Book review: The Ballad of the Five Marys

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A plausible portrait of the enigma that is Mary, Queen of Scots

Her time in Scotland was brief. She spent almost half her life a prisoner in England. Yet she is by far the best-known Scottish monarch, subject of biographies, novels, plays and films. She is a figure of romance who is believed to have loved unwisely and who was denounced in her own time by her own subjects as whore, adulteress and murderer. She was accused and found guilty of conspiracy to murder her distant cousin, Elizabeth of England, and found guilty, though the evidence against her may have been doctored. She submitted to her execution with courage, but all accounts of it are horrible. She proclaimed herself a martyr to her Roman Catholic faith, but married her third husband, the ruffianly Earl of Bothwell by Protestant rites; it is possible that she consented to that marriage because he had first raped her.

Mary, Queen of Scots remains an enigma. She is popularly supposed to have been a great lover, but the evidence suggests otherwise; her second husband, Darnley, was almost immediately unfaithful to her. The marriage itself was a mistake, Darnley’s murder a disaster for her. We shall almost certainly never know the truth concerning it. The most plausible explanation is that a plot was laid to murder both Mary and her husband, and that Bothwell, seeing the means of using it to his own advantage, stepped in to organise the murder of Darnley alone. But we can’t tell; there was so much false testimony that any of a number of explanations may be offered. Donald Smith’s investigation in this novel is as credible as any.

The novel is the fruit of a lifelong fascination. Mary’s character has, he says, “perplexed me since childhood”. He has “come to distrust the conventional readings of Mary as either a deceitful adulteress or a pious martyr. Both are based on propaganda and deliberate distortions”. This is a good starting-point. Mary was a politician, caught in the web of political intrigue at a revolutionary time. She was always less an actor, than one acted upon.

Good novels are often in a sense voyages of exploration, for the author as well as the reader. That is the case here. Smith has written a novel full of different voices, presented in the form of documents of varying reliability. It is ostensibly written, and the documents compiled, by James Maitland, an exiled Catholic Scot, and son of Mary’s secretary of state. Not all his voices are to be trusted; they offer different and sometimes contradictory versions of the same event. Some lie of intent, others inadvertently.

Smith shows why Mary attracted devotion and also opprobrium. He shows her struggling to survive in the snakepit of Scottish, English and French politics. The Scottish nobility of the mid-16th century were an unsavoury and villainous bunch, most of them crooked as a corkscrew. Smith presents Bothwell as a thug, but marginally more honest and loyal to Mary than others. Nevertheless it is clear that Bothwell was the man who destroyed her; the marriage to him an act of folly, even if, as Smith shows, Mary had little alternative The author has no more time for Darnley than most who have written about him, though I think one should have some pity for the stupid boy. His chief villains are the brutal Earl of Morton and Mary’s illegitimate half-brother, the smooth, ambitious and treacherous Earl of Moray, known to Protestant historians as “the Good Lord James”. It is a pleasure to find Moray being given rough treatment.

There’s an old publishing belief that “books about Mary Queen of Scots always sell”. Smith’s certainly deserves to do so. He finds his way through the maze of 16th century Scottish politics dexterously and persuasively. His portrait of the queen is sympathetic but doesn’t pretend that she was faultless. He shows the malignant hand of the English politician, William Cecil, in Scottish affairs, and exposes the lies of the great scholar and Latin poet George Buchanan, who compiled the evidence implicating Mary in Darnley’s murder, in his “Detection”, rightly described as “vindictive and inventive”. All in all, this is an ingenious and gripping re-telling of a story which still fascinates us after more than 400 years.

The Ballad of the Five Marys

by Donald Smith

Luath Press, 238pp, £12.99