The Mail on Sunday, 18 August 2013

Crown of Thistles: the Fatal Inheritance of Mary, Queen of Scots

Leanda de Lisle

The heir to two kingdoms, Mary, Queen of Scots was to be a victim of terrible violence in both. Brutally deposed from her throne in Scotland, Mary fled to England only to be imprisoned and eventually beheaded by her cousin, Elizabeth I. Yet as Linda Porter describes, this was only the last chapter in the long, bloody family rivalry that was Mary's fatal inheritance.

The first of the three generations whose story Porter tells is that of Mary's Stuart grandfather, James IV of Scots, and his bride, Margaret Tudor, elder sister of Henry VIII of England. Their marriage, in 1502, opened the possibility that one day the Stuarts would inherit the English throne - a possibility bitterly resented and feared by Henry VIII, who was yet to have a male heir.

James IV of Scots is one of our most romantic but least known monarchs, and Porter does him justice with a dryly-witty portrait. A good-looking king, 'as handsome in complexion as a man may be', he was a lover of women (one of whom had the unfortunate name of Jane Bare-Arse) as well the arts, of hunting and jousting. His marriage was as popular in Scotland as he was, and in 1512 his Tudor wife bore James a healthy son, the living embodiment of the marriage union between the Scottish thistle and the English rose.

It was the following year, in August 1513, that the rivalry between the brothers-in-law came to a head. James, infuriated by Henry VIII's claims that he was the rightful overlord of Scotland invaded England at the head a huge army. Henry VIII was abroad fighting a war in France, leaving a seventy year old home-front commander to confront James and the Scots at Flodden, in Northumberland.

On 9 September we will see the 500th anniversary of the battle, and a slaughter that Porter's moving account compares to the horrors of the Somme. The Scots proved to be less well prepared than they had thought. Four thousand Englishmen were killed and ten thousand Scots - amongst them James IV, shot by an arrow through his face.

The king's infant son, James V, was crowned aged seventeen months. But Mary, Queen of Scots would wear her crown of thistles at an even younger age, as history repeated itself for the next generation. James V also met his nemesis in Henry VIII, dying of cholera aged thirty, following another battle defeat at English hands. Mary, his only child, became Queen of Scots when she was just six days old.

Mary was, of course, too young to actually rule Scotland and as a girl it was not expected that she would ever do so. She left Scotland aged five, destined to be married to the French Dauphin, and eventually be a Queen of France. But her sickly French husband died not long after his accession as king, and in 1561 she returned to her homeland a beautiful widow of eighteen, ready to govern Scotland and to plot her accession of the English throne.

Henry VIII was long dead, and with his daughter, Elizabeth I, a childless spinster, Mary was the senior heir in blood to the English throne. To make her claim more popular in England Mary married an English born cousin, Henry, Lord Darnley, who, like Mary, had Stuart and Tudor royal ancestry. But by the time their son was born, the marriage had turned sour. Less than eight months later her English husband was murdered.

Although the men who killed her husband were never found Mary was accused of plotting Darnley's murder with the man who she married shortly afterwards, the ambitious Earl of Bothwell. Dramatically, Porter argues that, in fact, Bothwell had raped Mary to force a marriage on her. Whatever the truth, Mary now faced a rebellion that led to her deposition as Queen.

Crown of Thistles concludes with Mary poised to flee Scotland for England, where her place of refuge will first become her prison and then her grave.

In giving us the history of family rivalry to Mary's reign and fall, Linda Porter has found a fresh approach to her biography, and told it with grace and humanity. She brings alive a thrilling story of cultured courts and violent deaths, of ambitious kings and tragic queens: executed on Elizabeth's orders in 1587, Mary's family's past had indeed proved a fatal inheritance.

Leanda de Lisle is the author of Tudor: The Family Story

Leanda de Lisle's web site

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