On Sunday 7th of August 1548 the five year old Queen of Scotland was smuggled under cloak of darkness from the realm of her ancestors and shipped across the sea toFrance. The immediate and most dangerous reason for the move was the real threat posed by her uncle, the wife-slaughtering king of England, Henry VIII who had invaded Scotland with plans to capture the young monarch, bring her to London and have her marry his own son; thus creating a union under his imperial crown. Mary’s mother had other ideas; and she was equally as conniving, for in Marie de Guise Henry had met his match.
Mary of Guise was born in November 1515 in the small city of Bar-le-Duc, in what was then the independent Duchy of Lorraine (now part of France). Her father was the Duke of Guise, a cadet branch of the ruling House of Lorraine. He had thrown his lot in with the French king, Francis I and served in his military; and being of royal blood he was accorded high privilege at court. It was into this ivory tower of pomp and ceremony that Mary was introduced. In 1534 she was married at the Louvre to Louis, Duke of Longueville; the king’s own cousin. The marriage was short-lived however as the hapless duke died in 1537. Mary was still young and very eligible, and that made her both powerful and a valuable pawn in the inter-dynastic world of European politics. Both France and Lorraine began scouting for a replacement.
Henry VIII had recently become ‘available’ again following his beheading of Anne Boleyn in 1536 and made advances; one that went as far as proposal. Francis was not keen on such a marriage, and neither was Mary. She famously quipped: “I may be a big woman, but I have a very little neck.” However another British king had also re-entered the nuptial market; and one with much closer ties to France – King James V of Scotland.
James V was only 17 months old when he inherited the throne following his father’s disastrous invasion of Henry’s England and subsequent annihilation at the Battle of Flodden in 1513. So, following something of a Stewart tradition, the country once again found itself with a boy king and the bloody machinations of the various factions and regents that orbited him. His father, James IV, had invaded England as part of his treaty obligations to France known as the Auld Alliance, and James V was determined to maintain that alliance as a bulwark against the English. He was a staunch Catholic, and his uncle’s decision to break with Rome had driven a wedge between the two; and true to form the Scots climbed back into bed with the French.
In 1537 James travelled to France and married Francis’ rather sickly daughter Madeleine; thus cementing the agreement. They returned to Scotland, but riddled with tuberculosis the young queen died shortly after arriving. After what must have been a fairly short mourning period, James began to scan the horizons again. Both France and Scotland were keen to maintain the alliance; Francis did not want Mary of Guise to marry Henry VIII, and so a very convenient solution presented itself. In 1538 the two were married and Mary travelled to Edinburgh as queen.
To begin with, following her coronation Mary’s new life seemed to be following the traditional pattern of royal consort – palace decorating and the bearing of children. She first bore two sons, who bizarrely died in infancy on the same day; and eventually a third child, a girl Mary. The cold and wet Scottish court must have seemed a million miles from the gilt and glamour of the French; and the nation too was far from genteel. There were wild, unruly Highlanders in the north, lawless Reivers in the south and a nobility hell-bent on squeezing every ounce of power and money from the crown: and, of course there was the never ending problem of England.
In the unfolding saga of Henry’s schism with Rome, James had resolutely refused to go along or even discus the subject with him; it led to a severe deterioration that in 1542 saw James launch an invasion of the Northwest of England. Like his father’s attempt at Flodden it was a disaster, although not a bloodbath and the king himself was absent from the battle at Solway Moss. James was at Falkland in Fife, while Mary was at Linlithgow about to give birth. On hearing the news first that his army had been crushed by a force a sixth of the size, and then that his wife had given birth to a daughter the king fell into a deep depression. Six days later, only 30 years old he died. Baby Mary was now Queen of Scots.
Scottish politics had always ping-ponged between England and France; and the first regent chosen to rule in Mary’s name was the Earl of Arran, who shifted Scotland back into the English camp. Whether or not he really understood the despotic nature of Henry is unknown, but he certainly misjudged the situation. The English king, perhaps now deranged by the syphilis that would finally kill him, undertook a mission to secure Mary’s future marriage to his son Edward. It was all too late by the time Arran realised the maniac he was dealing with, and his rejection of the advance led to an invasion, known somewhat euphemistically as the ‘Rough Wooing’, when the Tudor king’s army laid waste the south of Scotland. Arran’s position became untenable; and the situation dire. Marie de Guise wasted no time in getting her daughter out of the clutches of the English king and safely over the sea to France.
Arran clung on, but his regency was terminal and in 1554 Mary of Guise herself was appointed in his place – having secured already the help of the French in defending Scotland from the English. With Henry finally dead, she had better relations with the boy king Edward VI, and then following his death with Bloody Mary Tudor. In early 1558 Mary Queen of Scots was married to the Dauphin of France, and a union between the two countries seemed inevitable. Although, the accession of Protestant Elizabeth in England a few months later was an issue, and stored up trouble for later.
Anyone living at the start of 1560 would have believed that Scotland and France were destined for royal and political union – Mary’s husband was now king, and she the consort queen; Elizabeth was isolated, the only great champion of the protestant faith in Europe. The Protestant lords in Scotland, and their leader the firebrand John Knox were scheming behind Mary of Guise’s back, and she had to act the despot herself to maintain order – using increasing numbers of French troops in what looked like an army of occupation. But, 1560 would prove a momentous year in Scottish history.
In June of that year Mary of Guise fell ill and died, and it unleashed a torrent. The Treaty of Edinburgh followed, whereby all French and English troops left Scotland. However, the Protestant lords were in constant communication with Elizabeth and her armies remained on alert. This would become increasing important over that hot summer, when John Knox returned and in August Parliament passed the law outlawing Catholicism and proclaiming Scotland a Protestant nation; a full Reformation. The Scottish Protestants had placed their security in Elizabeth, and it paved the road to Union. At the end of the year the king of France died. Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots was heading home to a nation that did not know her, despised her religion, hated her mother’s intolerance and had placed their faith in a queen of England, whose throne she was now heir to. Dark clouds loomed large on the horizon.
Mary of Guise is often overlooked, living in the shadow of her more famous and tragic daughter; but not since St Margaret in the 11th century had one woman affected the course of Scottish history as she, nor left such an imprint as this intelligent and beguiling individual; finally beaten by untimely deaths and unique circumstance.