Saturday, August 2, 2014

Mary of Guise by Rosalind K. Marshall

I just finished Mary of Guise, Queen of Scots by Rosalind K. Marshall. It was only 100 pages and Marshall says in the forward that it is a “distillation of [her] previous full-length biography of Mary of Guise.”

My decision to read about Mary followed my reading more extensively about her daughter Mary Stewart and John Knox. While Mary Stewart is a more popular subject, Mary of Guise is, in my admittedly novice opinion, a far worthier queen and perhaps nobler person.

Coming from devoutly Catholic parents (her father was a war hero in defending the faith), Mary’s faith to the Church and in God was unshakable even through severe heartache. After the death of her two children by James V, followed by the death of James himself, her son from her first marriage also died. In the face of such personal defeat, she wrote to her mother, “I think, my Lady, as you wrote to me, that Our Lord must wish for me one of his chosen ones, since he has visited me so often with such sorrow; praised be he for all” (75).

Besides her faith, her qualities of leadership were remarkable. She exercised wisdom and won hearts at times when a lesser leader might have enacted vengeance. For example, when some Scottish soldiers deserted during a battle against the English, she personally visited each house where they were hiding, and said, “Is it thus, my friends, that you support the French? Is it thus that you set them a good example? Before God, if I had not seen you with my own eyes and if anyone had told me that you were like to forget your honour in this way, I would not have believed them. I should have thought such a thing incredible, having praised you so much all my life for what I believe and still do believe to be true, that no nation on earth would equal your courage.” She also allowed for the possibility that, instead of deserting, they had merely returned to regroup and rearm, and “she knew that they would not want to miss the opportunity of avenging the death of their relatives and friends.” Abashed, the soldiers returned to the army immediately. She followed their service with personal gifts, promising more to come after battle (67-8).

She likewise handled the fickleness of her nobles’ allegiance with the same shrewdness. The Earl of Arran was particularly notorious for switching his loyalties back and forth between Scotland and England, and during one of his wavering moments, Mary “hastily persuaded Henry [King of France] to offer a wealthy French Bride for young Lord James [the earl’s son]” (66). It worked for a time, but, although the Earl was eventually made Duke of Châterherault , he was supporting the English again by the time of Mary’s death – even to the point of denying Mary the Bishop of Amiens at her death-bedside when the other Scottish Lords consented. (Sadly, because her rule was weakening with the often violent growth of Protestantism, the French support she had relied on throughout her reign ceased until after her death when France resumed negotiations with Scotland) (96).

The Protestant subjects’ hostility toward Mary, fueled by the ever antagonistic John Knox, never seemed justified to me. Maybe it was more a reaction to the bloody reign of Mary Tudor, whose reign lasted for 5 of the 6 years of Mary of Guise’s reign. For the nobles, the devotion to either church was usually politically motivated, a spiritual void I can hardly fault them for in an age where the church and state were one in power and corruption.

Even in her Catholic devotion, Mary recognized the flaws of the clergy, once asking the Pope to send a cardinal to deal with the problems, which included “lack of ecclesiastical discipline, the dispersal of church property, and the immorality of monks and nuns.” Her request was not granted, and Mary later asked the Archbishop of St. Andrews to call for a council to “consider the Protestants' demands.” The death of Mary Tudor put a halt to these plans and the Protestant Elizabeth took the English throne (85).

Obviously, a 100 page biography is more of a primer, but it gave me a favorable view of Mary of Guise, and it also reinforced to me the hardships of being a monarch. I believe she met the challenge with the strength and wisdom required, and would have been a more formidable opponent for Elizabeth I than her daughter was.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Report/Review of John Knox by Rosalind K. Marshall

My reason for reading a biography of John Knox was to get a more in-depth view of his character. He is so demonized today, particularly by women, and references to him in my readings on Mary Stewart left me disgusted with him. I eventually decided that any assessment would be unfair until I’d read at least one biography.

At the beginning of this book, when reading of his often-misunderstood relationship with his eventual mother-in-law Elizabeth Bowes, I got a picture of a very sensitive, compassionate man able to openly express emotion and affection.  By all accounts, he retained his kind nature when dealing one-on-one with his female family and parishioners.  

Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary were never to see this side of him. The opinion for which he is most disliked today is his outspoken objection to female rule, a sentiment that was largely fueled by the abuses he and his contemporaries suffered at the hands of the Catholic Mary Tudor in England. This prejudice was firmly affixed by the time Mary Stewart took the Scottish throne. Despite her efforts to reason with him and even charm him, as she did most people, he retained his opinion for the rest of his life: a female monarch was acceptable only if she submitted to the true (Protestant) church and, eventually, to a husband.  She was never to be considered the final authority, as it was unnatural for women to be in positions of leadership, to say nothing of their natural inclination toward sin. This is, perhaps, an oversimplification of his beliefs, but that’s the basic impression I came away with. A more in-depth look at his views can be found in his treatiseThe First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, which angered both Mary and Elizabeth.  

While Knox supported the protestant Queen Elizabeth, he did not find much more favor with her than with Mary, largely because of The First Blast.  Knox’s genuine surprise at her reaction shows what I consider to be a naivete rooted in the confidence of his doctrine. He expected her to understand that such statements weren’t personal, but true, and if Elizabeth simply followed the correct faith, he approved of her rule within its proper boundaries.

His incredibly obstinate refusal to temper his views or even the expression of his views is what defined his character until his death.  Elizabeth’s disapproval and Mary’s tearful rage did not faze him, even when Mary came close to charging him with treason. It is certain he would have chosen to be martyred before he would recant.

While his belief in the Protestant cause overrode his sense of self-preservation -  an admirable trait as far as convictions go – his focus on establishing an earthly kingdom is disconcerting from my personal Christian perspective. As the daughter of a minister descended from a line of ministers on both my paternal and maternal side, and someone who has chosen the Christian faith of my parents, I cannot read such a biography from a purely objective perspective.  Instead, I find myself despairing over the state of the spiritual kingdom that surely must have been stunted while Knox wreaked havoc in its name. Yes, historically, it was a tumultuous time and it was the way of things to shed blood over doctrine, but even Calvin had to occasionally distance himself from Knox’s proclamations.  By contrast, I cannot see Knox as merely a product of his time. His antics baffled his peers almost as much as they do our more moderate, modern minds.

Of course, Knox was patterning himself after the Old Testament prophets, much as many Christian historical figures have.  It really isn’t clear how appropriate such a role is anno domini.

My final conclusion as to Knox’s character is that he was a generally kind-hearted man, but without the slightest sense of ecumenism or diplomacy.  His resolve helped establish Protestantism in Scotland, but also alienated two monarchs as well as hosts of their subjects – on both sides of the religious argument.

There are so many “what-ifs” that come to mind should Knox have been more moderate: What if Mary Stewart had been swayed toward Protestantism, what if Knox had been better able to join forces with Calvin, and – most importantly to me – what if, by showing grace and love, Knox had managed to further the real, unseen kingdom over the earthly one?

I don’t propose to have the answers, nor am I assuming that Knox always did the wrong thing in the eyes of God. The Church has passed through many unseemly phases and only in the end will we be able to fully distinguish the wheat from the chaff.

As far as books go, this one wasn’t an overly fascinating read, but I feel it did give as objective a view of Knox as possible. I would personally like to see Jane Dunn undertake a biography on Knox, but he isn’t the most fascinating character to write about. Rather than the soap-opera drama of his monarchs, his life was characterized by the “straight and narrow,” his famous flares of anger against the Catholic church and its supporters eventually falling into the rhythmic noise of artillery – always loud, but always the same.