Mary, Queen of Scots, towered over her contemporaries in more ways than one. Not only was she a female monarch in an era dominated by men, she was also physically imposing, standing nearly six feet tall.
Her height emphasized Mary’s seemingly innate queenship: Enthroned as Scotland’s ruler at just six days old, she spent her formative years at the French court, where she was raised alongside future husband Francis II. Wed to the dauphin in April 1558, 16-year-old Mary—already so renowned for her beauty that she was deemed “la plus parfaite,” or the most perfect—ascended to the French throne the following July, officially asserting her influence beyond her home country to the European continent.
As Mary donned dual crowns, the new English queen, her cousin Elizabeth Tudor, consolidated power on the other side of the Channel. Unlike her Scottish counterpart, whose position as the only legitimate child of James V cemented her royal status, Elizabeth followed a protracted path to the throne. Bastardized following the 1536 execution of her mother, Anne Boleyn, she spent her childhood at the mercy of the changing whims of her father, Henry VIII. Upon his death in 1547, she was named third in the line of succession, eligible to rule only in the unlikely event that her siblings, Edward VI and Mary I, died without heirs. Which is precisely what happened.
From the beginning of her reign, Elizabeth was keenly aware of her tenuous hold on the crown. As a Protestant, she faced threats from England’s Catholic faction, which favored a rival claim to the throne—that of Mary, the Catholic Queen of Scots—over hers. In the eyes of the Catholic Church, Elizabeth was the illegitimate product of an unlawful marriage, while Mary, the paternal granddaughter of Henry VIII’s older sister Margaret, was the rightful English heir.
The denouement of Mary and Elizabeth’s decades-long power struggle is easily recalled by even the most casual of observers: On February 8, 1587, the deposed Scottish queen knelt at an execution block, uttered a string of final prayers, and stretched out her arms to assent to the fall of the headsman’s axe. Three strikes later, the executioner severed Mary’s head from her body, at which point he held up his bloody prize and shouted, “God save the queen.” For now, at least, Elizabeth had emerged victorious.
It’s unsurprising that the tale of these two queens resonates with audiences some 400 years after the main players lived. As biographer Antonia Fraser explains, Mary’s story is one of “murder, sex, pathos, religion and unsuitable lovers.” Add in the Scottish queen’s rivalry with Elizabeth, as well as her untimely end, and she transforms into the archetypal tragic heroine.
To date, acting luminaries from Katharine Hepburn to Bette Davis, Cate Blanchett and Vanessa Redgrave have graced the silver screen with their interpretations of Mary and Elizabeth (though despite these women’s collective talent, none of the adaptations have much historical merit, instead relying on romanticized relationships, salacious wrongdoings and suspect timelines to keep audiences in thrall). Now, first-time director Josie Rourke hopes to offer a modern twist on the tale with her new Mary Queen of Scots biopic, which finds Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie stepping into the shoes of the legendary queens. Robbie provides the foil to Ronan’s Mary, donning a prosthetic nose and clown-like layers of white makeup to resemble a smallpox-scarred Elizabeth.
All too frequently, representations of Mary and Elizabeth reduce the queens to oversimplified stereotypes. As John Guy writes in Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart (which serves as the source text for Rourke’s film), Mary is alternately envisioned as the innocent victim of men’s political machinations and a fatally flawed femme fatale who “ruled from the heart and not the head.” Kristen Post Walton, a professor at Salisbury University and the author of Catholic Queen, Protestant Patriarchy: Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Politics of Gender and Religion, argues that dramatizations of Mary’s life tend to downplay her agency and treat her life like a “soap opera.” Meanwhile, Elizabeth is often viewed through a romanticized lens that draws on hindsight to discount the displeasure many of her subjects felt toward their queen, particularly during the later stages of her reign.
Mary Queen of Scots picks up in 1561 with the eponymous queen’s return to her native country. Widowed following the unexpected death of her first husband, France’s Francis II, she left her home of 13 years for the unknown entity of Scotland, which had been plagued by factionalism and religious discontent in her absence. (Francis’ younger brother, Charles IX, became king of France at just 10 years old with his mother, Catherine de Medici, acting as regent.)
Mary was a Catholic queen in a largely Protestant state, but she formed compromises that enabled her to maintain authority without infringing on the practice of either religion. As she settled into her new role—although crowned queen of Scotland in infancy, she spent much of her early reign in France, leaving first her mother, Mary of Guise, and then her half-brother James, Earl of Moray, to act as regent on her behalf—she sought to strengthen relations with her southern neighbor, Elizabeth. The Tudor queen pressured Mary to ratify the 1560 Treaty of Edinburgh, which would’ve prevented her from making any claim to the English throne, but she refused, instead appealing to Elizabeth as queens “in one isle, of one language, the nearest kinswomen that each other had.”
To Elizabeth, such familial ties were of little value. Given her precarious hold on the throne and the subsequent paranoia that plagued her reign, she had little motivation to name a successor who could threaten her own safety. Mary’s blood claim was worrying enough, but acknowledging it by naming her as the heir presumptive would leave Elizabeth vulnerable to coups organized by England’s Catholic faction. This fear-driven logic even extended to the queen’s potential offspring: As she once told Mary’s advisor William Maitland, “Princes cannot like their own children. Think you that I could love my own winding-sheet?”
Despite these concerns, Elizabeth certainly considered the possibility of naming Mary her heir. The pair exchanged regular correspondence, trading warm sentiments and discussing the possibility of meeting face-to-face. But the two never actually met in person, a fact some historians have drawn on in their critique of the upcoming film, which depicts Mary and Elizabeth conducting a clandestine conversation in a barn.
According to Janet Dickinson of Oxford University, any in-person encounter between the Scottish and English queens would’ve raised the question of precedence, forcing Elizabeth to declare whether Mary was her heir or not. At the same time, Post Walton says, the fact that the cousins never stood face-to-face precludes the possibility of the intensely personal dynamic often projected onto them; after all, it’s difficult to maintain strong feelings about someone known only through letters and intermediaries. Instead, it’s more likely the queens’ attitudes toward each other were dictated largely by changing circumstance.
Although she was famously dubbed the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth only embraced this chaste persona during the later years of her reign. At the height of her power, she juggled proposals from foreign rulers and subjects alike, always prevaricating rather than revealing the true nature of her intentions. In doing so, the English queen avoided falling under a man’s dominion—and maintained the possibility of a marriage treaty as a bargaining chip. At the same time, she prevented herself from producing an heir, effectively ending the Tudor dynasty after just three generations.
Mary married a total of three times. As she told Elizabeth’s ambassador soon before her July 1565 wedding to Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, “not to marry, you know it cannot be for me.” Darnley, Mary’s first cousin through her paternal grandmother, proved to be a highly unsuitable match, displaying a greed for power that culminated in his orchestration of the March 9, 1566, murder of the queen’s secretary, David Rizzio. Relations between Mary and Elizabeth had soured following the Scottish queen’s union with Darnley, which the English queen viewed as a threat to her throne. But by February 1567, tensions had thawed enough for Mary to name Elizabeth “protector” of her infant son, the future James VI of Scotland and I of England. Then, news of another killing broke. This time, the victim was Darnley himself.
Three months after Darnley’s death, Mary wed the man who’d been accused of—and acquitted of in a legally suspect trial—his murder. James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, was a “vainglorious, rash and hazardous young man,” according to ambassador Nicholas Throckmorton. He had a violent temper and, despite his differences from Darnley, shared the deceased king’s proclivity for power. Regardless of whether sexual attraction, love or faith in Bothwell as her protector against the feuding Scottish lords guided Mary’s decision, her alignment with him cemented her downfall.
In the summer of 1567, the increasingly unpopular queen was imprisoned and forced to abdicate in favor of her son. Bothwell fled to Denmark, where he died in captivity 11 years later.
“She had been queen for all but the first six days of her life,” John Guy writes in Queen of Scots, “[but] apart from a few short but intoxicating weeks in the following year, the rest of her life would be spent in captivity.”
The brief brush with freedom Guy refers to took place in May 1568, when Mary escaped and rallied supporters for a final battle. Defeated once and for all, the deposed queen fled to England, expecting her “sister queen” to offer a warm welcome and perhaps even help her regain the Scottish throne. Instead, Elizabeth placed Mary—an anointed monarch over whom she had no real jurisdiction—under de facto house arrest, consigning her to 18 years of imprisonment under what can only be described as legally grey circumstances.
Around 8 a.m. on February 8, 1587, the 44-year-old Scottish queen knelt in the great hall of Fotheringhay Castle and thanked the headsman for making “an end of all my troubles.” Three axe blows later, she was dead, her severed head lofted high as a warning to all who defied Elizabeth Tudor.
Today, assessments of Mary Stuart range from historian Jenny Wormald’s biting characterization of the queen as a “study in failure” to John Guy’s more sympathetic reading, which deems Mary the “unluckiest ruler in British history,” a “glittering and charismatic queen” who faced stacked odds from the beginning.
Kristen Post Walton outlines a middle ground between these extremes, noting that Mary’s Catholic faith and gender worked against her throughout her reign.
“[Mary’s] failures are dictated more by her situation than by her as a ruler,” she says, “and I think if she had been a man, … she would've been able to be much more successful and would never have lost the throne.”
Janet Dickinson paints the Scottish queen’s relationship with Elizabeth in similar terms, arguing that the pair’s dynamic was shaped by circumstance rather than choice. At the same time, she’s quick to point out that the portrayal of Mary and Elizabeth as polar opposites—Catholic versus Protestant, adulterer versus Virgin Queen, beautiful tragic heroine versus smallpox-scarred hag—is problematic in and of itself. As is often the case, the truth is far more nuanced. Both queens were surprisingly fluid in their religious inclinations. Mary’s promiscuous reputation was largely invented by her adversaries, while Elizabeth’s reign was filled with rumors of her purported romances. Whereas Mary aged in the relative isolation of house arrest, Elizabeth’s looks were under constant scrutiny.
The versions of Mary and Elizabeth created by Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie may reinforce some of the popular misconceptions surrounding the twin queens—including the oversimplified notion that they either hated or loved each other, and followed a direct path from friendship to arch rivalry—but they promise to present a thoroughly contemporary twist on an all-too-familiar tale of women bombarded by men who believe they know better. John Knox, a Protestant reformer who objected to both queens’ rule, may have declared it “more than a monster in nature that a Woman shall reign and have empire above Man,” but the continued resonance of Mary and Elizabeth’s stories suggests otherwise. Not only were the two absolute rulers in a patriarchal society, but they were also women whose lives, while seemingly inextricable, amounted to more than their either their relationships with men or their rivalry with each other.
Mary, Queen of Scots, may have been the monarch who got her head chopped off, but she eventually proved triumphant in a roundabout way: After Elizabeth died childless in 1603, it was Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland and I of England, who ascended to the throne as the first to rule a united British kingdom. And though Mary’s father, James V, reportedly made a deathbed prediction that the Stuart dynasty, which “came with a lass”—Marjorie Bruce, daughter of Robert the Bruce—would also “pass with a lass,” the woman who fulfilled this prophecy was not the infant James left his throne to, but her descendant Queen Anne, whose 1714 death marked the official end of the dynastic line.
Ultimately, Guy argues, “If Elizabeth had triumphed in life, Mary would triumph in death.”
The queen herself said it best: As she predicted in an eerily prescient motto, “in my end is my beginning.”