Love, vengeance and the enduring appeal of Mary, Queen of Scots
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More than 400 years after her brutal slaying at the hands of her royal English cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots continues to mesmerise the captains and kings of Hollywood.
Edinburgh will host the premiere of Mary Queen of Scots, the eagerly anticipated latest screen adaptation of history’s most turbulent queen. It stars Saoirse Ronan as the ill-fated monarch who combined exquisite gifts of statecraft with ruthless expediency to control and manipulate her court of perfidious noblemen. Margot Robbie plays Mary’s cousin, Queen Elizabeth of England, and the film also features David Tennant and Guy Pearce.
In post-Reformation Scotland Mary was reviled for her Catholic faith and for her sexual allure at a time when princesses were considered mere chattels and chess pieces to be paraded across the kingdoms of Europe to seal treaties and unite empires.
The film-makers resisted the lure of a contrived Hollywood locution, as the title of the film bears witness to the universal fame of its subject. Not even the old Scottish warrior king, Robert the Bruce, was accorded such a distinction. Last year’s Netflix extravaganza about him was saddled with the melodramatic title Outlaw King. Like Helen of Troy, another queen who toyed with the affections of great men, Mary’s name alone needs no further embroidery. The ancient Spartan queen may have had a face that launched a thousand ships but Mary stirred the imaginations of a thousand Scottish radicals.
The leftwing Scottish political commentator, Angela Haggerty, said: “It was always the thread of injustice in Scottish history that stuck with me. I was so enchanted by the story of Mary that I dressed up as her for Halloween, which I think is the ultimate mark of a child’s respect. The year before that I’d dressed up as John Lennon. Mary and Lennon were equally cool in my eyes.”
The story of Mary has also transfixed film-makers across Europe for more than a century. She has been played by Fay Compton, Vanessa Redgrave, Katharine Hepburn and Samantha Morton. In 1895, the short film The Execution of Mary Stuart depicted her death in such a realistic way that audiences believed the actor playing Mary had actually been beheaded.
The drama of Mary’s short reign and its ruthless denouement at the hands of a close blood relative has lent it a disproportionate significance in Scotland’s history. Mary was the only surviving legitimate offspring of King James V but was brought up in France while Scotland was ruled by regents in her minority. Returning to Scotland in 1561 following the death of her French husband, King Francis II Mary married her first cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley in 1565. A son, James, was born the following year. This is when the sex, betrayal and bloody vengeance began in earnest. Darnley was a bit of a popinjay hated by everyone, including eventually by Mary, who began an affair with her bisexual Italian secretary, David Rizzio. Darnley hated Rizzio and oversaw his brutal murder, bludgeoned and knifed in front of Mary.
The queen nonetheless regained her composure rather quickly and not long afterwards learned that her husband has been burned to death by another nobleman, the Earl of Bothwell. Showing remarkable strength of purpose, Mary then married Bothwell. This enraged the rest of the Scottish lords. She was besieged and imprisoned at Lochleven Castle in Kinross and then fled south of the border seeking the protection of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth of England. Elizabeth, no slouch in protecting her interests at all costs either, knew Mary also had a blood claim on her throne and – depending on who you believe – discovered letters written by Mary proving that she still fancied her chances in England.
Elizabeth didn’t mess around and quickly showed the ruthlessness and conviction that defeated the Spanish Armada the following year. She duly had her cousin beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire in 1587 following several years as a reluctant guest touring some of the National Trust’s most gilded English properties. Without giving the game away, that’s more or less it.
Scottish historian Professor Sir Tom Devine deploys a sanguine and less emotional approach when assessing Mary’s place in Scotland’s history:“Of course, one must sympathise with and admire the courage of a young, Catholic and widowed queen returning from France to confront the iron men of the Scottish Reformation in an era dominated by unyielding patriarchy. Indeed, I would not be surprised if this film helped to reinvent Mary as a 21st-century feminist icon.
Saoirse Ronan: ‘I’ve played a lot of weird people. I have!’
“But the inordinate attention long paid by writers and film-makers to a figure of essentially minor historical significance also confirms that a story of romance, failure and tragedy can always trump in popular interest the major issues of Scottish history. Bonnie Prince Charlie is another obvious example of the same seductive allure of this kind of historical personality.”
Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon is expected to attend tomorrow’s gala premiere of the film – and may have cause to reflect on some shared experiences with her troubled predecessor. Like Mary, she is under siege by a cadre of ambitious male earls in the modern palace of Holyrood. Unlike Mary, she can use 21st-century political statecraft to thwart their stratagems.
Mary Queen of Scots
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