Posted in History, Uncategorized

The Dangerous Hybridity of Mary, Queen of Scots

Abstract: A look at the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, and how she represented several gender roles through the theme of hybridity. 

Hybridity can be seen as a positive or negative quality in a person, especially as positive and, or, negative qualities in historic rulers like Kings and Queens, especially the hybridity that comes when two culture are connected and merged through an arranged marriage and subsequent child. Female rulers are particularly defined by traditional gender roles and stereotypes. One of the most famous queens in popular culture, Mary, Queen of Scots, has been defined by her hybridity for hundreds of years during her lifetime and after her death.

First off, it is not easy being the queen, nor should it be, but in the case of Mary Stewart, or Marie Stuart as she was known in her lifetime (Dunn 69), Queen of Scotland, the life of a queen was more difficult than she could have ever imagined. Like many of us, including myself, Mary lived a happy and rather sheltered childhood where she was loved by many, had many friends, and even found a best friend and later boyfriend in Francis (in France his name is spelled Francois). What separates Mary from the rest of us is that Mary was a queen and she had been named Queen of the Scots since she was less than a year old. Still, there is a very important lesson to be learned from her life, a lesson many of us can to some degree relate to, especially young women everywhere: act with caution and do not let your feelings get the better of you. Mary only made two major mistakes in her time as queen, but even just two mistakes can ruin someone’s life, as was the case with the unfortunate Queen of Scots.

Mary, Queen of Scotland and France

Mary Stewart was the child of the King of Scotland, James V, and her French mother Marie de Guise (who was born into a powerful Catholic family in France). Her father died very soon after her birth. Mary’s mother, Marie de Guise, was left to rule in her husband and infant daughter’s stead. She was able to make a deal with the King of France, Henri II: young Mary would marry Henri’s infant son Francis (later known as King Francis II). At age five, Mary was sent to live in France where she experienced a happy, carefree, wonderful childhood and lived a fairytale life at French Court with her beloved Francis. They married when she was a teenager and Francis became king soon afterwards when Henri II died after a painful jousting accident, part of a lance pierced his eye, and protruded into his brain (Dunn 134). Even though Mary and Francis were old enough to rule France and Scotland, since they were now teenagers, they did not have much control. In fact they were simply puppets to Mary’s uncles from the powerful Guise family. The Guise family was filled with fanatic Catholics who deeply resented the growing number of Protestants in France, so they persecuted Protestants, leading to several French Wars of Religion, which would plague the country for almost a century. Here is the first lesson we can learn from Mary’s life: she did not take responsibility, instead she was content to let others do her job for her and because of that a series of events spiraled out of control and her uncles were nearly killed and her husband nearly deposed from the horrible state the country was in. Francis died after reigning for barely a year and a half. Mary was sent back to Scotland at age eighteen, completely unprepared for the responsibilities of her reign.

I am reminded of my first night alone in a college dorm room my freshman year: I was excited, but also nervous and afraid because the responsibilities of college life felt like too much for me. Imagine all of that fear and huge amounts of responsibility and multiply that by a thousand and then you will start to understand how Mary felt. Her mother had died after struggling to keep Scotland peaceful. Mary and her mother were Catholics, while most of Scotland was Protestant. The two women were French, while the common Scottish people hated how Scotland had been taken over by France in the past two decades. If Francis had not died, Mary would probably have never visited Scotland again, she would have remained in France while her husband and uncles turned Scotland into a satellite country or colony of France.

Mary, Queen of Scotland

Mary had another strike against her in the eyes of the Scots: she was a woman and just like so many other women in power, women were not thought to be good rulers (the stereotype still exists to this day sadly). However, for the first few years of her time in Scotland, Mary was actually able to keep life relatively peaceful, having taken her mother’s advice and allowed religious tolerance.

Then she made her first big mistake, one that many of us have and will make in our lifetimes: she fell in love with the wrong person. Ever since Francis’s death men all over Europe had been desperately vying for her hand in marriage even before Francis’s corpse was cold. Mary kept her suitors at bay for a few years until she met Henry Stuart, the Lord Darnley. Darnley was tall, charming, and handsome. He was also in line to both the English and the Scottish crown. England at the time was ruled by Elizabeth Tudor who had no intentions of marrying, thus leaving her crown open to any suggested heir. Mary fell head over heels in love with Darnley, and when he got sick she nursed him back to health, she went hunting with him, she danced all night with him, and she spent all of her time with him. Though Mary was madly in love with this young man no one else in the Scottish court was, not her friends, not her relatives, and certainly not her advisors. Everyone could see what a sleazy jerk Darnley was except for Mary. David Loades, in his book The Tudor Queens of England, outright calls him “both vain and stupid” (169), a sentiment which is agreed on by many historians. She went against everyone’s advice and followed her heart instead, marrying him after only a few months of courtship. The honeymoon period did not last long as Darnley started to show his real colors: he was vain, he was cruel, he was a jerk who lauded his position over everyone, and he might have slept around. Like so many victims of domestic abuse, Mary realized the truth about him too late and had to put up with his abuse for several months.

He and his cronies murdered one of her friends, David Riccio, right in front of her when she was six months pregnant (perhaps in the hopes that the shock would cause her to have a miscarriage or die during childbirth). Magnus Magnusson describes all of the gruesome details of the scene: one of Darnley’s conspirators placed a gun against Mary pregnant belly so that she could not call for help as Riccio was stabbed over fifty times before his bleeding corpse was thrown down the stairs (353). Antonia Fraser’s biography Mary Queen of Scots vividly recounts what happened next: when some Scottish citizens tried to help their queen, one of Darnley’s cronies threatened her that if she signaled for help they would “cut her up in to pieces” and throw the remaining bloodied chunks of her body out the window (254). Mary knew she was defeated at this moment, but she did not give up. She was able to convince Darnley that he was in danger too and the two escaped. She was able to give birth to her son James VI and made no secret of her hatred for her husband.

Then Darnley was mysteriously murdered. His death is a murder mystery that people have tried to solve for hundreds of years, and we will probably never know the full truth. Sometimes Mary is fingered as the culprit, some historians believe that even if she did not physically kill him, perhaps she gave the order. Most historians, such as Antonia Fraser, Magnus Magnusson, and Jane Dunn, believe that Mary was innocent of the crime and was just as surprised as anyone else by Darnley’s death. What we do know is that she then made her second huge mistake soon afterwards: she married the man the common people thought was the murderer, James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell.

Like many women suffering from a horrible relationship, Mary turned to another man for support, Bothwell, and she effectively traded one dangerous husband for another. Some historians and contemporary accounts claim that Bothwell raped Mary, David Loades states so outright (Loades 171), while other biographers like Fraser hint at the possibility. If she was raped, then perhaps she decided to marry him out of guilt for having sex outside of marriage (sadly this is the case for many rape victims, even today, in cultures where rape victims must marry their rapists in order to preserve their “honor” and “virtue” after it has been ripped from them), while other historians believe the rumors of rape were done to protect Mary’s honor (somehow at this time the thought of a woman being raped was better than a woman jumping into bed before properly married). This marriage upset a large number of people and through a complex series of events, a small war was started, Bothwell fled the country, and Mary was deposed, stripped of her title as queen. She would lose her life two decades later.

Mary Stewart’s reign was undone by her background as a hybrid of two different cultures (Catholic France versus Protestant Scotland) and her attempts to fulfill two distinct roles at once (powerful monarch and wife). Her hybridity cost her the crown, but it was not what cost Mary her life.

Mary, Queen of Nothing

Alone and without her title or country, Mary decided to travel to England, probably in the hopes of convincing her cousin Queen Elizabeth I (the daughter of Henry VIII) to help her take back her country. Instead Mary’s presence was unwelcome and it put Elizabeth’s own rule in jeopardy since Mary was in line to the English throne as well, since Elizabeth was born through the union of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, which had happened after he divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, so Elizabeth was considered a bastard in the eyes of Catholics, making her unfit to rule. Mary was put on trial for Darnley’s murder and the verdict consisted of English lords basically throwing their hands up in the air and shrugging. Despite not being found guilty, Mary became a prisoner in England and was unable to return to Scotland to get her crown back. Her son, the infant James VI, became king and Scotland was ruled by a series of regents who ruled through James, including Mary’s treacherous older half-brother James Stewart. Mary became caught up in several plots to return to Scotland and when these plots panned out, she is supposed to have become entangled in several plots to take the English throne from Elizabeth. This was her downfall. She was eventually executed for trying to usurp Elizabeth’s throne.

A Dangerous Hybridity

I decided to write about Mary Queen of Scots here because her life was filled with ironies, dualities, and hybridities, and her story is one I believe we can all relate to and learn from to an extent: it’s a lesson on responsibility, growing up, and keeping one’s emotions in check in a world where emotional entanglements can undo years of hard work. We can relate to this today in my opinion. Just think of today’s emotionally-charged and politically correct world where a simple text or tweet can ruin someone’s life: they could get fired, then have scores of people on social media sites attack their name and family for years, letting a few simple ill thought out words ruin someone’s life. Mary was the victim of a similar folly, just on a more political stage before the invention of social media. In his book Scotland: The Story of a Nation, Magnus Magnusson recounts how after her surrender to the confederate lords, Mary was pushed through the streets, “the soldiers jeered and shouted coarse insults at her…there was a huge crowd awaiting her, shouting ‘Kill the whore!’ and ‘Drown her!’” (362) even though these same Scottish citizens had praised her and loved her for many years before. This scene reminds me of today’s witch-hunts on social media platforms, where people are loved and then universally hated in an instant. Mary’s life is a tragic tale that resonates with young people today more than we might initially realize. She had each foot in one of two worlds: the simple, happy world of her childhood and the cold, harsh world of adulthood, just like all of us, myself included.

Yet hybridity is not always a curse. While hybridity may have destroyed Mary Stewart’s reign, Elizabeth Tudor, her cousin and rival, was made better by it. She embraced both the masculine and feminine side of herself, she was strong like her father but willing to play the part of an indecisive female if it helped her. She loved to dance and flirt, wearing the most elaborate fashions, yet underneath her red wig her hair was as short as a man’s, and she inspired her soldiers on the battlefield with the ferocity of any man. Instead of marrying and giving birth like other women, Elizabeth remained unmarried, instead referring to her subjects as her children. Her willingness to embrace both roles of man and woman, king and queen are what made her successful and made her an inspiration for centuries.

Works Cited

Dunn, Jane. Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. New York: Vintage Books, 2003. Print.

Fraser, Antonia. Mary Queen of Scots. New York: Delta, 1969. Print.

Loades, David. The Tudor Queens of England. New York: MJF Books, 2009. Print.

Magnusson, Mangus. Scotland: The Story of a Nation. New York: Grove Press, 2000. Print.


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