Born to Rule / Born to Fight
Ads for the recent film Mary Queen of Scots say Elizabeth was “Born to Rule,” and Mary was “Born to Fight.” Actually, it was the other way around. Sexist mythology has skewed our perception of their story.
First, just the barest history about who they were and what happened. In the 1500s, wars and civil strife between Catholics and Protestants raged all over Europe. Elizabeth was Queen of England, 1558-1603. Mary was her cousin, and next in line for her throne. Mary was queen in Scotland for only a few years, fled to England, where Elizabeth imprisoned her for 19 years, finally having her executed in 1587.
Born to Be Queen
Mary was crowned Queen of Scots when she was six days old. She was brought up at the royal court in France, destined to marry the future King of France. Mary and her mother, Marie de Guise, were both members of the powerful family of French nobles. The de Guise family was also extremely Catholic. They were an important military force for King and Catholic Church during France’s wars of religion, which killed between two and four million people. When her husband became king, they were rulers of both countries, but only for a little over a year. Her husband died. A militant Protestantism was growing rapidly in Scotland, and soon Scottish nobles declared that they no longer wished to be Catholic or under French rules. Mary went to Scotland to try to rule a country that was probably ungovernable.
Born to Struggle
Elizabeth was born a disappointment to her father Henry VIII. He had severed ties with the Catholic Church to marry his mistress Ann Boleyn, who was pregnant with what he hoped was a son, an heir to the throne. The baby turned out to be a worthless girl. Ann was executed when Elizabeth was two, and she lived a life of uncertainty, as the country’s official religion shifted to a more radical Protestantism, then Catholicism, with unrest and executions along the way. She was imprisoned when her sister Mary Tudor was on the throne. If there had been any credible evidence that she was plotting to be queen, she would likely have been executed.
Catholic vs. Protestant
Mary Tudor died, and Elizabeth succeeded her in 1558. She was a living symbol of England’s departure from the Catholic faith, and all of Catholic Europe was arrayed against her. Pope Gregory XIII encouraged a group of English nobles to kill her, saying that “whosoever sends her out of the world with the pious intention of doing service, not only does not sin but gains merit,” and he paid for soldiers to invade Ireland. The most powerful monarch in the world, His Most Catholic Majesty King Philip II of Spain, had pledged to mount an invasion of England to dethrone her. There were numerous plots to assassinate her during her reign, some of them by English subjects, and some of them with Mary’s complicity.
People don’t change their religion just because their government changes. Many English were still Catholic. The loyalty—or possible disloyalty—of Elizabeth’s subjects was a looming unknown during all of Elizabeth’s reign. She and her ministers simply did not know how many were plotting against her. Her extensive spy and enforcement network trapped numerous Catholics—including Jesuit priests specifically recruited to strengthen Catholicism in England—and subjected them to hideous tortures and horrific executions. They were not more sadistic than government officials in other countries—such treatment of religious non-conformists was a fact of political life in most of Europe.
Mary Thought She Was a Martyr
Mary’s devotion to her Catholic faith included her firm conviction that she was the rightful Queen of England, that Elizabeth was a usurper. When she went to the executioner’s block, she famously removed a black over-gown to reveal a gown of red—the color of martyrs—and believed herself to be a martyr to her faith.
What if Mary and her co-plotters had succeeded? Would she have succeeded in making England Catholic again, and doing it peacefully? Unlikely. It would more likely have been Scotland on a larger scale, with civil war, horrific bloodshed, and lasting bitterness. Instead, under Elizabeth, England emerged from a period of chaos economically strong and aware of its worldwide possibilities. It’s also very unlikely that there would have been the flowering of English-language literature that there was under Elizabeth, who was proud of being “mere English.” Mary barely spoke the language, although she spoke several others.
This wasn’t about the rivalry of two women. It was about the future of England.
Still, historians and fiction writers peddle several persistent sexist myths.
Sexist Myth #1: Elizabeth was jealous of Mary because Mary was prettier
Was Mary beautiful? Take a look at the portraits above: Mary’s is the one on the right. It may not be perfectly from life, but it’s more likely to be flattering than not. She looks bright and interesting, perhaps, but this is not a strikingly beautiful face. Why, then, did so many people seem to describe her as beautiful? It’s more likely that she was impressive rather than beautiful.
Mary was tall. She stood about 5’11” in a time when most men were about 5’6” She looked queenly. Dressed in white and mounted on a horse, she probably looked like a goddess. She also had a great advantage over Elizabeth in the PR department because she disappeared from public view when she was 25 and imprisoned in England. Elizabeth aged in public view until she died at age 69. And, yes, she had smallpox when she was 30, and nearly died. But that’s no reason to make the face of a magnificent actress, Margo Robbie, look like a silly-putty relief of the craters of the moon, as they did in the recent film Mary Queen of Scots.
Do historians and playwrights bring up such speculation about male rulers? For example, does anyone think that Philip II of Spain had William the Silent of Orange assassinated because William was prettier? I thought not.
Sexist Myth #2: Elizabeth Wasn’t Really a Woman
Most of this one comes from the fact that Elizabeth refused to marry. There was even speculation during her lifetime that she was really a man, a boy who had been swapped out for the daughter who was born. How bizarre is that? If she had been male, even one who was switched at birth, her path to the throne and almost everything about her life would have been easier.
Still, it is a question biographers mulled over for centuries, overlooking, I think, one salient fact: We don’t marry in the abstract. We marry individual human beings. There was no one she could have married and have a reasonable chance of keeping the throne. Any foreigner would have been of another religion, either Catholic or some unacceptable brand of Protestant. Any subject would have been part of one faction or another within her kingdom. Any man she married would have wanted to be king, and many subjects would have supported him just because he was male. She wanted to keep running the country.
And why not? She was good at it. Elizabeth inherited a divided and fractious country, impoverished by war and with a debased currency, ruled for 45 years, and left it much more prosperous and, if not united, at least with a strong sense of national identity. It was better for the country if she stayed single. So she did.
Sexist Myth #3: Mary Was Impulsive and Immoral
For a long time, fiction and even English-language histories indicated that Mary had her second husband Lord Darnley killed because she was passionately in love with James Hepburn, Lord Bothwell, whom she married within a few days. Antonia Fraser’s excellent biography of Mary shows that while Bothwell was probably in on the plot to kill Darnley, he abducted Mary and probably forced her to marry him.
Still, the disapproval lingered. There was a brief effort made in the late 19th century to have Mary made a saint, but it met with disapproval from Scottish nobles, one of whom said there could be nothing that would justify her marrying her husband’s murderer. So, as historian Michael T.R.B. Turnbull noted, “whether for reasons of political sensitivity or simply the absence of miracles, it remained unresolved and was allowed to slip quietly into oblivion.” When in 1970 the Catholic Church canonized 40 Catholics killed for their faith in the Tudor and Stuart periods, Mary was not among them.
In the 20th century, though, the myth of Mary the Trollop got nudged out by Mary the Real Woman. Dramatists simply couldn’t resist having the two women meet face to face, even though they never once met in real life. In Maxwell Anderson’s play Mary of Scotland, Mary says ,“I have been woman. Loved as a woman loves, lost as a woman loses.” (Can’t you just hear Katharine Hepburn saying that? She did in the movie.) And, she points out, she has had a child. Which brings us to the next sexist myth.
Sexist Myth #4: Mary Won Because She Had a Child
Mary bore a baby named James before she left Scotland. He became King of the Scots when he was 18 months old, when she abdicated and left him in the hands of regents. James later became King of England, and all subsequent rulers of the United Kingdom ever since have been Mary’s descendants.
The trouble for having this be a victory for Mary is that James was a staunch Scottish Protestant. Their descendants have all been Church of England, except for one that got deposed and kicked out. The British for centuries had restrictive legislation making Catholics second-class citizens. It was 2013 before it was even legal for a Catholic to ascend to the throne. This was hardly a triumph for her faith.
Myth #5: Philip II Sent the Armada to Avenge Mary
A year after Mary was executed, Philip II sent a huge fleet of warships, known as the Spanish Armada, toward England. The plan was to invade the country and put Elizabeth off the throne. He had been promising the Pope for years that he was going to do it. It has been a historical and fictional fancy that he wanted to avenge the brave and beautiful Queen Mary. In fact, helping her out was likely one of the last things he wanted to do. Mary was essentially French, with powerful relatives and strong connections to France, Philip’s greatest European adversary. He had no desire to put a French queen on the throne of England.
Elizabeth knew that, and it’s why she stalled for years on executing Mary. She stalled even though her advisors, and including her bishops, were clamoring for Mary’s head. Philip was counting on English Catholics rising up to support an invasion, and, for all Elizabeth knew, they’d do it.
The world never got a chance to find out. The planning for the invasion was so inept that the fleet was badly damaged before it ever got to England. Storms, bad weather, and bad luck mostly took care of the rest. The fate of the Armada is viewed as a major naval disaster and a classic example of inept planning. Ironically, the “defeat” of the Armada often cited as one of Elizabeth’s greatest triumphs.
A Last Word
Sometimes, though, fiction is a great means of gaining insight. Mary Queen of Scots, Saoirse Ronan as Mary sneers to Elizabeth, “I will not be scolded by an inferior.” They never met, remember. It’s unlikely she ever said it. But still it’s a great summary of her attitude. Since Mary regarded herself as the rightful queen, she saw Elizabeth as inferior to her.
She was wrong. She was fatally wrong. You could say she was dead wrong.
The Movies Still Love the Myth
Hollywood has a recurring fascination with this two queens. Some classic films have featured great stars: Katharine Hepburn in Mary of Scotland (1936), Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth and Vanessa Redgrave in Mary Queen of Scots (1971), and of course Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie in the 2018 version. The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) starred Bette Davis as Elizabeth. It ended with a ridiculous scene of her screaming at the Earl of Essex that she’d do anything for him, he could have her throne. She just wanted him to apologize.
Horsefeathers. I’ve seen the death warrant in the British Museum. When she signed that, she was furious.
Some of the Sources
My favorite biography of Mary is Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots. I don’t have a favorite biography of Elizabeth. There are more biographies of her than any other Tudor, and many are very good. University College professor Helen Hackett gave a list of her favorite books about Elizabeth , including some translations made by Elizabeth herself. None is a biography. I enjoyed Elizabeth I: CEO by historian and management analyst Alan Axelrod.
Garrett Mattingly’s monograph The Armada is 60 years old this year, but I think it’s still the best book on the subject. Philip II was a capable ruler in many ways, but his enterprise of the Armada is generally was ineptly planned and unfortunately executed. One historian wrote, “No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.” Historian Barbara Tuchman, in her book The March of Folly, cited him as an exemplar of the wooden-headedness that causes great blunders.
Historical accounts through the years have carried plenty of myths, especially about women rulers. The last empress of China is a prominent example.