TheTimes Literary Supplement Friday 7, March 2014

Confident Stuart Scotland

Jenny Wormald

Crown of Thistles: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary Queen of Scots by Linda Porter (Macmillan 523 pp.)

Henry VIII, James IV and the battle for Renaissance Britain — Flodden 1513 by George Goodwin (Weidenfeld and Nicolson 288 pp.)

Despite appearances to the contrary, Crown of Thistles: The fatal inheritance of Mary Queen of Scots, with a picture of the fatal lady on the dust jacket, is not simply another book about Mary Queen of Scots. We encounter Mary in a four-page prologue before going back to 1485 and the battlefield of Bosworth; we do not meet Mary again until, several battles later and much more besides, she comes back into the story on page 332, and takes a leading role on p378.

Linda Porter explains what her book is about in an introductory note, and a very welcome message it is. Her knowledge of sixteenth-century history in the British Isles was "heavily weighted towards England". "For most English-speaking people, Mary Queen of Scots is the only Scottish ruler they have heard of, with the possible exception of Robert Bruce." How many "Histories of Britain" fit exactly into that description? And since, as Porter tells us, Mary tends to be "the doomed, romantic queen of popular fiction and wildly inaccurate films", one can add that most English-speaking people are treated to a misleading account of one of the very few failures of medieval and early modern Scottish kingship. So Porter sets out to broaden the picture of Tudor—Stuart rivalry well beyond that of Elizabeth and Mary. It is a very ambitious project. In a period crucial to the histories of Scotland and England, which began when the long-standing hostility between the two countries persisted, and ended with the Union of Crowns under the Scottish king who became James VI and I in 1603, she sets out to give a balanced account both of the histories of the two kingdoms and of their interaction with one another.

In this she very largely succeeds. Scottish historians in particular can have no complaint about their kingdom, their history, being neglected. Porter gives as much attention to the problems and internal divisions of late fifteenth-century Scotland, in which James III came to grief at the hands of his subjects in 1488 in what she somewhat pedantically calls the "Field of Stirling", a name long overtaken by the more familiar Sauchieburn, as she does to one of the pivotal moments of English history, the Battle of Bosworth of 1485, remarkably undeterred by the fact that the second actually had far less impact on the future of the Scottish royal house than it did on the English one. Her claim that Richard III was "also bolstered by a strong religious faith in the justifications of his actions" may have a slight echo of the current sanctification of the King in the car park, but on the whole this is a cool and objective look at that problematic reign.

For much of the rest of the book, alas, coolness and objectivity are less in evidence. Porter has written two books on Tudor queens, Katherine Parr and Mary I, and one has the sense that she is happier with the biographical genre than the more general historical one. She gives a lot of attention to individual royal women, and sometimes surprising attention it is. The somewhat shadowy figure of James III's queen, Margaret of Denmark, turns into a model of long-suffering piety and virtue, which she takes from a posthumous Italian Life that Porter herself describes as hagiography; indeed, Margaret looms too large in her interpretation of the reign. Even more astonishing is her portrait of that painful and regularly difficult creature, Margaret Tudor, wife of James IV, whom Porter credits with a charm and an appeal which are hard to believe, and which even the author cannot really take beyond James's death in 1513, in view of Margaret's erratic and problematic complicating of Scottish and English politics thereafter. Nor is her attempt convincing when she portrays something of a love match between Margaret and that cheerful and charming wencher, James IV, an affection which curiously she simply denies in the case of the genuinely impressive Mary of Guise, wife of James V.

Porter's book spends a disproportionate amount of time on these and other female characters, and for that reason it has a curious blandness which does no justice to the history of either Scotland or England in the sixteenth century. More serious, however, is the astonishing absence of the political turmoils and, above all, the religious upheavals of the age. Reformations flit in and out; Anglo-Scottish relations, apparently the key to the book, are discussed with far less vigour than individual personalities. This is a long book, and at the end it is not clear what it has contributed to our knowledge and understanding of the period. It is not enough to be balanced in approach, if the reasons for the real dramas - reformations of religion on both sides of the border, the attempts to impose friendship on two nations long accustomed to hostility and war - are not central to the analysis.

And what about Mary? Her inheritance was hardly "fatal" - Stuart Scotland was a good deal more confident, less agonized, than Tudor England - and it is unclear what the author really thinks about her. Creating muddle was, of course, something that Mary Queen of Scots really was good at, and perhaps it can be left at that. But the conclusion certainly does not convince. The fact that James VI grew up without knowing his parents, lamented here, might, considering the parents, be regarded as a very good thing; and anyway, how many royal children lived in loving families? Worse is Porter's claim that with Mary's execution, "the triumph of the Tudors over the Stewarts must have seemed complete". No. William Cecil was not breathing freely. Mary was gone, but her passing brought the Stuart triumph closer. And Porter's rather contradictory acknowledgement of that only adds to the confusion.

George Goodwin's book, Fatal Rivalry, also seeks to discuss England and Scotland in a balanced way, but on a much more manageable scale. It overlaps with Porter's in that it deals with Henry VIII and James IV, but its analysis has a depth which hers lacks. The idea that England during these reigns was superior in culture and in successful kingship, beloved of certain English historians today, is an anachronism which is not allowed to creep in here. The chapters on the "Realization" of Scottish history - the process by which James IV disseminated an official version of the nation's past - and "Their Renaissance Majesties" - comparing Henry VIII with James IV - are, for that reason, sensitive and compelling. The book was, of course, written to commemorate the fifth centenary of the Battle of Flodden, and much detailed attention is given to that battle. What catches the reader's attention is the argument that the Scots might well have won - and certainly expected to win. This was certainly not the usual Scottish approach to Anglo-Scottish warfare, when large-scale pitched battles - of which there were three between 1314 and 1513 were understandably to be avoided. It is true that James had remarkable military success in the days leading up to the battle, but his tactics immediately before and during the battle itself were surely not effective enough to secure victory. Nevertheless, the fact that Goodwin could argue the case as well as he does is a tributeto his convincing portrayal of the rivalry between two monarchs, one of whom neither thought himself to be, nor in reality was, inferior to the other.

Only at the end of the book does Goodwin's sureness of touch desert him, when he invokes two late-medieval historians to claim that Flodden was a long-lived disaster. Actually, far from being a "fatal inheritance", or uncomfortably made of thistles, the Scottish crown, even on the head of the infant James V, was a rather distinguished thing to have, symbolizing as it did prestige and power; and Scottish confidence was scarcely dented, in sharp contrast to what happened in England in the long and sad aftermath of defeat in the last battle of the Hundred Years War, at Castillon in 1453. The positive message in this enjoyable and admirably illustrated book could have been carried on; James V managed to infuriate Henry VIII even more than his father had done, and his court was, if anything, even more dazzling. That apart, this book should certainly be read by anyone who, while continuing to admire early Tudor England, will appreciate the discovery that the little kingdom to the north was also remarkable.

Dr Wormald is an Honorary Fellow of the University of Edinburgh. She was a Lecturer in Scottish History in the University of Glasgow, and then Fellow in History, St Hilda's College, Oxford.

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