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Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens
Jane Dunn

There are many fine biographies already of these most written-about queens: for Elizabeth, the classic J.E. Neale, and more recently Anne Somerset’s elegant, authoritative work, Alison Weir’s popular trilogy, and David Starkey’s vivid portrayal of the princess’s youth; for Mary, nothing has superseded in more than thirty years Lady Antonia Fraser’s impressive and sympathetic Life, although Jenny Wormald’s study of Mary as a monarch is marvellous. But the wealth of primary sources is so great that the scope for bringing new illumination to the story is almost boundless.

Elizabeth and Mary is about the relationship between the queens, one that seemed, during their lifetimes, to evolve a life of its own, and in the end hold both captive to it and each other. It was the most compelling relationship of their lives, affecting their political policy and personal attitudes. Unlike Elizabeth with Burghley and Leicester, or Mary with Moray, Darnley and Bothwell, this was a relationship neither had chosen, nor could escape, even in death. Elizabeth realized with some despair how their fates were intertwined: when she was ostensibly Mary’s jailer she declared, ‘I am not free, but a captive.’

The indissoluble bond between them was forged by two opposing forces; their shared inheritance and rivalry for Elizabeth’s crown set against their natural solidarity as regnant queens in an overwhelmingly masculine world. They had a fascination and sympathy for each other; they were cousins in an age when family mattered and when, for much of their lives, both lacked closer kin. Mary chose to emphasize her familial relationship with Elizabeth, her letters often supplicating, daughterly, even lover-like. ‘How much better’, she wrote to Elizabeth, ‘were it that we being two Queens so near of kin, neighbours and living in one isle, should be friends and live together like sisters, than by strange means divide ourselves to the hurt of both.’ And Elizabeth responded to these emotional pleas with a tone that was bossy, condescending and, for a while, elder-sisterly in her exasperated care. And yet they never met.

This is the great dramatic centre of their story. In the absence of reality a rival grows in stature in the imagination, becoming something superhuman, but also less than human and therefore easier to kill. Their failure to meet also became an expression of frustrated desire and control. Mary never gave up pleading for personal contact, certain that her charm would alter her case with her cousin. Initially willing, Elizabeth then grew increasingly distant and aloof, fearful of what she believed was Mary’s almost magical power to enchant, already exaggerated in her imagination and fuelled with the stories of others. Elizabeth was perplexed: ‘There is something sublime in the words and bearing of the Queen of Scots that constrains even her enemies to speak well of her.’

Part of the drama of their lives is this great opposition between their natures, their earliest experiences and the kinds of rulers they wished to be. All her life, Elizabeth had steeled herself to prove to the world she had the heart and mind of a man, so aware was she of the accepted inferiority of being merely female. She often boasted that in this masculinity her strength resided, yet she had all the passions of a woman, and expressed these most notably in her love for her favourites and her tenderness for her people. Mary was seen as recklessly emotional and liable to nervous collapse, and yet she showed a more ruthless resolve to see her sister queen murdered than Elizabeth could summon up for the judicial execution of Mary herself. So unlike in temperament, these queens nevertheless were well matched in the vigour of their ambitions and their obstinacy of purpose. The weapons they used were different, but each had just as great a capacity for harm.

In considering Elizabeth’s and Mary’s lives in relation to each other, illuminating symmetries occur. They both had remarkable mothers who, for different reasons, were lost to them. Anne Boleyn was a clever woman, radical in her Protestant sympathies, courageous and spirited, but a stranger to her daughter through death, and erased through the dangers inherent even in her memory. Mary of Guise, redoubtable queen and role model for Mary, but largely absent and unknown, due to the dynastic ambitions that made both mother and daughter exiles in each other’s land.

Each queen was involved in scandal over a favourite possibly implicated in murder, but they dealt with the crises they faced in completely different ways: Elizabeth’s action safeguarded her throne and gave her the moral foundation from which to impose her future authority; Mary’s decision lost her not only the throne but her freedom, and eventually her life. In the early years of Elizabeth’s reign it was the English queen who was consistently compared by foreign ambassadors, to her detriment, with her cousin, the Queen of Scotland. Elizabeth was the intractable monarch, the wanton queen, while Mary lived a model life as dauphine, then queen, then dowager queen of the great kingdom of France. Her return to Scotland marked the beginning of the adventures that would reverse these comparisons in epic fashion.

From that moment the tension in their relationship mounted. There was a struggle for supremacy and a desire in each to claim the moral high ground. Mary’s marriage and the birth of her son confirmed her conformity with expectations of what it was to be a good queen, while Elizabeth continued to prevaricate and evade her duty to provide for the succession. Then with Mary’s rumoured involvement in the murder of her husband and marriage to the likely murderer, heedless of Elizabeth’s trenchant advice, she set the English and Continental courts agog. There followed civil war in Scotland and humiliation for Mary, then imprisonment, fear for her life, miscarriage, forced abdication, night-time escape and precipitate flight to England. A plaintive existence as a genteel prisoner for seventeen years was enlivened with various plots to attain her freedom, and even her eventual elevation to the throne of England.

Even in death Mary sought to wrong-foot Elizabeth. Found guilty of incitement to kill her cousin, she went to her execution nobly insisting she was sacrificed for her faith alone. By dying heroically as a Catholic martyr, she rescued her reputation from the wreckage of her life. Elizabeth, as an old queen dying after more than four decades of transforming rule, was aware instead of the galloping hooves of the messenger’s horse riding north. The next incumbent of her jealously guarded throne would be Mary’s son, James, King of Scotland and now King of England too. This would mark Mary’s final triumph, the succession of the Tudors by the Stuarts. But there was triumph for Elizabeth too, for Mary’s son ruled their newly united kingdoms as a Protestant state.

The story of Elizabeth’s and Mary’s relationship is punctuated with reversals of fortune: murder mysteries, sexual intrigue, reckless behaviour, avowals of affection, heated battles and cold war. Fear, heartbreak and tragedy were its underlying strain. Yet surging through natural barriers of prejudice, masculine perspective and vested interest, these two queens emerge evergreen in their importance and fascination: Elizabeth, regardless of her weaknesses, confounding every prejudice against women in power; and Mary, despite her strengths, fulfilling in the end every foreboding, but with astounding boldness and abandon. They are welcome exceptions in the vast congregation of men who jostle for space in their domination of history.

That these two remarkable queens should have been contemporaries, neighbours in one small island, is gift enough for any writer. That they should be united by blood but inextricably enmeshed in a deadly rivalry for the same kingdom, the same throne, gives the story of their relationship the brooding force of Greek tragedy.

I came to this book as a biographer not a historian, believing that character largely drives events, explains motivation, and connects us to each other through the centuries. These queens lived lives vastly different from our own, but they behaved and felt in a way fundamentally familiar to us now. The outbursts of defiance, the flagging spirit, the pride in achievement and longing for love, all this is expressed in their own clear voices, as are the less familiar qualities of kingly pride, autocratic power and bloody revenge.

As a biographer one lives for years exploring the world and the mind of a stranger. For me in this case it was two strangers. Yet in those years these strangers gain a certain sense of intimacy and their lives a foothold in one’s own. In living so closely with these queens, inevitably my ideas and prejudices have changed. I became more aware of the profound loneliness of their role; the fear, the danger and responsibility were daunting, yet they accepted this and even revelled in it. The physical suffering and discomfort of their everyday lives was overlaid with such magnificent show and animated with an enormous zest and appetite for life itself. Above all, it is their characters that have gripped me, with their different energies and ambitions, their distinctive voices and the complexity of their human responses and feelings.

Mary was clearly a passionate and impetuous woman, but with a personal charm so disconcerting that even Elizabeth feared to meet her. She emerges a more intelligent and subtle thinker than I had initially thought her to be, and with a courage and energy in action that was breathtaking; her ruthlessness and desire for revenge more Medicean than Stuart in its lack of compromise or pity. Elizabeth, so obviously crafty, clever, and in imperial command of herself and others, also surprised with how tentative she could be, how affectionate, tender, and full of humour and charm. I hope that in these pages will be found some sense of that vitality; that through their own words, and the exploration of their relationship, we can look anew at these remarkable women and redoubtable queens.

CHAPTER ONE The Fateful Step (#ulink_199e8192-4caa-5677-abbe-27f13808aa35)

‘I am already bound unto an husband, which is the kingdom of England’ …

Stretching out her hand she showed them the ring.

Queen Elizabeth’s first speech before Parliament, 10 February 1559

THESE WERE DANGEROUS TIMES. The second quarter of the sixteenth century had made Elizabeth Tudor and her generation of coming men watchful, insecure, fearful for their lives. Nothing could be taken for granted. Health and happiness were fleeting, reversals of fortune came with devastating speed. This was the generation raised in the last days of King Henry and come of age in a time of religious and political flux. The religious radicalism of Edward VI’s reign had been quickly followed by reactionary extremism and bloodshed in Queen Mary’s. During the political tumult of these years there was no better time for ambitious men to seize position, wealth and honours. No longer was power the exclusive prerogative of old aristocratic blood. When a Thomas Wolsey, son of a butcher, or a Thomas Cromwell, son of a blacksmith, could rise in Henry’s reign to be the mightiest subject in the land, then what bar to ambition during the minority of Edward, the turmoil of Mary, and the unpromising advent of Elizabeth? But vaulting ambition and exorbitant rewards brought their own peril. The natural hierarchy of things mattered to the sixteenth-century mind. Men elevated beyond their due estate, women raised as rulers over men were unnatural events and boded ill. Those with the greatest aspirations could not expect to die peaceful in their beds.

God remained at the centre of this febrile and unpredictable world. His will was discerned in every random act. Death was everywhere. It came as sudden sweating sickness and struck down communities of healthy adults. It came as fire to purify heretic beliefs. It came through poison or the deadly thrust of steel to dispose of inconvenient obstacles in the machinery of power. The supernatural had a physical presence, and spirits and magic were natural companions to everyday life. They were part of the grand cosmic scheme which constituted God’s hierarchical universe. Analogy, interconnectedness, fixity were deeply impressive to the Elizabethan mind, mutability and disorder a sign of man out of harmony with God’s plan. Superstition and religion were ways to make sense of suffering, attempts at warding off the apparently random blows of fate. Yet the insecurity of life itself made the living intense, the wits sharper, the senses more acute. For sixteenth-century men and women there was a life after death, for the godly well-mapped and glorious, but life on earth was a precious and precarious thing to be seized and drained to the dregs.

At a time of augury and superstition, there was nothing to foretell the events of 1558: no sightings of whales in the Channel; no preternaturally high tide, nor monstrous births nor the mysterious, lingering trajectory of a comet across the northern sky. Even Nostradamus, whose prophecies were consulted by those in a fever of uncertainty, appeared unaware of its significance. The year opened without cosmic fanfare. Yet this was to become one of the momentous dates in every British schoolchild’s history rote. Along with the Battle of Hastings of 1066 and the Great Fire of London in 1666, 1558 was one of the markers of a seismic shift in English experience, to be chanted in schoolrooms through subsequent centuries. It was a year of grand transfers of power, as one reign came to an end and a new era began. It was a time of inexorable religious schism, when universal monopolistic Catholicism was permanently supplanted by the state religion, Protestantism.

Scotland’s most recent history had been less convulsive. By the beginning of 1558 it was balanced in a certain equilibrium. A significant number of lords had proceeded informally down the road of religious reformation and the opposing factions had forged an uneasy coexistence. Clan loyalties and rivalries would always be the defining identity which cut across ideology, matters of faith or political allegiance. Rather than a religious cause, any growing unrest and sense of danger came more from Scottish resentment against the increasing presence of the French, garrisoned in various towns and awarded lucrative offices over the heads of the native Scots. As a child ten years previously, Mary Queen of Scots had escaped the clutches of the English and sailed for France. Her French mother Mary of Guise was courageous and just as regent but inevitably favoured her own country with which Scotland was in alliance. This cosy relationship was about to be challenged when, in 1559, the Reformation turned militant and anti-French, and John Knox, the inspired Calvinist preacher, returned home after twelve years’ exile to become its hectoring mouthpiece.

At the beginning of 1558, however, both Elizabeth and Mary were poised on the margin between apprenticeship and their public lives as female monarchs. By the end of that year both had embraced their fate. The defining moment for Mary came with a kiss – in effect a marriage. For Elizabeth it came with a death – and an exclusive contract with her people.

It was apparent that a woman in possession of a throne must marry, and do so without delay. All biblical and classical texts, with which the educated sixteenth-century mind was imbued, stressed the natural order of the male’s dominion over the female. A female monarch was a rare and unnatural phenomenon which could only be regularized by speedy union with a prince who would rule over her in private and guide her in her public, God-given, role as queen. Only by restoring man’s necessary dominion could the proper balance of the world be maintained.

Although her cousin Elizabeth was revolutionary in her lifelong resistance to this obligation, Mary Stuart was more conformable and fulfilled this expectation of her status and sex – not once but three times. In early 1558 she was fifteen and had been a queen since she was six days old. She had never known any other state. First as a queen of Scotland, the land of her birth and a country she did not know: secondly as Queen of France, the country of her heart. Having lived from the age of five at the centre of the powerful French court, Mary had grown into a charming and accomplished French princess, destined to become the wife of the Dauphin of France. Her spectacular dynastic marriage, reinforcing the ‘auld alliance’ between Scotland and France, was set for the spring. Mary would marry her prince on 24 April 1558. François, the beloved companion of her childhood and King Henri II’s eldest son, was just fourteen years old.

In England, Elizabeth Tudor was twenty-four years old and living quietly in the country at Hatfield some thirty miles north of London. Expectant, and fearful of losing the one thing she desired, she was fearful too of its fulfilment. She had already been bastardized, disinherited, often in danger and always waiting, never certain of the prize. Elizabeth had seen her two siblings (and a cousin, fleetingly) succeed to the throne before her. If any had had children then her position on the sidelines of power would have become permanent. But Edward VI died in 1553, unmarried and childless, aged sixteen. He was followed not by either of his elder half-sisters but by their hapless teenage cousin, Lady Jane Grey. Sacrificed to further the ambitions of her father-in-law, the Duke of Northumberland, she was queen in name only and then barely for nine days. Immediately imprisoned she was executed seven months later. Now in 1558, Henry VIII’s eldest child, Mary I, herself appeared to be ailing.

Elizabeth had survived much danger. She knew well how closely scrutinized her actions were and how much she was the focus of others’ desire for power. The previous two decades had seen so many ambitions crumble to dust, so many noblemen and women imprisoned and beheaded, accused of heresy or treason, tortured, tried and burnt, or if a traitor, hung, drawn and quartered, in the terrific ways of judicial death.

At the beginning of 1558, Elizabeth and her supporters knew that some great change was in motion. But change brought disruption too and increased danger. Her half-sister Mary Tudor had been queen for nearly five years. Suspicious, suffering, devoutly Catholic and zealous to maintain the supremacy of the old faith, her reign had grown increasingly unhappy. Mary’s worst mistake had been her insistence on marrying Philip II of Spain, for the English hated foreigners meddling in their affairs, and they hated the Spanish most of all.

The fanatical purges of heresy by her decree, and the torture and burnings of hundreds of martyrs, would earn Mary the epithet ‘Bloody Mary’ from generations to come. The country grew ever more tired and repelled by the bloodshed. The dreadful spectacles had become counter-productive, alienating her subjects’ affections for their queen and strengthening the reformers’ support. In reaction to the mood of the country, the burnings in Smithfield were halted in June 1558. But nature seemed to be against Mary too, for the harvests also failed two years in succession. In 1556 people were scrabbling like pigs for acorns and dying of starvation. The following year they were ravaged by disease as various epidemics swept through the land. Famine and pestilence – people wondered, was this God’s retribution for the sins of Mary’s reign?

By the beginning of 1558, Mary was herself sick and in despair. Still longing for a child and heir, once more in desperation she had made herself believe she was pregnant again. But Philip had not bothered to hide his antipathy to his queen and anyway had been absent from her for too long. Her delusion and humiliation were evident even to her courtiers. Elizabeth, who had waited so long in an uneasy limbo, under constant suspicion, her sister refusing to name her as her heir, would have lost everything if this miraculous pregnancy turned out to bear fruit. No one could know, however, that the symptoms which Mary interpreted as the beginning of new life and hope were instead harbingers of death.

The queen’s spirit that cold January had already been broken over the loss of Calais. The last trophy left to the English from their ancient wars with France, this two-century-old possession had been lost in the very first days of the year. Since the previous June, Mary had supported her husband by embroiling her country in an expensive, unpopular and now ultimately humiliating war with France. The loss to their old enemy of Calais, remnant of Plantagenet prowess, was more a symbolic than strategic catastrophe, and it cut her to the heart.

This latest humiliation of English pride had been inflicted by François, Duc de Guise, nicknamed ‘le Balafré’, ‘scarface’, after a wound inflicted by the English at the siege of Boulogne fourteen years earlier. A lance had smashed through his face from cheek to cheek but he had overcome all odds and recovered his life, his sight, and even the desire to fight again. He was a brilliant soldier, and the eldest and most powerful of Mary Queen of Scots’ six overweening Guise uncles. The ambition of these brothers knew no bounds. They claimed direct descendency from Charlemagne. Catholic conviction and imperial ambitions commingled in their blood. Their brotherhood made them daunting: they thought and hunted as a pack, their watchwords being ‘one for all’ and ‘family before everything’.

Taking advantage of their monarch’s gratitude for the success of the Calais campaign and riding on a wave of popular euphoria, the Duc de Guise and his brother the Cardinal of Lorraine agitated for the marriage of their niece to the youthful heir to the French throne. The fortunes of the girl queen and the triumphant family of her mother, Mary of Guise, were fatally intertwined. At this time, the Guises seemed to be so much in the ascendant that many of their fellow nobles resented and envied their power, fearing that it was they who in effect ruled France.

Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots had always been aware of each other, of their kinship and relations to the English crown. As cousins, they were both descended from Henry VII, Elizabeth as his granddaughter, Mary as his great-granddaughter. European royalty was a small, elite and intermarried band. As the subject of the English succession loomed again, Elizabeth was acutely conscious of the strength of the Queen of Scots’ claim to the English throne. Certainly she knew that if her sister Mary I’s repeal of Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy was allowed to stand then her own parents’ marriage would remain invalid and she could be marginalized and disinherited as a bastard. To most Catholics Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn had always been invalid and Mary Queen of Scots was legally and morally next in line to the English throne. If Mary united the thrones of Scotland, France and England then this would ensure that England remained a part of Catholic Christendom.

However, if the Acts of Mary Tudor’s reign should be reversed then Elizabeth’s legitimacy was confirmed and she, as Henry VIII’s legitimate daughter, had not only the natural but the more direct claim. She also had popular, emotional appeal. Her tall, regal figure and her reddish gold colouring reminded the people, grown nostalgic and selective in their memory of ‘Good King Harry’, of her father when young. Her surprisingly dark eyes, an inheritance of the best feature of her mother Anne Boleyn, were not enough to blur the bold impression that the best of her father lived on in her.

In fact, despite the stain on her mother’s name, it was to Elizabeth’s credit that she was not the daughter of a foreign princess, that unadulterated English blood ran in her veins and that she had been born in Greenwich Palace, at the centre of English royal power. In early peace negotiations with France, Elizabeth had Cecil point out she was ‘descended by father and mother of mere English blood, and not of Spain, as her sister was’. This meant she was ‘a free prince and owner of her crown and people’.

(#litres_trial_promo) She was an English-woman, and she knew this counted for much in this island nation of hers. ‘Was I not born in the realm? Were my parents born in any foreign country? Is there any cause I should alienate myself from being careful over this country? Is not my kingdom here?’


At the beginning of the sixteenth century, a Venetian ambassador noted the insularity and self-satisfaction of the English even then:

the English are great lovers of themselves, and of everything belonging to them; they think that there are no other men than themselves, and no other world but England; and whenever they see a handsome foreigner, they say that ‘he looks like an Englishman’, and that ‘it is a great pity that he should not be an Englishman’.


In early 1558 this pride seemed rather misplaced. As the French celebrated their victory over the English at Calais, it was clear that the greater power was with them, and Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, and soon to become Dauphine and eventually Queen of France, basked in this radiance. Meanwhile England was impoverished and demoralized by unpopular government and wasteful war, and the Lady Elizabeth, hopeful successor to the throne, remained sequestered in the country. Both she and the English people seemed overcast by a cloud of stasis and failure, fearful of the past and uncertain of the future. A historian and near contemporary expressed it thus:

For every man’s mind was then travailed with a strange confusion of conceits, all things being immoderately either dreaded or desired. Every report was greedily both inquired and received, all truths suspected, diverse tales believed, many improbable conjectures hatched and nourished. Invasion of strangers, civil dissension, the doubtful disposition of the succeeding Prince, were cast in every man’s conceit as present perils.


The triumphalism of France and the pre-eminence of the Guises were publicly enacted in the spectacular wedding celebrations of the youthful Mary Stuart and François de Valois. Both Catherine de Medici, the dauphin’s mother, and Diane de Poitiers, Henri II’s omnipotent mistress, argued that the marriage need not be hastened, that these children should be given more time. There may have been some concern at their youth and the dauphin’s sickliness, but both women were more exercised by the growing influence of the Guises whose power as a result of this union threatened to become insurmountable.

Objections were put aside, however, and the day was set for Sunday 24 April 1558. It had been two centuries since a dauphin had been married in Paris, and the streets around the cathedral of Notre Dame were thronged with an excited and expectant crowd. A large stage had been erected so that as many of the public would see the proceedings as possible. Blue silk embroidered with the arms of the Queen of Scotland and gold fleur-de-lis arched above the scaffolded platform to suggest a star-studded sky. The magnificent Gothic cathedral dwarfed the fluttering silk and national flags, its magisterial presence adding spiritual gravitas to the carnival spectacle. The people’s hero, the Duc de Guise, was master of ceremonies. He played to the crowds and waved the bejewelled noblemen aside so that the common people might better see. It was Guise policy always to court the Paris mob even at the expense of their popularity with their fellow noblemen.

And what the mob craned to see was the arrival of the wedding procession with Mary Stuart as its cynosure. Leading the assembly was the ubiquitous Duc de Guise closely followed by a band of Scottish musicians dressed in red and yellow, the colours of their queen. Then came a vast body of gentlemen of the household of the French king followed by the royal princes, the bishops, archbishops and cardinals, as brilliantly plumed as parrots. The sumptuous clothes and jewels were a spectacle in themselves. The diminutive figure of the dauphin then arrived, looking younger than his fourteen years, stunted in growth and with the frailty and pallor of a lifelong invalid.

Of greatest interest was his young bride, a queen in her own right. The French had taken her to their hearts ever since she had been sent as a child to their shores for safekeeping from the English. She arrived that Sunday morning escorted by the king himself and another of her uncles, the Cardinal of Lorraine. Mary had grown up with an unwavering sense of destiny and a natural flair for the theatrical: she knew what was expected of her and to what she had been born. But she had not learnt from her uncle a respect for the power of the people. As a prospective queen of France, she did not need to. The French monarchy was so rich and self-confident that it sought to remove itself still further from its subjects and advertise to all, particularly its competitor monarchs abroad, the extent of unassailable wealth and the power of the crown.

Although only fifteen, the young Queen of Scots was already tall and graceful; she and her uncles towered over the young dauphin and were all taller and more impressive than even the king and queen themselves. Mary’s much vaunted beauty was not just a construct of the conventional hyperbole of court poets and commentators, but a beauty that had as much to do with her vitality and vivacity as the symmetry of her features. She had a fine complexion, chestnut brown hair and intelligent, lively eyes beneath prominent lids and fine arched brows. She had a strong active body and was good at sports, loving to ride hard and to hunt the wild animals with which the royal forests surrounding the châteaux of her youth were stocked.

Dressed in white for her wedding, Mary confounded the usual tradition of cloth of gold; white was more usually the colour of mourning. She trailed a pearl-encrusted cloak and a train of grey velvet. Neither did her jewels disappoint for on her head was a specially commissioned crown studded with gemstones (the canny Scots had refused to let their crown jewels leave Scotland) and round her throat was a grand diamond necklace. This diamond was most probably the ‘Great Harry’ which she had inherited from her grandmother, Margaret Tudor, to whom it had been given by her own father, Henry VII of England. The importance of her Tudor inheritance was embodied in this priceless jewel.
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