Saturday, May 17, 2014

A Page out of History - Double Queens, Part III: Mary Stuart

At one point in their history, many countries, and most of Europe, were ruled by a king.  With, as an accessory, a queen.
     But on at least three occasions, France has had what I like to call Double Queens.  One woman was Queen of France twice.  The other two, after reigning over France, became the queen of another country.
     I may have overlooked someone - and if so, I apologize - but let’s concentrate of these three venerable ladies: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Anne of Brittany and Mary Stuart.
     And let’s take them in chronological order.

Mary Stuart (1542-87)

Queen of France - King François II (1559-60)
Queen of Scotland - in her own right (1543-67)

Mary Stuart & François II
If ever there were a tragic figure for many people, it would be Mary Stuart, mostly because of her execution by order of her own cousin, Elizabeth I, Queen of England.  But that wasn’t the only sad thing about the life of the Scottish queen.  Like Eleanor, she was imprisoned.  Like Anne, she was shuttled back and forth like a prize.
     Born near Edinburgh to King James V, Mary was also the great-niece of Henry VIII and a Tudor on her grandmother’s side.  That alone was to poison her life.  Add to it the fact that her father died when she was only six days old and she became Queen of the Scots in title, although the country was ruled by regents until she became an adult.
     In the meantime, what to do with Mary?  Her mother was French and thought - not totally without reason - that the Scots were a rowdy bunch compared to her well-mannered compatriots back home.  If she had to stick around cold, dark, gloomy Scotland to look after Mary’s royal interests and ultimately act as regent, at least her daughter could escape and go learn some of those Gallic manners so befitting of a queen.  It would also get her out of reach of the English king, who wanted her for his son in order to swallow up Scotland.  (Is this sounding familiar yet?  Remember Anne de Bretagne?)  Just a baby and already a pawn in the power game.

So at the age of 5, for all those reasons, Mary was sent off to France, England’s hereditary enemy.  She arrived at Amboise Castle in the Loire Valley with an entourage of young Scots, probably not only to wait on her but also to remind her where she came from.  The French king’s plan was to marry her off to his eldest son, François, so that he could swallow up Scotland instead of Henry.  Not much concern was wasted on what Mary wanted.
     In the French court, everyone loved the vivacious girl.  Everyone except the queen, grumpy old Catherine de Medici, who didn’t like anyone very much except her own children, and even then not her daughter.  Mary could sing, write poetry, play the lute, hunt to the hounds and speak six different languages.  But her couple was mismatched from the start.  She was tall and beautiful; François was painfully short and he stuttered.  Still, Mary kept her side of the bargain and married him, thereby making him King of Scotland.  She was 15 and he was all of 14.  Mary also signed a secret paper, bequeathing Scotland to the French crown if she had no male heir... and also signing over her claim to England, which must have made the French king ecstatic.  It was something France had been after for centuries, ever since Eleanor of Aquitaine, and even before.
     Everything was happy during her childhood and youth in France.  And then the clouds massed on the horizon.  Mary’s mother died when Mary was 18.  Only a few months later, her husband died of an ear infection gone bad.  There was no longer a place for Mary at the castle and she sailed back to Scotland grief-stricken nine months later.
     From then on, things went downhill.  Protestants were pitted against Catholics in her homeland.  Queen Elizabeth across the border increasingly distrusted the intentions of this beautiful cousin. Mary wed Lord Darnley, and then he was murdered.  The only bright spot was her son, James, who eventually became King of Scotland and, after childless Elizabeth’s death, King of England.   Mary wed yet again, this time to someone the Scots hated.  They threw her in prison, where she miscarried twins, and then she was forced to abdicate.  She managed to escape and fled over the border, not realizing how much Elizabeth feared her as a rival.  After two decades in England, squabbling and plotting, Mary was taken prisoner and executed.  Elizabeth claimed she had never given that order.
   Even in her last moments, Mary was tragic.  It took the executioner three painful strokes to chop her head off.  When he held it up by the hair to show the crowd, her wig slipped off and her head fell to the ground, revealing short grey hair.  Mary was only 45, but life had aged her prematurely.  All the promise of her sunny youth in France was long gone, and even her request to be buried there was refused by Elizabeth.  Instead she was buried secretly far from Scotland, but later exhumed and reburied in Westminster Abbey by her son James, once he inherited the throne from her cousin and enemy.
     A sadder life than Mary’s would be hard to imagine.  Sometimes being a Double Queen is just double the heartache.

For Eleanor of Aquitaine, see Sandy's France, April 27, 2014
For Anne de Bretagne, see Sandy's France, May 10, 2014

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