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Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens
Jane Dunn


Despite her later antipathy, there is no evidence that Catherine de Medici was anything other than kind to Mary when she was a child. But there was no doubt that she and the factions around her, who opposed the rapidly ascendant power of the Guises, were unhappy with the proposed alliance of the Valois monarchy with Mary Queen of Scots. Seen as merely a Guise in Scottish disguise, Mary, in marrying the dauphin, would be delivering the most terrific coup for the family. To complicate these political antagonisms further, Catherine’s arch rival, Diane de Poitiers, was an influential supporter of the Guises (her elder daughter was married to the third Guise brother, Mary’s uncle Claude) and Madame, as Diane was known, exercised the most influence of all with the king.

Diane de Poitiers’s charm and her interest in the young queen attracted Mary’s confidence and affection. Writing to Mary’s mother in Scotland, Diane recognized the young girl’s pre-eminent status and promised to extend to her a motherly care: ‘As to what concerns the Queen, your daughter, I will exert myself to do her service more than to my own daughter, for she deserves it more.’

(#litres_trial_promo) This seductive and cultivated courtesan was to become one of the poles of female influence on the growing girl.

The other was Mary’s austerely devout and authoritative grandmother, Antoinette, Duchesse de Guise. A few of her letters to her daughter, Mary’s mother, remain and in their psychological insights and human responsiveness they speak across four and a half centuries of timeless affections and concerns:

‘I was more glad than I can say to learn of the arrival of our little Queen in as good a health as you could wish her to have.’ The duchess wrote to Mary of Guise on 3 September 1548, just before introducing her granddaughter to her new family.

I pity the sorrow that I think you must have felt during her voyage, and I hope you had news of her safe arrival, and also the pain that her departure must have caused you. You have had so little joy in the world, and pain and trouble have been so often your lot, that methinks you hardly know now what pleasure means. But still you must hope that at least this absence and loss of your child will at least mean rest and repose for the little creature, with honour and greater welfare than ever before, please God. I hope to see you yet sometimes before I die … But believe me, in the meanwhile I will take care that our little Queen shall be treated as well as you can desire for her. I am starting this week, God willing, to meet her and conduct her to St Germain, with the Dauphin. I shall stay with her there for a few days to arrange her little affairs, and until she grows somewhat used to the Dauphin and his sisters. Lady Fleming will, if the King allows it, remain with the child, as she knows her ways; and Mademoiselle Curel will take charge of her French education. Two gentlemen and other attendants are to be appointed to wait upon the little Queen, and her dress and appointments shall be fitting for her rank.

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To her son, the Cardinal of Lorraine, Antoinette conveyed her first impressions of her little granddaughter, ‘I assure you, my son, she is the prettiest and best at her age you ever saw.’

(#litres_trial_promo) And when Henri II eventually met his prospective daughter-in-law in early December, he was as charmed as everyone else: ‘I have no doubt that if the Dauphin and she were of age, or nearly so, the King would soon carry the project [of their marriage] to completion. They are already as friendly as if they were married. Meanwhile he has determined to bring them up together and to make one establishment of their household, so as to accustom them to one another from the beginning. He has found her the prettiest and most graceful Princess he ever saw, as have also the Queen and all the court.’

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The conversion of this charming Scottish girl into a French princess was considered the overriding purpose of her education from this point on. Apparently she had arrived speaking Scots and not much else – although very soon was speaking French with great facility and learning Latin. As French culture was universally judged to be far superior to Scottish, and her Scottish entourage already had attracted some unfavourable comment for their roughness and lack of personal hygiene, it would be unlikely that there was much attempt by her new family and tutors to keep the young Queen of Scots’ own culture alive. Her sovereignty over Scotland was always considered to be secondary to her potential as consort to the King of France. Although Mary retained some of the original household who had accompanied her from Scotland, within two years all but Lady Fleming were superseded by French men and women.

The ‘Four Maries’ remained part of the young Queen of Scots’ circle of acquaintances in France and were to return with her to Scotland in 1561, where their association with her continued more intimately. There is not much evidence, however, that they were included in her immediate life at the French court. It was possible that for a time they were educated in nearby convents or visited occasionally other French noble families, in the peripatetic way of aristocratic life then. All of them, apart from Mary Fleming, had mothers or stepmothers who were French, and therefore some connections already of their own in France. Mary’s mother, Lady Fleming, added French zest to her thoroughly Scottish blood by becoming a mistress of Henri II and, rather scandalously, bearing his child. The four Maries, although of Scottish noble families, were not of high enough social status to be considered ideal companions for Mary now that she was being groomed as a princess of France.

Almost immediately, Mary was sharing the bedchamber of the dauphin’s young sister, Elizabeth de Valois. Such was the importance of precedence and hierarchy these girls invariably were given the best room on the strength of Mary’s pre-eminent status. They were both prizes in the European marriage stakes. England was to continue to press both the Scots and the French for the return of Mary to fulfil the marriage treaty with Edward VI. The last formal offer of marriage was made in the presence of Henri II and Mary herself in June 1551, when Mary was not yet nine but already happy with the idea of marrying her French prince instead. Failing Mary, it was suggested that her newly adopted sister, Elizabeth de Valois, would make a substitute bride for the English king. But this young woman was to end up married at fourteen to an even greater potentate, Philip II of Spain, only to die at twenty-three giving birth to her third child.

In years to come, both she and Mary were to exhibit individually to their supporters a kind of tragic glamour that was to fuel rumours and fantasies which confused and inflated the posthumous reputation of each. Physical beauty helped, but prerequisite were extreme circumstances and strange congruities in life or death. For the young Queen of Spain, to die so young in childbirth was a common enough occurrence in the sixteenth century, but her tender (and almost certainly chaste) affection for her stepson – exactly her age – the physically deformed and psychologically tormented Don Carlos, inspired through the centuries a profusion of rumours and tragic romances.

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Despite Catherine de Medici’s reliance on the prognostications of astrologers and fortune tellers, these two girls as yet knew nothing of the lives they were to live as women. There were, however, the immutable facts that one was already a queen and the other might well, through marriage, become one. At the end of 1548, Mary was six and Elizabeth de Valois was nearly four. Their interest in each other had been cemented in a court and at a time when royal children were most pampered and lavishly entertained. Mary’s Guise grandmother, writing to her daughter in Scotland, gave a lively picture of a happy and attractive young girl, revelling in the attention and affection that surrounded her: ‘It is impossible for her to be more honoured than she is. She and the King’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, live together, and I think that this is a great good thing, for they are thus brought up to love each other as sisters. It is not enough to say that they do not trouble each other in the least, for she [Mary] never works at night or sleeps in the daytime, and is very playful and pretty, and the two children are as fond as they can be of each other’s company.’

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Not just a doting grandmother but even her prospective father-in-law, Henri, King of France, set apart by pomp and the amour-propre of one chosen by God, indulged the little Scottish queen as readily as everyone else. He declared he had never seen a more perfect child, a remark reported back to Mary’s anxious mother in Scotland, and he and his courtiers smiled on benignly as the diminutive dauphin danced with his intended bride at the wedding in December 1548 of Mary’s eldest uncle, François, Duc de Guise.

Surrounded by doting adults, Mary had her own instant family of brothers and sisters. Apart from the Dauphin François and his sister Elizabeth, there was the baby sister Claude and then three infant brothers were added in quick succession before Mary had reached nine years old. But it was the eldest three children to whom she was closest. When Elizabeth de Valois left France, while still just a girl, to live with her husband Philip II, Mary felt the loss so keenly she claimed in a letter to the Spanish king to be ‘the person who loves her the most in the world’.

(#litres_trial_promo) This childhood intimacy with her sister-in-law was most influential in shaping Mary’s personal female relationships and, as this letter showed, her spontaneous warmth of feeling was already well in evidence.

Mary, throughout her life, sought her friendships with women. She was attracted to sisterly relationships where she, a queen since birth, was naturally deferred to, and elicited much devotion from the women who knew her. But this made her ill-equipped to deal with a woman like Elizabeth Tudor, a woman who looked to men, not her own sex, for the great friendships of her life. Although proud of family and naturally loyal, Elizabeth refused to be seduced by intimations of female solidarity and any play on the natural bonds of sex and blood. In the early years of their direct relationship, this was Mary’s main method of approach to her, and on the whole it gained her very little. She was to be most frustrated, however, by Elizabeth’s obstinate evasion of any projected meeting, for this forced Mary into an unnatural role as supplicant for another’s favour, and disarmed her potent weapon of charm.

Mary was surrounded in her childhood by powerful women: the French queen, Catherine de Medici; the king’s lover, adviser and friend, Diane de Poitiers; Mary’s grandmother, Antoinette de Guise, and finally her own mother, the dowager queen of Scotland. In direct contrast, Elizabeth’s earliest experiences were of the transience and impotence of women. Her mother had no real existence for her, her life snuffed out when she was no longer useful to the king. Stepmothers came and went, powerless in the grip of fate or the terrifying whim of her autocratic father. Even Catherine Parr, who inspired in the young Elizabeth a certain affection and admiration, was prematurely erased from life by the scourge of puerperal fever. The only constant image of power in Elizabeth’s growing years was the once magnificent, but increasingly mangy and irascible old lion of England, her father, the king.

In the childhood of Mary Queen of Scots the opposite was true. Her father through death was absent and unknown to her. Her father-in-law, Henri II, a shade of the magnificent François I, was an unimpressive figure, lacking in confidence and ruled by women. Mary’s husband, loved as he was by her, was weaker both physically and intellectually than she, and dominated during his short reign by her Guise uncles and his mother, Catherine de Medici, the dowager queen. Apart from the Duc de Guise and Cardinal of Lorraine, whose ambitions and guile powered the family’s rise, in Mary’s immediate experience, those who controlled events were women. These women got what they wanted through force of will and character, disguised by charm, beauty and artfulness. No woman in her acquaintance exhibited the undisguised authority of her own mother in her role as dowager queen and regent of Scotland. It was to Mary’s eternal detriment as a queen herself that her mother’s true work and effortful sacrifice were unknown to her daughter, hundreds of miles away in her adopted kingdom.

Rather than return to a pampered life with her children and extensive family in France, Mary of Guise had bravely battled on in an inhospitable land to try and gain some peace and prosperity for the kingdom of Scotland on behalf of her daughter. But despite the hardships and loneliness of her task, she obviously relished the challenge for herself too. A devout woman, she believed she was fulfilling God’s purpose by remaining in Scotland. A Guise, she was also being true to her proud genetic inheritance of seeking and wielding power to the advantage of one’s family. Scotland represented the only chance she would ever have to exercise real power so she determined to take the regency for herself. But her daughter never experienced firsthand the daily grind of the dutiful ruler, the astute strategic reasoning of the political mind. The fact that her mother was such an excellent example for her was largely lost to Mary, cocooned in her royal fantasy in the court of the Valois kings.

In order to effect the transference of the regency from the Earl of Arran, who had been rewarded with the French dukedom of Châtelherault, Mary of Guise needed some support from France. A visit to her homeland was mooted in the summer of 1550, for Mary also longed to see her daughter again, and the son she had left behind when she had set sail for Scotland and marriage to James V, twelve years before. The young Queen Mary was overjoyed at the thought of a reunion with her mother. Writing to her grandmother she passed on ‘les joyeuses nouvelles’: to see her again Mary claimed ‘will be to me the greatest happiness that I could wish for in this world’. In her enthusiasm, she promised her grandmother she would work particularly hard at her studies and ‘become very wise, in order to satisfy her [mother’s] understandable desire to find me as satisfactory as you and she could wish’.

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In fact this was to be a significant period in Mary’s development. She was nearly eight years old by the time her mother arrived in France in September 1550 and nearly nine by the time she left. Mother and daughter were never to see each other again, and so this year together would gain a certain lustre in memory.

The sixteenth century was still a world bounded by order. Hierarchies were essential in every area of the spiritual and temporal worlds, the animate and inanimate; and these intricate relationships were created and maintained by an overarching power. The monarch in his court and country was like the sun in its solar system, there by the grace of God, pre-eminent among his satellites, but responsible too for sustaining the universe. This sun, the king, was inevitably male. So, to have before you the example of your mother as a successful ruler over men might inspire any young queen looking to understand her role.

But during this time together in France, Mary was not to see her mother in any executive role. Instead the full extravagance of court life was amplified. The spectacle of grand ceremonial whirled on. The young Queen of Scots accompanied her mother on her journeys and listened and watched. Mary of Guise remained in her homeland for more than a year, much of the time with her daughter and the court in its magnificent progresses from royal palaces to hunting châteaux. She was welcomed with the full honours of this most lavish state. In a financial crisis caused by its European wars, and France’s support of Scotland in its resistance to the English, the king’s spending seemed to become more extravagant as the exchequer teetered towards bankruptcy. Pageants, masques, balls, hunting expeditions, were organized at every opportunity. The pageant which welcomed the dowager queen and her young daughter, at Rouen, involved elaborate constructions of unicorns, to signify Scotland, pulling a chariot, followed by elephants transporting various nymphs and goddesses, along with representations of monarchy and the Virgin and Child. The French monarchy were aiming to ally themselves with the divine, while aggrandizing their secular kingdom.

There was a reason and a grandiose purpose behind such display. Henri II and the Guises had imperial ambitions that extended far beyond Scotland and her borders. Now that the young Scottish queen was safely in their hands, and the English had been repulsed from their ‘Rough Wooing’, these ambitions could begin to be worked out. In an extraordinarily revealing letter to Suleiman the Magnificent, the grand sultan at Constantinople, the French king in September 1549 outlined his vision of empire: ‘I have pacified the Kingdom of Scotland which I hold and possess with such command and obedience as I have in France. To which two kingdoms I have joined and united another which is England of which by a perpetual union, alliance and confederation I can dispose of as King … so that the said three kingdoms together can now be accounted one and the same monarchy.’

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This whole bold scheme centred on Mary and her invaluable claim on the throne of England. The English were uneasily aware of these ambitions. John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, and Lord Robert’s father, had asked the French ambassador to Edward VI’s court, whether Henri II referred to the little Queen of Scots as his daughter. When told that he did, Dudley caustically replied: ‘After his Majesty has eaten the cabbage I fancy he wants to have the garden also.’

(#litres_trial_promo) The full extent of the French king’s intent was exposed to the light of day on the accession of Elizabeth I when he made clear Mary’s implicit rights, and so instigated the deadly rivalry between the two cousins.

The continued alliance between France and Scotland was the first piece of this ambitious plan and Henri’s enthusiastic appreciation of Mary’s mother’s efforts to maintain order and repulse the English was expressed in extravagant hyperbole and spectacular celebrations: as the English emissary sourly reported, ‘in this court she is made a goddess’.

(#litres_trial_promo) The eight-year-old Queen of Scots could only enjoy the pageantry and wonder at the magnificence of her family’s celebrations, but she would never know the daily struggles, danger and frustrations that were companions to her mother’s duties in Scotland. She was never to see at first hand the extent of the strategic planning, responsibility and diplomacy of government. Indulged within the hothouse of the royal nursery, flattered and celebrated more than was good for her outside it, Mary was given little chance to see any of the day-to-day workings of the French monarchy. In fact her Guise uncles encouraged the dauphin and their niece in their pursuit of pleasure, mostly in the form of the daily chase, rather than acquiring the arts of kingship. This was partly due to the fact that François was a physically weak and wilful child who showed little aptitude for study, but it also suited the Duc de Guise and the cardinal to maintain the dauphin’s fecklessness and indifference to matters of state. Thereby they assured the reins of power could be grasped by their ready hands when fate made François king.

Mary was naturally more intelligent and competent than the dauphin and she was fortunate in being a central figure in a cultured court where education mattered. But she was educated to be an accomplished consort to a great nation’s king, rather than to be a ruler in her own right. She seemed naturally to excel at dancing and music making, playing the zither, the harp and the harpsicord, and able to accompany her own singing voice in songs. In the early part of 1553 when Mary was ten and staying with the royal children at the Château of Amboise, the cardinal found her a credit to his proud line and reported such to her mother:

She has grown so much, and grows daily in height, goodness, beauty and virtue, that she has become the most perfect and accomplished person in all honest and virtuous things that it is possible to imagine … I can assure you that the King is so delighted with her that he passes much time talking with her, and for an hour together she amuses him with wise and witty conversation, as if she was a woman of twenty-five.

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It was not just her family members, however, who sang the young queen’s praises. Capello, the Venetian ambassador to France, described Mary when she was just into her teens: ‘she is most beautiful (bellissima), and so accomplished that she inspires with astonishment every one who witnesses her acquirements. The Dauphin, too, is very fond of her, and finds great pleasure in her company and conversation.’

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Mary was also a horsewoman of style and energy, and was as enthusiastic in the chase as even the most fanatical of the French court. She had arrived in France as a very young child, capable from the start of handling her own hunting hawk, much to the admiration of the French courtiers. She would continue to display her love of hunting and outdoor pursuits all her life, her energetic nature suffering keen frustration when she was constrained or thwarted in any way.


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