02 February, 2007

Forced abdication: Mary Queen of Scots

Alianore recently mentioned Edward II’s abdication or deposition, commenting that the accounts are confused and it’s not clear whether Edward abdicated or was deposed.

It might be very hard to tell the difference between abdication under duress and deposition, even with full records. How much pressure turns one into the other? I mentioned Mary Queen of Scots as an example, and promised to look up the account of her abdication.

Mary surrendered to the Scottish lords after the non-battle of Carberry Hill in June 1567, and they promptly imprisoned her in a castle on an island in the middle of Lochleven. The English ambassador Throckmorton was not allowed to visit her and feared for her life, believing that his arrival in Scotland in mid-July was the only thing that had prevented the Scots lords from murdering her. His letters to London survive and form the only record of Mary’s imprisonment on Lochleven except the account dictated by Mary to her secretary Nau many years later when she was a prisoner in England. Because Throckmorton was not allowed to see her he cannot have known what was happening on the island, but the fact that he, an outsider, believed her life to be in danger gives credence to her claim that she was threatened with violence. She was at least two and more likely three months pregnant, and some time between 18 and 24 July she miscarried twins.

Here’s the account of her abdication as related in Antonia Fraser’s biography*:

“It was while the queen was lying in bed after her miscarriage, by her own account ‘in a state of great weakness’ having lost a great deal of blood, and scarcely able to move, that Lindsay came to her and told her that he had been instructed to make her sign certain letters for the resignation of her crown [.......] Despite her fears the queen was outraged at the monstrousness of the request [....] but Lindsay’s rough words on the subject, that she had better sign, for if she did not, she would simply compel them to cut her throat, however unwilling they might be to do so, only convinced her further of her own personal danger.
[....]
from the actual signing of the letters of resignation there was no escape. Mary told Nau later that Throckmorton had managed to smuggle her a note in the scabbard of a sword, telling her to sign to save her own life, as something so clearly signed under duress could never afterward be held against her.”
On the strength of the signed letters of resignation, Mary’s thirteen-month-old son was crowned James VI on 29 July.

Mary rescinded her abdication as soon as she escaped from Lochleven in May 1568, and it was still being used as a bargaining counter in 1580/1581. This suggests to me that Mary did not think she had abdicated but saw herself as having been (temporarily) deposed by force or the threat of force. The diplomatic bargaining with her son James VI through a French emissary in 1581 suggests that at least some of the political power-brokers in Europe saw it the same way. Certainly there seems little doubt that Mary signed the abdication either against her will or while she was too ill to make the decision, and felt herself free to rescind it as soon as she escaped. Something similar may have happened in the case of Edward II – except that his escape was quickly followed by recapture and death.

Antonia Fraser's biography of Mary is well worth reading, incidentally. It covers Mary's life from birth to death in exhaustive detail, provides footnotes and citations so that anyone so inclined can check the author's sources and conclusions, and although the author clearly has considerable admiration and affection for her subject (indeed, it might be hard to write a biography without these) she is by no means blind to Mary's weaknesses. There's the odd passage of mildly purple (mauve?) prose, but for the most part the tone is clear and highly readable. Mary comes over as glamorous, charming, attractive, emotional, dramatic and maddening, very much a real person.

*Mary, Queen of Scots, by Antonia Fraser. Mandarin, 1989, ISBN 0-7493-0108-2

26 comments:

Susan Higginbotham said...

I've only skimmed the Fraser book--until recently my only copy of it was an old mass-market paperback that was very difficult to read. Now that I've found a much more readable version of it, I intend to give it a harder look. It does look excellent, sympathetic yet also clear-eyed.

Bernita said...

Yes, I've read it.
Worth it, though personally I have little use for Mary.

Carla said...

Susan - I think mine might be the mass-market paperback edition, a very thick book with tiny typeface. I still read the whole thing cover-to-cover, and it's firmly on my keeper shelf. The index is excellent, detailed enough to find specific information fast and easily, which is a good thing in such a long book. Definitely worth reading, I think, whatever one's opinion on Mary.

Bernita - I think I'd be a little less harsh on Mary and say she was born into a job she was hopelessly unsuited for. She might have got on much better in a modern constitutional monarchy, where she could have graced the covers of celebrity magazines and trailed a cloud of glamour and paparazzi in her wake.

Alianore said...

Thanks for that, Carla - very interesting. There's a lot in the story that reminds me of Edward II, not least your comment that Mary was "born into a job she was hopelessly unsuited for." With Edward, I'd say it was abdication under duress, but the records are extremely unclear. Natalie Fryde says "our sources reflect only what the government [i.e., Isabella and Mortimer] allowed to be known".

Carla said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carla said...

Good evidence against a hereditary monarchy! One wonders why anyone thought it was a good idea in the first place given the number of hopeless incumbents through history (maybe, as Churchill said about democracy, because it was the worst system except for all the others).

In the case of Mary's abdication there's only her word for it, though supported by Throckmorton's anxiety and the previous behaviour of some of the Scots lords. It's always possible that the story she told to Nau put her in the best possible light, either deliberately or by the editing process of memory. When you get these dramatic moments when history turns on the actions of a handful of people in a closed room, only those present can ever really know what happened, and they may well have good reasons for wanting to be economical with the truth. Which makes life hard for the poor historian trying to reconstruct it later :-)

Alianore said...

Hard for the historian, but good news for a writer of fiction, I suppose! :)

Gabriele C. said...

Hehe, that's true. It is a lot easier to write about Imperial Roman times than about the 12th century. :)

Carla said...

Hmmm - is it easier to write in poorly documented times? Doesn't it cut both ways? On the one hand a story's less likely to be stymied by an ugly fact, but on the other you don't have the treasure trove of real events that are far weirder than anything you'd ever dare to make up.

Rick said...

Took me till now to get Blogger to re-recognize me!

Good evidence against a hereditary monarchy! One wonders why anyone thought it was a good idea in the first place given the number of hopeless incumbents through history (maybe, as Churchill said about democracy, because it was the worst system except for all the others).

I think that is it. Think of the huge shadow the Wars of the Roses cast in England, even though there was only about one year of actual campaigning during 30 years. Without a king and an assured succession, the alternative seemed to be endless usurpations or baronial warfare. Even those who'd read classical literature with its emphasis on republics thought they were viable only for city states, not large agrarian countries.

I have a very dog-eared pback copy of the Frazer book - excellent.

And I have a curious sort of love-hate relationship with Mary Queen of Scots. I have a pretty low opinion of her, especially in contrast to cousin Elizabeth I ... but my Catherine is in temperament very much like a Mary who is suited to the job she was born into, and not much at all like Elizabeth. (For example, Catherine is quite impetuous, though she - usually - has a good sense of when to impet and when not to.)

Gabriele C. said...

Carla, it depends. If you write about historical persons as main characters, lots of intriguing facts may make for an interesting book, but if you invent characters of the upper class, it's tricky to get them integrated into the canon of existing upper class characters. I meet with tons of problems whenever I take up Kings and Rebels and try to make that plot meet history. It's not fully as bad for Alastair O'Duibhne because the 12th century Scottish west coast isn't exactly the best documented place, but Roderic de Sinclaire has to fit in the Anglonorman world and there's no free fief or family left. Fe. his uncle is the Sire of Falaise in my book, but I'm dang sure there is a historical Sire de Falaise (or baron, or whatever) in 1164-74 and his name is not Guillaume de Falaise. ;)

Gabriele C. said...

Forgot to add:

On the other side, the lists of officers in the Roman legions are never complete, so it's no problem to sneak a few tribunes and centurios or even the odd legate in.

Hazel-rah said...

It's said to be a more straightforward exercise to portray the Roman army as it was in the early Empire, because this is the period we know most about in many respects. 'Tribune' and 'centurion' are fairly well understood roles and immediately evoke certain characteristics, but the ranks of the later Roman army are very hard to make sense of. Not surprising, I guess. A lot can happen in a hundred years.
Sorry this has nothing to do with Mary, of course, I'm still thinking about the previous post.

Gabriele C. said...

Hazel, tell me. I deal with the early Imperial Roman Army in A Land Unconquered (Varus battle) and Caledonia Defiant (Britain, ~120 AD) and the late Roman army in Endangered Frontiers, my Visigoth novel (408-415 AD). The latter is so confusing.

Carla said...

Rick - Blogger had hiccups a few times over the weekend, but thanks for persevering! I have a not dissimilar view of Mary - some aspects of her character are very appealing, like her courage and her resourcefulness in managing two escapes, and others make me want to slap some sense into her, like her choice of husbands and seeming to want the trappings of royalty without the hard graft that goes with it (especially in 16th-C Scotland, which might well have been ungovernable by anybody). A version of Mary with a bit more common sense might make an attractive heroine!

Gabriele - Yes, that's a real problem, and one of the great attractions of invented history is that it avoids it completely! It's a lot easier if the fictional characters are sufficiently low down the social scale that there are gaps in the records to fit them in, like your Roman army officers, or if there are sufficiently few records that what you've got is mostly gap.

Hazel-rah - don't worry about being off-topic, most subjects lead on to other interesting byways. Anyway, your comment ties in with Gabriele's observation about Roman army records and the gaps in recorded history. One problem when a label has a firm image attached to it - like 'Roman legion' - is that the image becomes immune to facts. If someone tried to make a film, say, showing authentic late Roman army units nobody would recognise them as being 'Roman' and the film would probably get all sorts of stick. It's a particular problem with anything Roman, because the time gap from, say, the early Empire of Augustus to, say, the late Western Empire of Stilicho and Honorius is the same as the gap between Elizabeth I and the present, which is quite enough time for the culture and society to change almost out of all recognition, but because the label 'Roman Empire' stays the same the amount of change tends to be under-recognised.

Gabriele C. said...

Yep, and they all wear lorica segmentata. :D

Carla,
I'm seriously considering to introduce some werewolves into Kings and Rebels to escape the historical correctness. I wrote that book without ever researching anything, just for fun, while I do most of the research prior to writing with my Roman books. Though it doesn't really help, I do a lot of research for my selkie story as well. Maybe a totally alternate world where Scotland is Caledonia and France Capetania and the kings are named Vilahalm and Enrico would help. :)

Btw, Celede has posted about the Batavian rebellion in my comments.

Carla said...

Gabriele - I'd be all in favour of an alternate world, a la Guy Gavriel Kay. I like those. I'm a bit lukewarm on the werewolves, though :-)
I'll go and look up the Batavian rebellion in your comments!

Rick said...

Blogger did it to me again!

Carla - especially in 16th-C Scotland, which might well have been ungovernable by anybody

James VI actually did rather well at it - I've seen him called the most successful king Scotland ever had. And according to Frazer, Mary was actually off to a rather promising start (and at a time when Elizabeth looked pretty shaky, draping herself over Sweet Robin and all). Power is always about illusion, and charm and courage are pretty good tools for producing it.

Gabriele - Maybe a totally alternate world where Scotland is Caledonia and France Capetania and the kings are named Vilahalm and Enrico would help. :)

Works for me! You still have to do research, essentially to create the flavor of an age, but it frees you from dreadful problems like trying to find land without a lord, or whether a relatively minor bridge had been built by some given date.

Carla said...

Rick - in a way, James VI is the exception that proves the rule, no? He's remembered as an exceptionally able king, which perhaps indicates that many of the others weren't. My guess is that a century-plus of royal minorities destabilised the Scots monarchy to such an extent that it needed someone really exceptional to make it work. Mary's promising start didn't last, partly because she wasn't adept enough at politicking to play off the lords against each other when they started trying it on, and partly, perhaps, because her two disastrous marriages cost her much of her glamorous image.

elena maria vidal said...

Hi, this is a great discussion. Antonia Fraser's bio of Mary is quite good, although I would also recommend John Guy's more scholarly, less romantic approach. Guy demonstrates how Mary was an able politician, good at playing people against each other, a skill she had learned at the French court. She overcame many potential disasters and crises in her reign. If she had been victorious at Carberry Hill, she may have come through everything. Everything that happened to Mary at the time of her "abdication" needs to be seen in the light of Darnley's murder, her rape by Bothwell, pregnancy and stillbirth of twins, one thing right after another amid all the political and religious turmoil. Lady Fraser claims that Bothwell was drugging her, as well, which would not surprise me. So she was really in the middle of a nervous breakdown when they forced her to abdicate. The Stuarts seemed to have a knack for getting themselves into tragic circumstances.

Gabriele C. said...

Is research going towards rape these days? The Stefan Zweig biography makes it forced seduction at best - Bothwell als alpha hero, lol, and Mary a sexually active woman. But it's not the newest book about her.

Carla said...

Elena - thanks for the recommendation of John Guy's biography. Yes, Mary's life had completely fallen apart in the year or so leading up to Carberry Hill and the after-effects of a miscarriage could only have made that worse. I wonder if Lindsay knew that perfectly well when he made his threat? Langside may have been another occasion when history could have gone the other way. If Mary's troops had won that encounter, or maybe if she had tried to regroup in friendly territory in the west rather than fleeng to England, she might have been able to force Moray to terms and might have retained her position for longer, perhaps for the rest of her life. It's fascinating to speculate on what might have been. But as you say the Stuarts did have a talent for drama - which is probably what gives them their enduring fascination!

Gabriele - Antonia Fraser is quite convinced it was rape, based on contemporary accounts. She also gives the swept-off-her-feet-by-the-alpha-male theory short shrift. Only Mary and Bothwell would ever have known the truth, though, and I don't know what the current scholarly consensus is (if there is such a thing...).

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, Carla, her life was falling apart. And Fraser makes a good case for the rape of Mary by Bothwell. John Guy says that she was definitely kidnapped by Bothwell against her will but that she did not cry out when raped so she must have "enjoyed it." That is the only thing I find offensive in his book, since we all have heard of many cases in which women were attacked and raped and were afraid to tell anyone. Especially in those days, a woman was ruined if she was raped; she was considered unmarriageable and disgraced. She had to marry anyone who would take her, or become a nun (if she was Catholic.) Being raped meant that Mary HAD to marry Bothwell. Even John Guy said that after she married him she was completely unhappy but she thought that at least he would be a strong noble who could protect her....

Carla said...

Elena - what a facile comment! I hope the rest of his biography is a bit more subtle. It's interesting that he seems to have the opposite interpretation from Antonia Fraser (he thinks the abduction was forced and the rape wasn't; Antonia Fraser suggests that Mary may have gone along with Bothwell's abduction more or less willingly, but definitely didn't acquiesce in the rape). They both agree that Mary may well have hoped he would be a strong protector, and that seems very plausible to me. Mary was in such a corner that it must have been very appealing to turn to someone else for help. One of the novels about Mary shows this very well, when Bothwell says to Mary, "Tell me what is wrong and I will make it right," (I think it's Fatal Majesty by Reay Tannahill, but don't quote me).
They also both agree that the marriage was a disaster; if Mary had hoped Bothwell would be able to look after her, she was sadly let down. Bothwell couldn't negotiate Scots politics either; his approach to problems seems to have been to hit them until they go away, which didn't work very well.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, Carla,I agree. As we said, Mary was really in the most vulnerable state that a woman can be, physically and psychologically, and her enemies took advantage of it when they captured her.

lightspeedchick said...

Help me out here. I've just finished Fraser's book and the rape is the main thing that doesn't sit right with me. If she was indeed raped, and then married the rapist for purely political reasons, why would she have any affection towards Bothwell? Why would she try to convince the world of this affection? Yet it seems that she did. She didn't resist the abduction, didn't cry out during the rape, and when she saw him last on the battlefield, they embraced for all the world to see. That doesn't seem to be the behavior of a woman who's trying to convince the world she married Bothwell purely politically. In fact, it would lend credence to the theory that she was Bothwell's lover before Darnley's death...

Another thing that made me read the biography with a critical eye was the contrasting language in which Elizabeth's and Mary's behavior are described. The former is constantly infuriated, enraged and indecisive, while Mary is graceful and level-headed, even as she's making horrible matrimonial choices. Unfortunately, though the book is highly entertaining, its biased tone is making me have to trawl the net for additional supporting evidence of Fraser's views, for I feel I cannot trust them on their own.