Viewing 16th Century Women through a 21st Century Lens, an Opinion**: Margaret Tudor and Mary, Queen of Scots

by Heather R. Darsie, J. D.

Recently I wrote a short piece about Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scots and sister of England’s Henry VIII. I encountered a secondary source that was written in the 20th century which did not have many good things to say about Margaret. This caused me to think about her granddaughter Mary, Queen of Scots. I was thinking about how both women have been maligned, especially Mary.

Mary made all her foolish choices between the ages of eighteen, when she returned to Scotland from France, and twenty-four, when she was imprisoned firstly by her countrymen, then by her cousin Elizabeth when Mary fled to England. In some ways, Mary was following in her grandmother Margaret’s footsteps.

Margaret fled from Scotland to England in 1516 after she lost the regency of James V, and legal custody of James and his younger brother Alexander. Alexander was the post-humous child of James IV. Margaret, like her granddaughter Mary, was about twenty-four years old when some of the most traumatizing things happened to Margaret: pregnant with another child, Margaret’s husband was killed in September 1513. Margaret was allowed to hold the regency of her son James, who was promptly crowned James V following the death of Margaret’s husband, so long as she remained a widow. Inexplicably, Margaret married a new husband in August 1514, losing the regency, and custody of her children.

Mary, Queen of Scots, was raised mostly in France at the French court. Her first husband was the short-lived Francis II of France, who was dead by the time Mary was eighteen. A short time after his death, the still teen-aged Mary returned to Scotland. She married her first cousin without a papal dispensation in July 1565, when she was twenty-two. Mary’s marriage to her first cousin, which produced the future James I & VI of England and Scotland, was a disaster. Her second husband was murdered in February 1567, ostensibly by Mary’s new lover, the Earl of Bothwell. In April, while Mary was traveling back from a visit with her infant son, Mary was captured by Bothwell and possibly raped by him. Inexplicably, Mary made Bothwell her third husband in May 1567.

In my observation, both Margaret and Mary have been maligned for their marital decisions, though the tide has started turning in recent years. When looking at these two women, what choices did they really have? Margaret was regarded as a foreigner aligned with the English crown because she was Henry VIII’s sister. Scotland was tumultuous at the time. How could she protect herself? Marrying again for protection was a reasonable action for the early 16th century. Yes, it cost Margaret the regency and custody of her sons, among other things, but she was safe. It is easy to call a person’s actions foolish when it is not our own lives we are judging, but that of someone who died hundreds of years ago.

The same issue arises with Mary, Queen of Scots: was she indeed foolish? Mary was perceived as more a French woman. Mary’s second husband murdered her male secretary right in front of Mary, with a gun to Mary’s head, while Mary was pregnant. And she had to watch her friend and secretary be brutally murdered by stabbing, starting in the small closet directly connected to Mary’s bedroom, continuing through Mary’s bedroom, and ending in her private chapel. Such was the behavior of Mary’s second husband. Mary’s third husband, the Earl of Bothwell, probably or possibly murdered the second one, then may have raped Mary, which could have (and in fact, did) impregnated her.

Let’s think about this critically for a moment: Mary’s life from the age of twenty-two to twenty-four saw her commit to a bad marriage, the murder of her friend by her husband and only child’s father, the murder of her second husband by her third husband, all leading up to her kidnapping and rape by the man who would be her third husband.

As a Catholic, Mary may have been loath to divorce her second husband and father of her heir, even if he was a violent murderer. Concerning Mary’s third marriage, Mary’s motivations behind her wedding the man who at best only kidnapped her, and at worst, murdered her second husband then kidnapped and raped Mary, what was she to do? Scotland was still a tumultuous country for a variety of reasons. The only other queens regnant the island had seen by the time Mary returned to Scotland were Mary I and Elizabeth I of England (I am omitting Lady Jane Grey due to her brief reign). Neither one of those women were married to murderers. And neither one of those women had to worry whether they would, while a reigning monarch, give birth to a royal bastard. In other words, Mary could have felt forced to marry her third husband for fear of having a baby out of wedlock. The was no precedence for how to manage a queen’s royal bastard, especially considering that a queen consort could be lawfully executed in England for having had a sexual relationship before marriage to a king regnant (such was the fate of Catherine Howard, wife of Henry VIII of England). And pregnant Mary was, sadly losing her twins a few months later in summer 1567.

Could Mary, Queen of Scots feared for her life and crown because of her treatment at the hands of violent suitors? Absolutely. Mary ultimately fled into England for protection, much like her grandmother Margaret. Mary was imprisoned for the rest of her life.

It seems fair to say that Margaret and Mary did the best they knew how, and at young, vulnerable ages. Though being in one’s early twenties in the 16th century is quite a bit different in some ways than in the 21st century, these are still two young women living in dangerous times. Two young women without the benefit of familial support and regarded as suspicious due to being women, and due to their real or perceived status as foreigners. Some of their decisions seemed foolish, but these two women did what they could to protect themselves, even if the pursuit of safety failed spectacularly.

** The author acknowledges that there may be slight inaccuracies concerning dates, etc., and encourages the conscientious reader to conduct their own research into the lives of these women.


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