I was captivated recently with the new Mary Queen of Scots film epic, and its dramatic portray of perhaps the best known of all Scottish Queens.
Mary's royal roots extend back the the 14th century when a Stuart (or ‘Stewart’ in those days) married the only daughter of the warrior king, Robert the Bruce. Their son, Robert I, was the first of a long-line of Stuart Kings that would end, more or less, with the failed effort by Bonnie Prince Charles’ to restore his father, James III/VIII, to the thrones of England and Scotland.
And as I watched the moving portrayal of Mary by Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, I wondered how much of this incredible tale was true and even more interesting, what was her connection to Prince Charles Edward Stuart? Interesting to me because he is a central character in my Song for a Lost Kingdom novel series. I had never made the connection between Charles and Mary Queen of Scots before, but turns out she is his great, great, great, great grandmother.
Facts vs artistic license
The movie got all the main ‘facts’ right, with certainly stretched them dramatic effect. Historians vehemently claim that Mary and Elizabeth never met face-to-face, but in the movie they do - in a hidden forest cottage. It is one of the most memorable scenes in the film, and one of the best written and acted scenes I can recall in any movie. (You can read or download the screenplay by Beau Willimon here. The scene of the two Queens meeting begins on Page 107.)
The part of Elizabeth is played by Margot Robbie, who sternly cautions Mary “No one can know we meet.” While this scene really, really annoys historical purists who can find no record of such a meeting, it seemed plausible to me that the two women could have met and not shared the details with the men around them.
I guess that is why I am a writer and not an historian.
The entire movie had been a chess game between these two women who at various times during the film refer to each other as ‘sister,’ even though their councillors tell them they are not sisters. (Fact check - Mary was Elizabeth’s first cousin, once removed. Mary’s grandmother Margaret Tudor, was the older sister of King Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father. That made King James V of Scotland, Mary’s father, Elizabeth’s first cousin.)
The lineages and the relationships are central to the story line which centers on Mary’s claim to the throne, and Elizabeth’s worry that her cousin has as much claim as she does. Despite the pleas of Elizabeth’s Privy Councillors, particularly Secretary of State William Cecil, to marry and produce an heir, Elizabeth will do no such thing. During her meeting on the big screen with Mary, Elizabeth explains one reason why she seeks no man to wed: “I am more man than woman now. The throne has made me so.”
Along comes James
By the time this meeting took place, Mary had already given birth to a son, James Charles Stuart, who became King of Scotland at 13 months of age, when Mary was forced to abdicate the Scottish crown due to suspicions around her involvement in the death of her husband Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (another Stuart, and a cousin).
James had a tumultuous upbringing. His father was murdered and his mother imprisoned - all before his first birthday. Those in charge of his upbringing, raised him as a Protestant, which likely helped his case for eventual succession to the English Throne.
His mother must have seemed like a mythical figure to him. He had last seen her when he was barely 10 months old during her brief visit to Stirling Castle. Afterward, she was abducted, raped, forced to marry, imprisoned and eventually beheaded in 1587 after nearly 20 years of captivity.
James, a decedent of both the Stuart and Tudor houses, became King of England following Elizabeth’s death in 1603. The last child of King Henry VIII was dead, and now the great grandson of his sister was proclaimed King in London, just a few hours after Elizabeth quietly passed away after forty-five years on the throne without producing an heir.
James is remembered for his personal union of the Crowns of England and Scotland, as he was the King of both realms (James I / VI respectively). He called himself “King of Great Britain” though this title was not recognized legally, even though he splashed it on proclamations, coins and letters.
James may or may not have been gay, possibly taking two dukes and an earl as lovers. In any case, his wife Anne of Denmark gave him seven children (plus two stillbirths and at least three miscarriages). James was an author, a patron of the arts and sponsored an English translation of the Bible from Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic sources. He directed the translation to reflect the structure and beliefs of the Church of England. The King James Bible has been described as on the on the most important books ever of English culture, with far reaching influence in shaping the English-speaking world.
Charles and Charles
James was King of Scotland for 57 years, and King of England for 22, mostly productive years. He pushed for, but never achieved political union between England and Scotland, but did unite their Crowns
James died a few months before his 59th birthday during a violent attack of dysentery. Henry, the Prince of Wales, and next in line to the throne was regarded as a bright and promising successor. Unfortunately, Henry died of typhoid fever and his younger brother Charles, who strongly believed in the divine right of Kings, became the heir apparent.
Charles, was crowned King of England, Scotland and Ireland in early 1626 almost a year after the death of his father. His Roman Catholic wife, Henrietta Maria, sister of Louis XIII of France, refused to attend such a Protestant religious ceremony.
Charles reign was tumultuous. He prorogued Parliament for eleven years and sought to raise money through a series of unpopular taxes, the granting of monopolies (one for soap) and other ill-advised schemes. Eventually the Crown was bankrupt, even as he waged war against Scotland. He faced trouble in Ireland, and when he entered the House of Commons in January 1642 to arrest MPs he thought guilty of treason, the end was near.
No other English sovereign had ever set foot in Parliament, and the country quickly devolved into a civil war until Charles was arrested, indicted for high treason and like his grandmother, Mary, beheaded. (However unlike Mary, Charles died with one clean strike by an experienced ‘headsman.’ She was not so fortunate.)
A much loved hedonist takes over
Shortly after the execution, Scotland proclaimed Charles’ son, another Charles, King of Great Britain, France and Ireland, provided he accept Presbyterianism throughout Britain and Ireland. Charles II time as a King proved even more difficult than that of his father.
He survived the abolition of the monarchy under Oliver Cromwell, and ruled as King of England though the Great Plague, the Great Fire of London and numerous wars. His wife bore him no live children, but he did acknowledge at least 12 illegitimate children from various women and was celebrated for his liveliness and hedonism, following years of puritanism under the republic led by Cromwell.
On his deathbed in 1685 he converted to Catholicism and, the Crown passed to his brother, James who had converted to the Roman Catholic faith many years earlier. James II (VII in Scotland) would rule for just over three years after the birth of his son James Francis Edward, a Catholic heir to the throne which proved to the tipping point to those who feared a Catholic dynasty.
James was deposed within weeks, and after a short but unsuccessful campaign against his protestant son-in-law and nephew, William of Orange, he fled to France with his infant son and second wife, Mary.
End of the Stuarts dynasty. Or a new hope?
The struggle of the Stuarts to gain and hold the crowns of Scotland and England had left a long and bloody trail behind. James II, exiled in France died in 1701. His son, James Francis Edward was recognized as king by Louis XIV of France. Those that still supported the Stuarts in England and Scotland, dubbed Jacobites, recognized him as James III / VIII.
James Francis Edward was sneered at in England as the 'Old Pretender' after his failed attempts to reclaim the throne in 1708 and again with the short lived invasion of Scotland in 1715. But the Stuarts and their supporters would not let go that easily, and with the birth of James's son, Charles Edward in 1720 a new generation was born that would continue the struggle.
'Bonnie' Prince Charlie would lead another invasion of of Scotland on behalf of his aging father. Here's a quick guide of the Stuart legacy, from Mary to the Charles Edward.
In my next post, I'll look at the how Charles Edward Stuart and Mary, Queen of Scots - both determined Stuarts with an infuriating range of strengths and weaknesses, were not so very different from each other.