Mary, Queen of Scots at the French Court


So much of Mary, Queen of Scots’ later life was operatic that it’s easy to gloss over her formative years. Her violent death, her rivalry with Elizabeth I, her disastrous second and third marriages, the possibility she was involved in a murder – all of this tends to drown out the rest. But much like Eleanor of Aquitaine, the “less” dramatic early years actually involved being the queen of France and Mary’s long-term residency at the French court uniquely positioned her as both a Stuart and Scottish monarch.

Mary left Scotland on August 7, 1548 when she was just five years old. A month earlier her mother, Marie of Guise, Dowager Queen of Scotland, and her government agreed to marry Mary to the eldest son of King Henry II of France. The alliance was a natural next step, cementing the old friendship between the two countries, and isolating their natural enemy, England.

And quite the enemy England had become. For all the familial ties between the Tudors and Stuarts, the young queen had spent the year prior to her departure being moved about the countryside to increasingly remote and fortress-like locations in the hopes of keeping her physically safe following the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh. Knowing Scotland had rarely been so vulnerable as when it had an infant on the throne, England hoped to take advantage of the situation by force, cementing the takeover by the marriage of Mary to their own child king, Edward VI.

The marriage alliance with France, on the other hand, was a bit of a double-edged sword, but the merits outweighed the risk. The physical removal of Scotland’s sovereign from its borders might have been unfortunate, but it also guaranteed Mary’s safety and put both her person and her throne under the protection of the formidable Henry II. France had nothing to gain from English sovereignty over Scotland – on the contrary, surrounding England with a Franco-Scottish alliance was a net benefit.

The marriage was controversial in Scotland, for there were many who not only (understandably) wished to see their queen remain in the country, but who wanted her to marry into a Scottish noble family. The simple fact that Mary was female put her reign at risk, for in order to supply an heir she had to marry and her husband would then expect, and arguably be expected to, take over the reins of government. It was this dynamic that made Henry VIII feverishly vie for a son and caused Elizabeth I’s single status to be such a cause for angst as the latter half of the 16th century unfolded.

But the movement of Mary to France wasn’t wholly foreign to the Stuarts. Back in the 15th century, James I, as a child during his father’s reign, had tried to escape to France for safety and ended up an honored prisoner in England under the “protection” of Henry IV and Henry V. A generation later, James’s daughter, Margaret, married the future Louis XI in the hopes of becoming queen of France, while James II’s wife, Mary of Guelders, spent years in her youth at the Burgundian court.

Marie de Guise in 1537, the year she married James V

And most notably, Mary’s own mother was French, a member of the extremely powerful Guise family, with deep ties to the House of Valois. Mary’s removal to France essentially strengthened her bond to the maternal branch of her family, placing her under the protection of her grandmother, Antoinette de Bourbon, Duchess of Guise.

For her part, Antoinette was delighted by her granddaughter’s arrival and proudly reported on Mary’s beauty, a physical characteristic of the young queen that has remained deeply ingrained her legacy. She was also remarkably bright – perhaps not on par with her Tudor cousin, Elizabeth – but she was well-educated, spoke several languages and picked up French so quickly that for better or for worse it became the language in which she was most comfortable for the rest of her life.

Mary was brought within the fold of the royal family, growing up alongside the nursery of Henry II’s children by his wife, Catherine de’Medici. Despite Henry and Catherine having married in 1533, they had only three children to their name in 1548 after nearly a decade of infertility. Their eldest son, the dauphin, was Francois, was born on January 19, 1544, a little over a year after Mary. He was followed by two girls, Elizabeth and Claude, in 1545 and 1547, respectively.

For those that watched the American television show, Reign, these names are likely familiar, however the characterization of these figures in the series were hugely changed. It was Elizabeth with whom Mary was the closest – the two girls were inseparable in their youths and maintained a friendship well into adulthood.

Unfortunately for Henry and Catherine, while they were eventually blessed with 10 children, nine of them would end up sickly, frail or dealing with myriad physical issues. It was only their daughter, Marguerite, born in 1553 who enjoyed robust health, though ironically she was the child liked least by her mother. It was this situation, however, that would lead three of Catherine’s sons to the throne and give her ample opportunity to try her hand at politics, a dynamic from which she was very much kept separate during her husband’s reign.

Catherine de’Medici

Mary formally joined the royal nursery and their household on October 14, 1548. The story goes that Catherine de’Medici and Mary Stuart were antagonists from day one, but hindsight and reputation have colored the historical record here. In fact, their relationship was perfectly friendly and loving while Henry was on the throne, which should make sense given Mary was a child.

In stark contrast to the insecurity of Elizabeth Tudor, Mary’s childhood was also remarkably secure. She split her time between her future husband’s family and her Guise relations, all individuals with much invested in her. For his part, when Henry finally made her acquaintance, he wrote, “She is the most perfect child I have ever seen.”

But for all that this new environment may have been a boon to Mary personally, it was meant to prepare her to be France’s queen consort, not Scotland’s queen regnant. Her surroundings were decidedly comfortable, bordering on opulent. The downside of this, however, was that by the time she returned to Scotland as an adult, she was used to the spaciousness and luxury of French chateaux, not the much smaller, dark, drafty and utilitarian Scottish castles of her home country. She was raised Catholic, which would never been any other way in the 1540s for a Scottish queen, but it meant that she was wholly separated by the changing tides of religious feeling in Scotland over the next decade and her only template for how to deal with Protestantism was how the French handled Huguenots.

In September 1550, two years after Mary’s arrival, Marie de Guise came to France to visit her daughter. Personally, the visit was a success and mother and daughter became remarkably close, a bond that was maintained via letters after Marie’s departure the following year. Politically, however, Marie earned herself few friends for appearing desperate for financial aid in Scotland and repeatedly lobbying King Henry for funds.

She was also there for the arrival of the English envoy Lord Northampton in the summer of 1551. Ostensibly he was there to convey the Order of the Garter to Henry as a sign of diplomatic friendship, but he also took the opportunity to once again express the hope that Mary would marry Edward VI instead of the dauphin. The idea of a Tudor-Stuart alliance at this point makes a remarkable amount of sense, particularly with hindsight, and it’s hard not to wonder what might have been. After all, Mary had Tudor blood of her own and given that her own son, James VI & I, would become the monarch that brought England and Scotland together, it’s easy to think a lot of heartache might have been spared had this alliance gone forward a generation earlier.

The problem with that notion, however, is that Edward died in 1553. Even if Mary had been moved to England instead of France, her betrothed would have been dead far before the marriage would have been solidified, consummated or produced an heir. The idea only works if Edward had lived on, at which point you’re bartering with too many hypotheticals.

Henry II

Another strange dynamic that Mary contended with (though it’s unclear of how much she was aware) was the affair between King Henry and her Scottish governess, Lady Fleming. The first signs of the attraction came early on when Henry took the time to write to Marie de Guise that Lady Fleming was doing a good job in her duties, a level of domestic minutia that would have seemed strange coming from Henry and not Catherine.

The relationship was remarkable less because Henry was married, but rather because of the presence of his long-term mistress, Diane de Poitiers. The role of French royal mistresses was notably different than that of English, who honored the position far less. English mistresses were generally unpopular with the public if their presence was known, and they were rarely used as political modes of gaining the king’s ear. While English kings certainly had affairs with women at their court, including their wives’ ladies-in-waiting, the matter was treated with a certain amount of discretion, if not secrecy, while in France it was generally handled with a bit more frankness.

Thus, the presence of a new woman in the king’s favor was an opportunity to lessen the hold of a rival for those politically opposed to the current mistress. Such was the case with Lady Fleming and Diane de Poitiers; whether they liked it or not, Henry’s courtiers saw a means to gain power through one’s rise and the other’s fall, which complicated the diplomatic landscape for the Scottish considerably.

There was, however, an etiquette to the role of mistress, a significant facet of which was not embarrassing the king or humiliating the queen. Royal bastards, while permissible, were to be handled delicately. Lady Fleming, on the other hand, thought it advisable to declare loudly in her thick Scottish-accented French, “I have done all that I can, and God be thanked, I am pregnant by the King, for which I count myself both honoured and happy.” With that she was promptly dismissed from her position as both Mary’s governess and Henry’s lover, and sent back to Scotland.

Diane de Poitiers

On January 1, 1554, at the age of 11, Mary was given her own household, marking the informal end of her childhood. Gone were the days of the nursery and, instead, she and the French princesses began to attend court more often, taking ceremonial roles in public and generally beginning a different sort of training, one that prepared them for their futures as wives of important men. The funding of Mary’s household was a tricky situation given its expense and it triggered the question as to who was responsible for her, the Scottish or the French? While the Scottish funded the household, it certainly wasn’t a popular investment and funds were tight.

The situation grew into a full-blown domestic drama between Mary and her French governess, Madame de Parois, as the two argued over money and who was to blame for its shortage, with Marie de Guise scolding in the background from Scotland. Mary’s biographer, Lady Antonia Fraser, writes:

“The dispute does reveal significantly the direction in which Mary Stuart’s character was developing. There is a vein of near hysteria in some of her letters to her mother on the subject: she was passionately upset at the notion that the love of her mother might be turned away from her by the trouble-making efforts of this woman. She rebuts with anguish the notion that she who is generous should be so unfairly described as mean. The episode suggests that from adolescence onwards, Mary Stuart was peculiarly sensitive to the onslaughts of criticism which she had good reason to feel were unfair.”

Meanwhile, Mary was shuttling towards her future. 1553 had seen the death of England’s King Edward and, after an ill-fated rebellion to put the Protestant Lady Jane Grey on the throne, the succession of his older, Catholic sister, Mary Tudor. Mary I, the product of her father’s first marriage to Katherine of Aragon, was quick to undo what she considered the blight of the Reformation and return England to the Catholic Church. She married her cousin, Philip of Spain, in the hopes of churning out Catholic heirs, but as the years went by, no children were forthcoming. By 1557 her health, marriage and reign were on the decline and it was then that the French finally eradicated all signs of English presence on the continent by re-capturing Calais.

Francis, Duke of Guise, Mary’s uncle

The charge had been led by Mary’s kinsman, Francis of Guise, and his star had the effect of only enhancing her position at French court. By the end of the year, as Mary turned 15, she was now decidedly of marriageable age. The Venetian Ambassador, Giacomo Sorenzo, wrote on November 9, 1557:

“The causes of hastening the marriage are apparently two; the first to enable them more surely to avail themselves of the forces of Scotland against the kingdom of England for next year, and the next for the gratification of the Duke and Cardinal of Guise, the said Queen’s uncles, who by the hastening of this marriage, choose to secure themselves against the matrimonial alliance which might be proposed to his most Christian majesty in some negotiation for peace, the entire establishment of their greatness having to depend on this; for which reason the Constable by all means in his power continually sought to prevent it.”

At the dawn of 1558, France and Scotland negotiated the terms of the young couple’s marriage, for while Mary would take the title of dauphine as Francois’s wife, it also opened the question of what Francois would be to Scotland. It was deemed appropriate that he be given the powers of the crown matrimonial by the Scottish government, which essentially made him king with the same authority as regnant that his wife held. The only courtesy they held back was shipping the crown to France for Francois to formally be crowned on his wedding day.

Then there was the question of the succession, particularly in the case of Mary’s death. In the early months of the new year, Mary signed a secret treaty that stated if she died before her husband without children, Scotland would be handed over to France. Secondly, Scotland’s revenue would be the property of the French crown until it was reimbursed for the money it had paid to help Scotland in its wars against England. And thirdly, she renounced any arrangement she might later make that would interfere with these terms.

Included in this was also the question of Mary’s rights to the English throne, which were considerable, particularly in light of religious friction. Henry VIII’s multiple edits to the succession had left room for debate, as had Edward VI’s final will, which had attempted to bar Mary I from the throne. During the saga of Henry’s marriages he had declared both his daughters bastards, and while they were legally restored to their birthright before his death, the shadow of illegitimacy, particularly for those who disagreed with their mothers’ marriages, never fully passed.

With Mary I ailing and childless on the throne, there were two leading potential successors: her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth, and her Catholic cousin, Mary. Mary’s claim to the throne was a fair one if you believed Elizabeth to be either a bastard, a heretic or both. Her father, James V, was the eldest surviving son of James IV and his wife, Margaret Tudor, herself the eldest daughter of Henry VII. Traditionally, should Henry’s heirs die out, the royal line would have reverted back to Margaret’s descendants.

However, despite Mary I’s preference for Mary Stuart’s religion, the fact remained that the latter was due to marry the future king of France. It was one thing to watch Scotland become engulfed by France (a thing England had obviously fought against vehemently), and it was another to risk England becoming a mere French territory. In the end, nationality came before religion.

Nevertheless, Mary Stuart signed the secret treaty, empowering Francois to inherit her claim to the English throne and pass it along to his successors, whether they were his children via another wife or his brothers in the event of his death. Had Francois outlived her, the course of European history would have been blown wide open.

Francois II

On April 19, 1558 in the great hall of the Louvre in Paris, Francois and Mary were formally betrothed, Antoinette standing in as Marie de Guise’s proxy. The wedding took place at the Cathedral of Notre Dame on Sunday, April 24 in a ceremony and celebration that perfectly showcased the excess and drama of the French Renaissance. The capitol was full of French and European royals and nobles, making up an impressive procession of riches through the city streets. Included in the guests was the 10-year-old Henry of Navarre, the future King Henry IV and father of Henrietta Maria, future queen of England.

As for Francois and Mary themselves, their pairing was an interesting one, particularly given how much more significant it could have been had Francois been a different man (or boy, as the case may be). Personally, they were essentially childhood friends and Mary had done a good job of presenting herself in her youth as a friendly, safe confidante for the future king. He repaid her kindness by falling in love with her, though given his age it was likely nothing more than essentially a schoolboy crush. Mary was beautiful, feminine and excelled at all the courtly skills – dancing, hunting and hawking – that women were expected to enjoy. As for what she felt for him, it’s unclear – his physical frailty and limits were unlikely to inspire passion, but given their shared childhood, she probably developed at least a fraternal love for him. (The plot of Reign this was not.)

Seven months into the marriage the matter of the secret treaty came to a head, at least internally, when Mary I died on November 17th at Westminster. She was swiftly succeeded by the 25-year-old Elizabeth Tudor, who was duly crowned and accepted by the majority of the English as the legitimate queen. Such was not the case in France, where Henry II immediately dictated that the coat of arms used by Francois and Mary should include those of England alongside France and Scotland, acknowledging Mary’s right as the “true” Catholic queen of England. Needless to say, the move wasn’t popular with Elizabeth.

Then there was the matter of Spain, who had been closely allied to England thanks to the marriage of Mary I and Philip II. The marriage over and childless, Philip tried his hand with Elizabeth in the hopes of maintaining his foothold in the country. The move failed and he turned his attention, instead, to an alliance with France.

On June 21, 1559 Philip took as his third wife Henry and Catherine’s daughter, Elizabeth, and Mary’s closest childhood friend. Because Elizabeth was only 14, her departure to Spain was delayed until the autumn, however in due course she joined her new husband’s court and enjoyed a remarkably happy marriage to a man who had caused his Tudor wife so much grief. Philip appears to have genuinely fallen in love with his new wife, discarding his mistress and remaining largely faithful to her over the years. Elizabeth went on to have a stillborn son, two miscarriages and two daughters, Isabella and Katherine, before her death in 1568 at just 23. Despite never meeting again after her departure from France, Mary later said that she maintained memories of great “nostalgia” for her former sister-in-law throughout her life.

Elizabeth of Valois, Queen of Spain

In the near-term, however, the marriage sidelined England for a triple alliance of France, Scotland and Spain, pretty much their worst-case scenario. They were only saved, in part, by the untimely death of Henry II on July 10, 1559 thanks to a jousting accident.

His death vaulted Francois and Mary, then 15 and 16, to the French throne, however the couple were too young to rule. Instead, Catherine moved from her domestic and ceremonial role as queen consort to the nominal regent. In actual fact, Mary’s uncle, the Duke of Guise, and the Duke of Lorraine, recently married to Francois’s sister, Claude, staged a coup and barricaded themselves in the Louvre with the young couple.

The management of Guise and Lorraine was defined by their attitudes towards heresy, particularly in light of the growing number of French Huguenots, more than a few of whom were within the ranks of the nobility. Their attitude towards it, supported by the new Spanish alliance, was ruthless, violent and led directly to an incident known as the Amboise conspiracy in which powerful Protestant nobles attempted a coup to oust Guise and Lorraine. Francois and Mary were moved from Blois to Amboise when word reached the court and the “rebellion” never truly was, resulting in a handful of its participants’ arrest in March 1560.

Francois_Second_Mary_Stuart (1).jpg
Francois and Mary as king and queen of France

It was within this that Catherine’s diplomatic skills truly took shape, for she had the foresight to position herself as a moderate voice, which held its own risk in the face of the majority Catholic nobility and Spanish. Even so, it was through her that negotiating talks began, a long drawn out process that would continue well past the reign of Francois II. Her initial policy was rooted in the belief that religious practice didn’t require persecution and she supported government officials who advocated for Christian reconciliation.

Meanwhile, Protestantism was growing far away in Scotland, too, putting considerable pressure on Marie de Guise’s government. France was tied up in its own domestic needs  and was unable to offer troops; instead, they sent diplomats who effectively placed a bandage on an open wound. On June 11, 1560 Marie de Guise died in Edinburgh, leaving the question of who would rule Scotland and how open. More to the point, it presented England another opportunity in the wake of French and Scottish chaos to right the wrongs done by Mary’s assumption of the title “queen of England” and jeopardize France’s power monopoly, supported by Spain.

But Elizabeth I was not a fighter by nature, she was a diplomat. Her correction of the situation resulted in the Treaty of Edinburgh, signed on July 6th, which ensured peace between England and Scotland, withdrew English and French troops from Scotland and forced France to acknowledge Elizabeth as England’s queen instead of Mary. Mary, for her part, refused to ratify the treaty and was mostly focused on mourning her mother to whom she had been deeply attached.

By the autumn Francois was unwell. He collapsed on November 16th and died a few weeks later on December 5th at Orleans, likely of a middle-ear infection. His reign had lasted a brief 17 months and he was succeeded by younger brother, King Charles IX. And Catherine, who had seen what a lack of custody of her children looked like, swooped in to be as bodily close to the nine-year-old king as she could – the next phase of her career had officially been forged.

Mary Stuart in mourning for her husband

As for Mary, she became the Dowager Queen a powerless position. Childless, she no longer had any reason to remain in France, despite it being her home for the past 12 years. Now 18, it was time for Mary to return to Scotland – Catholic in belief, French in sentiment and thought and Scottish only by birth.

She arrived in Leith on August 19, 1561 to begin a seven-year hands-on reign that would make her infamous.

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