MARY, QUEENS OF SCOTS – HEROINE OR VICTIM?

MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS – HEROINE OR VICTIM?

The 8th February 1587 will go down in history as the day that Mary Queen of Scots became one of Scotland’s most iconic historical figures. It was on this date that Mary Queen of Scots was executed under the instruction of her cousin Queen Elizabeth I of England. Her execution was inevitable after spending 19 years as a prisoner of Queen Elizabeth. 

Mary’s entire life involved political intrigue, a long standing dispute between two monarchies, failed romances and religious turmoil. All of these and more would effectively lead her on the path to her eventual death. 

THE EARLY YEARS

Mary was born on 8th December 1542, and was anointed Mary, Queen of Scots 6 days later after the death of her father King James V. She was born at Linlithgow Palace, a favourite palace of the royal family and their court. 

Linlithgow Palace

At this time Scotland had suffered a serious defeat at the Battle of Solway Moss and James had taken it badly.  So much so, that he was confined to his bed. However, he awaited the news that his wife would give birth to a son to carry on his dynasty. When he learnt that he was the father of a daughter, Mary, it is claimed that this finally finished him off. 

He is alleged to have said in his final hours,

“It came wi’ a lass, it’ll gang wi’ a lass”.

This implied that it ‘began with a girl and it will end with a girl’. He clearly didn’t have high hopes that there would be any longevity in Mary’s reign or indeed his dynasty.

The Palace, Stirling Castle

Mary would be crowned the following year at the age of 6 months in Stirling Castle. Until she reached adulthood, Scotland would be ruled by a regent. Already the first political and religious battle took place between the Catholic Cardinal Beaton and the Protestant  Earl of Arran. The Earl succeeded in becoming regent. 

Alongside this internal conflict was pressure from the English King Henry VIII to have Mary Queen of Scots married off to his son Edward. This would further cement his plan to unite England and Scotland and increase his empire and power. 

This did not go down too well with many of the Catholic Scots nobles. The Protestant faction, however, saw its value. Ultimately, King Henry II of France proposed a marriage between Mary and his son Francis. And so in 1548, Mary sailed for France where should would spend her formative years.

LIFE IN FRANCE AND HER RETURN TO SCOTLAND

Francis & Mary

Mary spent a very happy upbringing in France, surrounded by her closest friends, the Four Maries. She was brought up as a devout Catholic and betrothed to be married to Francis. They eventually married and became King and Queen of France in 1559 after the unexpected death of Henry II. 

The marriage would only last a year as Francis died from illness. Without a role, and because of her mother, Mary de Guise’s death, Mary had little choice but to return to Scotland. It was not the same Scotland that she had left – as she was to find out. 

Returning to Scotland in the August of 1561, on the one hand she was welcomed  by her subjugated Catholic subjects. On the other hand because of the Protestant Reformation she was viewed with suspicion by the Protestants. But Mary, as Queen of all Scots, advocated tolerance of both religious beliefs. She would practice her Catholic religion privately at Holyrood. Meanwhile all of Scotland would follow the Presbyterian Protestant faith under the leadership of John Knox. 

This religious conflict would be the first of her many problems to come. 

Darnley & Mary

Her next challenge was to find a suitable husband in order to secure her dynasty. She married her cousin Lord Darnley, also Catholic, in 1565 at Holyrood Palace. In the meantime, the English Queen Elizabeth saw this marriage as a threat to the English throne as both Mary and Darnley through their lineage had a direct claim to the English throne. 

Mary quickly fell pregnant and was due to give birth in the middle of 1566. Darnley, in the meantime had become jealous of Mary’s close relationship with her private secretary, David Rizzio. Darnley’s supporters murdered him in cold blood in front of  the Queen. 

Craigmillar Castle

In June 1566 Mary gave birth to her son at Edinburgh Castle. Mary retired to Craigmillar Castle just outside Edinburgh due to illness in the November of the same year. However, it is claimed that this was an opportunity for Mary and her supporters to conceive a plan to get rid of Darnley. Accounts would later suggest that Mary was not a party to this. 

In any case, the following year Darnley was killed in a botched explosion at the Kirk o’ Field believed to have been orchestrated by Lord Bothwell.  Bothwell who was still married at this point, had his own plans to force Mary to marry him. 

In the May of 1567, Mary was abducted by Bothwell and it is suggested that he may have raped her. Shortly after, having been kept at Dunbar Castle for a period, Bothwell and Mary returned to Holyrood Palace where they were married under a Protestant service. He thought that this would satisfy the Protestant nobles but they too turned against them. So not only did the Catholics think that the marriage was unlawful but there was also a serious Protestant backlash. 

Following a potential battle between Mary’s supporters and the Protestant Lords at Carberry Hill, Mary finally surrendered and was imprisoned at Loch Leven Castle. 

THE LATTER YEARS

After one last attempt to reclaim her throne and take control of Scotland, Mary was defeated at the Battle of Langside. She retreated to England and sought the protection of her cousin Queen Elizabeth I. Sadly her hopes were dashed and she was housed in a ‘place of safety’ at Bolton Castle. 

Two years later Mary was moved to Tutbury Castle where she was effectively now under house arrest. The political wheels were now set in motion that would effectively seal her fate. English nobles cajoled and debated with Queen Elizabeth I that her cousin was a threat to her monarchy. But without evidence, she was not prepared to seal her death warrant as she was still Queen of a sovereign nation. 

THE CASKET LETTERS

There are numerous accounts that these letters show that Mary was involved in the planning of Darnley’s  death, and that she also laid claim to the English throne. Lady Antonia Fraser, acclaimed biographer of Mary, came to the conclusion that the letters were forgeries. The French language and grammar used in them were so poorly written that they could not have been written by someone of Mary’s upbringing.

But they were to be used against her in her trial. Although she was imprisoned for almost twenty years, everything came to a rapid conclusion over a period of a few months thanks to these letters. From being found guilty of treason in the October of 1586, finally on 7th February 1587 Queen Elizabeth I signed her death warrant. She would be executed the following day. 

Mary Queen of Scots Death Warrant signed by Queen Elizabeth I

Mary Queen of Scots remained calm and noble to the end. Her final words were,

“Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”. 

CONCLUSION

Mary’s reign may be described by some as disastrous. However, she was a skillful monarch, and was in fact politically astute. It was the timing of her reign that was to be her undoing. The rise of Protestantism would conspire against her Catholic beliefs which she never rejected. She was a tolerant woman who wanted her divided nation to live in peace alongside one another.

Mary Queen of Scots – Linlithgow Palace

She was living in an era when it would be difficult for any woman to rule over an otherwise patriarchal society. She saw off many claimants to her throne. 

Probably her greatest failing was her taste in men. Darnley played his own game but she remained steadfastly against his intentions to be become King of Scotland in his own right. Bothwell was a Machievellan “streetfighter” who used brute force to attempt to dominate her. 

If religion, politics and society had been any different in her day, it is quite possible that she would have been not only Mary Queen of Scots but also of France and England. 

She did leave one very important legacy. With the birth of her son James, the Stuart dynasty eventually united the two countries of England and Scotland on the death of Queen Elizabeth I. The Union of the Crowns would be followed just over one hundred years later by The Treaty of Union when Scotland and England formed one United Kingdom.

Some would say that this was a disaster for Scotland or its saviour. But that is a discussion for another time.

If you want to learn more about Mary Queen of Scots, we can highly recommend her biography Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser. Equally, there are movie versions of her life which provide an overview. Mary Queen of Scots (1971) starring Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson is an entertaining romp through her life. However, the more gritty Mary Queen of Scots (2018) starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie provides an unglossed version of events.

And remember Edinburgh Cab Tours provide a variety of tours that can incorporate visits to iconic locations with close links to Mary Queen of Scots. Check our TOURS page or ask us to build your own bespoke and customised tour.

Scotland in the Movies

Scotland in the Movies

I think that it would be fair to say that one of the main reasons that people from all over the world have been inspired to visit our country is because of Scotland in the Movies. Scotland in the Movies can encompass a whole range of genres. So, rather than throw a whole mix of movies at you, I have decided to split this up into different genres to be covered in different articles as follows:

  • Scottish History
  • Scottish Contemporary Culture
  • Music in Scottish Movies
  • Scottish Popular Fiction
  • Scottish Science Fiction & Fantasy
  • Sport in Scottish Movies
  • Bollywood in Scotland

Scotland is very fortunate to have some of the most beautiful and picturesque but at the same time wild and rugged scenery that you can find anywhere. It has a land mass of just over 30,000 square miles which is comparable with countries like Austria, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. For many people who visit Scotland for the first time, when they look at a map of our tiny island, they could be mistaken for thinking that Scotland is just this wee plot of land on the very northern fringes of England. In fact, Scotland is almost exactly a third of the area of the entire UK. 

So, why have I rambled on about the size of Scotland? Despite its size, Scotland punches way above its weight if we look at the range and depth of filming that has taken place here. Believe it or not, the first moving picture was shown in Scotland on 13 April 1896 at the Empire Palace Theatre in Edinburgh. However, the very first Scottish made film ‘ The Departure of the Columba from Rothesay Pier’ was screened in the same year at the Skating Place in Glasgow. In the early to mid 20th century, for many people throughout Britain and the rest of the world, their only impression of Scotland was what they saw on the big screen. 

So, over the next couple of weeks, I am going to post an article on each of the genres listed above. Because a couple of the genres have so many films to choose from, I will choose the top five in each. I know that this will invite comments of why didn’t I include ‘such and such’ a film. However, there have literally been hundreds of films and movies made over the last 100 years, so please forgive me if your favourite doesn’t appear in any of the top 5. 

In this first article, perhaps not surprisingly, we are going to look at specifically Scottish history in the movies. Scottish history is generally what inspires people to visit Scotland particularly if they have some family connection. This connection may be from two or three generations back when their ancestors emigrated from Scotland to make a new life in another country. 

However, we find that in most cases it is the locations that are used in the different movies that really draws visitors to Scotland. It is hard to deny just how breathtakingly stunning the view of Glen Etive is when James Bond makes the journey back to his family home in Skyfall; or perhaps, it is the backdrop of some of our most historic castles and palaces as used in the most recent Outlaw King. However, just to get the movie and location juices flowing, here are our top 5 Scottish history movies. 

BRAVEHEART

Braveheart was released in 1995. If you haven’t heard of Braveheart, where have you been? This movie directed by Mel Gibson was based on one of our most iconic heroes William Wallace. It won five Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography.

The various backdrops used in the movie are a feast for the eyes. However, some of the filming took place not just in Scotland but also Ireland. The main locations used in Scotland were Glencoe, Glen Nevis and Mamore Mountains

Now it is just worth pointing out for those that are not aware that although Mel Gibson won Best Director, he took a bit of a liberty with our actual history. Factually, chunks of the storyline were inaccurate but overall the content painted a true picture of a subjugated nation fighting for its rightful freedom from the tyranny of England. 

When my wife and I went to watch this movie at the cinema, we lived in England. At the end of the movie, I think that the largely English audience were so stunned that you could have heard a pin drop. The movie deservedly has to be in the top 5. If you haven’t yet watched it, do it now!

If you want to visit locations linked to William Wallace, we can customise a tour for you or build it into our Edinburgh & Stirling Castle Tour. For further details go to our Tours page.

ROB ROY

There have been two versions of the legend that is Rob Roy. The first was a Disney produced film released in 1953 called Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue. However, we think that the 1995 version is more authentic despite portraying Rob Roy as a real life hero. 

The movie itself was never going to be able compete with the box office success of Braveheart. However, Liam Neeson gives a very credible performance as the 18th century Rob Roy who takes every opportunity to give every Englishman he meets a good kicking. For us Scots he is revered as our own Robin Hood. For the English, however, he was the Rambo of the day. Even when it looked like the game was up he would miraculously manage to escape their clutches to fight another day. 

Yet again it is the Highland scenery which steals the show with filming again taking place in Glencoe, Glen Nevis and on Rannoch Moor.

STONE OF DESTINY

Released in 2008, this is based on a true story. The Stone of Destiny is believed to be the stone which all Scottish monarchs were crowned on going as far back as the mid 9th century. However, the stone was stolen by King Edward I of England during the Scottish Wars of Independence and taken to London where he had it placed under the English throne at Westminster Abbey.

Fast forward to 1950 and we find ourselves following the plans and the final execution of taking back the stone from Westminster to Scotland by a small group of idealistic Scottish nationalists. 

The film uses a number of locations including Arbroath, Glasgow University, Paisley Abbey and Glenfinnan Viaduct as well as locations in England. 

Having succeeded in their plan, the stone was eventually handed back over to the authorities and the stone was returned to Westminster. It wasn’t until 1996 that the then Prime Minister John Major decided that it should be returned to Scotland. If you visit Edinburgh Castle, you can get up close and personal in the vault where it is held along with the Honours of Scotland.

OUTLAW KING

This was released in 2018 and much to the surprise of many Scots actually turned out to be a good watch about our other iconic hero Robert the Bruce. It does not cover the entire period of his reign but only from the period commencing in 1304 up until his first major successful battle in 1307 at the Battle of Loudon Hill. Chris Pine who played the part of Bruce delivered a superb performance depicting well the pain and the agony that this King had to go through before finally achieving the first of many victories. 

It follows the Bruce’s guerilla war against the much larger and better equipped English army led by King Edward I. The producers did not shy away from using as many locations as possible in the making of this film. Doune Castle, Linlithgow Palace, Dunfermline Abbey, Craigmillar Castle, Glasgow Cathedral, Isle of Skye, Glencoe, Loch Lomond and many more get to take a bow in this tour de force of a film. 

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS

Coming hot on the heels of Outlaw King is this movie following the bleak struggle of Scotland’s Queen Mary played convincingly by Saoirse Ronan. 

Upon her return from France following the death of her husband Mary takes up her position as the monarch of Scotland. The movie loosely chronicles her attempts to retain her grip on power whilst ruling over a country that has reformed itself from a Catholic to a Protestant nation. 

In addition, we see how her choice of husband does not help her cause as well as the constant plots by her enemies to bring her down. Overriding all of this is a suspicion by Queen Elizabeth of England that Mary also has her eye on the English throne. 

Again it is the locations that are amongst the biggest winners of the movie with scenes at Blackness Castle, Glencoe, Glen Feshie, Linlithgow Palace and coastal scenes in East Lothian.

OTHER MOVIES IN THIS CATEGORY WORTH CHECKING

Macbeth 1997 I

vanhoe 1952

Bonnie Prince Charlie 1948 – pretty dire and bombed at the Box Office

Robert the Bruce

Centurion

The Eagle

The Queen

Mrs Brown

Hamlet 

Valhalla Rising

The Railway Man

To End All Wars