really loved – would have been possible, but disastrous. The scandal of Amy Robsart’s death would have been revisited in spades, and with a nifty bit of forgery and the right publicity Elizabeth could have played the lead role in a sex scandal as damaging as anything in the Detection. It isn’t as if Elizabeth was free of criticism. When Throckmorton had praised Mary to the skies as ambassador to France in 1560, he’d done so with a disapproving eye to Elizabeth’s nightly romps in Leicester’s chamber.
Leicester, or rather plain Sir Robert Dudley as he was then, was a popinjay. Cecil would have done all he could to exclude him as Elizabeth’s consort. Had she married him, it would have caused a resurgence of factionalism on a scale not seen since the 1530s and 1550s. The Cecilian axis, led by Sir Nicholas Bacon and John Russell, Earl of Bedford, would have split the Privy Council, and it had been a condition of Henry VIII’s will that the Council’s assent was needed for either of his daughters to marry at whatever age. Elizabeth instead would have had to marry a foreign prince. Unless from a Nordic or North German state (and a Lutheran), he’d have been a Catholic and that would have raised many of the same problems that Mary confronted. The centrepiece of the case for Elizabeth’s marriage to the Archduke Charles was always that he was thought not to be a truly devout Catholic, which is why Cecil urged his suit. When the Archduke signalled that he expected to hear mass daily in his private Chapel, all bets were off. What the Archduke asked for was what Mary’s concordat with Moray at St-Dizier already allowed; it proved to be too much for Cecil as it had been too much for Knox. The other crucial issue is absentee monarchy. If Elizabeth had married a foreign ruler, where would they have lived? Most likely not in England. Equally, everyone feared the precedent of Mary Tudor’s husband Philip, who after his wife’s false pregnancy in 1555, departed for Brussels, leaving his wife and policy-making in limbo, only to return to drag England into a costly war that led to the loss of Calais and the collapse of England’s finances and prestige. Privy councillors like the Earl of Sussex and Sir Walter Mildmay were still wrangling over the significance of this debacle when Elizabeth considered marrying Francis, Duke of Anjou. Would the solution have been a regency council of 24 nobles, as in Cecil’s proposals for the government of Scotland? In which case, would England have become a satellite of a European power, just as Cecil imagined Scotland would become a satellite of England?
When I wrote my biography, it hadn’t occurred to me that Darnley saw his investiture with the Order of St Michael as a surrogate coronation, so that the whole tawdry affair of his attempt to extort the ‘crown matrimonial’ followed from Mary’s refusal to allow him to display the royal arms at that ceremony. Now that I see this more clearly, I find I can endorse my positive view of Mary. She handled the so-called ‘Catholic interlude’ ineptly, indeed the episode brought out her worst failings of character. But the root of the problem lies in the challenge facing women rulers – how to deal with consorts who believed that they were superior on gender grounds and so demanded a coronation. In Mary Tudor’s case, her refusal to crown her husband had the Privy Council and Parliament’s support – in fact the correct statement of the case is that Parliament flatly refused to assent to Philip’s coronation, and Mary had no choice but to accept that verdict, however unwelcome it was to her personally. The fact that constitutionally (unlike in Scotland) she had no need to ask Parliament’s advice, and her father would have been appalled at such an idea, is irrelevant. Politics dictated the protocol, and Mary Tudor as a woman ruler was not strong enough to crown Philip on her own. Had she attempted to do so, factionalism in the Privy Council would have split the court. In Scotland even more so, Darnley’s egocentric, conspiratorial instincts were to blame for the failure of his marriage, and yet the episode exposes Mary Stuart’s vulnerability. Unlike Elizabeth, who in a crisis became grittier than ever and stood stock still, Mary always seemed to think that the solution lay in speedier, riskier action. Whatever the precise cause of their marital breakdown, Darnley had the ability to bring out Mary’s failings and then exploit them.
The main problem with the Darnley marriage is that, in Cecil’s eyes, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. He was resolved to destabilize Mary by allying with her rebels, which on top of Darnley’s self-destructiveness unleashed a chain of events that are connected, and once they’d begun, couldn’t have led on any other way. Mary’s downfall did indeed result from one major mistake, but it had nothing to do with Darnley’s murder: it had been to marry him in the first place. And yet, the mistake wasn’t the decision itself; it was the person. Darnley’s dynastic credentials were impeccable, as were the courtly qualities he managed to display for the minimum time necessary. Mary might later have taken other avenues, chiefly not to make Bothwell her protector, and then marry him to seal the bond. But if Darnley hadn’t fatally undermined her, she wouldn’t have been near those avenues in the first place. I do not need to revise my view of Mary. I would turn things the other way round, and ask whether Elizabeth could have managed Scotland any better, especially with Cecil on the opposite side? Mary’s tragedy was to be ruler of a small and divided country, the prey to its larger neighbours. The Protestant Reformation had combined with the self-interest and ambition of her nobles to create a moment when the monarchy was more than usually vulnerable. And, despite her many gifts, Mary could never overcome the ultimate handicap: she was a woman in a man’s world.