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Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–1587) - BIOGRAPHY, MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES, CRITICAL RECEPTION

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Six days after her birth, Mary Stuart, the only surviving child of James V and Mary of Guise, became queen of the Scots. At the age of five, she was sent to be raised at the French court as the betrothed of the dauphin. Contemporary reports indicate that, in addition to her exalted royal status as both queen of Scotland and future queen of France, Mary’s considerable charm and polish made her most admired and popular in the most cultivated court in Europe. Her education included both classical languages in addition to English, Italian, and Spanish, although French remained her primary written language. Throughout her education in France, her most enduring literary influence was the court poet, Pierre de Ronsard, to whom she later dedicated poetry.

She married Francis in 1558 and became his queen in the next year upon the death of Henry II. Her reign in France was brief: Francis II died in late 1560, and Mary became a widow, three days before her eighteenth birthday. Returning to her throne in Scotland, Mary faced profound political and religious conflicts, which only intensified after her marriage to the ambitious and insolent Henry, Lord Darnley. After giving birth to their son, James, Mary’s position was seriously destabilized by Darnley’s murder. Compounding her difficulties, Mary brought suspicion of complicity on herself by forming an alliance with the prime suspect, the earl of Bothwell, whom she married in 1567. A month after the wedding, the couple was separated by Bothwell’s defeat at the hands of rival Scotch nobles; Mary was imprisoned and forced to abdicate in favor of her son, James VI. Escaping in 1568, Mary unfortunately chose rather to cross the border to England than to go to her relatives in France. She remained under house arrest in England, gradually becoming more of a political danger to her cousin Queen Elizabeth. After aborted attempts by Mary’s supporters to invade England, assassinate Elizabeth or both, Mary was brought to trial and convicted of conspiracy. Elizabeth eventually overcame her moral qualms and obliquely authorized Mary’s execution in 1587, when the queen of Scots was forty-four.

There are two exhaustively researched and highly regarded biographies of Mary. Lady Antonia Fraser’s detailed account quite self-consciously focuses more upon what the legendary “Queen of Scots must have been like as a person.” In complement, Jenny Wormald’s book, part of a series on monarchs and monarchy, deliberately entitles Mary’s reign as a “failure” and treats “this monarch as other monarchs are treated,…to ask what effect her sex and her personal relationships and actions had on her subjects and kingdom” (18). These modern biographies contrast sharply with an overwhelming amount of lurid and frequently contradictory historiographies and romantic depictions of her life and loves that preoccupied nineteenth- and early twentieth-century biographers.

MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES

The reconciliation of conflicting claims of passion and moral duty pervades Mary’s letters and poems. Her awareness of her royal position, from her happy teenage years in France until the eve of her death, when she wrote to her French relatives, is palpable in her letters. In her poems, her knowledge of duties as a queen and as a Catholic is frequently juxtaposed against her passion and its effects, producing concerns that her true character should be clearly understood. Mary’s anxiety to be read truly in her letters—particularly in her two verse epistles to Elizabeth*—foreshadows the rhetoric of her son James, whose utilization of the opposing tropes of kingly mystery and crystal clarity has been well documented by new historicist critics.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Although Mary’s biographers have established her reputation of artistic intelligence, surprisingly little critical attention has been paid to the queen of Scots’ literary output. The preponderance of research into her letters has mainly perpetuated the arguments about her participation in two criminal conspiracies: first, whether she did—or conversely did not—knowingly participate in Both-well’s plot to murder her second husband and, second, whether she instigated those attempts against Elizabeth that her letters so damningly supported. These arguments are based upon the only complete edition of Mary’s letters in their original French, the seven-volume collection made by Prince Alexander Laban-off in 1844. An English translation of excerpts from that edition was published the following year by William Turnbull.

Although collections of some of Mary’s poems have been published, the first complete edition did not appear until 1992, in which Robin Bell prints the French and Latin originals in parallel columns with an English verse translation. Bell champions Mary as having “a freshness and urgency that rank with the best writers of her day,” analyzing her “fine ear for the rhythms of speech and sound grasp of metre and rhyme” and highlighting Mary’s sophisticated wordplay, so typical of her schoolmaster, Ronsard.

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