Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Mary Queen of Scots - the Movie: Shame on you, John Guy. I read your book.

When I heard John Guy was going to consult on the script for the 2018 version of the life of Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots, I was a pre-determined fan.  I should have known better when I heard the movie included a scene portraying a meeting of the Queen of Scots and her cousin Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England, an event that never happened.  I considered an argument offered by the filmmakers that the scene could be interpreted by historians as a dream sequence and in any case, what transpired between the royal cousins could be excused because the views and sentiments expressed at the mythical meeting were consistent with their letters and public declarations.  Nevertheless,  a generation who learns its history at the cinema will be left with an impression of an encounter that is at best a fantasy, and at its worst, inaccurate.
When Elizabeth removes her wig in the presence of a rival queen whose legendary beauty was a thorn in the hand that held the scepter, I wanted to scream aloud.

The fictional meeting of the queens is not the movie's only sin nor the fatal one: I am only one among the several people who know their history who applaud the cinematography, the casting and the costuming, but are left wondering if the movie somehow missed the point. Others who saw it felt the scene portrayed Marie as the stronger character,  which was never the case. The queens came from the same bloodline but as very different women. Marie was a divine right monarch and upon her father's death did not need a husband to hold a throne given her by God, but during a childhood spent in France, her country was ruled by others in her stead. By the fall of her mother's regency, the Reformation had altered the political thought of those left behind in Scotland, bringing changes Marie never entirely grasped. However, upon Henry VII's death, Elizabeth, grew to womanhood third in line to the English throne at best and disqualified by bastardy in the eyes of many.  Her survival and ascendancy required an entirely different skill set, one necessarily sensitive to the Winds of Change.  The movie attributes more progressive thought to the Queen of Scots than it's co-screenwriter Guy reports in his excellent history.  During the early months of her personal rule, she accepted the guidance of her brother James Stewart, known to history as the Earl of Moray, and her foreign secretary, Sir William Maitland.  Their influence kept her ardent Catholicism in check, and allowed her to achieve a strained but working relationship with Scotland's firebrand Reformer, John Knox, but not for long.
(David Tennant, John Knox in the Queen of Scots film.)

The Mary Queen of Scots screenplay is not the 'True Life of Mary Stuart' of John Guy's book.  In a sense, the title of the movie is itself a misnomer.  Those who have read Guy's stellar biography of Marie Stuart and followed his lectures will have come away with two strong messages to help us understand the tragedy of the iconic queen: 1) The youthful queen who returned to her birthplace to begin her six years of personal rule was a French girl; and 2) her marriage to her English cousin Henry Stuart, commonly known as Lord Darnley was her downfall.   The movie makes neither of these points apparent, and thus, the Marie Stuart in the movie, however superbly acted by Saoirse Ronan, is not the queen in Guy's  history, The True Life of Mary Stuart, QUEEN OF SCOTS, first published in the UK as ''My Heart is My Own' - The Life of Mary Queen of Scots.  I concede the commercial necessity of making the cinematic Mary Stuart a construct fashioned to please an audience, a premise with which I have no quarrel. Focusing on her relationship with her regal English cousin makes good sense if the objective is box office appeal. There is something almost magical about the Tudors. However, I do take issue with a script that needlessly distorts or omits portions of a history every bit as dynamic and intriguing as the fictionalization that displaces it.

Marie Stuart did not wish to return to Scotland when her husband Francois II died.

I should have sensed problems from the first scene, which is not at all what happened when the Queen of Scots returned to Scotland to occupy the throne. The truth was far more humiliating to the Queen than merely being cast from a landing craft into kneedeep water at the tideline. After surviving a brutal North Sea Crossing, the Queen of Scots was faced by a colossal snub that would have played every bit as well as the fiction scene of Ms. Ronan on hands and knees in murky water.

Marie Stuart was more than the French Dowager. In her own right, from the time she was six days old she was an anointed queen. As such, she enjoyed a position at the French court that even the consort Catherine de Medici could not claim, and indeed, she rubbed it in. Adolescent Marie Stuart was said to have called the French king Henry II's consort 'the Italian shopkeeper's daughter.' Also, her display of the English Arms at the French Court while Dauphiness and Consort left no question she considered Elizabeth a bastard, an inferior and a usurper. All of modern Europe knew she claimed the English throne, a claim she never abandoned although at one point after her imprisonment in England, she agreed to do so if Elizabeth named her son James VI her heir.  When her sickly husband Francis II died, Marie did not decide to return to Scotland until her European marriage prospects failed to materialize.  Her first choice and that of her powerful French family, the Guises, was Don Carlos, the eldest child, and heir to the King of Spain.  The fact he was known to be mentally unstable and likely homicidal did not matter.  He had the proper pedigree. Contrast this with the disaster of Elizabeth's sister Queen Mary Tudor, a lesson of which her younger sister Elizabeth took heed. However, the King's Mother, Catherine d' Medici, as Regent for her son, Charles IX, jinxed the marriage because it threatened the position of Catherine and the late King Henry's daughter Elisabeth, who had married Phillip in 1560.  The Queen of Scots deemed all other candidates inferior, including those advanced by her uncles, the Guise. With a suitable European marriage thwarted, the Queen on Scots looked favorably on a return to Scotland because she had run short of choices. She may have considered her return a temporary measure until she could place one of her Guise uncles' probably Renee, as Regent. Catherine must have been delighted to send the Queen of Scots and several of her Guise male relatives on their way to Scotland.  And since Marie was Dowager Queen of France, she embarked on the journey with considerable pomp and circumstance and a sizeable French fleet. The question was the route.

Elizabeth and her chief minister William Cecil were not unmindful of the threat of having a committed Catholic on the neighboring Scottish crown. When negotiations between  Cecil on behalf of the English Queen, and William Maitland of Lethington on behalf of Marie Stuart, failed, dashing hopes of smoothing over issues caused by the Queen of Scots publically flaunting her claim to Elizabeth's throne, the English retaliated. Elizabeth refused to grant safe conduct to the Scottish queen's party, which would have permitted her to sail from Calais to Dover.

By the time Elizabeth's temper cooled, and the passports were issues, a formidable French fleet carrying the Queen of Scots and her household had embarked on the perilous route to Leith.  But, Marie Stuart left France with trepidation and a heavy heart, with expectations of a warm welcome from Elizabeth and the English dashed.  And the disappointment was not over yet..

The Queen of Scots was not dumped in knee-deep water on a deserted beach as if she were a homeless refugee as depicted in the movie. She arrived at Leith in full regalia aboard a  French flagship commanded by Nicholas Villegagnon, the same notable admiral who had piloted the ship carrying her from Dumbarton thirteen years earlier. Nevertheless, it had not been an easy crossing. They had lost the ship carrying their horses and another bearing their household accouterments in a North Sea storm. The survivors had fallen behind the flagship, which entered the harbor alone. Admiral Villegagnon ordered his flagship to fire its cannons to announce the queen's arrival, but no one of consequence came. Her principal Scottish ministers were at Saint Giles listening to a sermon, no doubt delivered by John  Knox or his protegee John Craig, both committed anti-Marians.  The crestfallen queen rested in a house commandeered by her attendants while the Four Maries found someone who would provide horses for the journey to Edinburgh.
The Lamb House. Leith

After a brief rest at what is known as The Lamb House in Leith, with evening approaching, the queen left for Holyrood Palace on a borrowed horse and simple saddle. And thus, the first hours of her personal rule of Scotland began with an insult, not a mishap.

What Happened to Scotland in this Story?

The fast and loose historical treatment of Scottish history does not end with the queen's arrival, although many of the oversights and errors are sins of omission rather than significant deviations from the truth.  For example, the Queen's arrival at Holyrood Palace was not the first meeting between Marie Stuart and her half-brother James Stewart.  He had traveled to Scotland with the five year old queen in 1548 and had attended her wedding at Notre Dame de Paris in April 1558, as a member of the Scottish delegation. Later when his half-sister's husband Francois II died, and Marie had despaired of husband shopping, he spent five days in closed conference with his sister with an aim to persuade her to return to Scotland on terms agreeable to the Protestant lairds rather than sailing to Glasgow where the rival Catholic faction lead by John Leslie and the Northern Catholic promised their support and a Restoration of Catholicism.  By omitting the competition between the factions, the scriptwriters write Scotland and the Scottish Reformation out of the story.

While some writers suggest Marie was anxious to please her brother and not that committed to her Catholic faith, her decision was likely made to avoid escalating hostilities between the religious factions on the brink of civil war until her position could be secured.  It also bought her time to establish better relations with Elizabeth and the Protestant government in England. This required a level of statecraft requiring her to balance the power of her Reformation government and the Northern Catholic Earls.

James Stewart, Earl of Moray

The political quagmire in which she found herself is reasonably accurate. She could not have achieved any degree of success without the support of her powerful brother James Stewart and  Secretary William Maitland of Lethington, who Elizabeth I dubbed 'the flower of the wit of Scotland and who had the best chance of affecting a meeting of the queens.

Marie Stuart had a good sense of theatre, and she made her self visible when her subjects serenaded her on the evening of her arrival, even though she was thoroughly exhausted. The movie accurately displays her personal charm and her popularity with the people. The Scottish court was probably not as austere as portrayed, thanks to Marie's mother Marie d' Guise, a member of the powerful House of Guise and the Queen's father James V, who had improved his southern castles to please his French-born wives. Holyrood was not at all like a chateau on the Loire, nor was it as opulent as the convent of Saint Pierre les Dames du Rheims where she spent much of her time after her husband Francois's death but it was not a carved out bat cave as portrayed in the movie.

The confrontation between the Queen and John Knox is one of many that occurred soon after her arrival, and it is reasonably well done. Knox was one of the few people who could bring Marie to tears in a public setting. It is reasonable to believe the conduct in the queen's apartment was far too relaxed to please the Calvinist lords and clergy.  The authenticity of the frolicking is documented. The scene between Marie and Knox is a reasonable portrayal of what transpired between them, enhanced by the strength of the actors. David Tenant's Knox is a good match to Ronan's Queen of Scots, but both are cinematic constructs.  Knox was indeed a rabble-rouser, but he did trim his beard and behaved with some restraint when it behooved him. As for other members of the Scottish powers of the time, I find the lumping together of bitter enemies such as William Maitland and his arch enemy James Douglas, Earl of Morton, an offense to most Scots.

Switching mid-scene from the Scottish to the English court may seem awkward to the general audience, but allows for parallel glimpses of Elizabeth and Marie and is easy for the experienced Marian historian to follow. The influence of William Cecil on Elizabeth's actions and in engineering the execution of her cousin is underplayed but present.  Elizabeth and Leicester provide the only viable romance in the story.  The killing of Davie Rizzio places the wrong people present but does display Darnley's complicity and Marie's shock and horror. But from that point to the death of the Queen of Scots many the most poignant pieces of 16th Century Scottish history are omitted in favor of dwelling upon dialogue between principals that is unnecessary to the plot. The details of Darnley's murder,  two military confrontations between the Marians and the Rebels who base their legitimacy on the pretext of avenging the infant prince James, and ensuing Douglas Wars are excised to allow screen time for a fabricated meeting of the queens. The political climate and factionalism that resulted in Marie Stuart's death require at least some attention to the circumstances of her flight from Scotland after two military confrontations --the first in 1567 at Carberry Hill, and the second, at the Battle of Langside following nearly a year of incarceration and a miscarriage at Lochleven Castle. Unfortunately, omitting them leaves the viewer with little understanding of Marie's abdication in the late summer of 1567 or her flight to England after  Langside.  Her abrupt fall from favor of her people after Darnley's death, the controversy over the marriage to Bothwell and the dynamic of their relationship are all left out of the story, when in many respects, they are the story.  Also, we are left knowing that Darnley was a drunken rake, which is accurate, but the impression that Marie despaired of her marriage because of his possible sexual relationship with Davie Rizzio, perverts the story.  The queen who once sought to wed the mentally deranged and homicidal Don Carlos would not have dumped Darnley for a homosexual encounter with her favorite.  She dumped him because he was conspiring with her enemies with an eye to seizing the Scottish throne in a coup.  The Scots would have overlooked Darnley's faults if he had been malleable and controllable.  What finished Darnley was his intriguing with the militant Catholic factions in Europe when Marie refused to convey a grant of the crown matrimonial to her increasingly dissipated and probably syphilitic spouse. What killed him was his thirst for power and his unsuitability to wield it. If truth be told, Bothwell did not fare much better.   For those who controlled the infant king, Marie as a widow was easier to manipulate, at least until Bothwell made his move.  But the film wastes no time on Bothwell or explaining who he was, nor does it allude to the many months of her imprisonment at Loch Leven while the Queen reflected on her fall from grace. After fleeing the battle at Langside without a definitive defeat, Marie Stuart refused to risk another imprisonment like the one she had escaped. She believed  Elizabeth would place their positions s sister monarchs above their politics, a decision that spelled her doom.

Minor Issues:
For acting, the movie gets a five-star review based on the performances of actors Saoirse Ronan  and Margot Robbie as the queens, with strong support from Guy Pearce as Elizabeth's minister William Cecil, David Tennant as a sufficiently odious Knox, and Ishmael Cruz Cordova as Davie Rizzio, the queen's lutenist and correspondence secretary. The casting has raised an issue in some quarters as to how far filmmakers should go to achieve ethnic diversity. I applaud the concept when it is done without adversely affecting historical authenticity.  The major complaint seems to focus on the casting of Adrian Lester, a Jamaican, as ambassador to Scotland, Sir Thomas Randolph, who historically had an affair with Marie Beaton, one of the Scottish Queen's Four Maries. Both queens were offended and worked together to solve the problem.  Elizabeth had him recalled and sent to Russia to the court of Ivan the Terrible. Beaton was quickly married off to one of Marie Stuart's lesser courtiers. Sir Thomas Randolph did not return to Scotland until James VI began his personal rule in the mid-1570s.  I do not see the distinguished Shakespearean actor Lester's presence in the film as an issue.  Audiences are aware they are attending a display of Twenty-First Century cinematic art.


A viewer with a keen eye to what it is and is not, and able to sympathize with the filmmakers acknowledgment of ethnic diversity and political correctness by making Elizabeth Tudor's ambassador to Scotland a man of color, and framing the story as a feminist dialogue between two powerful women, neither of whom were feminists, and finally, by realizing that the principal force at play in the plot--Reformation Scotland--is omitted altogether, then by all means enjoy the scenery and the costuming and the stagecraft. The movie is well worth the price of the ticket and the time.

Visitors to my post who are familiar with my studies of the life and times of the Queen of Scots and who know my interest in all things associated with Marie Stuart have asked some penetrating questions about the film.  One is whether Marie Stuart was progressive and tolerant of religions other than her own, as depicted in the film.  My answer has to be, no.  Her last words, as translated from the letter she wrote to her brother in law, Henri III, King of France, paints her as being strong in her Catholic Faith and in the legitimacy of her claim to the English throne. Her actions in her later years indicate she was willing to endorse a regicide to achieve a Restoration of Catholicism.

However tolerant she chose to be during her years of personal rule and during her almost twenty years of imprisonment in England, the Queen of Scots still prayed for a  Catholic Restoration in Scotland, if possible, with herself holding the scepter, and if that could not be affected, with it in the hand of James. If her acts sometimes masked that purpose, I believe it to be more a matter of timing than one of tolerance. She had, however, learned some temperance of her Stuart impetuousness as she aged, and was careful not to endorse lost causes.  Early in her life, she watched the slaughter of Huguenots at Amboise with reluctance. During her own personal rule, she witnessed the execution of the heir to the Huntly earldom and the desecration of his father George Gordon, Earl of Huntly's body after the battle of Corriche Burn, a striking down of one of the principal Northern Catholic Earls.  In that battle, she rode beside her protestant champions, her brother James Stewart, soon to be declared Earl of Moray, and a longtime knight-at-arms  Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange.  That did not make her a champion of Protestantism or a warrior queen, and she lost nights of sleep because of it.  She was compelled to mask her Catholicism in dealing with Elizabeth at first, but when their meeting  never happened, and  Elizabeth sought an English marriage for her defiant cousin--one that would guarantee an English succession to the Scottish throne, Marie Stuart continued to hope for the Catholic powers of Europe to come to her rescue before the English prevailed. These were not fly-by-night episodes of wishful thinking.  Her nephew Francis Stewart, 5th Earl of Bothwell and the exiled Northern Catholic Earls vigorously campaigned for such an outcome in France, Spain and the Hapsburg Netherlands.

What Marie did not appreciate, and she was not alone in her miscalculation, was the atmosphere of change rising on the Continent, especially in what is now knows as the EightyYears War.  The volatile developments in France during the Religious Wars and the rise of independence in the Low Countries made an invasion in Britain less likely with every passing year. Whether it was frustration with her son's politics, her continuing restricted freedoms or natural aging, the Queen's discretion failed her with the Babington Plot and unfounded hints of support from Hapsburg Spain. In essence, she deceived herself in looking to France and Spain for a military solution.

A second question I have been asked concerns her relationship with Darnley and whether Elizabeth was behind his trip to Scotland.   Evidence on that score supports the idea that the Queen was infatuated with Darnley when she maneuvered a meeting when she was visiting Weymms Castle in Fifeshire. They had probably met earlier in France when Francois II died, but it was a state visit of no consequence.  At the time, Marie was husband shopping, and the English had suggested Leicester, who Marie found beneath her station.  Darnley, however, was another great-grandchild of Henry VII, a bonafide Tudor, son of Lady Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, Marie's Aunt.  As a couple, they would have a double claim to the English throne.  Add to that the fact he was taller than she, well-mannered when it suited him, and an elegant dancer.
No matter how much Elizabeth might have savored placing a rake like Darnley in her rival's bedchamber, it is disingenuous to think she would have hatched a plot against her own throne.  I do, however, suspect Margaret Douglas was delighted to send her mollycoddled son Henry to Scotland to join his father. Elizabeth probably had her own suspicions about her Cousin Margaret's motives and sent her to the Tower. By the time of the marriage, Marie was viewing Darley somewhat more objectively but proceeded with the wedding.  When we recall her earlier hopes of marriage to insane Don Carlos because of his pedigree, it is not hard to imagine the Queen of Scots going forward with a marriage to a rakish man with a claim to the English throne equal to her own.  Guy's book and lectures pinpoint that decision as her downfall, which is not quite so evident in the movie.  In essence, there was more to Marie Stuart's destruction than her rivalry with her cousin. The tragedy was her reliance on Elizabeth on saving her crown.

Those who have seen the film often ask is if the Queen of Scots considered Elizabeth her inferior, as indicated in the dialog of their non-existent meeting.  The answer, of course, is yes. She was born to a station Elizabeth had struggled to attain and fought to keep. In Marie Stuart's mind, only God could create a Queen. and Marie Stuart's God was Catholic. In the long view, it is hard to determine which of the queens won. Marie Stuart has the larger tomb, but  Elizabeth has an age named in her honor, and the many European monarchs who have a Stuart in their ancestry also have a Tudor in the shadows.  The most notable among them are buried in the Henry VII Chapel.

In closing, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and will no doubt acquire a copy when it becomes available. I grew up wishing I had been Elizabeth and only marginally familiar with the Queen of Scots. That all changed when I read Antonia Fraser's book, but it was John Guy who gave me the Marie Stuart of my novels. I am a member of the Marie Stuart Society and venerate her memory, but I do not consider her a warrior queen. Nor do I not consider myself a militant feminist, but a vocal feminist when it comes to social causes.  To me, the contrast between the queens in Marie Stuart's story highlights the feminist dilemma presented to competent women in a world controlled by men. Perhaps neither of the cousins were truly free.  Perhaps that is the true story of the Queen of Scots, and if so, it gives the film its modern significance as a story which remains a work-in-progress.

RECOMMENDATION:  See the movie for its elegance, but also read John Guy's book.  I make the same suggestion to Professor Guy, not entirely in jest. I am thoroughly enjoying his 2016 biography ELIZABETH The Later Years, and he remains my favorite historian.