Amanda’s wonderful post about Mary Boleyn got me thinking about one of my other favorite 16th century Marys: Marie de Guise. Poor Marie has also suffered at the hands of the film industry. She was grossly maligned by the movie “Elizabeth”. Here’s the real story.
Considered as a bride by Henry VIII of England after the death of his third wife, Jane Seymour, Marie reputedly repudiated Henry with the comment that although she might be a tall woman, she had a very small neck. (The actual story behind Marie’s refusal of Henry’s offer is more complicated, but far less fun). At the urging of King Francis, Marie accepted Henry’s neighbor to the north, King James V of Scotland.
James was no prize, either as a husband or as a king. In 1542, the Scottish army was routed by an invading English force at Solway Moss while James dallied with a mistress nearby, leaving the English to rampage unchecked throughout the Lowlands. As James took to his bed with shame, news was brought to him that the Queen had been delivered of a daughter. According to contemporary chroniclers, the superstitious king recalled an old prophecy foretelling the fall of the Stuart monarchy with a female heir. “It came with a lass, it shall go with a lass,” sighed James V, turned his face to the wall and died. He left his Queen with a six day old baby, a marauding English army, and a group of squabbling nobles all fighting for ascendancy, several claiming the right to the throne themselves.
In the south, Henry VIII immediately proclaimed himself Suzereign of Scotland, claiming right to overlordship by virtue of his relation as great-uncle to the infant Mary Queen of Scots. All that stood between these formidable men and the Scots throne was one frail infant—and her mother.
Marie de Guise could easily have cut and run, going home to the cultured life of the court in France. Her son from her first marriage, the young Duc de Longueville, begged her to return, sending bits of string to show her how much he had grown and reiterating how very much he missed her. Instead, Marie de Guise plunged into the tangled politics of her adoptive country, fighting to keep her infant daughter safe and to protect the country that was her child’s legacy.
Young Mary’s existence was a precarious one. Henry VIII pressed to have the child betrothed to his own young son, Edward, Prince of Wales, propounding various schemes to make off with the tiny queen by either stealth or force. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that young Mary would not long survive an English marriage; Henry made clear that should the baby marry his son and then just happen to die of natural causes, he considered the throne of Scotland to be his. Nor was the baby safe at home in Scotland. The Earl of Arran, the regent, pressed his own claim to the throne, spreading rumors that the infant Mary was a frail child, unlikely to survive. In a desperate move to protect her child, Marie de Guise summoned the English envoy, Sir Ralph Sadler, to attend on her at Linlithgow, stripping the baby bare to prove what good health she was in. Marie had gone on the international record to establish that if her baby died, it wouldn’t be by natural causes.
Trying to keep her child safe from both Scots nobles and the English king, Marie forged alliances first with Cardinal Beaton and the so-called French party (Scots lords who favored an alliance with France), then with rival lords of the so-called English party (Scots lords who favored—you guessed it—an alliance with England), using the latter to make her first bid for the Regency in 1544 by staging a rival parliament where the lords of the English faction pledged that they did “bind and oblige us, and promise by the faiths in our bodies, and have given our oaths upon, that we shall maintain and defend the Queen’s Grace our Sovereign Lady’s mother in… the authority of all things.” Stirring words, no? It was a grand gesture, but a short-lived one. The Earl of Arran quashed Marie’s bid for power. It was only ten years later, in 1554, that Marie was finally able to wrest away the Regency from the Earl of Arran. She served as regent from 1554 until her death in 1560.
These days, if Marie de Guise is remembered for anything at all, it is for her decision to send the child Queen Mary out of Scotland, to be raised at the court of Henry II of France. But she did a great deal more than that. During her time as Regent, Marie repaired Scotland’s financial base, working to improve the mining industry, pushing improvements in agriculture, and putting forward legislation for everything from a uniform system of weights and measures to statutes forbidding the peeling off of bark from fruit trees. She was a learned woman, a patron of the arts, and a shrewd politician. And, against all odds, she kept her daughter alive. Thanks to Marie de Guise, the princess who inherited the throne of Scotland at six days old did survive to claim her throne. (Even if Marie’s daughter Mary did rather botch it—despite all the glamour and the romance, I’m not a Mary, Queen of Scots fan).
The sixteenth century was a glorious time for reigning queens.
Do you have a favorite queen? My two are admittedly rather recherché. There’s Marie de Guise and then there’s Caroline of Ansbach, Queen Consort of George II, about whom I’ll have to write a post some other day….