Mary Queen of Scotland and The Isles


In My End Is My Beginning
England, 1587

In the deepest part of the night, when all the candles save one had been put out and everyone lay quiet, the woman crossed silently to her desk and sat down. She put that one candle at her right hand, and spread out a piece of paper as slowly as possible across the desktop, so as to make no noise. She held its left side down with her hand-a white hand with long, slender fingers, which the French poet Ronsard had once described as “a tree with uneven branches.” The hand looked young, as if it belonged to a virgin of fifteen. From across the room, with only one candle for illumination, the woman’s face looked as young as the hand. But up closer, although the outlines of the beauty were still there, within the frame of the old loveliness there were lines and bumps and sags. The skin no longer stretched taut against the high cheekbones, the long, imperious nose, the almond-shaped eyes. It lay softly against them, tracing and revealing every hollow.

She rubbed her eyes, which were heavy-lidded and had traces of exhaustion under them, with that incongruously slender-fingered, elegantly ringed hand. Sighing, she dipped her pen in ink and began to write.

To Henri III, the Most Christian King of France.
8 February 1587.
Monsieur mon beau frere, estant par la permission de Dieu–

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 throne are the two issues on which I am condemned.

She stopped and stared ahead, as if her mind had suddenly ceased to form words, or she had run out of them. The French language was soothing, lulling. Even terrible things did not sound so heinous in French. Her mind could not, dared not, form them in Scots.

“Ce porteur & sa compaignie la pluspart de vos subiectz . . . “

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-inlaw 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 Queen of France, and who dies a Catholic, stripped of all her possessions.

I have taken the liberty of sending you two precious stones, talismans against illness, trusting 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 feelings for 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,


Queen of Scotland

Book One: Queen of Scotland, Queen of France

Chapter One

She put down the pen, blinked once. Then she carefully put two small books on the paper to hold it down. Each movement was delicate, but weary. The fine, slender fingers stretched out once, then rested. She blew out the candle.

Walking slowly toward the bed on the other side of the room, she reached it and then lay down upon it, full length, in her clothes. She closed her eyes.

It is done, she thought. The life that began at the lowest point in Scotland’s fortunes has followed that fortune, and now is finished.

A small curve of a smile played about her lips. No. I am finished. Or, rather, I would be finished. 0 Jesu, let me not fail now!

In the smoky blue mist it was impossible to see anything except more mist. The sun, shrouded and muffled, wore a fuzzy circle of light r around itself and was the one thing the men could sight on as they attempted to fight. If they could not see the enemy, how could they defend themselves?

The mist blew and swirled, passing low over the green bogs and mushy ground, hugging the soaked terrain, teasing the men as they tried to extricate themselves from the treacherous mire. It was cold and clammy, as unsympathetic as the hand of death, with which it kept close company.

Above the bog there were a few lone trees, their branches already stripped bare in the autumn gales, standing naked and forlorn above the battlefield. Men struggled toward their grey and wrinkled trunks, hoping to climb to safety. Thousands of feet had trampled the ground around the trees into an oozing field. The fog blanketed it all.

When the fog cleared the next day, sweeping out to sea and carrying the last vestige of confusion with it, the whole of Solway Moss revealed itself to be a sorry site for a battle. The mud, reeds, and slippery grass surrounding the meandering River Esk showed the Moss to be aptly named. There, in the southwest corner where England and Scotland met, the two ancient enemies had grappled like stags, floundering in the muck. But the English stag had triumphed over its adversary, and the swamp was dotted with leather shields, dropped there by the trapped Scots. There they would rot, as the sun would never dry them there.

One of the English soldiers, herding away his captives, turned to look back at the site, greenly tranquil in the slanting autumn light. “God have mercy on Scotland,” he said quietly. “No one else will.”

Outside it began to snow-gently at first, like little sighs, and then harder and harder, as if someone had ripped open a huge pillow. The sky was perfectly white, and soon the ground was, too; the wind blew the snow almost horizontal, and it coated the sides of trees and buildings, so that the whole world turned pale in less than an hour. At Falkland Palace, the big round towers reared up like giant snowmen guarding the entrance.

Inside, the King looked, unseeing, out the window.

“Your Majesty?” asked an anxious servant. “Pray, what is your wish?”

“Heat. Heat. Too cold here,” he mumbled, shaking his head from side to side, closing his eyes.

The servant put more logs on the fire, and fanned it to tease the flames up around the fresh new logs. It was indeed cold, the coldest weather so early in the season that anyone could remember. Ships were already frozen in harbours, and the barren fields were as hard as metal.

Just then some of the King’s field soldiers appeared, peering cautiously into the room. He seemed to see them even through his closed eyes.

“The battle?” he said. “Have you news of the battle?”

They came in, tattered, and knelt before him. Finally the highest-ranking one said, “Aye. We were attacked and soundly beaten. Many were drowned in the Esk in the retreat. Many more have been taken as prisoners-twelve thousand prisoners in the custody of the English commander.”

“Ransom?” The King’s voice was a whisper.

“No word of that. They say . . . they may all be sent to England as captives.”

Suddenly the King lurched from his seat and stood up, rigid. He clasped and unclasped his fists, and a low sound of utter pain escaped him. He looked around wildly at the soldiers. “We are defeated?” he asked again. When they nodded, he cried, “All is lost!”

He turned his back on them and stumbled across the room to the door; when he reached the door frame he sagged against it, as if a spear had pinioned him. Then, clutching his side, he reeled away into his private quarters where they could not follow. His valet followed, running after him.

The King sought his bed; he dived into it and lay moaning and clutching his side. “All is lost!” he kept muttering.

One of the chamber servants sent for the physician; another went out to speak to the field soldiers.

“Is it truly as bad as you reported?” asked the chamber servant.

“Aye-worse,” said one of the soldiers. “We are not only beaten, as at Flodden, but disgraced as well. Our King was not with us; our King had left us to mope and droop by himself far from the battlefield-like a maiden filled with vapours!”

“Sssh!” The servant looked around to see if anyone might hear. When he was assured that was impossible, he said, “The King is ill. He was ill before the news; the sorrow of the loss of his heirs, the little princes, has devastated him.”

“It is the duty of a king to shoulder such losses.”

“The loss of both his heirs within a few days of each other has convinced him that luck has turned against him. Once a man is convinced of that, it is hard for him to lead with authority.”

“Like a fainting priest, or a boy with the falling sickness!” cried one of the soldiers. “We need a warrior, not a woman, leading us!”

“Aye, aye. He’ll recover. He’ll come to himself. After the shock wears off.” The servant shrugged. “The King most like by now has another heir. His Queen was expecting to be brought to childbed at any moment.”

The soldier shook his head. ” ‘Tis a pity he has so many bastards, and none of them of any use to him as a successor.”

The King refused to rise from his bed, but lay there limply, as if in a trance. Some of his nobles came to him, and stood round his bed. The Earl of Arran, the burly head of the House of Hamilton and hereditary heir to the throne after any of the King’s own children, looked on solicitously. Cardinal Beaton, the secretary of state, hovered as if he wished to hear a last confession. The Stewart cousins, all powerful clans in their own right, stood discreetly about the chamber. All wore heavy wool under their ceremonially bright garments; the weather remained bitter cold. In other chambers the King’s mistresses, past and present, lingered, concerned about their children. Would the King see fit to remember them?

The King looked at them, shimmering and reappearing, sometimes seeming to dissolve, under his gaze. These faces . . . but none of them dear to him, no, not one.

Scotland had been beaten, he would remember, with stabs of pain.

“The Queen,” someone was whispering. “Remember your Queen. Her hour is near. Think of your prince.”

But the princes were dead, the sweet little boys, dead within a few hours of each other, one of them at Stirling, one at St. Andrews. Places of death. No hope. All gone. No hope. No point to another; it was doomed, too.

Then, a new face near his. Someone was staring intently into his eyes, trying to read them. A new person, someone brisk and detached.

“Sire, your Queen has been safely delivered.”

The King struggled to get the words out. Strange, how difficult it was to speak. Where earlier he had been reticent, now it was his body holding back, even when his mind wished to communicate. The throat would not work. “Is it a man-child or woman?” he finally managed to command his tongue and lips to say.

“A fair daughter, Sire.”

Daughter! The last battle lost, then.

“Is it even so? The devil take it! Adieu, farewell! The Stewarts came with a lass, and they shall pass with a lass,” he murmured.

Those were the last words he spoke, although, as the physician saw that he was sinking, he exhorted him, “Give her your blessing! Give your daughter your blessing, for God’s own sweet sake! Do not pass away without that charity and safeguard to your heir!”

But the King just gave a little laugh and smile, kissed his hand and offered it to all his lords round about him; soon thereafter he turned his head away from his attendants, toward the wall, and died.

“What meant he by his words?” one of the attendant lords whispered.

“The crown of Scotland,” replied another. “It came to the Stewarts through Marjorie Bruce, and he fears it will pass away through-what is the Princess’s name?”

“Princess Mary.”

“No,” said his companion, as he watched the physicians slowly turning the dead King, and folding his hands preparatory to having the priest anoint him. “Queen Mary. Mary Queen of Scots.”

His widow, the Queen Dowager, struggled to regain her strength after childbirth as quickly as possible. Not for her the lingering recovery of days abed, receiving visitors and gifts and, as her reward for their wellwishes, presenting the infant for their inspection, all swathed in white lace and taffeta and wrapped in yards of softest velvet in the gilded royal crib.

No, Marie de Guise, the relict-quaint phrase, that, she thought-of His Majesty James V of Scotland must right herself and be poised to defend her infant, like any wolf-mother in a harsh winter. And it was a very harsh winter, not only in terms of the flying snow and icy roads, but for Scotland itself.

She could almost fancy that, in the ruddy flames of the fires she kept continually burning, the teeth of the nobles looked more like animal fangs than human dog-teeth. One by one they made their way to Linlithgow Palace, the golden palace lying on a long, thin loch just west of Edinburgh, to offer their respects to the infant-their new Queen. They came clad in heavy furs, their feet booted and wrapped round with animal skins, and it was hard to tell their ice-streaked beards from the furs surrounding their faces. They would kneel and murmur something about their loyalty, but their eyes were preternaturally bright.

There were all the clans who came to make sure that they would not be barred from power by any other clan. For this was the greatest of all opportunities, the equivalent of a stag-kill that attracted all the carrion-eaters of the forest. An infant was their monarch, a helpless infant, with no one but a foreign mother to protect her: a Frenchwoman who was ignorant of their ways here and far from home.

The Earl of Arran, James Hamilton, was there; had not this baby been born, he would now be king. He smiled benevolently at the infant. “I wish her a long life,” he said.

The Earl of Lennox, Matthew Stuart, who claimed to be the true heir rather than Arran, came shortly and stood looking longingly down at the baby. “May she have all the gifts of grace and beauty,” he said.

Patrick Hepburn, the “Fair Earl” of Bothwell, stepped forward and kissed the Queen Mother’s hand lingeringly. “May she have power to make all who gaze upon her love her,” he said, raising his eyes to Marie’s.

The red-faced, stout northern Earl of Huntly strutted past the cradle and bowed. “May she always rest among friends and never fall into the hands of her enemies,” he said.

“My lord!” Marie de Guise objected. “Why mention enemies? Why even think of them now? You tie your well-wishes to something sinister. I pray you, amend your words.”

“I can amend them, but never erase them. Once spoken, they have flown into another realm. Very well: let her enemies be confounded and come to confusion.”

“I like not the word.”

“I cannot promise that there will be no enemies,” he said stubbornly. “Nor would it be a good wish. ‘Tis enemies that make a man and shape him. Only a no-thing has no enemies.”

After the lords had departed, Marie de Guise sat by the cradle and rocked it gently. The baby was sleeping. The firelight painted the side of her face rosy, and the infant curled and uncurled her fat, dimpled little fingers.

My first daughter, thought Marie, and she does look different. Is it my imagination? No, I think she’s truly feminine. The Scots would say a lass is always different from a lad, even from the beginning. This daughter has skin like almond-milk. And her hair-she gently pushed back the baby’s cap-of what colour will it be, to go with that skin? It is too early to tell; the fuzz is the same colour as that of all babes.

Mary. I have named her after myself, and also after the Virgin; after all, she was born on the Virgin’s day, the Immaculate Conception, and perhaps the Virgin will protect her, guard over her as a special charge.

Mary Queen of Scots. My daughter is a queen already; six days old, and then she became a queen.

At that thought, a brief flutter of guilt rose in her.

The King my lord and husband died, and that is how my daughter came to be Queen before her time. I should feel tearing grief. I should be mourning the King, lamenting my fate, instead of gazing in wonder at my daughter, a baby queen.

The child will be fair, she thought, studying her features. Her complexion and features all promise it. Already I can see that she has her father’s eyes, those Stewart eyes that are slanted and heavy-lidded. It was his eyes that promised so much, that were so reassuring and yet so private, hiding their own depths.

“My dear Queen.” Behind her she heard a familiar voice: Cardinal Beaton’s. He had not left with the others; but then, he felt at home here, and never more so than now, with the King gone forever. “Gazing upon your handiwork? Be careful, lest you fall in love with your own creation.” She straightened and turned to him. “It is difficult not to be in awe of her. She is lovely; and she is a queen. My family in France will be beside themselves. The Guises finally have a monarch to their credit!”

“Her last name is not Guise, but Stewart,” the bulky churchman reminded her. “It is not her French blood that puts her on this throne, but her Scottish.” He allowed himself to bend down and stroke the baby’s cheek. “Well, what are you to do?”

“Hold the throne for her as best I can,” answered Marie.

“Then you will have to remain in Scotland.” He straightened up, and made his way over to a plate of sweetmeats and nuts in a silver bowl. He picked one up and popped it into his mouth.

“I know that!” She was indignant.

“No plans to run back to France?” He was laughing, teasing her. “Made from Seville oranges,” he commented about the sweetmeat he was still sucking. “Lately I tasted a coated rind from India. Much sweeter.”

“No. If this child had not come, if I were a childless widow, then of course I certainly would not linger here! But now I have a task, and one I cannot shirk.” She shivered. “If I do not die of cold here, or take consumption.”

It was snowing outside again. She walked across the chamber to the arched stone fireplace, where a huge fire was blazing, by her orders. The baby’s chamber must be kept warm, in spite of the wildly bitter weather raging all over Scotland. The Cardinal, who lived luxuriously himself, doubtless approved.

“Oh, David,” she said, her smile suddenly fading. “What will become of Scotland? The battle-“

“If the English have their way, it will become part of England. They will seek to grab it one way or another, most likely through marriage. As the victors of Solway Moss, with their thousand high-ranking prisoners in hand, they will dictate the terms. They will probably force Mary to marry their Prince Edward.”

“Never! I will not permit that!” cried Marie.

“She must needs marry someone,” the Cardinal reminded her. “That is what the King meant when he said, `It will pass with a lass.’ When she marries, the crown goes to her husband. And there is no eligible French prince. The marriage of King Francois’s heirs, Henri de Valois and Catherine de Medicis, is barren. If little Mary tries to marry a Scot, one of her own subjects, the rest will rise up in jealousy. So who else but the English?”

“Not an English prince!” Marie kept repeating. “Not an English prince! They are all heretics down there!”

“And what do you plan to do about the King’s bastards?” the Cardinal whispered.

“I shall bring them all together and rear them here, in the palace.”

“You are mad! Better bring them all together and dispose of them, rather.”

“Like a sultan?” Marie could not help laughing. “Nay, that is not a Christian response. I will offer them charity, and a home.”

“And rear them with your own daughter, the lawful Queen? That is not Christian, but negligent. You may see your daughter reap the evil harvest of that misguided kindness. Beware that you do not nurture serpents to sting her later, when you are gone.” The Cardinal’s fat, unlined face registered true alarm. “How many are there?”

“Oh, nine or so, I think.” She laughed, then felt guilty about that, too.

I should feel bad about the King’s infidelities, she thought. But I do not. Why not? I must not have loved him. Otherwise I would have attacked the women and torn out their eyes.

“They are all boys, except one girl, Jean. His favourite bastard was the one who carried his name, James Stewart. He’s nine years old now, and lives with his mother in the castle at Lochleven. They say he’s clever,” said Marie.

“I don’t doubt it. There’s no one more clever than a royal bastard. They have inordinate hopes. Force him into the Church and tie him up there, if you value the little Queen’s safety.”

“No, the best way is to allow him into the palace and let him learn to love his sister.”

“His half-sister.”

“My, you are stubborn. I appreciate your warnings, but I will keep a close watch. “

“And what of the nobles? You cannot trust any of them, can you?”

“Yes, I trust the ones who have married the girls I brought with me from France. Lord George Seton, who married my maid of honour, Marie Pieris; Lord Robert Beaton, who married Joan de la Reynveille; Lord Alexander Livingston, who married Jeanne de Pedefer.”

“But the greater nobles are not on that list.” “No.”

Just then the little Queen let out a wail, and her mother bent down and picked her up. The tiny mouth was puckered and quivering, and the big eyes were brimming with tears.

“Hungry again,” said Marie. “I shall call the wet nurse.”

“She is a beauty,” said the Cardinal. “It is hard to imagine that anyone would wish her harm.” He tickled the baby’s chin. “Greetings, Your Majesty.”

“All men lamented that the realm was left without a male to succeed,” a young priest named John Knox wrote, slowly and thoughtfully. He looked up at his crucifix, hanging above his desk, as he dipped his pen in the inkwell.

Why have You not provided? he beseeched the cross silently. Why have You abandoned Scotland?

The September weather had played peekaboo all day. First there had been a rainstorm, with high, gusty winds that were even stronger up on the two-hundred-fifty-foot heights of Stirling Castle. Then the clouds had blown away, going east in the direction of Edinburgh, bringing piercingly blue skies and an astringent sense of cleanness. Now black clouds were coming in again, but Marie de Guise still stood in the sunshine and could see a distant rainbow over the retreating storm clouds, which trailed a skirt of mist all the way to the ground.

Was it an omen? The Queen Mother could be forgiven if she was anxious this day; it was her daughter’s coronation day.

The ceremony had been hastily arranged in an act of reckless defiance of England; it was, nonetheless, supported by all Scotsmen. Almost to a man, they found the bullying and patronizing of Henry VIII intolerable and unswallowable. His smug demands and his schoolboyish threats; his lack of any grasp of the idea that Scotland was a nation, not a sack of grain to be bought and sold; his cool assumption that he held all the power and therefore must prevail-all these convinced the Scots that they must, and would, resist to the utmost.

The first thing to do was to break the forced betrothal of Mary to Edward, a betrothal that had as a condition the sending of Mary to England to be raised. Balked in that, King Henry had wanted to place her in the care of an English household in Scotland and ban her own mother from her presence. He was determined that she be in English hands at all times; in other words, she must be kept from her own people and brought up English, not Scottish–the better to betray their interests later, so his thinking went.

Henry’s “assured lords,” the captives from the battle of Solway Moss, had turned coat and repudiated the English policy as soon as it was possible, and now the second act of defiance was being hurried forward: Mary would be crowned Queen of Scotland this afternoon, to hammer home the fact that Scotland was an independent nation with its own sovereign, even if she was only nine months old.

The date chosen was most unfortunate, thought the Queen Mother: September ninth, the anniversary of the dreadful battle of Flodden Field, where exactly thirty years before, Mary’s grandfather had met his end, hacked to death by the English.

Yet there was a certain stirring defiance in it, as if not only Henry VIII were being challenged, but fate itself.

She looked up once more at the darkening sky, then hurried across the courtyard to the palace. There was no time now to admire the French work that her late husband had lavished on decorating the grey stone palace, down to the whimsical statues he had installed all along the facade. There was even one of her, now looking down at the living model that walked quickly toward the entrance of the palace.

Her daughter was ready, wearing heavy regal robes in miniature. A crimson velvet mantle, with a train furred with ermine, was fastened around her tiny neck, and a jeweled satin gown, with long hanging sleeves, enveloped the infant, who could sit up but not walk. Her mother smoothed her head–soon to wear the crown–prayed silently for her, and then handed her solemnly to Lord Alexander Livingston, her Lord Keeper, who would carry her across the courtyard in solemn procession to the Chapel Royal. As they passed outside, the Queen Mother saw that the sunshine had fled and the sky was black. But no rain had yet fallen, and the baby passed dry in her ceremonial robes into the chapel, followed by her officers of state in procession.

Inside, there were not many. The English ambassador, Sir Ralph Sadler, who saw in this the ruin of all his master’s plans, stood gloomily wishing ill on the ceremony and all its participants. D’Oysell, the French ambassador, hated to be there at all, for his presence would seem to condone it. But King Francois would have to be informed of all the details, or he would punish his ambassador mightily for his ignorance. The other Lord Keepers of the baby Queen constituted an entire row of onlookers. Cardinal Beaton stood ready to conduct the ceremony, hovering over the throne.

The coronation itself was not lavish, or even intricate, as would have been its counterpart in England. The Scotsmen were ready to get on with it, and so, in the simplest manner, the Lord Keeper Livingston brought Mary forward to the altar and put her gently in the throne set up there. Then he stood by, holding her to keep her from rolling off.

Quickly, Cardinal Beaton put the Coronation Oath to her, which her keeper, as her sponsor, answered for her; in his voice she vowed to guard and guide Scotland and act as its true Queen, in the name of God Almighty, who had chosen her. Immediately then the Cardinal unfastened her heavy robes and began anointing her with the holy oil on her back, breast, and the palms of her hands. When the chill air struck her, she began to cry, with long, wailing sobs.

The Cardinal stopped. True, this was only a baby, crying as all babies cried, unexpectedly and distressingly. But in the silence of the stone chapel, where nerves were already taut with the whole clandestine, rebellious nature of the ceremony, the sounds were shattering. The child cried as at the fall of Man, as if in horror of damnation.

“Sssh, ssh,” he murmured. But the little Queen would not be quieted; she wailed on, until the Earl of Lennox brought forward the sceptre, a long rod of gilded silver, surmounted by crystal and Scottish pearl. He placed it in her baby hand, and she grasped the heavy shaft with her fat fingers. Her crying died away. Then the ornate gilded sword of state was presented by the Earl of Argyll, and the Cardinal performed the ceremony of girding the three-foot sword to the tiny round body.

Later, the Earl of Arran carried the crown, a heavy fantasy of gold and jewels that enclosed within it the circlet of gold worn by Robert the Bruce on his helmet at the Battle of Bannockburn, not far from Stirling. Holding it gently, the Cardinal lowered it onto the child’s head, where it rested on a circlet of velvet. From underneath the crown, heavy with the dolour of her ancestors, Mary’s eyes looked out. The Cardinal steadied the crown and Lord Livingston held her body straight as the Earls Lennox and Arran kissed her cheek in fealty, followed by the rest of the prelates and peers who knelt before her and, placing their hands on her crown, swore allegiance to her.