Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart
Linda Porter reviews a book by Anka Muhlstein.
Haus Publishing 408pp £18
ISBN 1 904 95085 1
In this, the final act of her dramatic life, she was supreme. When her black outer garments were removed in preparation for her execution – for she was there to die – her petticoat, bodice and sleeves were revealed to be the tawny colour of dried blood. During her life, she had divided kingdoms and since her death she has divided historians. She was Mary, Queen of Scots, lifelong rival of the woman who sent her to the block: Elizabeth I.
The myths have long been established. Mary was the beautiful, statuesque queen of a violent and unstable country who became, for many, a murderess and adulteress. She was a mother and three times a wife. Elizabeth, unmarried and without an obvious heir (except for Mary herself) was the mercurial, canny, vain but much-loved monarch of England. It is a story that never fails to compel. And it is always interesting to get a different perspective, as in the work of distinguished French historian, Anka Muhlstein, whose double biography is available for the first time in English, in a fine translation by John Brownjohn.
Muhlstein is a former winner of the Prix Goncourt, and has written biographies of Catherine de Medici, Marie de Medici and Anne of Austria. So she is no stranger to tackling the subject of women rulers. Her interest in this book, she says, was the question of marriage as it affected queens regnant in the age of absolute monarchies. This topic has received less consideration than it should, though recent work on Mary Tudor’s marriage has shed new light on this interesting area. And herein lies one of the problems of Muhlstein’s book. She seems to have paid little regard to the latest scholarship and has only looked at a small selection of original sources, none, apparently, in manuscript. In fairness, her book was originally published in 2004, written before publication of John Guy’s Mary Queen of Scots and the entertaining Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens by Jane Dunn. Thus this book appears somewhat dated. But it is, nevertheless, worthy of consideration.
Muhlstein is an excellent writer; the book is effectively structured and easy to read, its characters vividly portrayed. Despite the fact that Mary was brought up and educated in France, and was briefly its queen consort, Muhlstein has no real sympathy for her adopted countrywoman. Nor does she rate Mary’s political skills and judgement. This fails to take full account of the tribal violence and sheer mayhem endemic in mid-sixteenth-century Scotland. One wonders how Elizabeth would have fared if the roles had been reversed. Mary was, in retrospect, unwise to place her hopes on Bothwell after the assassination of her second husband, Lord Darnley, but the conviction that she needed a strongman on her side is easy to understand. Muhlstein sees all this as the passionate desire of a lovesick woman, but the truth is probably more complicated. Clever and commanding as Elizabeth was, Bothwell would probably have raped her, too, if she had been as defenceless as Mary Stuart. But Muhlstein will have none of this. Her Mary is guilty of murder and blind love for a foul-mouthed thug. But nearly all the Scottish nobility were duplicitous and capable of assassination. It was the norm in a dislocated society.
Elizabeth fares better in Muhlstein’s analysis, though she acknowledges that the Virgin Queen’s infatuation with Essex demonstrates that her own judgement was not always sound. Muhlstein believes that it was impossible for a sixteenth-century queen regnant to be married. Elizabeth had recognized this since even before she became queen; she had to be a king as well. But this left serious questions about naming a successor. Elizabeth was content to be the last of the Tudors. Her minister William Cecil made sure that the threat from Mary, who could claim legitimate descent from Margaret Tudor, would be neutralized. But it was Mary Stuart’s son, James VI, who succeeded Elizabeth. He had no memory of his mother and no real interest in preventing her execution. And yet, in marrying, however unwisely, and producing him at all, it might be said that Mary, a woman of immeasurable charm and terrible bad luck, triumphed in the end.
- Linda Porter is the author of Mary Tudor: The First Queen (Portrait, 2007)
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