There have been more biographies of Mary, Queen of Scots than of all the Stewart kings put together, and she has also been the subject of novels, plays and films. Some have been admiring, others hostile. She has been a figure of drama and romance, a tragic figure on account of the nobility with which she met her horrible end.
She is one of the few Scottish historical figures known even to people who know very little history, if indeed any. Yet she spent less than a quarter of her life in Scotland, five years as a child, six as the active head of government. Sent to France, for safety and education, she was not quite 20, but already a widowed Queen of France, when she returned to Scotland, a country which had just undergone a political and religious revolution. She was now the Roman Catholic queen of a Calvinist country. Six years later she had been deposed – compelled to abdicate – and fled to England in unwise search of a safe refuge.
Rosmary Goring confines her study of Mary to the short period of her personal rule. Well, there’s drama and horror enough there, and she handles it very well. This is neither an adulatory work or hatchet job. She has sympathy for the Queen but thinks she was often rash, unwise, even foolish, in judgement. All the familiar and necessary horrors are here, admirably treated: the infatuation with Darnley and the wretched marriage which followed; the brutal murder of her secretary Rizzio, with the threat to cut the queen herself “in collops”; the still mysterious assassination of Darnley – was Mary herself perhaps intended to be killed also?; the forced marriage to Bothwell – was she raped as she seemed to allege?; then the drama of imprisonment in Loch Leven Castle, her daring escape, defeat in battle when she had gathered support, and flight to England.
All this is familiar, and there can be no new ground to explore. Goring does, however, enrich the picture by full descriptions of the places that feature in the story, as they were then and are now. She fixes Mary in the Scotland of her time, and of ours.
She is sympathetic, but sometimes impatient with her heroine, certainly not blind to her mistakes and misjudgements. Her Mary is, in her Scottish days, no figure of romance, no great lover either. She was briefly infatuated with Darnley, but the marriage soon turned sour. I suspect Goring may agree with the novelist Josephine Tey who said that Mary would have been a much admired games mistress at a girls’ school.
She is, I think, too generous to Mary’s illegitimate half-brother, the Earl of Moray, who was in the pay of Elizabeth of England. Moray, known to Presbyterians as “the good Lord James”, was a shifty and untrustworthy figure, even if less brutal and less appalling than most of his associates. What a frightful crew of cut-throats they were.
Nobody did more damage to Mary’s reputation than George Buchanan, the pre-eminent intellectual of the time, hailed in Europe as the greatest Latin poet of the age. Mary at first was well-inclined to Buchanan; he had, before he became a late Calvinist convert, written eulogies of her French family, the House of Guise, leaders of the Catholic Counter-Revolution. Buchanan had also been Moray’s tutor and was, significantly, a Lennox man loyal to Darnley’s father. Buchanan’s “Detectio Mariae Reginae” made the case against Mary viciously and inventively. The case might not have impressed any court of law, but it was a powerful piece of what we now call tabloid journalism.
Goring is a journalist herself, but a broadsheet one, and, unlike Buchanan, judicious and fair. Her Mary has charm, intelligence and courage, but also poor judgement. She was more likeable, in many ways more admirable, than her English cousin and rival Elizabeth, but had none of the English Queen’s understanding of politics.
This is a nicely measured book, intelligent, engaging and well-balanced. Sixteenth-century Scottish history is fascinating, great to read about here, terrible to have experienced.
Homecoming, by Rosemary Goring, Birlinn, 285pp, £22. Rosemary Goring is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 29 August