I bought Antonia Frasers biography of Mary Queen of Scots, in a second hand bookshop in Paris, a few years ago, and eventually got around to reading its 667 pages over the Christmas period.
It is a riveting personal story of a woman who became Queen of Scotland as an infant, and who spent her childhood and teenage years in France, where she married the King .
Then, after the King of France had died, and she was still only 19 years old, she returned to Scotland in 1561 to take up her responsibility as monarch of her native country.
Politics was different then.
In Scotland, much the real power rested with the nobility, who controlled the land and its revenues, and who could, and did, dictate to the monarch. Parliaments were often no more than a vehicle for the power of the landed nobility.
Religion added a new source of contention, especially if the monarch and her subjects had different religious beliefs. Mary was a convinced Catholic, while the majority of her subjects had recently become Protestant followers of Calvin and Knox…Presbyterians.
She did not attempt to force her Catholic religious views on her subjects, in stark contrast to the policy followed in England by the monarchs of that country, both Protestant and Catholic.
In Scotland the drive for religious conformity came from the bottom up.iin England, it came from the top down.
Mary also had a claim on the English throne, through her grandmother, Margaret Tudor, a sister of Henry XIII.
So when all Henry VIII’s offspring had no children, Mary would have been the uncontested heir to the English throne too, after the death of Queen Elizabeth I.
In fact, she could even claim precedence over Elizabeth, because , in Catholic eyes, Elizabeth was illegitimate, because her mother, Anne Boleyn’s marriage to Henry VIII took place, while his first wife, Catherine, was still alive. As we know, the Pope did not agree to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine.
Interestingly Mary’s own grandmother, Margaret Tudor, a staunch Catholic, had had an annulment of her marriage to her second husband, the Earl of Angus.
Mary herself had numerous half brothers and sisters, because her father had had active relations with women, other than Mary’s mother.
So Mary’s person, and her choice of husband (she had three), became an instrument in the politics of Europe, and in the struggle for predominance between France, Spain and England, and between Catholicism and Protestantism.
Although she was a charming intelligent and generally cautious ruler, the forces with which she had to contend eventually became far too great for her.
She was forced to abdicate in 1567, attempted to regain the throne by force, and was defeated. She had to quit Scotland, leaving her infant son, James, who was eventually to become King of both England and Scotland, behind, never to see him again. She was only 25.
But, instead of fleeing to France where she would have been well received and had many powerful relatives, she fled to England. This was a fatal and foolish mistake.
In England, she became an acute embarrassment to her host, Queen Elizabeth, who feared , with reason, that, as a legitimate claimant to the English throne, Mary would provide a rallying point for English Catholics and their continental allies, who wanted to dethrone Elizabeth, and restore the Catholic faith.
Eventually, after twenty years imprisonment, Elizabeth had Mary executed in 1587, when she was still only 44 years of age.
This tragic story brings out the deep historical, political and religious differences between Scotland and England. It exposes the roots of the suspicion between England and the continent, a suspicion that is not prevalent in Scotland. States were much weaker then than they are today.
It reminds the reader how different were the priorities of political actors 500 years ago. Heredity and religion were much more important than trade and economics. Only the pursuit of power is a constant.