January 26, 1587 – James VI Begs Elizabeth I to Spare His Mother’s Life

James VI in 1586, attributed to Adrian Vanson (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

James VI in 1586, attributed to Adrian Vanson (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1585, a 55 year-old Elizabeth I and a 19 year-old James VI began a regular correspondence. Written in their own hands to stress the friendship – even intimacy – between them, it lasted until Elizabeth’s death (supplemented starting in 1601 by secret letters between James and Elizabeth’s councilors – notably Robert Cecil and Henry Howard).

As put by Janel Mueller (professor of English language and literature at the University of Chicago),

Throughout this correspondence, by one means or another, Elizabeth staked, protected, and cultivated her momentous investment in James. In this serial exchange of complex, inveigling letters the Virgin Queen can be observed creating her successor. With certain discomfiture but no lasting reluctance, James can be observed accepting his creaturehood at Elizabeth’s hands because of the mighty advancement it would bring him, in time–the monarchy of Great Britain.

Two years into this series, crisis hit when Mary of Scotland was convicted of treason for her role in encouraging the ill-fated Babington Plot, and sentenced to death. James wrote the next key letter in this sequence to Elizabeth on January 28, 1587, pleading with her to spare the life of his condemned mother, Mary, Queen of Scots.

This letter, while still maintaining the appearances of kinship and friendship, is the most combative and threatening that we see from James, though he continues to maintain the appearances of kinship and friendship. [Spoiler alert – he didn’t change the outcome. Elizabeth signed the death warrant on February 1, and Mary was executed on the 8th. Scotland didn’t’ invade, though the Spanish launched the Armada the following year – less in Mary’s name than because England was interfering in the Spanish Netherlands and subjecting Spanish ships to privateering…].

Judge for yourself…

 

To madame my very dear sister and cousin, the queen of England.

Madame and dearest sister,

If ye could have known what divers thoughts have agitated my mind since my directing of William Keith unto you for the soliciting of this matter whereto nature and honor so greatly and unfeignedly binds and obliges me – if, I say, ye knew what divers thoughts I have been in and what just grief I had, weighing deeply the thing itself, if so it should proceed (as God forbid), what events might follow thereupon, what number of straits I would be driven unto, and amongst the rest, how it might peril my reputation among my subjects – if these things, I yet say again, were known unto you, then doubt I not but ye would so far pity my case as it would easily make you at the first to resolve your own best into it. I doubt greatly in what facon to write in this purpose, for ye have already taken so evil with my plainness as I fear if I shall persist in that course ye shall rather be exasperated to passions in reading the words than by the plainness thereof be persuaded to consider rightly the simple truth.

Yet, justly preferring the duty of an honest friend to the sudden passions of one who (how soon they be past) can wiselier weigh the reasons than I can set them down, I have resolved in few words and plain to give you my friendly and best advice, appealing to your ripest judgment to discern thereupon. What thing, madame, can greatlier touch me in honor that is a king and a son than that my nearest neighbor, being in straitest friendship with me, shall rigorously put to death a free sovereign prince and my natural mother, alike in estate and sex to her that so uses her, albeit subject (I grant) to a harder fortune, and touching her nearly in proximity of blood? What law of God can permit that justice shall strike upon them whom He has appointed supreme dispensators of the same under Him, whom He hath called gods and therefore subjected to the censure of none in earth, whose anointing by God cannot be defiled by man, unrevenged by the author thereof, who being supreme and immediate lieutenants of God in heaven cannot therefore be judged by their equals in earth. What monstrous thing is it that sovereign princes themselves should be the example-givers of their own sacred diadems’ profaning! Then what should move you to this form of proceeding, supponing the worst, which in good faith I look not for at your hands – honor or profit? Honor were it to you to spare when it is least looked for; honor were it to you (which is not only my friendly advice, but my earnest suit) to take me and all other princes in Europe eternally beholden unto you in granting this my so reasonable request, and not (appardon, I pray you, my free speaking) to put princes to straits of honor wherethrough your general reputation and the universal (almost) misliking of you may dangerously peril both in honor and utility your person and your estate. Ye know, madame, well enough how small difference Cicero concludes to be betwixt utile [utility] and honestum [honor] in his discourse thereof, and which of them ought to be framed to the other. And now, madame, to conclude, I pray you so to weigh their few arguments that as I ever presumed of your nature, so the whole world may praise your subjects for their dutiful care for your preservation, and yourself, for your princely pity, the doing whereof only belongs  unto you, the performing whereof only appertains unto you, the praise thereof only ever will be yours.

Respect, then, good sister, this my first, so long continued, and so earnest request, dispatching my ambassadors with such a comfortable answer as may become your person to give and as my loving and honest heart unto you merits to receive. But in case any do vaunt themselves to know further of my mind in this matter than my ambassadors do, who indeed are fully acquainted therewith, I pray you not to ttake me to be a chameleon, but by the contrary to be malicious impostors as surely they are. And thus praying you heartily to excuse my too rude and longsome letter I commit you, madame and dearest sister, to the blessed protection of the Most High, who may give you grace to so resolve in this matter as may be honorable for you and most acceptable to him.

From my palace of Holyrood, the 26th day of January 1587.

 

SOURCE: Elizabeth I, Collected Works (edited by Leah Marcus, Janel Mueller and Mary Beth Rose)

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July 29, 1565 – Mary of Scotland Marries Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley

Mary and Darnley circa 1565 (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Mary and Darnley, painting circa 1565 now at Hardwick Hall (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Mary and Henry were actually cousins – they shared a grandmother in Margaret Tudor – and they both had strong claims to the throne of England.

Mary had the stronger claim since her father, James V of Scotland, was Margaret’s first-born son. Darnley’s claim arose through Margaret’s second marriage, and was through a daughter (also named Margaret), so his claim was lesser than Mary’s.  But because Margaret was Henry’s older sister, both their claims were stronger than anyone else’s, including the Greys who claimed through the younger Mary Tudor.

Both Mary and Darnley were Catholic – which made them even more of a real threat to Elizabeth’s throne as it offered a dynastic alternative to a Protestant rule. The fact that Darnley was free to marry Mary of Scotland proves Elizabeth’s strong belief in justice and the letter of the law: Darnley had been imprisoned after his parents, the semi-regal Lennox family, went crazy in 1562, trying to seize power wherever they could find it – Scotland or England (they also had strong ties to France), but Elizabeth released him when nothing could be proved against him. (Henry VIII would have executed them just for the risk they posed!)

Quick context from Wikipedia about Darnley’s parents: “Matthew Stewart, 4th Earl of Lennox, was third in line to the Scottish throne, and his wife Margaret Douglas was niece to Henry VIII and granddaughter of Henry VII.[7]

Was this marriage or wasn’t it another instance of Mary baiting Elizabeth? After all, Mary married the man who could help her steal the English throne. To dissuade her from this choice, Elizabeth had offered the widowed Queen of Scots her own favorite, Robert Dudley, as husband. The Six Wives of Henry VIII does an amazing job giving us this story, showing us an Elizabeth foiled in her plan to protect her throne and make her beloved a King at the same time. “How could she marry Darnley, I offered her Leicester.”

Either way, marriage to Darnley launched the downhill trajectory of her life. The union didn’t end well, though it did produce the perfect heir to the English and Scottish Thrones in James VI/James I of England. So let us stop there and raise a glass to toast the consequences of today’s marriage – the peaceful unification of Scotland and England. (I’m not going to mention the possible ramifications of Brexit here…that’s for another post.)

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February 8, 1587 – The Last Letter of Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary Stuart's Last Letter (Creative Commons License  via the National Library of Scotland)

Mary Stuart’s Last Letter (Creative Commons License via the National Library of Scotland)

Mary, Mary, Mary. As much as she was a victim of circumstance and a pawn of ambitious people around her, she really did dig her own grave when she conspired against Elizabeth…Six hours before she was executed, Mary Stuart wrote her final letter – to Henri III of France, the brother of her first husband. In it, she continued to maintain that she was innocent of the charges against her, and that she was being persecuted only because of her Catholic faith. Perhaps she was not aware of how clear the case was against her – give the coded letters written by her own hand sanctioning the assassination of Elizabeth – or perhaps it was all bravado. Either way, her attention was now clearly on her legacy.

To the most Christian king, my brother and old ally.

Royal brother, having by God’s will, for my sins I think, thrown myself into the power of the Queen my cousin, at whose hands I have suffered much for almost twenty years, I have finally been condemned to death by her and her Estates. I have asked for my papers, which they have taken away, in order that I might make my will, but I have been unable to recover anything of use to me, or even get leave either to make my will freely or to have my body conveyed after my death, as I would wish, to your kingdom where I had the honour to be queen, your sister and old ally.

Tonight, after dinner, I have been advised of my sentence: I am to be executed like a criminal at eight in the morning. I have not had time to give you a full account of everything that has happened, but if you will listen to my doctor and my other unfortunate servants, you will learn the truth, and how, thanks be to God, I scorn death and vow that I meet it innocent of any crime, even if I were their subject. The Catholic faith and the assertion of my God-given right to the English crown are the two issues on which I am condemned, and yet I am not allowed to say that it is for the Catholic religion that I die, but for fear of interference with theirs. The proof of this is that they have taken away my chaplain, and although he is in the building, I have not been able to get permission for him to come and hear my confession and give me the Last Sacrament, while they have been most insistent that I receive the consolation and instruction of their minister, brought here for that purpose. The bearer of this letter and his companions, most of them your subjects, will testify to my conduct at my last hour. It remains for me to beg Your Most Christian Majesty, my brother-in-law and old ally, who have always protested your love for me, to give proof now of your goodness on all these points: firstly by charity, in paying my unfortunate servants the wages due them – this is a burden on my conscience that only you can relieve: further, by having prayers offered to God for a queen who has borne the title Most Christian, and who dies a Catholic, stripped of all her possessions. As for my son, I commend him to you in so far as he deserves, for I cannot answer for him. I have taken the liberty of sending you two precious stones, talismans against illness, trusting that you will enjoy good health and a long and happy life. Accept them from your loving sister-in-law, who, as she dies, bears witness of her warm feeling for you. Again I commend my servants to you. Give instructions, if it please you, that for my soul’s sake part of what you owe me should be paid, and that for the sake of Jesus Christ, to whom I shall pray for you tomorrow as I die, I be left enough to found a memorial mass and give the customary alms.

Wednesday, at two in the morning
Your most loving and most true sister  

Mary R  

RESOURCES

National Library of Scotland, with their full collection of manuscripts and archives. They also have a series of pages dedicated to this letter – showing the images of each page, the French transcription and the English translation. Please go visit – it is sublime!

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December 14, 1542 – Mary Stuart Becomes Queen of Scotland

Mary Stuart, by Francois Clouet (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

There’s not a lot to tell about Mary Stuart’s life before she became Queen – she was only six days old when her father, James V, died. He learned of her birth on his deathbed, responding with the not-too-optimistic, it came with a lass and will pass with a lass. For the first few years of her life, it seemed as if he might be right.

Right away, Henry VIII tried to secure the infant Queen as a bride for his son, Edward, who was then six years old. This was hugely important to England. First, because it was the perfect way (in England’s eyes!) to unite the two countries, and second, to prevent Mary from marrying a French prince (if that happened, England would find itself surrounded by Catholic powers on two fronts – and France would be able to use Scotland as a springboard to the attack on England they were always threatening). Scotland and France had been allies for centuries – Mary’s mother herself was French (Marie de Guise) – so that possibility was actually highly likely.

On July 10, 1543, the Treaty of Greenwich was signed, promising that Mary would marry Edward when she turned ten, and move to England then for Henry to oversee her upbringing. But shortly after that, Henry decided throw his weight around: he arrested Scottish merchants headed for France and impounded their goods – and that led the Scottish Parliament to reject the treaty. Henry reacted badly (did you expect anything different?): he began a war in 1544 that would last for seven years, sending Edward Seymour, then Earl of Hertford, and John Dudley, then Viscount Lisle, with instructions to burn Edinburgh. They did as told, England. Scotland was incensed by what they called the “Rough Wooing”, and support for an English marriage largely vanished. Still, the English persisted.

Henry died in January 1547, when his son Edward was only six. Edward Seymour took power as Regent (he also took the title Duke of Somerset but that’s another story) and continued the punitive policies. After a heavy defeat in 1547 at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh, Scotland turned to France for help. A treaty was signed promising military support – and Mary’s marriage to the young Dauphin of France, who would later take the throne as Francis II. With her marriage agreement in place, the five-year-old Queen was sent to France to spend the next thirteen years at the French court.

Those thirteen years would be the happiest of Mary’s life. What came afterwards was much more of a challenge…

REFERENCES

Wikipedia pages on Mary, Queen of Scots, Marie de Guise, the Auld Alliance, the Rough Wooing

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December 5, 1560 – Death of Francis II of France

Francis II of France, by Francois Clouet. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

(A quick warning for those of you who clicked through after only a quick glance at the title: Francis II was the *grandson* of Francis I, that great contemporary of Henry VIII…Think Reign!)

Francis II was born in 1544. He acceded to the throne in 1559, aged only 14, after the accidental death of his father Henri II from a jousting accident. Francis was the first in a series of three French princes, children of Henri and Catherine de Medici, all of whom died young.

His main claim to fame (sounds strange to say that about a king of France  but…) was his wife. At his accession, Francis had been married to Mary, Queen of Scots, for about a year. Mary had a claim to the throne of England through her great grandfather Henry VII (Henry VIII tried to void the claim by ruling that his crown would bypass her line in the absence of heirs to Edward, Mary or Elizabeth – but her son did end up succeeding Elizabeth I). The couple had no children, whether because of their youth (he was 13 when they married, she was 15) or because of his undescended testicles (yes, the court knew and talked about these…).

His health was fragile and he left much of the responsibility for government to his wife’s uncles, from the powerful Guise family. This enraged some of the country, especially two princes of the blood who thought that they should be regents. The Guises were unpopular, and their militant Catholicism caused a worsening of the country’s religious crisis when they intensified the repression of Protestants begun by Henri II.

After Francis died from an ear abscess, his younger brother Charles inherited the throne. Charles was then only ten, and Catherine de Medici stepped in to become regent. Grand-niece of Pope Leo X, she proved to be as Catholic as the Guises – the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre of French Protestants happened on her watch (though her son was the one who actually said “Then kill them all! Kill them all!” when asked to confirm the orders). Charles IX ruled for only 14 years before dying of tuberculosis. He was succeeded by his younger brother Henri III. Then twenty-two, Henri was already king of Poland (a wonderful consolation prize for a younger son) – though he abandoned that post to take the crown of France. He was killed in 1589 by a Catholic fanatic. No sons being left to Catherine de Medici, the crown went to the Protestant King of Navarre, who took the throne as Henri IV. Henry did have to convert to get the crown, an easy decision for him (he famously said “Paris is well worth a mass”). As King, he formalized a policy of religious tolerance that finally ended France’s long religious wars…

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November 22, 1515 – Birth of Marie de Guise (Consort of James V)

Marie de Guise, painted by Corneille de Lyon c.1537 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Marie de Guise was a member of the powerful House of Guise – a family that played a major role in 16th Century France.

Marie was married at 18 to Louis II d’Orleans, the Duke of Longueville, then widowed three years later in 1537. The timing led her to become the focus of marriage negotiations with Scotland since its King, James V, had recently lost his wife (Madeleine de Valois, the fifth child and third daughter of Francis I of France). James wanted another French bride to continue and strengthen the Auld Alliance but with no more princesses available, the next best option was marriage into the semi-regal Guise family.

Francis I clearly promoted this option: he announced that he would pay a princess-sized dowry for her. This made her a much-courted bride: even Henry VIII sued for her hand (his wife Jane Seymour had just died). These plans and offers were not terribly welcome to the 22-year old widow, who had hoped to be given a little more time to come to mourn a husband that she truly loved, and who hated the idea of leaving her beloved country. Still, given Henry’s marital history and Scotland’s traditional role as a friendly nation (to say nothing of the fact that James was a ruggedly handsome 26 while Henry was 46, fully bald and already tending to fat), James was obviously the preferable outcome.

Marie impressed her new mother-in-law (Henry VIII’s sister Margaret), the nobility, the entire country. She quickly bore her husband two sons – both of whom unfortunately died before they were a year old. She had a third child, Mary, born December 8, 1542. Unfortunately, Margaret Tudor’s death the year before had removed the only pro-English voice left at court, which led to war between Scotland and England. James spent several months with his army, took sick several times. He died of a fever on December 14, shortly after a serious defeat at the Battle of Solway Moss, leaving his six-day-old daughter Queen of Scotland.

James Hamilton, the Second Earl of Arran and the most powerful man in the realm, became Regent for the young Queen, though Marie de Guise remained a powerful political player. In 1554, she took over as regent for her daughter, then eleven years old and living in France with her fiance, the Dauphin Francis. Under Marie’s regency, Scotland was completely pro-French, with many top government posts held by Frenchmen. Scotland was also adamantly Catholic. This created bad feelings with England when Elizabeth I mounted the throne. Under Henry VIII’s will, his niece Mary of Scotland was the next rightful heir – but to Catholic rulers, Elizabeth was an illegitimate usurper and Mary already the true queen.  When Mary and Francis came to the French throne in 1559, the couple exacerbated the issue by adding the arms of England to their blazon. It was a move Mary was to regret later in life.

Marie lived to see her daughter become Queen of France, and she was spared seeing that same daughter widowed in December 1560: Marie had fallen seriously ill earlier in the year, and died of dropsy on June 11th. Her body was secreted out of the country so that she could be buried in France, in the Convent of Saint-Pierre. Mary attended the funeral.

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