There’s Something about Mary, Queen of Scots

By Susan Spano
Los Angeles Times

EDINBURGH, Scotland ~ Standing in the rain atop Calton Hill, I could see the icy blue Firth of Forth. When the wind tried to grab my coat, I spun around and found the tapestry of Edinburgh at my feet.

Built up solidly now between city and bay, it isn’t the town I dreamed of as a girl. But when I looked through my mind’s eye, I could see the capital of the wild, green kingdom that 17-year-old Mary Stuart inherited from her father, King James V of Scotland.

Everyone who comes here, it seems, knows about the hapless Scottish queen whose execution for treason in 1587 at the behest of her cousin Elizabeth I of England has inspired books, plays, movies and continuing debate. When Elizabeth died childless in 1603, Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland, was summoned to the English throne, uniting two incessantly warring realms into the nation we now know as Britain.

Once upon a time, I read every book about Mary in the library, most of them fictionalized accounts of her life that filled in the blanks left by history with sword fights and stolen kisses. To me, she was a brave and beautiful 16th-century Princess Diana, ruled by her heart, ensnarled in events she couldn’t control.

Historians have been equally fascinated by Mary, although their assessments have varied dramatically over time. In the immediate aftermath of her death, fellow Catholics thought of her as a martyr, while tracts appeared in Protestant Scotland that called her a traitor and libertine.

More recent considerations, including Antonia Fraser’s 1969 biography, have sought to balance the quotients of scoundrel and saint, without finally determining what kind of woman she was. So I came to Scotland in August, trusting in travel to resolve the mystery or, at least, to help me remember why she once starred in my dreams.

By the time Mary landed at Leith just north of Edinburgh in 1561, she had been through more sorrows and joys than most people know in a lifetime. Her father, James V, died just days after she was born, lamenting that he had not been able to give the kingdom a male heir.

Crowned queen of Scotland as a wee babe, she had enough royal blood to sit on the throne of England as well (were Henry VIII not already occupying it). She was stalked by English armies and then taken to France for safekeeping; she eventually married Francis, the dauphin, who ascended the French throne a year later. Together, they ruled France for 13 months before he died of an ear infection in 1560, leaving Mary a young widow with one crown left – a crown she had to return to Scotland to claim.

That is why I started my pilgrimage looking toward Leith, wondering how Mary, reared in the cultivated French court, felt when she set foot in Scotland. By all accounts, it was a cold, wet, poor, perpetually war-torn country on the fringe of European civilization, governed in her absence by a group of lords who, unlike devoutly Catholic Mary, had embraced the Protestant Reformation.

According to Brantome, a French courtier who accompanied Mary to Scotland, the horses provided to take her party from Leith to the Palace of Holyroodhouse  were pitiful nags compared with the steeds she had ridden in France. Mary was an accomplished equestrian, statuesque, her mantle flying behind her. She spoke perfect French but hadn’t forgotten the language of her people, which endeared her to commoners who lined the roads hoping for a glimpse of the goddess.

On landing, she immediately would have spied dour, gray Edinburgh Castle, but the royal party headed instead to Holyroodhouse on the eastern side of town, beneath the volcanic crag known as Arthur’s Seat. Built around a medieval abbey, Holyroodhouse was Scotland’s finest royal residence, turreted and towered in the manner of a Loire Valley chateau.

Today, the graceful palace faces the Scottish Parliament, a contemporary nightmare of a building opened in 2004. I pretended it wasn’t there. Instead, I went to the palace gate and bought a ticket, which includes an audio guide. The forecourt was the first stop, where Queen Elizabeth II approved the 1998 Act of Devolution at Holyroodhouse that gave Scotland home rule for the first time in almost 300 years.

Sovereignty was also the question when Mary first saw Holyroodhouse Palace. In the political chess game played by France and England, Scotland, and, more specifically, Mary were the prizes.

When the Scots annulled a treaty betrothing her to Henry VIII’s son, Edward, the English king sent troops across the border into battles known as the Rough Wooing. Her marriage to the French dauphin made the English apoplectic, and she was an incessant nettle in the flesh of Henry’s daughter by Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I, whom Catholics considered an illegitimately born usurper to the throne.

Mary settled into apartments in the northwestern tower at Holyroodhouse, the backdrop for many of the most dramatic events in her life. Shortly after she arrived, she sparred over theology with John Knox in her audience chamber. The Protestant Moses of 16th-century Scotland and founder of the Presbyterian faith, he was a virulent misogynist who likened Mary to Nero.

But after their meeting, he gave the young queen a back-handed compliment: “If there be not in her a proud mind, a crafty wit and an indurate heart against God and His truth, my judgment faileth me.”

Knox’s house is just down the Royal Mile from Holyroodhouse, as is his church, St. Giles’ Cathedral, where he still stands in sculpted stone ranting against “the monstrous regiment of women.”

Alas, Mary didn’t disappoint him, although she got off to a promising start in Scotland by laboring to reconcile her incessantly feuding nobles and vowing to respect the Protestant status quo as long as she could practice her own Catholic faith in private.

But four years after she arrived, she made the first of many missteps by marrying her handsome cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, in the now-ruined Holyroodhouse chapel. Mary, it seems, had fallen in love and meant to indulge her passion.

But her choice was disastrous. By all accounts, Darnley was a wastrel who drank to excess, contracted syphilis and plotted the slaying of Mary’s secretary, Italian musician David Rizzio.

On March 9, 1566, Mary and a few attendants, including Rizzio, were dining in a small room adjoining her bedchamber at Holyroodhouse when Darnley burst into the room, followed by a clutch of armed noblemen who tore Rizzio from Mary’s arms. Pregnant at the time, she watched in horror as they stabbed him repeatedly.

The chamber where Rizzio died is now a gallery with treasures including a small French portrait of Mary from 1559 and a sample of the Scottish queen’s baby-fine needlework.

For sheer historical jolt, nothing tops Holyroodhouse, although the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street has a copy of the marble sarcophagus beneath which she was buried in London’s Westminster Abbey.

The atmospheric ruins of Linlithgow Palace, Mary’s birthplace, and Stirling Castle, where the infant queen was crowned in 1543, are an easy drive west of the capital. A small museum devoted to Mary is in the market town of Jedburgh, about 50 miles southeast of the Scottish capital, and pilgrims can find no better place for a picnic than Lochleven Castle on an island in a lake about 26 miles north of Edinburgh, where rebel lords imprisoned her in 1567.

But tucked into some of her erstwhile kingdom’s most beguiling corners are other less touristy Queen of Scots sites, most of them stately homes she visited, including Traquair House in the Tweed River Valley about an hour’s drive south of Edinburgh. The white gabled house with a row of chimneys on its steeply pitched roof dates from the 12th century and has been in the same Scottish Catholic noble family since 1491. Catherine Maxwell Stuart, the 21st Lady of Traquair, still lives there with her family, except in the high season, when she makes the house available to bed-and-breakfast guests.

I got the lovely Rose Room on the second floor overlooking a maze. Just down the hall is the chamber where Mary stayed in 1566, furnished with family heirlooms including the cradle used for the queen’s new baby, James, born shortly after Rizzio’s death. Overnight guests can wander through the museum, libraries, chapel and salons as if they were their own.

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It’s difficult to think of unpleasantness at Traquair House, but at the time of their visit, Mary and Darnley were hopelessly alienated because of Rizzio’s killing, although she tried to keep up a felicitous front. One day, she excused herself from the hunt on the pretext that she might be pregnant again. Drunk as usual, Darnley protested, “Ought we not work a mare well when she is in foal?”

At Traquair House, I wandered along sodden paths by the Tweed, hoping Mary had found consolation in the green meadows and gorse-covered moors that enfold the valley. I also elicited opinions from Lady Maxwell Stuart, whose sympathy lies solidly with the queen, and from Ronald Morrison, a member of the Marie Stuart Society, a group of British history devotees.

“It’s fair to say that Mary was wronged, but she made mistakes,” he told me over lunch at the Traquair House cafe. Among them he cited her choice in husbands, her pretensions to the English crown and whatever role she may have played in Darnley’s demise.

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Darnley was killed less than a year after Rizzio at Kirk o’ Field house in Edinburgh, where he was recovering from syphilis while the queen was lodged at Holyroodhouse. Historians agree that a group of plotters, led by swashbuckling James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, set off an explosion at Kirk o’ Field intended to rid Scotland of Darnley, although his body was found in the garden. He had been strangled.

The rest of the facts are murky. Did Mary know of the plot or even participate in it? By that time had she fallen in love with Bothwell, whom she wed three months later. Or did the ambitious earl rape and strong-arm her into marriage, as some historians claim?

She and Bothwell fought for their lives against the Scottish lords who rallied against them. With a rebel army at their heels, they fled to Borthwick Castle, on a hill overlooking the River Esk about 15 miles south of Edinburgh.

Owned by an ally of Bothwell, stout, twin-towered Borthwick Castle, built in 1430, is now a hotel with 10 baronial chambers linked by spiral staircases hard enough to climb in my old sneakers, let alone in Mary’s heavy skirts and dainty satin heels.

I had dinner next to a set of armor in the castle’s vaulted Great Hall, finished with a tot of single malt Scotch from one of the bottles lining the window through which, dressed as a boy, Mary escaped besieging rebels. From there she rode through Curry Woods to nearby Crichton  Castle, now an evocative ruin where sparrows nest, into battle with insurgents and, when that was lost, across the border to England, where she hoped for help from her cousin Elizabeth.

She never again saw Bothwell, who fled to Denmark. She spent the next 18 years and nine months a captive in England, where she was framed for treason by William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s trusted secretary of state. Elizabeth signed Mary’s 1587 death warrant, the queen’s hands tied by law even though she may have wanted to spare Mary – another question left hanging.

After dinner, I retired to my room, which is where the queen had stayed 400 years earlier. For a Mary fan, there could be no greater bliss than watching darkness steal into the slit-windowed nooks beneath the gables and reading in the massive red canopied bed.

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