The Literary Review August 2013


John Guy

Crown of Thistles: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary Queen of Scots

By Linda Porter (Macmillan 424pp 20)

On Elizabeth I's death on 24 March 1603, King James VI and I united the crowns of Scotland and England, creating what he loved to call his 'empire of Great Britain'. Two years later, Sir Francis Bacon wrote to Lord Chancellor Ellesmere, urging him to commission a new and 'worthier' Anglo-Scottish history to memorialise this event and so liberate Scotland from the 'partiality and obliquity' of its most recent historian, George Buchanan, James's hated former tutor and the chief traducer of his mother. For 400 years Bacon's appeal fell on deaf ears, but in Crown of Thistles, Linda Porter has finally responded, crafting the national histories into a genuinely 'British' interpretation of the long century from the 1450s until Mary Stuart's flight across the Solway Firth to exile in England in 1568.

The enterprise is fraught with hazards. In particular, Porter's decision to end the narrative in 1568, covering the remaining 19 years before Mary's execution in the flimsiest of epilogues, begs an important question. Porter assumes that Mary's captivity in England made the Union of the Crowns inevitable, but her exile in itself settled nothing. It was only in the spring of 1585 that a secret deal between the 18-year-old James and Queen Elizabeth had the effect of excluding his mother permanently from her lost throne. Only then did she cease to be the chief driving force in internal 'British' politics. Even after that, the fear of her escape made grown men tremble. And only when Elizabeth was reluctantly coaxed by Sir William Cecil, her chief minister, into condoning a regicide in 1587 was the Union a safe bet.

But considered on its own terms, Crown of Thistles is highly effective. The most impressive chapters, amounting to over 300 pages, cover the period before 1561, when Mary returned to Scotland from France as an 18-year-old widow to take up her throne. Porter's description of the diplomacy surrounding Margaret Tudor's marriage to James IV is admirable. So are her accounts of the Battle of Flodden in 1513 and England's 'Rough Wooings' of Scotland in the 1540s. Henry VIII's breathtaking blindness to the advantages of having Margaret, his elder sister, as regent of Scotland during a long royal minority is fully exposed, as is his arrogant belief in Scotland's status as a feudal dependency or satellite state. Following recent academic studies, Porter convincingly depicts James V as a fully fledged Renaissance monarch after he threw off the shackles of guardianship. Surprisingly, the most dramatic and influential episode in Scottish history before 1561, the revolt of the Lords of the Congregation in 1559-60, gets short shrift, as does cross-border Protestant collusion more generally, then and afterwards.

With readers' expectations raised by the book's visceral subtitle and jacket image of Mary, Queen of Scots, more than a few may feel short-changed to discover that Porter's account of the 'personal reign' of Mary after 1561 has the feel of an afterword, crammed into 70 pages. A brief summary of Elizabeth's dynastic duelling with her Scottish cousin before the latter's marriage to Henry, Lord Darnley, is followed by a skeletal account of the events leading to Mary's forced abdication two years later. Here Porter allows herself too little space to explain why providing such a comprehensive account of the shifting patterns of British politics from 1450 at the beginning of the book was so important, and she rarely refers to those earlier events. As things stand, it 's just not clear enough why Mary's inheritance was so fatal to her cause as queen, rather than her own actions - two disastrous Scottish marriages in as many years.

Porter handles the evidence summarily at two critical points. She omits any discussion of the so-called 'Casket Letters', the crucial documents for any consideration of whether Mary was a willing party to a conspiracy to assassinate the dangerously maverick Darnley in 1567. She hedges her bets on Mary's intentions, but the longest of the Casket Letters - even in the doctored form in which it survives - proves that Mary, beyond all reasonable doubt, connived in a conspiracy to keep her errant husband under indefinite house arrest at Craigmillar Castle, even if her involvement in the gunpowder plot that led to his death at Kirk o'Field is unlikely.

Can it also be so cut-and-dried that James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, Mary's third husband, forced her into marriage by raping her? Few historians now believe that Mary colluded in her abduction at Almond Bridge, but the subsequent events at Dunbar Castle are ambiguous. Kidnap and rape were a common way to force reluctant heiresses into wedlock in northern England and Scotland. Marriage to the rapist often then became the easier option. But can Porter be so sure that 'no sixteenth-century lady, and especially a queen, could fight back against something that polluted them so completely in their society's eyes'? Not only do some notable exceptions to Porter's rule exist; what also needs to be explained is why Mary stayed at Dunbar for twelve days after the alleged rape, when she was free to leave after two. Undoubtedly Bothwell believed that to assure his position as the queen's protector after Darnley's assassination he needed to own Mary sexually. If she would not yet marry him, then he must conquer her. But Mary was fully conscious of her 'grandeur' as a queen. Was it really in character that she would willingly marry a rapist? Charming a desperate woman into bed at her most vulnerable moment is another matter, and Bothwell, a Jekyll and Hyde character, could be reassuringly smooth.

Such questions apart, Crown of Thistles is to be applauded as a highly courageous, pioneering attempt to brush the cobwebs off the existing national histories. Linda Porter has a considerable talent for synthesis and in this genre she is likely to excel in the future. Always professional in conception and dispassionate in style, her book deserves a wide readership.

John Guy is a Fellow of Clare College, University of Cambridge.

John Guy's web site

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