Hearld, 10 August 2013
rivalry and blood feuds
to improve Anglo-Scottish relations during the medieval period could be
a perilous occupation. Take Andrew Harclay. In March 1323 he was hanged,
drawn and quartered at Carlisle. His severed head was sent to the Yorkshire
town of Knaresborough, temporary billet of Edward II, and from there to
London. It would be displayed on London Bridge for five years. The remainder
of Harclay's corpse was also pressed into service as a none-too-subtle
warning of the consequences of treason. The citizenries of Carlisle, Bristol,
Dover and Newcastle would all have their chance to gaze upon a quarter
of Harclay's slain body.
was an ignominious end for someone who had only recently been hailed as
a hero by the English. Harclay was the man who had fended off Robert Bruce's
assault on Carlisle Castle back in 1315 and, less than a year before his
execution, he had won a famous victory at the Battle of Boroughbridge.
What, then, was his terrible crime? Nothing more sinister than growing
tired of the endless, often futile, fighting between the realms. He went
to the Scots in search of a peace treaty but did so without his king's
permission. This was deemed to be treacherous and Harclay paid an awful
such as this permeate the story of how England and Scotland squabbled
for long centuries, and of how so many souls were caught in the crossfire.
Invading armies went this way and that, towns were routinely occupied,
and some of Britain's bloodiest battles cost tens of thousands of lives.
are many wonderful popular history books to be written about all of this
but, so far, too few have arrived on our shelves. The same cannot be said
of Mary Queen of Scots: a figure who, let us be frank, has had far too
many biographers. The title of Linda Porter's book may therefore provoke
misgivings: not again, you may mumble. Fear not, however. The clue is
in the subtitle: "fatal inheritance". Porter certainly revisits the sad
tale of Mary Stuart but the bulk of her book takes us farther back in
time. Not as far as the ill-fated Harclay, but well into the 15th century.
The book is elegantly written, decently researched and, crucially, it
will alert a new readership to a neglected subject.
stars of the show are Henry VII, England's first Tudor monarch, and James
IV of Scotland. Both men ruled with some precariousness ("gaining the
throne was one thing. Keeping it was quite another") but Porter makes
a convincing case that they were more talented than is often supposed.
They were also great rivals: attempting to make their relatively minor
proto-nations count for something inthe world of European high politics
and more than happy to intervene in each other's affairs.
this required skulduggery (James's support for the pretender Perkin Warbeck,
for example) but sometimes there were happier results. One of the finest
sections of Porter's book concerns Margaret Tudor, Henry's daughter, who
became James's teenage bride. Margaret is a fascinating figure. She came
with an impressive dowry (worth around £6 million in today's money), which
was very welcome in a cash-strapped Scotland, though James immediately
spent the equivalent of £1m on the wedding celebrations.
first deed as queen was to insist her husband shave off his unkempt beard
and this act of self-assertion was an early hint that Margaret would not
be intimidated by life in a strange and foreign land. She became fluent
in Scots, contributed to a vibrant court culture, and, despite the occasional
infidelity on the part of her husband, enjoyed a relatively happy marriage
- at least for as long as it lasted.
union could not prevent Scotland and England returning to bad habits and
by 1513 thousands of men were being slaughtered at Flodden. Porter does
not chastise Jamesfor his role in these events. He was "no hothead bent
on glory": Porter argues that the war had popular support, that counsel
was carefully. sought, and that James believed he had a fair chance of
securing victory. Small comfort to Margaret, who became a widow at 23,
had to seek out a new husband, and eventually had to flee home to England
leaving behind her young sons.
so the whirligig continued. Porter takes us through the rest of the 16th
century, all the way up to the drama of Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart. There
are many highlights: the account of James V's 1536-37 trip to France stands
out, and best of all is the famous first encounter between Mary and John
Knox - not the queen's greatest.admirer. "If the realm finds no inconvenience
from the rule of a woman," Knox announced, "I shall be as well content
to live under your grace as St Paul was to live under Nero." Say what
you will about Knox, but he was the master of stinging one-liners.
claims that "for most English-. speaking people, Mary Queen of Scots is
the only Scottish ruler they have heard of, with the possible exception
of Robert the Bruce". This, surely, is an exaggeration but it is certainly
high time that we heard more about the many interesting characters who
feature in this charming and informative book.
to Crown of Thistles Reviews