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Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens
Jane Dunn


Magnificence was the order of the day. Sublimely present, but far removed, Mary made her marriage vows elevated in front of the crowds pressing towards the great doors of Notre Dame. As a symbol of imperial munificence, inviting too perhaps a reciprocal generosity from heaven, the heralds took handfuls of gold and silver coins and threw them amongst the people crying, ‘Largesse! … largesse!’ So desperate was the rush that many were trampled, some fainted and others scrabbled and fought savagely for a salvaged ducat or sou. Fearing a riot, the largesse was prematurely dammed and the heralds’ moneybags stowed away. The young Queen Mary of Scotland and her even younger husband, now known as the King of Scotland, were shown again to the surging crowd.

It was the first time Mary was to experience the hysteria of a crowd whose energies were focused wholly on herself. Although this time they were benign and wished her well, there was always something potentially terrifying in the sheer force and power of the mob, crying out, shoving each other, sweating, straining to touch her hand or grasp a passing fragment of her robe, to catch her eye and elicit some recognition or blessing.

But the grandeur of French ceremony was aimed at distancing royalty, projecting them to god-like proportions, not just to their subjects but to themselves. It was an inflation that could only make the young dauphin and dauphine think of themselves as close to divine. The populace was excluded from the archbishop’s palace where the extravagant wedding banquet was held. On a day fraught with symbolism, and exhausting in its demands, Mary’s fifteen-year-old head was beginning to ache under the weight of her crown and she was permitted to relinquish it to the king’s gentleman of the bedchamber. Then once the feast was cleared away the ball began, with the king leading out his new daughter-in-law, taller than he was, altogether more regal in her mien and a notably graceful dancer.

However, the highlight of the celebrations was yet to come with the removal of the wedding party and guests to the Palais de Justice for a series of fantastical pageants. Twenty-five wicker horses arrayed in cloth of gold, with the young Guise sons and Valois princes on their backs, entered pulling coaches filled with people dressed as pilgrims, singing in praise of God and the young bride and groom. A dozen bejewelled unicorns, the heraldic and mythical symbol of Scotland, more carriages filled with beautiful young women dressed as the Muses, and more celestial music all captured the imaginations of the glittering wedding guests.

The pièce de résistance was kept for last as six gauzy ships, their sails filling with an artificial breeze, appeared to float across a painted, billowing sea. In each was a prince, brilliantly attired in gold and wearing a mask, with an empty throne beside him. As the ingenious fleet approached the great marble table at which the wedding party sat each masked prince disembarked to choose his princess and place her on his throne, to the evident pleasure of both the participants and the spectators. The smallest of them all approached one of the tallest of the young women, as the Dauphin François claimed his young dauphine. He and the young Queen of Scots sailed away in a make-believe ship to a fantasy land.

These were purposefully extravagant fun and games, full of symbolism and self-indulgent conceit, and executed with peculiarly French stylishness and wit. The country had been brought close to bankruptcy by wars with England and Spain, and riven with religious and political factions. Such pomp was a necessary reassurance to themselves and assertion to their neighbours that the imperial greatness of France remained undimmed. But at heart it was a fairytale confection, an entertaining froth for the diversion of a complacent, self-regarding court. The focus of all this fuss was the fairytale princess herself, undeniably beautiful, intelligent and robust but disabled by the fantasy, and burdened with vain pride.

There were many epithalamia written in France and Scotland in praise of the marriage of Mary and François, of Scotland with France. The French, not surprisingly, stressed the supremacy of France in the union, some getting carried way with the vision of empire extending into Britain and throughout Europe. More modestly, Michel l’Hôpital, in his famous wedding poem of 1558, described proud Scotland as, ‘a kingly crown, a subject land./Light in its weight, in truth, with ours compared’.

(#litres_trial_promo) Another song, published by one of the Pléiade

(#ulink_a7fb19e0-b404-5320-aab5-88e9a30882d0) group of poets, Jean de Baïf, celebrated Mary’s legitimate claim on the English throne: ‘without murder and war, France and Scotland will with England be united’.

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Back in Scotland, the local poets saw the marriage as a union of equals. Sir Richard Maitland characterized the relationship as fraternal, ‘Scots and French now live in unity/As you were brothers born in one country … Defending other both by land and sea’.

(#litres_trial_promo) The celebrations too were inevitably a more muted and frugal affair. Mary’s mother, Mary of Guise, regent since 1554, ordered the great cannon, nicknamed ‘Mons Meg’, to be fired from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle. But then, with suitable economy, she dispatched a body of men to retrieve the monster shot so that it could be dusted down and used again. When France exacted a tax on the Scottish people to finance the nuptials of the queen who had left their shores as a small child, more than ten years before, there was some muttering. When France then came back for an even larger contribution, resentment became more entrenched. The independent-minded nobles and lairds had largely put up with the influx of French courtiers and advisers around Mary of Guise, particularly if a strong French presence threatened their old enemy England, but no true Scotsman could stomach any sense of their country being annexed in some unequal alliance.

Monarchies when women or children inherited were notoriously susceptible to powerful factions and self-seeking ambitions amongst their subjects, and Scotland had had more than its fair share of premature royal deaths and restive noblemen. During Mary Stuart’s minority and absence in France, the reformed religion had flourished with little real curb under the eleven-year governorship of the indecisive Earl of Arran, followed by that of her own mother. Although Mary of Guise was not a natural persecutor of heretics, her family was the pre-eminent force in France and hardline in its Catholicism and antipathy to dissent. The court became thick with Frenchmen, some of whom held lucrative posts, most of whom seemed to the more impoverished and frugal Scots to be arrogant in their manner and wantonly extravagant in their tastes. French interests were seen by the Scots to be increasingly paramount in their increasingly partisan government.

In France, the wedding celebrations lasted for days, in part aimed at bolstering the people’s support for their monarchy and in the process uniting some of the alarming and bitter rifts caused by the fiery advance of the reformed religion fuelled from Geneva. But the really important political union was transacted privately in the weeks before the public celebration. Nine Scottish commissioners braved the February storms to sail to France. They survived seasickness and shipwreck in order to be there in person to act on behalf of Scotland and her queen in the negotiations of the marriage treaty. Everything seemed to be generous and convivial enough. Scotland’s independence was assured; Francis would become King of Scotland alongside his queen; if they should have a son he would inherit both realms; if they only had a daughter she would inherit the crown of Scotland alone, being prohibited from claiming the French throne.

Henri II also apportioned money and land for Mary’s own use, and if she should be widowed then her rights to that property at least remained. If she and François did not produce an heir then the Scottish throne would revert to the ancient line of Scottish succession,

(#ulink_e095fc78-f1a3-5e32-9e66-484b8fef92f6) not be absorbed into the French inheritance. The Scottish commissioners could find nothing objectionable in this.

However, in an act of gross duplicity by the king and his advisers, Mary was asked that same day, 4 April 1558, to sign further secret documents, without the knowledge of her commissioners, which so compromised Scotland politically and financially that in effect it would have made her country a satellite of France. One signature allowed that if Mary should have no heirs, then Scotland, and also her claim to the English throne, would be inherited by Henri II’s successors. Another document promised virtually a limitless mortgage on the Scottish treasury to repay France’s expenditure in the defence of Scotland against England, even the costs to the French royal house of the hospitality extended to Mary during the time she had lived with them at court. In a final act of perfidy, the French king had this young woman, to whom he had acted as guardian and father figure, sign a further document invalidating any subsequent attempt she might make to modify or nullify these larcenous orders.

On the face of it these secret documents, signed by Mary behind the backs of her own commissioners, constituted a betrayal of her country. It is hard to believe that she knew the full meaning of what she was signing. The plea that she was but a young woman of fifteen, keen to please and in awe of her powerful uncles and the fond King Henri, is just enough. Although it excuses her the worst motives, however, it does not do her much credit. Fifteen was not considered as youthful then as it is to modern minds. Fifteen-year-olds were leading men into battle, having children and dying for their beliefs. The Queen of Scots’ political naivety and lack of judgement, even if merely following the advice of these apparently trustworthy men, did not bode well for her political deftness in the future. Her lack of respect for the independence of her own ancient and sovereign kingdom was a failure of education and imagination. In fact the comparison with her cousin Elizabeth at the same age could not have been more marked.

When Elizabeth Tudor herself was merely fifteen, she was involved in early 1549 in a political crisis revolving around the ambitions of the Lord Admiral Seymour, the husband of her favourite stepmother, Catherine Parr. Elizabeth was cross-examined about the extent of his relationship with her when she had lived under their roof. As a possible successor to the crown, all Elizabeth’s relationships were considered political. It was dangerous to encourage any overtures not previously sanctioned by the monarch and his advisers.

At this time her young brother Edward was king and Seymour’s elder brother, the Duke of Somerset, was Lord Protector. The Seymour brothers were ambitious men. Scurrilous rumours were abroad that Elizabeth and Seymour had been secretly married, were at least sexually involved with each other, even that she was already pregnant. All this was dangerously discreditable to her and potentially fatal for him. Seymour was thrown into the Tower of London and her own closest servants taken into custody. Elizabeth was isolated and at real risk. Yet she conducted herself with remarkable intelligence and self-control and could not be wrong-footed by her experienced interrogator: ‘She hath a very good wit, and nothing is gotten of her but by great policy,’

(#litres_trial_promo) the exasperated man wrote to the Lord Protector. Elizabeth steadfastly maintained her innocence, prevaricated when things became difficult, and in the end prevailed.

Mary had been just as youthful at this test of her judgement but, at fifteen, she thought of herself as a French rather than a Scottish queen. Scotland and the interests of her people were a long way from where her heart lay. Although her wits were sharp enough, her ambitions dynastic and her will strong, her characteristic motivation was in action and desire. Decisions would spring always more readily from impetuous feeling. This was to make her attractive as a woman, compelling as a romantic heroine and impressive in command when things went her way. But it made her tragically fallible as a queen.

However, there were certain more sinister aspects of political life to disturb Mary’s apparent ingenuousness. News reached her of the tragic return journey of her Scottish commissioners that September. All were stricken with violent sickness and four of them died within hours of each other. Mary’s illegitimate half-brother Lord James Stewart was young enough and strong enough to survive but was left with a constitutional weakness for the rest of his life. Rumours abounded that they had been deliberately poisoned. Subsequent commentators thought the Guises quite capable of such an act if they had thought their private treaty with Mary and the betrayal of Scottish interests had been discovered. Certainly tradition had it that the French and Italians vied with each other for the reputation as Europe’s most artful poisoners. And even though, at the time, any case of sudden death was quickly supposed to be due to the poisoner’s art, for so many adult men to die in such quick succession appeared suspicious indeed. Surprisingly, nothing subsequently was seriously investigated, let alone proved, but back in Scotland it was used by Knox and others as powerful propaganda for anti-French feeling.

Mary seemed to be little moved by the tragedy but was generally uneasy. Her husband was away from her in Picardy, with his own father the king, at a camp where sickness was rife: everyone was ready for peace with Spain and England, yet progress seemed to be slow. She expressed her disquiet in a letter to her mother in Scotland. Fearing the factions in the court at that time she was resigned, ‘unless God provides otherwise … because we have so few people of good faith it is no wonder if we have trouble’.

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So 1558 was significant for Mary as the year she married the person she was to love most in her life, albeit with a sister’s affection rather than a sexual love. With that marriage she had fulfilled the ambitions of her mother, her mother’s family and the King of France himself. Her previous ten years in France had prepared her solely for this, to be a princess and eventually queen consort of France. To her family in France, Scotland was of little value or interest except as England’s Achilles’ heel, the gateway for a future French invasion. As she married the heir to the French throne it was clear to her that her greatest duty was to promote the Valois dynasty and to produce the male heir that would continue their dominance of royal power begun in 1328.

The lessons of her past were with Elizabeth always. Born an heir to the throne she nevertheless had endured disinheritance, reinstatement, exclusion, humiliation, imprisonment and real fear for her life. ‘Taught by Experience and Adversity, (two most effectual and powerfull Masters)’

(#litres_trial_promo) was how William Camden,

(#ulink_64a4a85f-a8a6-5558-9402-9ecb71a871de) Elizabeth’s first chronicler, characterized her cast of mind at this time. She had been alone and without powerful protectors and had learnt patience, circumspection, discipline and the absolute necessity of command. She had also discovered the extent of her own courage and the coolness of her intellect under fire. This gave her a special confidence, proof against any challenge to come. The whole purpose of her life was to inherit what was rightfully hers; the daughter most like her father who most deserved his crown. And she meant to rule like a king. Everything else was secondary to that desire. Yet the question of her own legitimacy, denied by the Catholic powers, upheld by her own people, was an ever-present liability.

Although ambitious men would seek her all her life for dynastic alliances, Elizabeth, from a very young age, had rejected the orthodoxy that a woman must marry, that a princess, particularly, had a duty to marry. Given all the human and political circumstances of tradition, expectation, security, and dynastic and familial duty which pressed in upon her, Elizabeth’s insistence that she would not marry was a remarkable instance of revolutionary action and independence of mind. In May 1558, she reminded Sir Thomas Pope that even when Edward VI was king she had asked permission ‘to remayne in that estate I was, which of all others best lyked me or pleased me … I am even at this present of the same mind … I so well like this estate, as I perswade myselfe ther is not anie kynde of liffe comparable unto it … no, though I were offered the greatest Prince in all Europe.’

(#litres_trial_promo) To remain unwed was also a masterly diplomatic ploy for the unfulfilled prospect of her marriage to various foreign princes kept the equilibrium between the great European powers in constant suspension.

Part of this determination had to be as a result of experience and contemplation. She was twenty-five and had been through a rigorous training for something much greater than submission to a husband in marriage and sharing her monarchic power with a prince. She had her sister Mary’s sad example in near memory; her father’s ruinous effect on the women he married as a more distant example. Yet to remain unmarried flew in the face of the pleas of her increasingly desperate councillors. Almost every parliament included a petition that she should marry. For a monarch so insistent on her primary concern for her people it seemed perverse to persist in celibacy and risk at her death the eclipse of the Tudors and the possibility of civil war.

But to remain unmarried also flouted the hierarchical order of life which kept the nation safe, the universe in harmony. If Elizabeth continued to ignore the immutable laws of interconnectedness and the due place of everything, including herself and her rights and responsibilities as a monarch, then she risked the catastrophe of chaos. In the first years of her reign, her bishops of Canterbury, London and Ely expressed a similar fear ‘that this continued sterility in your Highness’ person to be a token of God’s displeasure towards us’.

(#litres_trial_promo) In this decision Elizabeth confounded every shade of opinion. She stood alone and unsupported. How could she not sometimes have faltered?

As the year drew to its wintry close, the opportunity Elizabeth had barely hoped for all her life was hers at last. By the beginning of November it became clear that her sister Mary was mortally ill. The swelling in her belly which she had prayed so desperately was a growing child was most probably ovarian or uterine cancer. As Mary slipped in and out of consciousness the courtiers who had danced attendance at her door melted away. They joined the hasty ride from London towards Hatfield, ready to ally themselves to the new source of power and patronage. All her life Elizabeth was to remember her unease at this precipitate turning from the dying monarch to court the coming one.

And she was the coming queen. She was Henry’s legal heir, after the deaths of Edward and Mary, as declared by the succession statute of 1544. There was, however, the small matter of an earlier statute when her father had declared her and Mary ‘preclosed, excluded, and barred to the claim’.

(#litres_trial_promo) This remained unrepealed, although Mary had taken steps to legitimize herself. Elizabeth chose to rely on the 1544 statute for her legitimacy, but the insecurity she felt when faced with the claim of her cousin Mary Stuart remained. She was however the popular choice, the only choice as far as the people were concerned. The dying Mary had even given her blessing, urged on by Philip of Spain, who feared Protestantism less than the imperial ambitions of France. She had sent two members of her council to Elizabeth to let her know ‘it was her intention to bequeath to her the royal crown, together with all the dignity that she was then in possession of by right of inheritance’. Elizabeth’s reply illustrated partly why the long-suffering Mary found her younger sister so exasperating to deal with: ‘I am very sorry to hear of the Queen’s illness; but there is no reason why I should thank her for her intention to give me the crown of this kingdom. For she has neither the power of bestowing it upon me, nor can I lawfully be deprived of it, since it is my peculiar and hereditary right.’

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So it was that on the 17 November 1558, a Thursday, Elizabeth learned the waiting was over and her father’s crown was finally hers. She sank to her knees, apparently momentarily overcome, breathing deeply with emotion. But with the breadth of her learning and her cool self-possession she was not long lost for words: ‘A domino factum est illud, et est mirabile in oculis meis!’ was her first utterance as queen. Quoting part of Psalm 118 she had declared, ‘This is the doing of the Lord and it is marvellous in my eyes.’

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Fortuitously Parliament happened to be sitting that day, and when the Lords were brought the news of Mary’s death, in measured tones ‘with joint consent of the whole assembly’ they declared ‘the Lady Elizabeth might forthwith be proclaimed Queen’.

(#litres_trial_promo) This was broadcast by the herald-at-arms at the front door of the Palace of Westminster, at the cross in Cheapside and at other prominent places in the city. Weary of bloodshed, fearful of foreign wars, weakened by bad harvests and disease, the people welcomed the new queen. But there was foreboding too as to what the future would bring. Another female monarch, after the last disastrous experiment, seemed to be too risky when England was in need of inspired and powerful leadership. There was a profound cultural and religious acceptance that it was unnatural, indeed impossible, for women to be successfully in command. But the prospect of marriage for Elizabeth also brought the real fear, acted out in Mary’s reign, of alliance with a dominant foreign power. It was not surprising there were mixed emotions beyond the general feeling of relief. Sir John Hayward,

(#ulink_1dd5ff26-f7f8-50e1-8c8f-e84d82057857) an early historian, wrote: ‘Generally, the rich were fearful, the wise careful, the honestly-disposed doubtful, the discontented and the desperate, and all such whose desires were both immoderate and evil, joyful, as wishing trouble, the gate of spoil.’

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And trouble was what everyone expected. The transition from old monarch to new was inherently uncertain. Diplomatically too, it upset the status quo between nations. The death of a stalwart Catholic during a period of fomenting religious debate changed the tensions between the ancient neighbours and rivals, France, Spain, Scotland and England.

The fiery Scottish Protestant John Knox was also to remember 1558 as a year of particular significance. His tract The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women was published, with unfortunate timing, just as Elizabeth came to the throne. By monstrous regiment he meant unnatural government and his blast was directed against the women rulers in Europe at the time of his writing whom he saw as implacable enemies of the reformed religion: Mary I of England and the Scottish regent Mary of Guise.

(#ulink_46ae841c-ba7f-58be-8f68-f3b7ae32b57f) Unfortunately, the new Queen of England who could have been his most powerful ally was instead greatly offended. She did not find it amusing to be hectored in his main argument: ‘to promote a Woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any Realm is repugnant to Nature; contrary to God, a thing most contrarious to his revealed will and approved ordinance, and finally, it is the subversion of all good Order, of all equity and justice’.

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An intemperate and gifted preacher, Knox was barred from returning from Geneva to England to resume his preaching career. He wrote to Elizabeth trying to ingratiate himself into her favour but even that letter turned into a rant on this most sensitive of subjects, and he never recanted his anti-woman stand, accepting the consequences of his inflexible principles: ‘My First Blast has blown from me all my friends in England.’

(#litres_trial_promo) Instead he returned to Scotland in 1559, the most powerful and vociferous opponent of Catholic and French influence, and the mouthpiece of Scottish Calvinist conscience. He remains to this day a brooding, implacable and self-righteous symbol of the Scottish Reformation.
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