Most English historians fall into the Elizabeth was the clever one who ruled with her head while Mary was the pretty one who ruled with her heart cliché. We have a special word for these kinds of historians. We call them men.
In spite of being a man Oliver, perhaps because he is Scottish, succeeds in seeing past this sexist drivel to give us a fuller historical portrait of Mary Queen of Scotts. When Mary’s husband, Francis II, died and Catherine de Medici booted her out of France, Mary had a decision to make about how she was to approach the Scottish throne. She wisely decided to work with the Protestant government which had just taken power. This shows me that she understood that there were limits to royal power and that the Reformation was a done deal in Scotland, or at least if it wasn’t, she could not just order everyone to return to the Church of Rome. Clearly she had some understanding of politics and human nature.
Early when she returned to Scotland she was confronted by John Knox, who challenged her right to rule. She faced him down. Let that sink in. Mary Queen of Scotts faced down John Knox. Clearly she must have been a very formidable lady. Queenly you might say.
So here is my assessment of Mary Queen of Scotts, she made three big errors in her life. First of all she carelessly permitted herself to be born female. While the life of Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great shows us that this error need not be fatal, it was certainly very careless of her. Had she made the more prudent choice of being born a man, she would have been raised in Scotland with a better understanding of its politics and the possibility of acquiring some allies, possibly somebody she could even trust, at least some of the time.
Mary’s second error, and the most serious one in my judgment, was to maintain her religion rather than become a Presbyterian. People do not like to be ruled by a member of a religious minority. That goes double for those who have just established their religious majority and are fearful of backsliders. When you think of all the controversy when Jack Kennedy ran for President in 1960 in a nation that had established the separation of church and state (something Knox never believed in), you realize how much more serious this would have been in 16th century Scotland. The Protestant majority just could not stand a Catholic monarch. On the other hand, they could not just eject her either, because they could not imagine a non-monarchical form of government. But inevitably there would be plots against her, and her bastard half brother who was a Protestant must have seen himself as a suitable replacement for her.
If Paris was worth a mass, surely Edinburgh was worth more than a mass. Of course, if you really believed that such a bargain would condemn you to the ever lasting fires of hell, then no, it would not be much of a bargain. But certainly her keeping her religion set the Protestant lords against her, and equally dangerous, Elizabeth I. Elizabeth did not want a Catholic state on her border, neither did she want a Catholic heir. So Mary’s religion put her in a very dangerous position.
Then she made a disastrous marriage. It is just way too easy to say she was ruled by her heart. Nothing in her fantastic Renaissance education would have prepared her for the Henry Darnley’s of this world. All the literature about abusive men says that they are classically super attentive in the beginning. Add attentiveness to a handsome appearance and a high birth with a claim to the English throne, and you can see why Mary went for Henry in a big way.
How different would history be in Darnley had been built a little more along the lines of Prince Albert, or even a harmless drone like Prince George of Denmark. Who knows, Mary might have made a go of it. However, Darnley was a malevolent drunk. It is a pity we don’t talk about him more. Maybe more men would understand how pride can be a man’s undoing. Maybe men would understand how much of their own well being is wrapped up in being a good husband, or at least not being a horrible one. We always blame Mary for her poor choice in men, we never blame Darnley for being a lout. Maybe if we pointed to Darnley as being an example of what happens when a man gives in to pride, more men would avoid becoming a lout.
Darnley murdered Mary’s advisor, David Riccio. Here I think Mary made a dreadful error. She should have put Darnley and the rest of the murderers on trial and chopped off their heads. By failing to do so, she demonstrated her lack of power. At that point she was defacto, no longer queen. At minimum a monarch must show that direct challenges to power will have terrible consequences.
So Darnley was murdered, apparently, by Bothwell. Mary married Bothwell. It is said that he raped her; that she married him to keep her honor. Well, if he had raped her, and she got pregnant, then how would Mary explain the pregnancy? So I can see why she married him, but wow, it looks horrible, even 500 years later. So the mob drove her out of power.
Oliver does not explain why Mary ran to England, and I don’t know the history at all, so I don’t know why Mary would think that Elizabeth would help her. Even if Elizabeth falsely promised help, why would Mary believe her? Why didn’t Mary run to Norway? we will never know.
Oliver’s program on the Covenanters is fascinating, with such evocative music. If you have only heard this story from the English side, you don’t realize the crucial role the Covenanters had in starting the series of events that lead to the English Civil war. It all started with Charles I foolish decision to impose the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The Scottish Presbyterians wanted no part of the Book of Common Prayer, and so one thing led to another.
Oliver describes Oliver Cromwell as a king killer in a tone that indicates that that is a bad thing. Charles I attacked his subjects, first the Irish, then the Scots, and then the English and he was beaten on every count. How many of his subjects was it OK for Charles I to kill before his subjects up and killed him? I mean, what would anyone expect? Had Cromwell been a tad less righteous and a tad more cynical he was have banished Charles I and his family to the colonies. Let Charles be King of Virginia. Depend upon it, given Charles’ gift for the ineffective use of violence, it would only be a question of time before Charles and his entire family perished in a slave rebellion. They would have been condemned to the sort of sordid death they were so eager to inflict upon others. Criticize Cromwell for his march through Ireland, criticize him for being a military dictator; but when he killed a king, he struck a tremendous blow for liberty and executive accountability.
I must say that I admire the Covenanters tremendously. Probably because their descendants live up the road from me in West Virginia. Oliver summerizes the Covenanters as “One nation under god, bound for glory”. Doesn’t that describe West Virginia and Kentucky perfectly? I don’t know what the Covenanters’ impact upon Scotland was; but it is clear what their impact upon the Southern Mountains has been. I don’t know anything about the politics of southwest Scotland; but I suspect it is far calmer than the turbulent politics of the southern mountains.
Oliver says that Scotland is no longer god’s country. True enough, now the United States of America is god’s country. Yes indeedy ladies and gentlemen, the Covenanters, now with nuclear weapons!