In My End (1542)
“Cat fight,” a sexist term-without a male equivalent, implies women’s interactions involve the sharpening of nails, a fact some males find titillating. A high-profile female-against-female feud involved two British duchesses and engendered endless speculation as to who made who cry. Their alleged spat would pale in comparison to the tensions between two Renaissance frenemies over the rule of a royal roost.
While some princes spend decades waiting to assume the throne (Charles, the Prince of Wales is still cooling his heels in his seventies), when King James V died from a fever, the Scottish crown passed to Mary, his six-day-old daughter. As a female head of state did not bode well with the war-like Scots, five years later Mary of Guise sent her daughter to safety with her French family, power players in the court of King Henry II. Preferring power over blood, the non-maternal mother did not accompany her child so she could rule as regent. The young Queen, more Francophile than Scot, grew up to be a five-foot eleven-inch beauty with titian hair and amber eyes. The court referred to her as la plus parfait,” “the most perfect.”
Throughout her childhood, Mary’s companion was the Dauphin-the future Francis II- who she wed when they were teenagers. The marriage made her the possessor of the Scotch and French throne; however, it was her claim to a third that would result in the shadow that stalked her life. Always sickly-the reason why their marriage was likely not consummated-Francis passed away from an ear affection two years later.
Mary left her luxurious life as the dowager queen of France and returned to Scotland, a daunting prospect for a Roman Catholic in a predominately Protestant country; she vowed to implement religious tolerance. The Scottish lords, to their great displeasure, discovered the Frenchified young woman was not a marionette whose strings they could manipulate. James, her half-brother, organized a coup to topple her from the throne; Mary issued him a pardon. Beset by enemies, Mary lamented, “I am their queen and so they call me, but they use me not so.”
In Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Inspector Javert is the implacable nemesis of Jean Valjean; the foe who darkened Mary’s days was her non-kissing cousin, Elizabeth I of Britain. Had circumstances been different, given their commonalities, they could have been friends. The queens reigned over a patriarchal society who encountered detractors such as John Knox, the Calvinist preacher who wrote The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. A shared relative was Henry VIII, the king with the penchant for divorces and decapitations, and their crowns sat atop flaming red hair. The cousins were also fastidious regarding their complexions. In order to cover up her smallpox scars, Elizabeth favored white chalk-like makeup made of vinegar and lead, while Mary’s cosmetic consisted of white wine. The bluebloods dressed for excess; the British monarch took four hours a day to ready her wardrobe. Understanding that their subjects expected pomp, Mary travelled in a flotilla of twelve ships; one carried her adored four ladies-in-waiting, (all named Mary). Another ship held her maids, grooms, cooks, and servants. The remaining ships bore the Queen’s possessions such as her extensive array of gowns, jewelry, pets, and furniture (including forty-five beds).
Although Mary possessed several sterling traits, she shared the fatal flaw of ambition with fellow Scottish royalty, Macbeth. Not content with wielding the scepter of Scotland, Mary coveted the English throne. Her justification: Henry VIII had divorced his first wife to wed Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s mother, a union not sanctified by the pope, and thus their illegitimate daughter was merely a pretender to the throne. Roman Catholics shared her opinion, and as Elizabeth’s fears for her crown grew, so did her animosity for her cousin. Although their paths were strewn with landmines, for the sake of an alliance between their two kingdoms, they maintained a cordial relationship. In a letter to Elizabeth, Mary wrote, “In one isle, of one language, the nearest kinswomen that each other had.” In a return missive, Elizabeth signed her letter, “a dear sister and a faithful friend.”
Religion was not the only factor that set the two powerhouses apart. Elizabeth, determined to reign as queen bee, became known as the Virgin Queen due to her single status. She believed that as soon as the ink dried on the marriage contract, royal consorts tended to usurp power. Instead, she embarked on covert love affairs. In contrast, Mary’s heart ruled her head, and she longed for physical and romantic intimacy that, as a devout Catholic, could only be achieved through church sanctioned unions. As she told Elizabeth’s ambassador prior to her 1565 wedding to her cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, “Not to marry, you know it cannot be for me.” Besotted, Mary described Henry as “the lustiest and best proportioned man.” Tragically, Henry’s physical proportion did not equate to his moral ones, as he possessed a violent temper and indulged in alcohol and adultery. Although the couple had decided to reign as equals, Henry demanded that his wife serve as his subordinate. British ambassador Thomas Randolph stated, “I know for certain that this Queen repenteth her marriage: that she hateth him and all his kin.” One of Henry’s conquests was Mary’s Italian secretary, David Rizzio. Believing the court’s rumor that Rizzio had shared Mary’s bed- in a fit of jealousy over his wife or lover’s infidelity- Henry and several armed noblemen stabbed him fifty-six times. The six-month pregnant Mary watched the horror unfold as guns aimed at her prevented her from summoning help. Later that year, Mary gave birth to James, the heir to the Scottish and British thrones. She chose Elizabeth I as her son’s godmother. Upon the death of his mother and godmother, James inherited both their thrones.
As the birth of James had secured the royal succession, some men felt Henry had outlived his usefulness. Accordingly, they planted gunpowder in his Edinburgh home where Henry was convalescing from an illness. Dressed in his nightshirt, Henry managed to escape into an orchard, evading the blast, though he could not escape strangulation. James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell, Mary’s closest confidant, stood trial for the murder. Although acquitted, many were convinced that Bothwell and Mary were complicit in the crime.
Shortly afterwards, on her way to Edinburgh, the queen encountered Bothwell, accompanied by 800 men, who warned her of unrest in the city and offered her protection. Protection amounted to abduction as Bothwell kept Mary as his hostage and forced himself upon her. Pregnant, unwilling to give birth outside wedlock, Mary agreed to his demand of marriage. The diplomat, Nicholas Throckmorton, described him, “He was a vainglorious, rash and hazardous young man.” As with his predecessor, Bothwell had a penchant for violence. In his wife’s presence, he beat one of her servants to death. He also had a proclivity for power. Mary later wrote of her third husband, “We cannot dissemble that he has used us otherwise than we would have wished or yet have deserved at his hand.” She ended up miscarrying, purportedly twins. The Scots did not take kindly to their queen remarrying mere months after she had become a widow. As a result, John Knox pronounced her promiscuous. Rebellious Scottish nobles captured the newlyweds at the Battle of Carberry Hill; the victors exiled Bothwell, imprisoned the queen in the island of Loch Leven, and forced her to abdicate her throne in favor of her one-year-old-son. Bothwell fled to Denmark where he died behind bars eleven years later. Supporters restored Mary to power; however, upon their defeat, the deposed queen fled to England to plead for mercy. Astonished that her enemy had landed in her domain, Elizabeth did not meet with her-the cousins never had a face-to-face encounter- and refused to help Mary recapture her lost kingdom. Instead, although Elizabeth lacked jurisdiction over the foreign royal, she placed Mary under house arrest for eighteen years. During captivity in her gilded cage of a castle, Elizabeth allowed Mary clothes and furniture from Paris and the company of her pets. Devoid of purpose and passion, Mary wasted away. Ill and despondent, the former queen lamented, “I am no longer who I once was.”
Fearing a Catholic uprising was brewing to free Mary and steal her crown, Elizabeth wrote a last letter to her rival ruler, “It ages me to bear such a burden, ordering to death the only other woman who knows what it means to rule as a queen in this land.”
In 1587, in the Great Hall of Fotheringhay Castle, Mary knelt and thanked her executioner with the words, “You will do me much good in withdrawing me from this world, out of which I am very glad to go.” With regal bearing, Mary approached the makeshift scaffold and cast off her black gown to reveal a red dress underneath-the shade of martyrdom. After several attempts to sever the queen’s head, the hooded axman held it aloft, a warning to anyone thinking of locking horns with Elizabeth Tudor. As the spectators recoiled in shock, the hangman dropped his gory souvenir, and he was left holding a red wig. Geddon, Mary’s Skye terrier, emerged from where it had been hiding in her dress and refused to leave her side. The words Mary had once embroidered on her pillow explained why she did not fear death, “In my
end is my beginning.”