Tales of a Grandfather, by Walter Scott

Chapter 30

Mary Stewart, the Queen Dowager of France and hereditary Queen of Scotland, was without any exception, the most beautiful and accomplished woman of her time. Her countenance was lovely; she was tall, well-formed, elegant in all her motions, skilled in the exercises of riding and dancing, and possessed of all the female accomplishments which were in fashion at that period. Her education in France had been carefully attended to, and she had profited by the opportunities of instruction she enjoyed. She was mistress of several languages, and understood state-affairs, in which her husband had often used her advice. The beauty of Mary was enhanced by her great condescension, and by the good-humour and gaiety which she sometimes carried to the verge of excess. Her youth, for she was only eighteen when she returned to Scotland, increased the liveliness of her disposition. The Catholic religion, in which she had been strictly educated, was a great blemish in the eyes of her people; but on the whole the nation expected her return with more hope and joy, than Mary herself entertained at the thought of exchanging the fine climate of France and the gaieties of its court, for the rough tempests and turbulent politics of her native country.

Mary set sail from France 15th August, 1561. The English fleet were at sea, and there is great reason to believe that they had a purpose of intercepting the Queen of Scots, as a neighbour whose return was dreaded by Elizabeth. Occupied with anxious forebodings, the Queen remained on the deck of her galley, gazing on the coasts of France. Morning found her in the same occupation; and when they vanished from her eyes, she exclaimed in sorrow, “Farewell, farewell, happy France; I shall never see thee more!”

She passed the English fleet under cover of a mist, and arrived at Leith on the 19th August, where little or no preparation had been made for her honourable reception. Such of the nobles as were in the capital hastened, however, to wait upon their young Queen, and convey her to Holyrood, the palace of her ancestors. Horses were provided to bring her and her train to Edinburgh; but they were wretched ponies, and had such tattered furniture and accoutrements, that poor Mary, when she thought of the splendid palfreys and rich appointments at the court of France, could not forbear shedding tears. The people were, however, in their way, rejoiced to see her; and about two hundred citizens of Edinburgh, each doing his best upon a three-stringed fiddle, played under her window all night, by way of welcome — a noisy serenade, which deprived her of sleep after her fatigue. She took it as it was meant, nevertheless, and expressed her thanks to the perpetrators of this mistuned and mistimed concert. Mary had immediately after her arrival a specimen of the religious zeal of her Reformed subjects. She had ordered mass to be performed by a Popish ecclesiastic in her own chapel, but the popular indignation was so much excited, that but for the interference of her natural brother, the Prior of St. Andrews, the priest would have been murdered on his own altar.

Mary behaved with admirable prudence at this early period of her reign. She enchanted the common people by her grace and condescension, and while she sate in council, usually employed in some female work, she gained credit for her wisdom among the statesmen whom she consulted. She was cautious of attempting any thing contrary to the religion of her subjects, though different from her own; and using the assistance of the Prior of St. Andrews, and of the sagacious Maitland, she made a rapid progress in the affections of her people. She conferred on the Prior of St. Andrews, ho had given up thoughts of the church, the title and the earldom of Mar, which had been frequently bestowed on branches of the royal family.

With similar prudence, the Queen maintained all the usual intercourse of civility with Elizabeth; and while she refused to abandon her title to the crown of England, in the case of Elizabeth dying without heirs of her body, she expressed her anxious wish to live on the best terms with her sister sovereign, and her readiness to relinquish, during the life of the English Queen, any right of inheritance to the English crown which she might possess to her prejudice. Elizabeth was silenced, if not satisfied; and there continued to be a constant communication of apparent friendship between the two sovereigns, and an exchange of letters, compliments, and occasionally of presents, becoming their rank, with much profession of mutual kindness.

But there was one important class of persons to whom Mary’s form of religion was so obnoxious, that they could not be gained to any favourable thoughts of her. These were the preachers of the Reformed faith, who, recollecting Mary’s descent from the family of Guise, always hostile to the Protestant cause, exclaimed against the Queen even in the pulpit, with an indecent violent unfitting that place, and never spoke of her but as one hardened in resistance to the voice of true Christian instruction. John Knox himself introduced such severe expressions into his sermons, that Queen Mary condescended to expostulate with him personally, and to exhort him to use more mild language in the discharge of his duty. Nevertheless, though the language of these rough Reformers was impolitic, as tending unnecessarily to increase the Queen’s dislike of them and their form of religion, it must be owned that their suspicions of Mary’s sincerity were natural, and in all probability well founded. The Queen uniformly declined to ratify the religious system adopted by the Parliament in 1560, or the confiscation of the church lands. She always seemed to consider the present state of things as a temporary arrangement, to which she was indeed willing to submit for the present, but with the reservation, that it should be subjected to alterations when there was opportunity for them. Her brother, the newly created Earl of Mar, however, who was at this time her principal counsellor, and her best friend, used his influence with the Protestant clergy in her behalf, and some coldness arose between him and John Knox, on the subject, which continued for more than a year.

The first troublesome affair in Queen Mary’s reign seems to have arisen from her attachment to this brother and his interest. She had created him Earl of Mar, as we have said; but it was her purpose to confer on him, instead of this title, that of Earl of Murray, and with it great part of the large estates belonging to that northern earldom, which had become vested in the crown after the extinction of the heirs of the celebrated Thomas Randolph, who enjoyed it in the reign of the great Robert Bruce. The earldom of Murray had afterwards been held by a brother of the Earl of Douglas, but had again been forfeited to the crown on the fall of that great family in James the Second’s time.

This exchange, however, could not be made, without giving offence to the Earl of Huntly, often mentioned as head of the most powerful family in the North, who had possessed himself of a considerable part of those domains which had belonged to the earldom of Murray. This Earl of Huntly was a brave man, and possessed of very great power in the Northern counties. He was one of the few remaining peers who continued attached to the Catholic religion, and, after the family of Hamilton, was the nearest in connexion to the royal family

It was believed, that if the Queen, instead of coming to Leith, had chosen to have landed at Aberdeen, and declared herself determined to reinstate the Catholic religion, the earl had offered to join her with twenty thousand men for accomplishing that purpose. Mary, however, had declined his proposal, which must have had the immediate consequence of producing a great civil war. The Earl of Huntly was, therefore, considered as hostile to the present government, and to the Earl of Mar, who had the principal management of affairs; and it was to be supposed, that possessed as Huntly was of great power, and a very numerous body of dependents and retainers, he would not willingly surrender to his political enemy any part of the domains which he possessed belonging to the earldom of Murray.

The Earl of Mar was, on his part, determined to break the strength of this great opponent; and Queen Mary, who appears also to have feared Huntly’s power, and the use which he seemed disposed to make of it, undertook a personal journey to the North of Scotland, to enforce obedience to her commands. About the same time, Sir John Gordon, the Earl of Huntly’s son, committed some feudal outrage, for which he was sentenced to temporary confinement. This punishment, though slight, was felt as another mark of disfavour to the house of Gordon, and increased the probability of their meditating resistance. It is difficult, or rather impossible, to say whether there were good grounds for suspecting Huntly of entertaining serious views to take arms against the Crown. But his conduct was, to say the least, incautious and suspicious.

The young Queen advanced northward at the head of a small army, encamping in the fields, or accepting such miserable lodgings as the houses of the smaller gentry afforded. It was, however, a scene which awake her natural courage, and, marching at the head of her soldiery, such was her spirit, that she publicly wished she had been a man, to sleep all night in the fields, and to walk armed with a jack and skull-cap of steel, a good Glasgow buckler at her back, and a broadsword by her side.

Huntly seems to have been surprised by the arrival of his sovereign, and undecided what to do. While he made all offers of submission, and endeavoured to prevail on the Queen to visit his house as that of a dutiful subject, a party of his followers refused her admission into the royal castle of Inverness, and attempted to defend that fortress against her. They were, however, compelled to surrender, and the governor was executed for treason.

Mean time, Sir John Gordon escaped from the prison to which the Queen had sentenced him, and placed himself at the head of vassals of his house, who were now rising in every direction; while his father, the Earl of Huntly, considering the Queen as guided entirely by his enemy, the Earl of Mar, at length assumed arms in person.

Huntly easily assembled a considerable host, and advanced towards Aberdeen. The purpose of his enterprise was, perhaps, such as Buccleuch had entertained at the field of Melrose, — an attack rather upon the Queen’s counsellors than on her person. But her brother, who had now exchanged his title of Mar for that Murray, was as brave and as successful as Angus upon the former occasion, with the advantage, that he enjoyed the confidence of his sovereign. He was, however, in a state of great difficulty. The men on whom he could with certainty rely were few, being only those whom he had brought from the midland counties. He summoned, indeed, the northern barons in his neighbourhood, and they came; but with doubtful intentions, full of awe for the house of Gordon, and probably with the private resolution of being guided by circumstances.

Murray, who was an excellent soldier, drew up the men he could trust on an eminence called the hill of Fare, near Corrichie. He did not allow the northern clans to mix their doubtful succours with this resolute battalion, and the event showed the wisdom of his precaution. Huntly approached, and encountered the northern troops, his allies and neighbours, who offered little or no resistance. They fled tumultuously towards Murray’s main body, pursued by the Gordons, who threw away their spears, drew their swords, and advanced in disorder, as to an assured victory. In this tumult they encountered the resistance of Murray’s firm batallion of spearmen, who received the attack in close order, and with determined resolution. The Gordons were repulsed in their turn; and those clans who had before fled, seeing they were about to lose the day, returned with sprigs of heather in their caps, which they used to distinguish them, fell upon the Gordons, and completed Murray’s victory. Huntly, a bulky man, and heavily armed, fell from horseback in the flight, and was trodden to death, or, as others say, died afterwards of a broken heart. This battle was fought 28th October, 1562. The body of Huntly, a man lately esteemed one of the bravest, wisest, and most powerful in Scotland, was afterwards brought into a court of justice, meanly arrayed in a doublet of coarse canvass, that the sentence of a traitor might be pronounced over the senseless corpse.

Sir John Gordon, the son of the vanquished Earl, was beheaded at Aberdeen, three days after the battle. Murray was placed in possession of the estates belonging to his new earldom, and the Queen returned, after having struck general terror into the minds of such barons as might be thought refractory, by the activity of her measures, and the success of her arms.

Thus far the reign of Mary had been eminently prosperous; but a fatal crisis approached, which was eventually to plunge her into the utmost misery. She had no children by her deceased husband, the King of France, and her subjects were desirous that she should marry a second husband, a purpose which she herself entertained and encouraged. It was necessary, or politic at least, to consult Queen Elizabeth on the subject. That Princess had declared her own resolution never to marry, and if she should keep this determination, Mary of Scotland was the next heir to the English crown. In expectation of this rich and splendid inheritance, it was both prudent and natural, that in forming a new marriage, Mary should desire to have the advice and approbation of the Princess to whose realm she or her children might hope to succeed, especially if she could retain her favour.

Elizabeth of England was one of the wisest and most sagacious Queen that ever wore a crown, and the English to this day cherish her memory with well-deserved respect and attachment. But her conduct towards her kinswoman Mary, from beginning to end, indicated a degree of envy and deceit totally unworthy of her general character. Determined herself not to marry, it seems to have been Elizabeth’s desire to prevent Mary also from doing so, lest she should see before her a lineage, no her own, ready to occupy her throne immediately after her death. She therefore adopted a mean and shuffling policy, recommending one match after another to her kinswoman, but throwing in obstacles whenever any of them seemed likely to take place. At first she appeared desirous that Mary should marry the Earl of Leicester, a nobleman whom, though by no means distinguished by talents or character, she herself admired so much for his personal beauty, as to say, that except for her vow never to marry, she would have chosen him for her own husband. It may be readily believed, that she had no design such a match as she hinted at should ever take place, and that if Mary had expressed any readiness to accept of Leicester, Elizabeth would have found ready means to break off the marriage.

This proposal, however, was not at all agreeable to Queen Mary. Leicester, if his personal merit had been much greater, was of too low a rank to pretend to the hand of a Queen of Scotland, and Queen Dowager of France, to whom the most powerful monarchs in Europe were at the same time paying suit.

The Archduke Charles, third son of the Emperor of Germany, was proposed on one side; the hereditary Prince of Spain was offered on another; the Duke of Anjou, who became afterwards Henry II of France, also presented himself. But if Mary had accepted the hand of a foreign prince, she would in so doing have resigned her chance of succeeding to the English crown: nay, considering the jealousy of her Protestant subjects, she might have endangered her possession of that of Scotland. She was so much impressed by these considerations, that she went so far as to intimate that she might consent to the match with the Earl of Leicester, provided that Elizabeth would recognise her as next heir to the English crown, in case of her own decease without children. This, however, did not suit Elizabeth’s policy. She did not desire Mary to be wedded to any one, far less to Leicester, her own personal favourite; and was therefore extremely unlikely to declare her sentiments upon the succession (a subject on which she always observed the most mysterious silence), in order to bring about the union of her rival with the man she herself preferred.

Mean time, the vies of Queen Mary turned towards a young nobleman of high birth, nearly connected both with her own family and that of Elizabeth. This was Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, eldest son of the Earl of Lennox. You may recollect, that after the battle of Flodden, the Earl of Angus married the Queen Dowager of Scotland; and, in the tumults which followed, was compelled to retire for a season to London. While Angus resided in England, his wife fore him a daughter, called Lady Margaret Douglas, who, when her parents returned to Scotland, continued to remain at the English court, under the protection of her uncle, King Henry. Again you must remember, that during the regency of the Duke of Chatelherault, the Earl of Lennox attempted to place himself at the head of the English party in Scotland; but his efforts failing through want of power or of conduct, he also was compelled to retire to England, where Henry VIII, in acknowledgment of his niece, Lady Margaret Douglas, who, in right of her mother Margaret, had a claim of inheritance to the English crown.

The young Lord Darnley’s father being of such high rank, and his parents having such pretensions, Mary imagined that in marrying him she would gratify the wishes of Elizabeth, who seemed to point out, though ambiguously, a native of Britain, and one not of royal rank, as her safest choice, and as that which would be most agreeable to herself. Elizabeth seemed to receive the proposal favourably, and suffered the young man, and his father Lennox, to visit the court of Scotland, in the hope that their presence might embroil matters farther; and thinking that, in case the match should be likely to take place, she might easily break it off by recalling them as her subjects; a command which she supposed they would not dare to disobey, as enjoying all their lands and means of living in England.

Young Darnley was remarkably tall and handsome, perfect in all external and showy accomplishments, but unhappily destitute of sagacity, prudence, steadiness of character, and exhibiting only doubtful courage, though extremely violent in his passions. Had this young man possessed a very moderate portion of sense, or even of gratitude, we might have had a different story to tell of Mary’s reign — as it was, you will hear a very melancholy one. Mary had the misfortune to look upon this young nobleman with partiality, and was the more willing to gratify her own inclinations in his favour, that she longed to put an end to the intrigues by which Queen Elizabeth had endeavoured to impose upon her, and prevent her marriage. Indeed, while the two Queens used towards each other the language of the most affectionate cordiality, there was betwixt them neither plain dealing nor upright meaning, but great dissimulation, envy, and fear.

Darnley, in the mean time, endeavouring to strengthen the interest which he had acquired in the Queen’s affections, had recourse to the friendship of a man, of low rank, indeed, but who was understood to possess particular influence over the mind of Mary. This was an Italian of humble origin, called David Rizzio, who had been promoted from being a menial in the Queen’s family, to the confidential office of French secretary. His talents for music gave him frequent admission to Mary’s presence, as she delighted in that art; and his address, and arts of insinuation, gained him a considerable influence over her mind. It was almost necessary that the Queen should have near her person some confidential officer, skilled at once in languages and in business, through whom she might communicate with foreign states, and with her friends in France in particular. No such agent was likely to be found in Scotland, unless she had chosen a Catholic priest, which would have given more offence to her Protestant subjects, than even the elevation of this person, a stranger, a Catholic, and a man of mean origin, to the rank of a minister of the crown — and, yet more, the personal familiarity to which the queen condescended to admit him, and the airs of importance which this low-born foreigner pretended to assume, became the subject of offence to the proud Scottish nobles, and of vulgar scandal among the common people.

Darnley, anxious to strengthen his interest with the Queen on every hand, formed an intimacy with Rizzio, who employed all the arts of flattery and observance to gain possession of his favour, and unquestionably was serviceable to him in advancing his suit. The Queen, in the mean while, exerted herself to remove the obstacles to her union with Darnley, and with such success, that, with the approbation of far the greater part of her subjects, they were married at Edinburgh on the 29th July, 1565.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29