MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS
A Brilliant Personality
More than three hundred years have elapsed since Mary Stuart was sent to the scaffold by Elizabeth, and met death with that noble fortitude which awed her enemies and which has half redeemed her fame in the eyes even of those who regard the tragedy of Fotheringay as an act no less of justice than of expediency. But even at the present time interest in her memory has not died away; nor can the question of her innocence or of her guilt be yet said to have been definitely settled by all that has been written about her in the interval. It hardly seems probable that it ever will be, for it is still a question of politics with some and of religion with many. And even in the rare instances where judgment is not blinded by the prejudice or the partiality of party or of creed, it is affected by an influence, nobler and more excusable [Pg 2]indeed, but not less powerful nor less misleading—by unreasoning sentiment, by the sympathy which the romance of the unfortunate Queen’s chequered career, her legendary beauty, her long captivity, and her heroic death awaken.
In the controversy which has now raged for three centuries, and in the course of which every incident of Mary’s life has repeatedly been submitted to the closest scrutiny, anxiety to get at facts, to add to the weight of evidence, to discover fresh witnesses, to unearth new documents bearing on the points at issue, has led to a disregard of her personality more complete, perhaps, than in the case of any of her contemporaries, and contrasting strangely with the abundance of intimate details which go to make up our knowledge of her great rival. To most of us Elizabeth is as distinctly, almost tangibly, present as though she had reigned in our day. She moves through the pages of history surrounded by a train of courtiers scarcely less familiar to us than those of our own generation. The Queen of Scots, on the contrary, seems to be but little more than an historical abstraction. It is scarcely too much to say that many for whom it would be an easy task to follow her, step by step, from Linlithgow to Fotheringay, to recall all the events of which she was the central figure, to discuss all the problems which her name suggests, would be at a loss to furnish such details as could bring before us the features of the woman whose beauty doubtless finds frequent mention in their discourses, or bring together such particulars as would [Pg 3]justify all that they are ready to admit, and perhaps even to assert, concerning her talents and her accomplishments. It may, therefore, be neither inopportune nor uninteresting if, forgetting for a while the history of the Queen, we give our attention to the individuality of the woman; if, turning to the “treasures of antiquity laid up in old historic rolls”, we endeavour, not to clear up the mystery of Darnley’s murder, nor to explain the fatal marriage with Bothwell; not to pronounce on the authenticity of the sonnets, nor to solve the enigma of the famous letters; but to present a picture of the first lady of the land as she appeared to the crowds that had hurried to Leith to welcome her return, or that lined the Canongate as she rode to the Parliament House; to show her at her sports with her attendant Marys at Stirling or at St. Andrews; to listen to the conversation with which she entertained the courtiers of Amboise and of Holyrood, and to glance at the pages of the volumes over which she mused in the retirement of her library or the solitude of her prison.
The historians of Mary Stuart all agree in telling us that she was the most beautiful woman of her age; and it must be admitted that this is fully borne out by all that can be gathered from contemporary writers. It is not only such poetic enthusiasts as Michel de l’Hôpital, Du Bellay, and Ronsard, or such courtly flatterers as Brantôme and Castelnau, who pronounce her beauty to have been matchless—far exceeding “all that is, shall be, or has ever been”, but the serious and dignified chroniclers [Pg 4]whom Jebb has brought together in his valuable folios—Strada, Blackwood, and even de Thou—also grow eloquent in praise of her charms. But perhaps the most convincing testimony that can be adduced is contained in a poem, composed by an Englishman who was confessedly hostile to Mary, and whose satire was so keenly felt by her that she made it the subject of a formal complaint to Elizabeth. The words attributed to her—for the passage in which they occur is in the form of a confession on her part—are scarcely less forcible than those of her avowed partisans and admirers:
It is most remarkable, however, that no extant portrait justifies the praises so lavishly bestowed on Mary. As to this, the courtesy of the late Mr. Wylie Guild, of Glasgow, afforded us an opportunity of forming an opinion based on the evidence of his remarkable collection of portraits of the Queen of [Pg 5]Scots—a collection which comprised, besides reproductions of most of the paintings claiming to be authentic, a series of over four hundred engravings, many of them by Clouet, and dating from the period of Mary’s stay in France. We were compelled to agree with the possessor of that unique iconography that none of them showed the dazzling charms which poets and chroniclers have celebrated. And the portraits which various exhibitions have since then enabled us to examine, have only confirmed that earlier judgment. To reconcile this very striking contradiction seems difficult. Possibly the truth may be that the fascination of Mary’s face consisted less in the regularity of outline or the striking beauty of any one feature than in the expression by which it was animated. Her complexion, though likened by [Pg 6]Ronsard to alabaster and ivory, does not seem to have possessed the clearness and brilliancy which the comparison implies; for Sir James Melville, though anxious to vindicate his Queen’s claim to be considered “very lovely” and “the fairest lady in her country”, acknowledged that she was less “white” than Elizabeth. The brightness of her eyes, which Ronsard likened to stars, and Chastelard to beacons, has not been questioned; but their colour is a point about which there is less unanimity, opinions varying between hazel and dark grey. As regards her hair the discrepancy of contemporary authorities is even greater. Brantôme and Ronsard describe a wealth of golden hair, and this is to a certain extent confirmed by Sir James Melville, who, when called upon by Elizabeth to pronounce whether his Queen’s hair was fairer than her own, [Pg 7]answered that “the fairnes of them baith was not their worst faltes”. To this, however, must be opposed the testimony of Nicholas White, who, writing to Cecil in 1563, described the Queen as black-haired. The explanation of this may possibly lie in Mary’s compliance with the fashion, introduced about this time, of wearing wigs. Indeed, Knollys informed White that she wore “hair of sundry colours”, and, in a letter to Cecil, praised the skill with which Mary Seton—”the finest busker of hair to be seen in any country”—”did set such a curled hair upon the Queen, that was said to be a perewyke, that showed very delicately”.
According to one account, the Queen of Scots wore black, according to another, auburn ringlets on the morning of her execution. Both, however, agree in this, that when the false covering fell she “appeared as grey as if she had been sixty and ten years old”.
Mary’s hand was white, but not small, the long, tapering fingers mentioned by Ronsard being, indeed, a characteristic of some of her portraits. She was of tall stature, taller than Elizabeth, which made the Queen of England pronounce her cousin to be too tall, she herself being, according to her own standard, “neither too high nor too low”. Her voice was irresistibly soft and sweet. Not only [Pg 8]does Brantôme extol it as “trés douce et trés bonne”, and Ronsard poetically celebrate it as capable of moving rocks and woods, but Knox, although ungraciously and unwillingly, also testifies to its charm. He informs us that, at one of her Parliaments, the Queen made a “paynted orisoun”, and that, on this occasion, “thair mycht have been hard among hir flatteraris, ‘Vox Dianæ!‘ The voice of a goddess (for it could not be Dei) and not of a woman! God save the sweet face! Was thair ever oratour spack so properlie and so sweitlie!”
When, to this description, we have added that Mary Stuart was of a full figure and became actually stout in later life; that she is described in the report of her execution and represented in several portraits as having a double chin, we shall have given a picture of her which, though wanting in some details, is as complete as it is possible to sketch at this length of time.
Mary Stuart is not infrequently mentioned as one of the precocious children of history. But the legend of her scholarly acquirements originates with Brantôme, an authority not always above suspicion when the glorification of princes is his theme, and it is not unnecessary to look more closely into the matter before we accept his glowing panegyric of the youthful prodigy. He informs us that Mary was “very learned in Latin”, and that, when only [Pg 9]thirteen or fourteen years of age, she publicly delivered at the Louvre, in the presence of King Henry II, Catherine de’ Medici, his Queen, and the whole French Court, a Latin discourse which she had composed in justification of her own course of studies, and in support of the view that it is befitting in women to devote themselves to letters and to the liberal arts. This speech is also referred to by Antoine Fouquelin in the dedication of a textbook of Rhetoric which he composed for the young Princess. He records the admiration with which Mary had been listened to by the noble company, and the high hopes which the elegant oration had awakened. That she herself set some value on this production may be assumed from the fact that she was at the pains of translating it into French; and the mention of it in the inventory of books delivered by the Earl of Morton to James VI in 1578, where it appears as “ane Oratioun to the King of Franche of the Quenis awin hand write”, would seem to imply that she looked back with pride upon her youthful triumph. This interesting manuscript has now disappeared; nevertheless, it is not impossible to obtain from another source a fairly accurate idea of the speech which called forth such high praise from the French courtiers. It happens that the National Library in Paris possesses the Latin themes written by Mary Stuart in 1554, the year before the oratorical performance at the Louvre. Amongst the exercises contained in the [Pg 10]morocco-bound volume, fifteen refer to the same subject as the speech, and, it is fair to suppose, were intended as a preparation for the princely pupil’s “speech-day”. Disappointing as it may be to ardent admirers of the Queen of Scots, it must be admitted that her themes do not bear out the praises bestowed on her Latinity, but contain such solecisms as would probably have been fraught with unpleasant consequences to a less noble and less fair scholar. Neither need the substance of Mary’s apology for learned women excite our enthusiasm. To string together, with a few commonplace remarks, lists of names evidently supplied by her tutor and taken by him from Politian’s Epistles, was no very remarkable achievement on the part of a child who, if she began her classical studies as early as her fellow pupil and sister-in-law Elizabeth did, had already devoted fully five years to Latin at the date of her famous speech.
But, though the Queen’s early proficiency may have been overrated, there can be no doubt that, in later life, she possessed considerable familiarity with the language of Virgil and of Cicero. We know from contemporary letters that, after her return to Scotland, she continued her studies under Buchanan and that, faithful to the habit which she had acquired in France, of devoting two hours a day to her books, she regularly read “somewhat of Livy” with him “after her dinner”.
[Pg 11]The catalogue of the books contained in the royal library affords further information as to the nature and extent of her acquaintance with Latin literature. In it we find mention, amongst others of lesser note, of Horace, Virgil and Cicero, of Æmilius Probus and Columella, of Vegetius and Boethius. Neither did she neglect the Latinity of the Middle Ages. In prose it is represented by such forgotten names as those of Bertram of Corvey, of Ludolph of Saxony, of Joannes de Sacrobosco, and of Nicolaus de Clamangiis, the authors of ponderous treatises on science and on theology; the latter subject being one which her interest in the great ecclesiastical revolution of the age rendered particularly attractive to her. Amongst contemporary Latin poets her favourites seem to have been Petrus Bargæus, Louis Leroy, Sir Thomas Craig of Riccarton, and George Buchanan, whose dedication to her of his translation of the Psalms has not unjustly been pronounced to stand “unsurpassed by all the verses that have been lavished upon her during three hundred years by poets of almost every nation and language of Europe”.
Whether the Queen of Scots was acquainted with Greek cannot be determined with certainty. Neither Brantôme nor Con nor Blackwood has given information on this head. If, on the one hand, her numerous Latin and French translations of Greek authors do not point to a great familiarity with it, [Pg 12]on the other, the knowledge that she used such versions for the purpose of linguistic study, and the presence on her shelves of Homer and Herodotus, of Sophocles and Euripides, of Socrates and Plato, of Demosthenes and Lucian in the original tongue, justify the supposition that, even though she may not have rivalled the fair pupils of Ascham and of Aylmer, the productions of Athenian genius were not sealed books to her.
Amongst modern languages Spanish was that with which Mary had the slightest acquaintance, and so far as may be judged from the works which she possessed, her reading in it was limited to a book of chronicles and a collection of ballads. As might be expected from her early surroundings, she was more familiar with Italian. She could both speak and write it. Indeed, among the verses attributed to her there is an Italian sonnet addressed to Elizabeth. It is scarcely credible that she had not read Dante; nevertheless, it is worthy of notice that his “Divine Comedy” does not appear in the catalogue of her library where, however, Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Ariosto figure by the side of the less-known Bembo.
Though born in Scotland, Mary Stuart never possessed great fluency in the language of the country over which she was called to rule. Her knowledge of it was acquired chiefly, if not wholly, after her return from France. Her father, from [Pg 13]whom she might have learnt it in childhood, she never knew. For her mother the northern Doric remained through life a foreign tongue. The attendants with whom she was surrounded in her earliest infancy were either French or had been educated in France. It is therefore questionable whether she could express herself in what was nominally her native tongue, even when she sailed from Dumbarton on her journey to the court of the Valois. That she forgot whatever she may then have known of it is beyond doubt. Seven years after she had left France she was still making efforts to learn English, using translations—amongst others an English version of the Psalms—for the purpose, but not meeting with signal success. Conversing with Nicholas White, in 1569, she began with excuses for “her ill English, declaring herself more willing than apt to learn the language”.It was on the 1st of September of the preceding year that she wrote what she herself describes as her first letter in English. This circumstance may warrant its reproduction, though as an historical document merely, it possesses no importance. It is addressed to Sir Francis Knollys: “Mester Knollis, y heuu har sum neus from Scotland; y send zou the double off them y vreit to the quin my gud sister, and pres zou to du the lyk, conforme to that y spak zesternicht vnto zou, and sut hesti ansur y refer all to zour discretion, and wil lipne beter in zour gud delin for mi, nor y kan persuad zou, nemli in this langasg; excus my iuel [Pg 14]vreitin for y neuuer vsed it afor, and am hestet…. Excus my iuel vreitin thes furst tym.”
The testimony of Mary’s library, to which we have already appealed, and which is the more valuable and the more trustworthy that the books which it contained were undoubtedly collected by herself and for her own use, bears out what has been so often stated with regard to her love of French literature. In history it shows her to have been acquainted not only with the foremost chroniclers; not only with Froissart, in whose picturesque narrative her native Scotland is mentioned with such grateful remembrance of the hospitality shown him; not only with Monstrelet, from whose ungenerous treatment of the heroic Joan of Arc she may have learnt, even before her own experience taught her the hard lesson, how the animosity of party can blunt all better feeling; but also with the lesser writers, with those whose works never reached celebrity even in their own day and whose names have long ceased to interest posterity, with Aubert and Bouchet, Sauvage and Paradin.
It may be regarded as a proof of her good taste that she set but little store on the dreary romances of the time, written either in imitation or in continuation of “Amadis de Gaul”, whilst to Rabelais, on the contrary, she accorded the place of honour which he deserved.
[Pg 15]As regards the poets of France, all that Brantôme has told us of her partiality for them finds its justification in the almost complete collection of their works which she brought to Scotland with her. Amongst all others, however, Du Bellay, Maison-Fleur, and Ronsard were her special favourites. For the last, in particular, her enthusiasm was unbounded. It was to the verses in which he embodies the love of a whole nation that she turned for solace when the fresh sorrow of her departure from France was her heaviest burthen; it was over his pages that her tears flowed in the bitterness which knew no comfort as she sat a lonely captive in the castles of Elizabeth. As a token of her admiration she sent him from her prison a costly service of plate with the flattering inscription: “A Ronsard, l’Apollon des Français”.
It has been asserted by Brantôme, and repeated ever since on his authority, that Mary Stuart herself excelled in French verse. The elegiac stanzas quoted by him have been admired in all good faith by succeeding generations “for the tender pathos of the sentiments and the original beauty of the metaphors”. It is painful to throw discredit on the time-honoured tradition, but the late discovery of a manuscript once in Brantôme’s possession has proved, beyond the possibility of a doubt, that the “Elegy on the Death of Francis II” was not composed by his wife. This was at once established by Dr. Galy of Périgueux, the possessor of the manuscript. [Pg 16]Having since then been favoured by him with a copy of other poems contained in it and acknowledged by Brantôme as his own productions, and having compared them carefully with the “pathetic sentiments” and “original metaphors”, as well as with the expressions and even the rhymes of the Elegy, we have no hesitation in going a step further, and pronouncing that the latter is from the pen of the unscrupulous Lord Abbot himself. Apart from this, there still remain a few poems attributed to Mary, and authenticated, not indeed by her signature, but by what is almost as authoritative, her anagrams: “Sa vertu m’atire”, or “Va, tu meriteras”. However interesting these poetical effusions may be as relics, their literary merit is of no high order, and they are assuredly not such as to deserve for the author a place amongst the poets of her century.
Before closing our remarks on Mary Stuart’s scholarship and literary acquirements we would dwell for a moment on the subject of her handwriting, for that too has been made the subject of admiring comment by some of her biographers. Con has recorded that “she formed her letters elegantly and, what is rare in a woman, wrote swiftly”. [Pg 17]Some reason for his admiration may be found in the fact that Mary had adopted what Shakespeare styles “the sweet Roman hand”, which at that time was only beginning to take the place of the old Gothic, and, in Scotland particularly, had all the charm of a fashionable novelty. The specimen now before us shows a bold, rather masculine hand, of such size that five short words—”mon linge entre mes fammes”—fill a line six inches long. The letters are seldom joined together, and the words are scattered over the page with untutored irregularity and disregard for straight lines. On the whole we cannot but allow the force of Pepys’ exclamation on being shown some of the Queen’s letters: “Lord! How poorly methinks they wrote in those days, and on what plain uncut paper!”
Our sketch of Mary Stuart would not be complete if we limited ourselves to the more serious side of her character merely. If she did not deserve the reputation for utter thoughtlessness and frivolity which some of her puritanical contemporaries have given her, she was undoubtedly fond of amusements. The memoirs and correspondence of the time often show her seeking recreation in popular sports and pastimes; indeed, Randolph describes life at the Scottish Court for the first two years after her return from France as one continual round of “feasts, banquetting, masking, and running at the ring, and such like”. It was to Mary, as Knox testifies, that [Pg 18]the introduction into Scotland of those primitive dramatic performances known as Masques or Triumphs was due. They soon became so popular that they formed the chief entertainment at every festival. The Queen herself and her attendants, particularly the four Marys, often took part in them, either acting in mere dumb show or reciting the verses which the elegant pen of Buchanan supplied, and singing the songs which Rizzio composed, and of which the melodies may very possibly be those which, wedded to more modern verse, are still popular amongst the Scottish peasantry. Not only were these masques performed in the large halls of the feudal castles, but in the open air also, near the little lake at the foot of Arthur’s Seat. It may cause some astonishment at the present day to find not only the maids of honour, but even the Queen herself, assuming the dress of the other sex in these masquerades. Yet the Diurnal of Occurrents records, without expressing either indignation or even astonishment at the fact, that “the Queen’s Grace and all her Maries and ladies were all clad in men’s apparel” at the “Maskery or mumschance” given one Sunday evening in honour of the French Ambassador.
Like her cousin of England, Mary was fond of dancing, and, as her Latin biography informs us, showed to great advantage in it. From a passage quaintly noted as “full of diversion” in Sir James Melville’s Memoirs, we learn that the knight being [Pg 19]pressed by Queen Elizabeth to declare whether she or his own sovereign danced best, answered her with courtly ambiguity that “the Queen dancit not so hich and so disposedly as she did”. In reply to the same royal enquirer he also stated that Mary “sometimes recreated herself in playing upon the lute and virginals”, and that she played “reasonably for a queen”, not so well, however, as Elizabeth herself. We gather from Con and Brantôme that her voice was well trained, and that she sang well.
The indoor amusements in favour at Holyrood were chess, which James VI condemned as “over wise and philosophic a folly”, tables, a game probably resembling backgammon, and cards. That these last were not played for “love” merely, is shown by an entry in the Lord Treasurer’s accounts of “fyftie pundis” for Her Majesty “to play at the cartis”. Puppets or marionettes were also in great vogue. A set of thirty-eight, together with a complete outfit of “vardingaills”, “gownis”, “kirtillis”, “sairkis slevis”, and “hois”, is mentioned in an inventory of the time, where we see these “pippenis”—an old Scottish corruption of the French “poupine”—dressed in such costly stuffs as damask brocaded with gold, cloth of silver, and white silk.
[Pg 20]Quieter employment for the leisure hours of the Queen and her ladies was supplied by various kinds of fancy-work, amongst which knitting and tapestry are particularly mentioned. To the latter she devoted much of her time, both at Lochleven, where she requested to be allowed “an imbroiderer, to draw forth such work as she would be occupied about”, and in England. Whilst she was at Tutbury, Nicholas White once asked her how she passed her time within doors when the weather cut off all exercises abroad. She replied “that all that day she wrought with her needle, and that the diversity of the colours made the work seem less tedious, and continued so long at it till very pain made her to give over…. Upon this occasion she entered into a pretty disputable comparison between carving, painting, and working with the needle, affirming painting, in her own opinion, for the most commendable quality.”
At his interview with Elizabeth, Sir James Melville was asked what kind of exercises his Queen used. He answered, that when he received his dispatch, the Queen was lately come from the Highland hunting. Her undaunted behaviour on this occasion is recorded by an eyewitness, Dr. William Barclay of Gartley, who tells us that she herself gave the signal for letting the hounds loose upon a wolf, and that in one day’s hunting three hundred and sixty deer, five wolves, and some wild goats were slain.
[Pg 21]In common with her father, who took great pains to introduce “ratches” or greyhounds and bloodhounds into Scotland, and with her great-grandson, Charles II, who gave his name to a breed of spaniels, Mary Stuart shared a great fondness for dogs. In her happier days she always possessed several, which she entrusted to the keeping of one Anthone Guedio and a boy. These canine pets were provided with a daily ration of two loaves, and wore blue velvet collars as a distinguishing badge. During her captivity, her dogs were amongst her most faithful companions. Writing from Sheffield to Beton, Archbishop of Glasgow, she said: “If my uncle, the Cardinal of Guise, has gone to Lyons, I am sure he will send me a couple of pretty little dogs, and you will buy me as many more; for, except reading and working, my only pleasure is in all the little animals that I can get. They must be sent in baskets well-packed, so as to keep them warm.” The fidelity of one of these dumb friends adds to the pathos of the last scene of her sad history. “One of the executioners,” says a contemporary report, “pulling off her clothes, espied her little dog which was crept under her clothes, which would not be gotten forth but by force, and afterwards would not depart from the dead body, but came and lay betwixt her head and shoulders, a thing diligently noted.”
[Pg 22]In recording one of his interviews with Queen Mary, Knox gives us information concerning another of the sports with which she beguiled her time, for he tells us that it was at the hawking near Kinross that she appointed him to meet her.Archery, too, seems to have been a favourite amusement. She had butts both at Holyrood and St. Andrews. Writing to Cecil in 1562, and again in 1567, Randolph informs him that the Queen and the Master of Lindsay shot against Mary Livingston and the Earl of Murray; and that, in another match, the Queen and Bothwell won a dinner at Tranent from the Earl of Huntley and Lord Seton. Neither did she neglect the “royal game”, for one of the charges brought against her and embodied in the articles given in by the Earl of Murray to Queen Elizabeth’s commissioners at Westminster, stated that a few days after Darnley’s murder “she past to Seytoun, exercing hir one day richt oppinlie at the feildis with the pallmall and goif”.
To sketch Mary’s character further would be trenching on debatable ground and overstepping the limits which we have imposed upon ourselves. There is one trait, however, which may be recorded on the authority even of her enemies—her personal courage. Randolph represents her as riding at the head of her troops “with a steel bonnet on her head, and a pistol at her saddle-bow; regretting that she was not a man to know what life it was to lie all night in the fields, or to walk upon the causeway with a jack and a knapscull, a Glasgow buckler, [Pg 23]and a broadsword”. The author of the poem preserved in the Record Office, to which we have already made reference, allows that “no enemy could appal her, no travail daunt her intent”, that she “dreaded no danger of death”, that “no stormy blasts could make her retire”, and he likens her to Tomiris:
But never, surely, was her fortitude shown more clearly to the world than when, three hundred years ago, “she laid herself upon the block most quietly, trying her chin over it, stretching out her hands, and crying out: ‘In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum'”.
THE FOUR MARYS
Reference is seldom made to the Queen’s Marys, the four Maids of Honour whose romantic attachment to their royal mistress and namesake, the ill-fated Queen of Scots, has thrown such a halo of popularity and sympathy about their memory, without calling forth the well-known lines:
To those who are acquainted with the whole of the ballad, which records the sad fate of the guilty Mary Hamilton, it must have occurred that there is a striking incongruity between the traditional loyalty of the Queen’s Marys and the alleged execution of one of their number, on the denunciation of the offended Queen herself, for the murder of an illegitimate child, the reputed offspring of a criminal intrigue with Darnley. Yet a closer investigation of the facts assumed in the ballad leads to a discovery more unexpected than even this. It establishes, beyond the possibility of a doubt, that, of the four family-names given in the stanza as those of [Pg 26]the four Marys, two only are authentic. Mary Carmichael and Mary Hamilton herself are mere poetical myths. Not only does no mention of them occur in any of the lists still extant of the Queen’s personal attendants, but there also exist documents of all kinds, from serious historical narrative and authoritative charter to gossiping correspondence and polished epigram, to prove that the colleagues of Mary Beton and Mary Seton were Mary Fleming and Mary Livingston. How the apocryphal names have found their way into the ballad, or how the ballad itself has come to be connected with the Maids of Honour, cannot be determined. There is, however, in Knox’s History of the Reformation, a passage which has been looked upon as furnishing a possible foundation of truth to the whole fiction. It is that in which he records the commission and the punishment of a crime similar to that for which Mary Hamilton is represented as about to die on the gallows. “In the very time of the General Assembly there comes to public knowledge a haynous murther, committed in the Court; yea, not far from the queen’s lap: for a French woman, that served in the queen’s chamber, had played the whore with the queen’s own apothecary. The woman conceived and bare a child, whom with common consent, the father and mother murthered; yet were the cries of a new-borne childe hearde, searche was made, the childe and the mother were both apprehended, and so was the man and the woman condemned to be hanged in the publicke [Pg 27]street of Edinburgh. The punishment was suitable, because the crime was haynous.” Between this historical fact—for the authenticity of which we have also the testimony of Randolph —and the ballad, which substitutes Darnley and one of the Maids of Honour for the queen’s apothecary and a nameless waiting-woman, the connection is not very close. Indeed, there is but one point on which both accounts are in agreement, though that, it is true, is an important one. The unnatural mother whose crime, with its condign punishment, is mentioned by the historian, was, he says, a French woman. The Mary Hamilton of the ballad, in spite of a name which certainly does not point to a foreign origin, is also made to come from over the seas:
[Pg 28]It does not, however, come within the scope of the present paper to examine more closely into the ballad of Mary Hamilton. It suffices to have made it clear that, whatever be their origin, the well-known verses have no historical worth or significance, and no real claim to the title of “The Queen’s Marie” prefixed to them in the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.Except for the purpose of correcting the erroneous, but general belief, which has been propagated by the singular and altogether unwarranted mention of the “Four Marys”, and the introduction of the names of two of them in the oft-quoted stanza, there would, in reality, be no necessity for any allusion to the popular poem in a sketch of the career of the fair Maids of Honour, whose touching fidelity through good and evil fortune has won for them a greater share of interest than is enjoyed by any of the subordinate characters in the great historical drama of which their royal mistress is the central figure.
The first historical and authoritative mention of the four Marys is from the pen of one who was personally and intimately acquainted with them—John Leslie, Bishop of Ross. It occurs in his description of the departure of the infant Mary Stuart from the small harbour at the foot of the beetling, castle-crowned rock of Dumbarton, on that memorable voyage which so nearly resembled a flight. “All things being reddy for the jornay,” writes the chronicler, in his quaint northern idiom, “the Quene being as than betuix fyve and sax yearis of aige, wes delivered [Pg 29]to the quene dowarier hir moder, and wes embarqued in the Kingis awin gallay, and with her the Lord Erskyn and Lord Levingstoun quha had bene hir keparis, and the Lady Fleming her fadir sister, with sindre gentilwemen and nobill mennis sonnes and dochteres, almoist of hir awin age; of the quhilkes thair wes four in speciall, of whom everie one of thame buir the samin name of Marie, being of four syndre honorable houses, to wyt, Fleming, Levingstoun, Seton and Betoun of Creich; quho remainit all foure with the Quene in France, during her residens thair, and returned agane in Scotland with her Majestie in the yeir of our Lord ImVclxi yeris.” Of the education and early training of the four Marys, as companions and playmates of the youthful queen, we have no special record. The deficiency is one which our knowledge of the wild doings of the gayest court of the age makes it easy to supply. For the Scottish maidens, as for their mistress, intercourse with the frivolous company that gathered about Catherine de’ Medici was but indifferent preparation for the serious business of life. Looking back on “those French years”, doubtless they too, like her, “only seemed to see—
[Pg 30]Brantôme, to whom we are indebted for so much personal description of Mary Stuart, and so many intimate details concerning her character, tastes, and acquirements, is less communicative with respect to her four fair attendants. He merely mentions them amongst the court beauties as “Mesdamoiselles de Flammin, de Ceton, Beton, Leviston, escoissaises”. He makes no allusion to them in the pathetic description of the young queen’s departure from her “sweet France” on the fateful 24th of August, a date which subsequent events were destined to mark with a fearful stain of blood, in the family to which she was allied. Yet, doubtless they, too, were gazing with tearful eyes at the receding shore, blessing the calm which retarded their course, trembling with vague fears as their voyage began amidst the cries of drowning men, and half wishing that the English ships of the jealous Elizabeth might prevent them from reaching their dreary destination. That they were with their royal namesake, we know. Leslie, who, with Brantôme and the unfortunate Chastelard, accompanied the idol of France to her unsympathetic northern home, again makes special note of “the four maidis of honour quha passit with hir Hienes in France, of her awin aige, bering the name everie ane of Marie, as is befoir mencioned”.
During the first years of Mary Stuart’s stay in her capital, the four maids of honour played conspicuous parts in all the amusements and festivities of the court, and were amongst those who incurred [Pg 31]the censure of the austere Reformers for introducing into Holyrood the “balling, and dancing, and banquetting” of Amboise and Fontainbleau. Were our information about the masques acted at the Scottish Court less scanty, we should, doubtless, often find the names of the four Marys amongst the performers. Who more fit than they to figure in the first masque represented at Holyrood, in October, 1561, at the Queen’s farewell banquet to her uncle, the Grand Prior of the Knights of St. John, and to take their places amongst the Muses who marched in procession before the throne, reciting Buchanan’s flattering verses in praise of the lettered court of the Queen of Scots?
Had Marioreybanks given us the names of those who took part in the festivities which he describes as having taken place on the occasion of Lord Fleming’s marriage, can we doubt that the Marys would have been found actively engaged in the open-air performance “in the Parke of Holyroudhous, under Arthur’s Seatt, at the end of the loche”? Indeed, it is not matter of mere conjecture, but of authentic historical record, that on more than one occasion Buchanan did actually introduce the Queen’s namesakes amongst the dramatis personæ of the masques [Pg 32]which, as virtual laureate of the Scottish Court, he was called upon to supply. The Diurnal of Occurrents mentions that “upoun the ellevint day of the said moneth (February) the King and Quene in lyik manner bankettit the samin (French) Ambassatour; and at evin our Soveranis maid the maskrie and mumschance, in the quhilk the Queenis Grace and all hir Maries and ladies were all cled in men’s apperell; and everie ane of thame presentit ane quhingar, bravelie and maist artificiallie made and embroiderit with gold, to the said Ambassatour and his gentilmen, everie ane of thame according to his estate”. That this, moreover, was not the first appearance of the fair performers we also know, for it was they who bore the chief parts in the third masque acted during the festivities which attended the Queen’s marriage with Darnley; and it was one of them, perhaps Mary Beton, the scholar of the court, who recited the verses which Buchanan had introduced in allusion to their royal mistress’s recovery from some illness otherwise unrecorded in history:
That the four Nymphs mentioned in this, the only fragment of the masque which has been preserved, [Pg 33]were the four Marys, is explained by Buchanan’s commentator, Ruddiman: “Nymphas his vocat quatuor Mariæ Scotæ corporis ministras, quæ etiam omnes Mariæ nominabantur”. It is more than probable, too, that the Marys were not merely spectators of the masque which formed a part of the first day’s amusements, and of which they themselves were the subject-matter. It may still be read under the title of “Pompa Deorum in Nuptiis Mariæ”, in Buchanan’s Latin poems. Diana opens the masque, which is but a short mythological dialogue, with a complaint to the ruler of Olympus that one of her five Marys—the Queen herself is here included—has been taken from her by the envious arts of Venus and of Juno:
In the dialogue which follows, and in which five goddesses and five gods take part, Apollo chimes in with a prophecy which was only partially accomplished:
The whole pageant closes with an epilogue spoken by the herald Talthybius, who also foretells further defections from Diana’s maidens:
As was but natural, the Queen’s favourite attendants possessed considerable influence with their royal lady, and the sequel will show, in the case of each of them, how eagerly their good offices were sought after by courtiers and ambassadors anxious for the success of their several suits and missions. In a letter which Randolph wrote to Cecil on the 24th of October, 1564, and which, as applying to the Marys collectively, may be quoted here, we are shown the haughty Lennox himself condescending to make pretty presents to the maids with a view to ingratiating himself with the mistress. “He presented also each of the Marys with such pretty things as he thought fittest for them, such good means he hath to win their hearts, and to make his way to further effect.”
Categories: English Literature