Sarah Gristwood – biographer, historian, and broadcaster.

‘Woke’ women and the Sixteenth Century

Mary Queen of Scots

There’s been a lot of talk about the new Mary Queen of Scots movie – much of it about the historical accuracy. But the most dramatic moments are not necessarily the invented ones.  

Did Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor ever really meet, as they are shown doing in the movie? No, of course not, but perhaps one should forgive the film’s creators for that one: virtually every drama and dramatist has felt the need to imagine they did, from Schiller to the Vanessa Redgrave/Glenda Jackson film of the 1970s. And you might almost argue that their long correspondence, the degree to which the idea of the other featured in each of their lives,  constituted a kind of encounter.

Did Mary’s first husband, Lord Darnley, really have a gay affair with her secretary David Rizzio? Well, the sources suggest speculation about the possibility. Did her second husband, Bothwell, really rape her before the marriage? Historians still argue that one, endlessly.

More fundamental, perhaps, is the whole question of character and the forces which shape it: surely different across the centuries? It’s where a lot of writers go wrong. (A well known playwright once said to me of Mary: ‘She’s just a good Catholic girl off the estates, isn’t she, really?’ The council estates, that would be. Yes, he did go on to perpetrate a script, filmed for tv.) We can all think of successful historical novelists whose heroines are all 21st century Cosmo girls, who just happen to farthingale up nicely . . . .

This new film is not innocent of that. One American critic complained that Saoirse Ronan’s Mary is a ‘woke underdog princess’, clearly intending it as a serious slur, shorthand for the film’s anachronisms. Except . . . the ‘woke’ thing has some background to it, actually.    

The sixteenth century saw an explosion of female rule.  Large tracts of Europe were under the firm hand of a reigning queens, or of a female regent – mothers and daughter, mentors and proteges. Writing Game of Queens: the Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe, I traced the passage of lessons in power from Isabella of Castile to her daughter Katherine of Aragon, and on to Katherine’s daughter Mary Tudor. From the French regent Anne de Beaujeu to her ward Louise of Savoy, through Louise’s daughter Marguerite of Navarre to her own daughter Jeanne d’Albret, as well as to Marguerite’s admirer Anne Boleyn and finally to Elizabeth Tudor.  

Letters between them show that this was a sisterhood which recognised both their own bonds as women, and their ability to exercise power in a specifically feminine way. No coincidence it was in the reign and realm of Isabella of Castile that the queen in the game of chess took on the powers she enjoys today.

1529 saw the ‘Ladies’ Peace’, the Treaty of Cambrai, negotiated between Margaret of Austria  – regent of the Netherlands, acting for her nephew Charles V – and Louise of Savoy, mother of the French king Francois I. Letters between the two women make no bones about suggesting they could get down to business better if the two young bucks would stay out of the way. Neither of the men could be the first to compromise his dignity, Margaret wrote, but ‘On the other hand, how easy for ladies . . . to concur in some endeavours for warding off the general ruin of Christendom’. No less an authority than Christine de Pizan, after all, had declared that peace was women’s special province.

Margaret of Austria, in those weeks of negotiation before Cambrai, was also busy sending lawyers to help her former sister-in-law Katherine of Aragon dispute her divorce from Henry VIII. Katherine of Aragon was of course also sister-in-law to the Queen of Scotland, the former Margaret Tudor, and, ten years before, Margaret Tudor had declared her belief that if only she and Katherine could meet, war between England and Scotland might have been averted. The alliances these women made stretched across the borders dividing their countries – sometimes even ran at a tangent to the interests of the dynasties into which they had married.

The new film sets up Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart (‘two Queens in one Isle’, as Mary put it) as two women intensely aware of their unique bonds. It presents them as sisters – female rulers in a masculine world – thwarted only by the aggression of the men around them. But how much truth is there in that? A certain amount, actually.

It’s true that Cecil, Elizabeth’s great advisor, was a determined and not always scrupulous enemy to Mary, convinced any attempt at rapprochement was a snare and a delusion. It’s true that Elizabeth, by contrast, was torn between her own doubts about Mary and an urge to support the rights of a fellow queen. Mary, in the early days of her Scottish rule, had pleaded for recognition from her ‘sister’ across the border. She sought firstly to be recognised as Elizabeth’s heir, but the tone of their correspondence – the exchange of ardent, lover-like verses; the insistence on their bond as spiritual mother and daughter – sounds also an emotional note. Both women seem to have subscribed to the contemporary fantasy: if only one of them had been a man, so that they might marry!  Elizabeth would tell the Scottish lords who finally deposed Mary that if they proceeded to extremes against their queen, she, Elizabeth, would set herself against them ‘as an example to all posterity’.

But there was a more serious force beneath any personal conflicts, or connections. As the sixteenth century wore on, Europe was coming to be divided along religious lines, and the divisions made harder any sense of an international female community. (Anne Boleyn had lived in three realms before she was 20. Anne’s daughter Elizabeth never set foot outside her own country.) In France the Catholic queen mother Catherine de Medici found herself at odds with the Protestant Queen of Navarre, Jeanne d’Albret. Catherine’s personal leaning was towards a pragmatic moderation in religion. She once shielded the Huguenot Jeanne from the wrath of the papacy. But the French Wars of Religion proved tolerance an impossibility.

When Catherine and Jeanne d’Albret came together in the summer of 1572, they were negotiating a marriage – Catherine’s daughter to Jeanne’s son – which was supposed to ease tensions. (The two took time out from business to go shopping together round the Paris boutiques, disguised as members of the bourgeoisie. You couldn’t get away with that in a movie,) But before the marriage Jeanne was dead, with rumour suggesting Catherine had given her a pair of poisoned gloves. The celebrations of the wedding proved the trigger for the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day which would see many thousands of Protestants slaughtered the length and breadth of France. It was one of those days that really do change the course of history. Perhaps it was that day brought an end to this Age of Queens. Or perhaps that sisterhood came to an end fifteen years later, when, on her cousin Elizabeth’s orders, Mary Queen of Scots died at Fotheringhay.

Could it all have gone differently? Could Elizabeth have mentored Mary? Not really. The problem was that to Catholics, the throne occupied by the bastard Elizabeth belonged by rights to the Scots queen. Mary herself had declared as much . . . and so the end was bloody. All the same, a tradition of female rule as strong as that of the sixteenth century cannot ever really go away.

Perhaps it is the religious dimension which gives the story of Elizabeth and Mary the modern political relevance which helps sell the movie. More likely it is the question of female solidarity. At a time when England and Scotland have once more women at the helm we are seeing around the world a huge upsurge of women in authority. That is surely, in part, these earlier queens’ legacy. In the great Game of Queens, there are still some moves to play.

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