Mary, Queen of Scots: the real history behind the new film

The turbulent relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots dominated English and Scottish politics for 20 years, and in February 1587, in the face of unrelenting pressure from parliament and her councillors, Elizabeth signed her cousin’s death warrant. Mary was executed a week later, her head severed in three blows. Now, a new film explores the two queens' stormy rivalry. Here, John Guy, the author of the 2004 biography upon which new film Mary Queen of Scots is based, takes us behind the scenes and argues that Mary was as much the victim of the pen as of the executioner’s axe…

A 16th-century portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Q: What initially inspired you to tell this story?

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A: I’d been doing other work on the same period of history and I knew how little resemblance the original documents in the archives bore to the version of history that has come down to us. I realised that Mary’s story, in her own lifetime and for 400 years afterwards, had been hijacked by her enemies. I wanted to demystify her, to go back to the archives and let her tell her story in her own words.

I wanted to show how far the evidence had been tampered with – even in her lifetime – by William Cecil (Elizabeth I’s chief minister) in collusion with Mary’s Scottish opponents, to create the myths and legends we are so familiar with today.I realised that Mary was as much the victim of the pen as of the executioner’s axe. She famously said her heart was her own, but her story never has been.

Read more about Mary, Queen of Scots here, including:

MARY STUART, QUEEN OF SCOTLAND (1542-1587). PAINTING ATTRIBUTED TO P.OUDRY, 1578. (Photo by  Gustavo Tomsich/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Q: What is it like seeing your words interpreted for the screen?

A: It’s thrilling to see my ideas portrayed visually. Sometimes a mere look or a brief exchange between the characters can convey whole paragraphs. I’m no expert on reading screenplays, but what’s particularly striking about [Netflix drama House of Cards creator] Beau Willimon’s brilliant screenplay is how the camera is doing much of the storytelling, freeing up the dialogue for wonderful punch lines. And the action and dialogue are superbly paced. Beau’s script has been an inspiration throughout.

The British poster for 'Mary, Queen of Scots' (2018). Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I and Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart. (© Focus Features / courtesy Everett Collection)
The British poster for ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’ (2018). Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I and Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart. (© Focus Features / courtesy Everett Collection)

Q: What do you feel is the most important message about this moment in history and the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth?

A: Elizabeth and Mary were not mortal enemies in the earlier years of their relationship. The trouble was that politics and events – chiefly in the shape of scheming male courtiers and clashes over religion – got in the way.

What the Catholic Mary always wanted after her return to Scotland was a political settlement with her royal cousin, and not to claim her throne during Elizabeth’s lifetime. She wanted the Protestant Elizabeth to recognise her as the lawful successor, should the English queen not marry and have an heir.

Mary, Queen of Scots craved the throne occupied by her cousin Elizabeth I (pictured). Theirs was a relationship defined by plots, massacres, assassinations and ultimately, the executioner's sword. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

Mary first laid her cards on the table shortly before leaving France. She then renewed the offer in letters and messages that she regularly exchanged with Elizabeth, the last time on the birth of her son Prince James, when she also invited Elizabeth to be her child’s godmother. In Mary’s view, a new ‘amity’ was to prevail throughout the British Isles, by which the two kingdoms would live in love and peace, and Mary would be recognised in England as ‘the second person of the realm’ (meaning heir to the English throne if Elizabeth died childless).

Mary reinforced her appeals to Elizabeth for this ‘fresh start’ by urging an exchange of portraits and a meeting. Her ideas proved highly attractive to Elizabeth, until the English queen (closely advised by William Cecil) sought to tie down Mary by marrying her off to a trusted English nobleman.

Mary’s offer to renounce her immediate dynastic claim was generous, but it was something Cecil found deeply threatening. If accepted, it meant that the Catholic Mary might one day rule the whole of the British Isles, and he would stop at nothing to prevent that from happening. What historians tend to overlook is how hard Cecil had to fight to counter Elizabeth’s repugnance at the whole idea of aiding Mary’s rebels and smuggling cash and weapons to them across the border. Cecil’s fears stemmed from the fact that Elizabeth, although a Protestant, ranked blood ahead of faith. In 1561 Elizabeth told Maitland of Lethington, the Scottish secretary of state, who came south to sound out her mind, that in her heart she indeed acknowledged Mary to be her rightful heir. She simply refused to name her as such, for fears of plots and conspiracies.

Mary, Queen of Scots and her ladies in waiting. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Q: There are several moments in the film (directed by Josie Rourke) that may never have actually happened in real life, such as the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth. What is your interpretation of this decision?

A: Mary and Elizabeth never met in history, even if a meeting between them came very close in 1562 as is shown in the film. It was to be at York, where a bureau de change was to be erected at which Scottish gold and silver coins could be exchanged for English money. When news arrived of the outbreak of the Wars of Religion in France [conflicts in France between Protestants and Roman Catholics], the rendezvous was cancelled, although Cecil had already lobbied hard to get it indefinitely postponed.

Mary several times revived her proposal, but in vain. As she declared, a meeting “is the thing that I have most desired ever since I was in hope thereof”. She added: “And let God be my witness, I honour [Elizabeth] in my heart and love her as my dear and natural sister.”

A c1575 portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)
A c1575 portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

Mary’s language shows that she had made a heavy psychological investment in the meeting, always believing (as Elizabeth sometimes did) that if only these two British queens could look each other in the eye and talk things over, woman to woman, they might settle their differences. Each of them, after all, was the only other person on the planet who could really know what it was to be in the other’s shoes.

Many people think I should be absolutely shocked that Josie Rourke ‘doctored’ history in order to make a meeting happen in the film. Well, it’s a theatrical evocation! What matters is fully to capture the essence of the characters and the issues between them, not send for the ‘history police’. Earlier filmmakers have done exactly the same, following in the footsteps of Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805), who famously had a meeting between the two queens in his 1800 play Mary Stuart,and Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848)in his 1835 opera Maria Stuarda.

A c1610 portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, a "charming and ill-fated woman brought down by forces beyond her control". (DeAgostini/Getty Images)

The tease is that in 2010, six years after I’d finished my book, new documents were rediscovered after being hidden away for over a century: they include a letter in which Elizabeth, writing in 1585 (some 18 months before Mary was killed), appeals to her Scottish ‘sister’ queen, woman to woman. She recollects the deep affection she had once held towards Mary, deplores the strife and jealousy that had divided them, and ends by saying that should Mary seek a last-minute reconciliation, she should send her one of her secretaries to London so they could resume the conversation. My point is that although we know a meeting between the two queens never actually took place, the possibility was still alive.

In real life, as in the film, a meeting (had it happened) would almost certainly have ended badly. Faced by English intransigence over restoring the Scottish queen to her rightful throne after her forced abdication and flight to England, Mary – always a woman of spirit, as shown by her confrontations with the Scottish Calvinist John Knox – would finally have lost her temper and delivered an outright claim to the English throne. But that only goes to show how carefully Beau Willimon and Josie Rourke have crafted the scene.

Once, however, Cecil and Francis Walsingham (Elizabeth I’s security chief) had unmasked Anthony Babington’s plot of 1586 to assassinate Elizabeth and put Mary on the English throne, all hope of a meeting was gone forever.

A portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s ‘spymaster’. (Photo by Photo 12/UIG via Getty Images)

Q: Can you describe Mary’s romantic/sexual relationship with Lord Darnley (her second husband, whom she married in 1565) and later her secretary David Rizzio (who was stabbed to death by Darnley and a group of Protestant nobles on 9 March 1566, after they convinced him Rizzio was Mary’s lover)? And how does the real history of these relationships compare to the depiction in the film?

A: Mary was certainly sexually attracted to Darnley and briefly infatuated. She believed she was in love with him. Even Thomas Randolph, Elizabeth’s ambassador to Scotland, had to admit it. But it was a brief infatuation, brought on by Darnley’s sexual magnetism rather than true love. Within weeks, the relationship was turning sour. Mary’s marriage to Darnley would in the end become purely one of convenience. She’d trapped herself, because even when she began to realise what Darnley was really like, she had no choice but to go ahead if she was to maintain her independence and not seem to be Elizabeth’s pawn.

Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, 1545 - 1567. Consort of Mary, Queen of Scots, by Unknown, 1564. Oil on panel. . (Photo by National Galleries Of Scotland/Getty Images)
A c1564 portrait of Lord Darnley. (Photo by National Galleries Of Scotland/Getty Images)

The scene in the film in which Mary forces a drunken Darnley to have sex with her in order to conceive her son, Prince James, is not known to history, but is perfectly believable and true to the spirit of history.

Darnley was effeminate and bisexual, as was the vogue of young hedonistic courtiers in France at the time. Contemporaries had ways of making sexual excess known, and when Darnley was described as a “great cock chick”, the pun was intentional.

In history, David Rizzio was a young Piedmontese valet, musician and secretary, who had travelled to Edinburgh in the entourage of the Duke of Savoy’s ambassador. He left his post to enter Mary’s service. Soon after Mary’s marriage to Darnley in 1565, Rizzio was being described as Darnley’s “only governor” and the man who “works all” in his counsels. Rizzio was Darnley’s lover for a while and it is a historical fact that they were discovered in bed together.

Rizzio was at the heart of Mary’s court and very close to her. He joined in the various court games and masques with the Four Marys (the chief ladies-in-waiting), and was often alone with her and with them. Some of these games got quite intimate or involved cross-dressing (another French courtly vogue), so that aspect of the film is historical, not a theatrical choice.

Circa 1566, The murder of Mary Queen of Scots Italian private secretary David Rizzio (c. 1533 - 1566) who was stabbed 57 times on 9th March 1566 in the Queen's antechamber at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. Among those implicated in the plot were the Queen' (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A depiction of the 1566 murder of Mary, Queen of Scots’ private secretary David Rizzo. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Rumours spread that Rizzio was too close to Mary. Where Beau Willimon and Josie Rourke went further is the scene in which Rizzio is present when Mary is undressed. And the idea that he was (in essence) a ‘sister’ to Mary stretches history in my opinion. That said, there are several other historians (more critical of Mary and more willing to believe what was said against her by her enemies) who think this part of the film is less ‘creative’ and more historical than I do – some believe there were grounds for suspecting a genuine romantic interest between Mary and Rizzio. I think they’re wrong and it was almost entirely courtly games that occasionally crossed the line.

Q: How historically accurate do you feel the film is?

A: My feeling is that, even where some historical facts are necessarily remoulded theatrically, the dialogue still rings true and cuts to the heart of the Mary/Elizabeth relationship. What surely matters is the depiction of character: is it true? Generally, I think it is.

Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart in 2018 film, 'Mary Queen of Scots'. (© FOCUS FEATURES LLC 2018)
Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart in 2018 film, ‘Mary Queen of Scots’. (© FOCUS FEATURES LLC 2018)

In the UK, the ‘history police’ have already been out. They’ve talked about language, claiming Mary knew no Scots and only talked French. Frankly, they should do some more homework. Mary as a toddler was already learning to speak in Lowland Scots before she left for France. Although required to learn and speak French while in France – which she did to perfection – she kept up her Scots with her four Marys, and, very interestingly, when the English ambassador to France, Nicholas Throckmorton, met her in or around August 1560 at Fontainebleau after the death of her mother, he spoke to her in English and she answered him in Scots. As soon as Mary returned to Scotland, she sent out letters in Scots as well as in French.

It’s also been claimed that Mary was no warrior queen, but that all goes back to Mary as characterised by the femme fatale version of history. When Mary’s half-brother, James Stewart, earl of Moray, led his forces in revolt after she married Darnley, we know from Thomas Randolph’s reports that she left Edinburgh at the head of a large army. Riding astride her horse (there is a reference in the archives to a saddle ‘à la ristre’ for the queen), she sported a pistol in her saddle holster and a steel cap on her head. Even Knox was forced to admit her gallantry. “Albeit the most part waxed weary,” he wrote, “yet the Queen’s courage increased man-like so much that she was ever with the foremost.”

Overall, this film is an utterly compelling drama; brilliantly scripted, directed and acted. I feel hugely privileged to have been a part of it.

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Dr John Guy is a history fellow at Clare College, Cambridge, and author of ‘My Heart is My Own’: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots (Harper Perennial, 2004), upon which the 2018 film Mary Queen of Scots is based. His other publications include Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years (Viking, 2016) and Henry VIII: The Quest for Fame (Allen Lane, 2014).