“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” goes conventional wisdom. We’ve all heard the phrase of course. It’s the sentiment behind the new word “frenemy” – the fusion of friend and enemy. That is, someone who is both your friend and your enemy. Frenemies are common in royal courts of course where back room deals and palace intrigues characterize the reigns of even the most virtuous monarchs, female and male.
As common as these complex relationships have been, few monarchs have faced such extremes in their frenemies as Queen Mary Stuart of Scotland where her most constant male companions were also those most bent on destroying her. Let’s take a look at her three deadliest.
James Stewart, the Earl of Moray
One of Mary’s half-brothers through James V’s many mistresses, James Stewart was a leading member of the “Lords of the Congregation” in the Scottish Parliament and therefore a key figure in the Protestant Reformation in Scotland.
As a member of Parliament, self-serving nobleman, and Protestant, he tirelessly worked to contain Queen Mary and undermine her ability to govern even while operating as her de facto chief of staff.
As her brother, he helped Mary transition from her role as queen-consort of France to queen sovereign of Scotland and genuinely seemed to care for her well-being as much as any in her court could.
Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley
Queen Mary’s second husband, Henry Stewart was Mary’s cousin through her grandmother Margaret Tudor’s remarriage to Archibald Douglas. Tall, handsome, and sharing Queen Mary’s love of riding, falconry, and hunting, he seemed a suitable match for the lonely and widowed queen.
But Darnley had a dark side. He was vain (even by standards of the time), arrogant, and prone to drunkenness, traits that made the Scottish people hate him as fiercely as they loved Queen Mary’s generous, kind, and amiable temperament. A particularly violent drunk, Darnley readily beat and terrorized Queen Mary.
In March, 1566, Darnley’s vanity and jealousy towards Queen Mary’s secretary David Riccio led to murder in Holyrood palace as Darnley stormed the queen’s apartment, seized her person, and forced her to watch Darnley’s men stab Riccio 56 times. Darnley put a pistol to Mary’s pregnant belly, hoping to force her to miscarry their son, while he demanded the crown matrimonial –the right to become king if she died childless. Mary refused. Eleven months later Darnley himself was found dead at Kirk o’ Field house in Edinburgh.
The fire-brand whose May 1559 sermon set off a bloody rebellion against Queen Mary’s throne while she was still in France, John Knox was the ultimate frenemy for Queen Mary. A staunch misogynist who did not believe women possessed the capacity to rule over men in any capacity and who openly preached against women leaders on all levels of society, Knox was nonetheless one of Queen Mary’s preferred social companions, especially when indulging in hunting, archery, falconry, and other outdoor pursuits. Like the Earl of Moray, his politics and religion clashed with his social sensibilities, perhaps in part because Queen Mary was one of the most charismatic and charming of all royals in Europe.
Mary’s charm could not banish Knox’s paranoia towards both Catholics and women nor persuade him of her benevolent intentions. In the end, he, like the Lords of the Congregation who supported him, rejoiced in Mary’s final downfall and eventual death at English hands.
Court intrigue, murder, and violent revolution swept through Queen Mary’s Scotland during her largely forgotten reign. Yet despite the pressures around her, Mary remained gentle, kind, and a true people’s princess, loved by all – even by some of her most dangerous enemies. Where her cousin Elizabeth Tudor hardened her heart and kept her thoughts to herself, Queen Mary remained open, trusting, and charismatic, untainted by the terrors and sorrows of her life. A grieving widow, a battered wife, a persecuted Catholic, Queen Mary Stuart was so much more than her final years as Queen Elizabeth’s political prisoner. It is a life worth remembering and worth exploring. I hope you will take time this summer and learn her story.
“Mary Queen of the Scots, the Forgotten Reign” and its follow-up, “Queen Elizabeth Tudor: Journey to Gloriana” are available in multiple languages at a bookstore near you. See https://bit.ly/2IWJeOB for a complete list of available languages for each volume.