Mary, Queen of Scott's Fascination

17th Jan 2019

Here at Abbotsford, we like to continue Sir Walter Scott’s tradition of championing stories from Scotland’s rich and chequered past. In the last six months, two of Scotland’s most famous sovereigns, Robert the Bruce and Mary Queen of Scots, have been placed centre stage in big-budget film adaptations and today we take a closer look at one of them.

Of course, Scott was by no means solely responsible for the rehabilitation of these figures in the public consciousness; the 1790s was a decade that produced a flurry of stage dramatisations of the life of Mary Stuart, one of which was by Friedrich Schiller, a German playwright Scott greatly admired.

However, in his undisputed role as the most popular novelist of the early nineteenth century, Scott ensured that her life and troubled times could be reimagined in the parlours and drawing rooms of Georgian Britain - and indeed further afield. Certainly his preoccupation with the nuances of biographical detail and his penchant for the underdogs of history - not to mention his key role in crafting the Romantic version of Scotland’s past still so popular today - shows that his legacy is far from dead. Just think of the mass appeal of Outlander!


Mary Queen of Scots' deathmask as featured in the ceiling decoration of Abbotsford's library

The trailer for the upcoming film focuses on the contrasting characters and dispositions of Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I. One need only look at the title of the film to see where the sympathy and bias of the producers and screenwriter lies. And this is far from a criticism – quite frankly it’s unavoidable. One of my favourite things about Scott is the way he looks at history through an Advocate’s lens. He was acutely aware that chronicles and accounts were almost always written by the victors and that all writers have agendas and prejudices, including himself:

“[Mary lived] a life that men have construed, and will construe, more according to their own feelings and passions, than with the calm sentiments of impartial judges.”

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Promotional still from Mary Queen of Scots (2018) via IMDb - Photography by Liam Daniel - © FOCUS FEATURES LLC

And so, as these two lionesses of the 16th century are about to be pitted against one another on film, I thought it might be fun to look at a few snapshots from Scott’s History of Scotland, written for Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopædia in 1830.

Here is a bit of a pen portrait of Elizabeth I of England from his History of Scotland:

It may be said of Elizabeth, that if ever there was a monarch whose conduct seemed, according to the speech of the old heathen, to be governed alternately by two souls of a very different disposition and character, the supposition might be applied to her…Happy would it have been for both queens had Mary’s request for counsel and assistance reached Elizabeth whilst she was under the influence of her better planet.”

Elsewhere she bursts into ‘characteristic passions,’ describing any treaty or arrangement whereby Mary Queen of Scots might share in her succession courtesy of her son, James VI of Scotland, as akin to ‘cutting her own throat.’

What follows is an assessment of Mary from exactly the same point in their story, just prior to her ill-fated marriage to the Catholic Lord Darnley, a decision that firmly drove the wedge of suspicion and jealousy between the two queens:

Queen Mary, since her arrival from France, had behaved herself after a manner so princely, honourably and discreetly, that her reputation was spread abroad in all countries; and she was at the same time so courteous and affable, that, excepting the protestant preachers, whose judgment concerning a papist sovereign cannot be supposed unprejudiced, she had gained the universal love and approbation of her subjects.”

Scott’s own judgement about the quarrel as it deepened is probably best represented in the passage of his History following the unearthing of the ‘casket letters’, documents that supposedly implicated Queen Mary and her new (and third) husband, the Earl of Bothwell, in the mysterious murder of the volatile Lord Darnley in early 1567.

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The political web that Elizabeth found herself embroiled in, unable to free the now imprisoned Queen and restore her to Scotland’s throne for fear of Protestant factions within her own country, not to mention advisers in her close circle, left a stalemate in which Mary’s pleas for an audience went unheeded. Her status as a second-class citizen in the eyes of her sister nation was cemented. Scott, ever steered by a strong moral compass, was an unsympathetic commentator on Queen Elizabeth’s reasoning. Mary’s downfall, as far as Scott was concerned, was her marriage to the man accused of Darnley’s murder, a lapse of reason that set a series of tragic events in motion. Her “life of exile and misery” touched a nerve nevertheless, and Scott saw no case in which this could not atone for any real or imagined crime. Much like his depiction in his 1820 novel The Abbot, his is a sympathetic portrait to come from a supporter of the political status quo. It exists comfortably in the safe space between the boards of a book and far removed from the tensions of its contemporary context. Once again, he shows that it is possible for someone to admire historical causes long lost with an air of fatalistic hindsight.

Three generations later, Scott’s great-grandaughter, Mary Monica Maxwell-Scott would find Mary equally alluring, particularly as a martyr of the Catholic faith. She published The Tragedy of Fotheringay in 1895 using a variety of historical sources as her base. A bruising review from July 1895 in The Academy, declared the following:

“As in Tales of a Grandfather, the bias is decidedly for Mary. All the action of the English and Elizabeth is simple iniquity and hypocrisy. All Mary’s assumptions are granted, all her denials accepted, all her accusations taken as proved. Her past is wholly ignored. Such a view is easy and coherent. The only objection is that it is unhistorical.”

I’m intrigued to see whether the reviews of the new film are charged with the same sentiments. If I was a betting woman, I would put money on it!

For the purposes of the blog, I’ve selected this single work, but for more on Scott’s fascination with Mary Stuart, do seek out his novel The Abbot, published in 1820, and relevant passages of Tales of a Grandfather, his children’s history of Scotland. You can also watch our live stream on Abbotsford’s Marian relics and curiosities here.

Kirsty Archer-Thompson

Collections and Interpretation Manager

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