The Almost Mythical Early Life of Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots

The Queen of Scots was a French girl and her name was not Mary: it was Marie!

By Linda Root

Marie Stuart is not the same persona as Mary Tudor (Mary I of England) who historians sometimes call Bloody Mary: Nor is she the same person as Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s favorite sister who was briefly queen consort of France but never a queen in her own right.  The confusion would not have occurred but for the insistence of contemporary historians that the Queen of Scots be given the English name of Mary, a politically motivated misnomer. Her father James V of Scotland died when she was six days old and the Scottish influence on her childhood died with him. Her mother Marie of Guise had been in Scotland for four years when he died. The House of Guise had a mixed Franco-Germanic heritage which they traced to Charlemagne.  Following French assumption of suzerainty over Lorraine, Guise scions were French princes. They were as powerful as they were arrogant and looked upon Scotland as a Provence with bad weather.

Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots

Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots

Mary Tudor (Mary I)

Mary Tudor (Mary I)

The Queen of Scots was at least as French as her mother, who had been educated in Joinville under the tutelage of her devoutly religious mother Antoinette de Bourbon, who dressed as a nun and wore a cilice. The Queen of Scots was schooled in the royal nursery at Saint Germain-en-Laye, her curriculum dictated by queen consort Catherine de Medici and the king’s mistress Diane de Poitiers. Her education was identical to the one received by Catherine’s daughters, princesses Elisabeth and Claud. Their tutors were renaissance scholars. Diane was a patroness of the arts and a fashion icon, an ideal role model for a future queen.

Assertions of historians that Marie Stuart spoke no French when she arrived in France at age five seem implausible.  Traditionally, young Scottish monarchs lived at Stirling, but Marie Stuart remained in her mother’s French-speaking household until she was five.  The Dowager’s advisers were the Frenchmen de Thermes and d’Oysel, and her household staff and ladies-in-waiting were predominantly French.  It is disingenuous to believe that she spoke Scots to her infant daughter when she barely knew it herself. 


When the queen was five she was sent to France to evade an English army scouring Scotland in hopes of hauling her to a forced betrothal to Edward VI. Before she sailed, she was affianced by proxy to the four-year-old dauphin. Hers was not a flight into an unfamiliar world.  Scottish aristocrats were often educated at the Sorbonne. France granted dual citizenship to Scots.  Fashion at the Scottish court was French. Marie of Guise consulted Diane de Poitiers on her wardrobe. Three of the four Scottish girls selected to accompany Marie to France—the Four Maries– had French mothers. Even they were hustled to a convent school in Poissy and the other Scots were sent packing.  Any trace of Scottishness that Marie retained was systematically eradicated. Below is a note she wrote to her mother when she was seven.  Voila! It is a note written by a French girl.

The assertion that Marie Stuart was an unhappy child who was abused by Queen Catherine and corrupted by Diane de Poitiers is a construct of historians who wish to cast Marie Stuart as a perennial victim. Henri II doted on the charming child slated to become his daughter-in-law, and neither of the two women competing for his affections would have dared abuse or malign her. It is more likely that she played them off against each other. She learned poetry from Ronsard and history from Brantome, but her ability to manipulate those around her came from her uncle Charles. In addition to being Christendom’s second most powerful prelate, he was the richest man in France. His position as his niece’s mentor insulated her from exploitation by all but her uncle’s.

It benefited the king’s dynastic plan for his son to have a perfect wife. Francois stuttered and his nose ran constantly. Having Marie at his side was a necessary accouterment. The wedding  went forward in 1558, in hopes that Francois’s testicles  would eventually descend into his scrotum and the dynasty would be saved. Meanwhile, illusion  was enough. Unfortunately, in the autumn the new dauphiness misstepped, and it was her uncles and Henri  who tripped her. 


Diane de Poitiers


Henri II

Caterina Maria de Romula de’Medici

Caterina Maria de Romula de’Medici

  To understand the interplay between the Tudor and Stuart dynasties, forget what you remember of The Tudors and Cate Blanchett’s portrayals of Elizabeth. The acting and sets are better than the history. In spite of myriad novels and movies, Marie Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor never met.  Do not waste time puzzling over how Great Harry’s sister Margaret who wed and smothered the wizened King of Portugal fits into this: No such person existed. The real Margaret Tudor was Henry VIII’s impetuous older sister whom he shunted to Scotland to marry James IV before she did something outrageous.  Her firstborn, prophetically named James, became James V a year later when his father died at Flodden.  In 1542 he became Marie Stuart’s father. Having suffered a military rout at Solway Moss and the unwanted gift of a daughter when he needed a son, he muttered something cryptic about ‘it started with a lass and is ending with a lass’, turned to face the wall and died.

The real Margaret Tudor was Marie Stuart’s grandmother. She was also the grandmother of Marie Stuart’s second husband Darnley, son of Lady Margaret Douglas, child of Margaret‘s tempestuous second marriage to Archibald Douglas. Sixteenth century royals made a habit of marrying their cousins, which kept the Pope busy signing dispensations but did little to enhance the bloodlines.  As a closet Catholic, Margaret Douglas was Mary Tudor’s favorite cousin, the Catholic choice to become her heir. But Mary declined to override her father’s Will. The crown passed to Protestant Elizabeth.

Next, Marie Stuart ventured onto the political stage and tripped. Her uncles and Henri insisted that since Elizabeth was both bastard and heretic, the Queen of Scots was England’s rightful queen. Seduced by the idea, Marie began quartering the English arms alongside those of France and Scotland. She was either deplorably  naïve or as overreaching as her uncles. The pope ruled for Elizabeth.  Marie Stuart had taken her first stumble on the path to Fotheringhay.

Marie ElizabethICoronation

The Queen of Scots Became Queen of France Literally By Accident

HenriJoustIn  the summer of 1559, after years of war Europe was at peace. The court was celebrating the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis in a series of tournaments at La Tournelles.  Late in the final day of jousting,  Henri neglected to lower his visor and Gabriel Montgomerie’s lance entered his forehead near his eye. Before nightfall , Catherine sent  Diane packing. A few days later, Henri  died. Marie Stuart was the French queen consort  and immature Francois was king. Catherine allied herself with the Guises and rode to the Louvres in the same coach as the new queen while Francois II paraded beside the Duke of Guise. Marie Stuart had attained the status she had dreamed of since childhood, and the  Guises ruled France.

Marie Stuart’s time as a French Queen Consort did not last long:

Under the Salic law that prevailed in France, women could not ascend the throne. Marie Stuart never reigned there. Assertions that she  controlled her husband and thus ruled France are misguided. Her uncles controlled them both.  They governed while the young royals amused themselves by hunting the white stag. Enemies  of the ultra-Catholic Guises plastered Paris with posters asking “Ou est le roi?”

In the spring of 1560  the anti-Guise faction launched  a plot to free Francois  from his wife’s relatives. But too many conspirators were involved and the plan was leaked to Catherine. The assault  against the vacationing  royals at Amboise ended in a rout. A grisly purge of anyone with a link to the rebels followed. The Loire ran red with the blood of peasants whose only sin was giving water to a soldier. Marie watched the executions from a gallery window. Each day’s slaughter was followed by fireworks and water sports until the court was forced  to move to Chenonceau to avoid the stench of rotting corpses  hanging from the battlement.

There was brief rejoicing when Marie missed a menses and began wearing a smock, but is was as illusory as Mary Tudor’s false pregnancies.  Apparently the queen was still a virgin. The smock was discarded and the dynastic aspirations of the Guises soon followed. After hunting  in a mild  snowstorm,  Francois developed an ear infection that migrated to his brain. He died in December of what doctors called ’brain fever.’ His mother left his deathbed long enough to convene the Estates General. The king died that night and on the following day the second son of the woman Marie Stuart scornfully called ‘the Italian shopkeeper’s daughter’ became Charles IX and the shopkeeper’s daugher was named his Regent. The Guises retired to Joinville.

The Queen’s return to Scotland was a last resort:

She spent the next five years trying to regain the status she lost when Francois died. Her quest began in Europe as she shopped for a husband of similar rank.  Her first choice was Don Carlos of Austria,  the Spanish Infante, Philip’s son to his first wife and double cousin Maria of Portugal. Carlos was not only physically deformed: he was mentally ill. His homicidal outbursts were aimed at  Philip who had no desire to let him breed. Besides, Philip had promised Catherine to nix any marriage that might weaken the position of Marie’s old friend, his consort Elisabeth Valois, who was pregnant.

Charles IX

Charles IX

Don Carlos

Don Carlos

Charles IX was another possibility.  The nine-year-old was infatuated with his pretty sister-in-law.  Catherine made short shrift of that.  She had no desire to reinstate her condescending daughter in law just when she was rid of her. Disconsolate Marie visited her grandmother, and her uncles snubbed her.  After her half brother Lord James Stewart arrived to entice her to Scotland to assume personal rule, they thawed. Having Scotland in their clutches was better than nothing.

When the queen’s flagship  entered Leith harbor  ahead of schedule, there was  no one to greet it.. The convoy carrying her livery, horses and household goods had been confiscated by Elizabeth. The queen requisitioned a burgess’s house to rest and wash, and then set out for  Edinburgh on a borrowed horse. The exceptionally tall  female rider with porcelain skin and  auburn hair attracted a crowd that followed her to Holyrood. That night they serenaded her from the courtyard.  Her apartments at Holyrood were not ready for her arrival, and neither were the Scots.

 …On that note, her reign began

Linda Root is a former homicide prosecutor and the author of four historical novels set in Marie Stuart’s Scotland.  Root lives in Yucca Valley, California with husband Chris and two mixed giant Alaskan Malamutes Maxx and Maya.  Her fifth book of the series, 1603: The Queen’s Revenge, is scheduled for release in early 2014. Check out the first four in the series by clicking on the following links: The First Marie and the Queen of Scots, The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots The Midwife’s Secret: The Mystery of the Hidden Princess, and The Other Daughter: the Midwife’s Secret II.


Filed under The Women Behind the Fictions

3 responses to “The Almost Mythical Early Life of Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots

  1. Pamela Kapustka

    This is simply fascinating…yet, TV & Movies insist on making-up history! Maybe it’s easier, to fill in the blanks, than to research actual events! This lady deserves a “true-account” of her life and with all the scheming, power-grabbing, sex, family feuds & intrigue, why would anyone take “artistic license”??? This story is a “lily” that doesn’t need any “gilding”!!!

  2. Linda is a thorough researcher, and her books are filled with interesting fact of the politics of the time which were complex and fluid. It is interesting to note, that Marie never planned on ruling Scotland through personal rule, and that she was lured there by political intrigue, both from Catherine De Medici, and Elizabeth l, who was bank rolling Marie’s half brother Moray, to support the Protestant rule in Scotland. Knowing his sister was a stanch Catholic, there was bound to be friction on her return. The Scots primarily ruled their country through the clans, and latter through the “kirk,” or the Protestant leaders called the Lords of the Congregation. They had been ruled by kings that were generally children, so they had regents run the country. They were now faced with a Queen, who was of age and expecting to rule. This was not of their liking as they could influence the regents and run the country the way they saw fit. Generally through Bribery, infighting, violence and funding from both the English and the French. As Linda noted, Marie was a French woman for all intents and purposes. She was in no way prepared to face the barbaric surroundings and men that she had come to rule. She felt that marrying and producing an heir would secure her reign. But her choice of husbands, proved her downfall, as Elizabeth manouvered the marriage market, and sent Darnley her way. She knew he was a selfish vain man, full of vices and trouble, but she released him to Scotland at this most propitious time, after declaring Marie must marry an Englishman. She took the bate, as Darnley was charming and polished at first. Once the wedding was over his drunken embarrassing behavior, and his demand to be king showed his true colors. He became a liability for both Scotland and England, and so he was murdered. This murder comprises one of the greatest untold mysteries of history, and so begins another chapter in Marie’s tragic and flawed life.

  3. Nicely written and researched article, but Henry VIII didn’t send Margaret to Scotland her father did in 1503. Technically James V was her firstborn son only if you only count surviving children

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