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.