Elizabeth I is and always has been a great heroine of mine, not a shadow of a doubt there, but I’ve been trying for thirty years to make up my mind about Mary Queen of Scots, and I still haven’t succeeded. This programme took the view that Mary had a lot of style but not a lot of sense, and that sums it up quite well … but the problem is that we can’t be sure exactly what happened. Were the Casket Letters (actually, I don’t think they mentioned the Casket Letters) genuine, and, the crux of the matter, did Mary go off with Bothwell by design or was she abducted and raped? The historians interviewed in this programme all seemed to believe that she was in league with him, and probably in love with him as well. I’d like to believe that that’s true, but there just isn’t enough evidence to say either way. And that’s probably the question on which it all turns, because it was her alliance with Bothwell which lost her her throne – was she a stupid woman who got herself into a horrendous mess, or was she a tragic victim?
All right, it wasn’t all about Bothwell. She should have had the sense to realise that Darnley was a bad choice. And she could probably have tried to get on better with the Scottish nobles. And, as was pointed out in this programme, both she and Elizabeth were caught up in much wider issues – France, Spain, and, above all, the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Mary became queen as a tiny baby, and then she was sent away to France, and then her first husband died, and then her second husband turned out to be a disaster, and the Scottish nobles were set against her anyway, and people were looking to her as a Catholic alternative to Elizabeth in England… oh, what a mess! And then there was Elizabeth, trying to sort everything out in England after the all the religious conflicts of the previous reign, and with Philip II stirring up trouble, and always having to be conscious that some people didn’t recognise her legitimacy. I don’t think for a minute that she wanted to execute Mary, and I don’t think that she even wanted to imprison her. She was just put in an impossible situation – and Mary made it all umpteen times worse by plotting against her.
Oh, Mary, could you not have tried to get to France?! Not that Catherine de Medici would have wanted you there, but at least you were no threat to the French throne so she wouldn’t have felt obliged to put you in prison. It would all have been so much less difficult that way.
I remember once reading a book in which the author – I forget who it was – said that it’s hard to believe that Elizabeth, had she been in Mary’s position in Scotland, would ever have got herself in such a mess. It’s a good point. Mary, like her grandson Charles I and her great-grandson James II and VII, seems to have been completely lacking in common sense. But hers is a very sad story. And I think it’s sad for Elizabeth, as well, because she was forced, by Mary’s actions, the actions of others and the threat from Spain, into making a decision that she didn’t want to make. And, after all these years, I still can’t decide what I really think about Mary!