A Formative Childhood? A Comparison of the Reigns of Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor

Above: queens, cousins, rivals. Mary Stuart, queen consort of France and queen regnant of Scotland (left) and Elizabeth Tudor, queen regnant of England (right).

Above: queens, cousins, rivals. Mary Stuart, queen consort of France and queen regnant of Scotland (left) and Elizabeth Tudor, queen regnant of England (right).

Conor Byrne is a history student at the University of Exeter whose research interests include gender, cultural, and social history. His excellent blog focuses on historical issues but also touches upon contemporary political and social events. 

Being a queen regnant in sixteenth-century Europe was no easy task. Prevailing misogynistic notions questioned whether women, as the inferior sex, had the right to rule over their male superiors. John Knox, the vehement Scottish Protestant preacher, opined in his The first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women, attacking the rule of female monarchs such as Mary Tudor and Mary of Guise and published in 1558, that female rule was contrary to Biblical law. He bitterly concluded: ‘For their [women’s] sight in ciulie regiment, is but blindnes: their strength, weakness: their counsel, foolishenes: and judgement, phrenesie, if it be rightlie considered’. In view of this, the experiences of the queens regnant Mary Stuart, queen of Scotland, and Elizabeth Tudor, queen of England, should be considered in light of the customary expectations of figures such as Knox. 


Modern psychologists often suggest that childhood experiences are formative in governing later choices, actions and motives. Alfred Adler believed that people develop desires and drives during the childhood phase which later affects adulthood. Ann Smith concluded, in her article published by Psychology Today, that ‘our own childhood experiences, which include parents, combined with our own personalities, our reaction to siblings and peers and the context of our lives send us off on a path with a particular set of beliefs and patterns that have a huge impact on our future relationships’. Although the psychology of queen regnants such as Mary and Elizabeth, living four hundred years ago, can only be guessed at, it is credible that the childhood experiences of these two queens, which were vastly different, dictated significantly their later actions and beliefs, particularly in relation to queenship and authority.

Above: John Knox's The first blast of the trumpet (1558) was aimed at attacking female rulers such as Mary Stuart and Mary Tudor (right).

Above: John Knox’s The first blast of the trumpet (1558) was aimed at attacking female rulers such as Mary Stuart and Mary Tudor (right).

Both women descended from the first Tudor king, Henry VII, who had attained the crown of England through his defeat of the last Yorkist king, Richard III, at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485. Elizabeth Tudor’s birth had only been brought about by the annulment of her father’s first marriage and his subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn in 1533, with her birth occurring in September of that year. This marriage and the accompanied break with the Roman Church proved highly significant in European politics, particularly later on in the sixteenth century, for Catholic powers such as France and Spain viewed Henry VIII’s divorce as illegal and his remarriage void, rendering his second daughter Elizabeth a bastard with no right to accede to the throne of England. Mary Stuart, by contrast, was the grand-niece of Henry VIII since she was the daughter of the Scottish king, James V (nephew of Henry), and his French queen Mary of Guise. Her line of descent and her claim to the English throne came through Henry’s eldest sister Margaret Tudor, second child of Henry VII.


Elizabeth Tudor’s childhood was extremely complex and must be viewed as, at best, topsy turvy. For the first three years of her life, she had occupied a central place in her father’s affections as the heir to his throne following the bastardisation of her elder sister Mary. Besotted with his new wife Anne, the English king continued to hope, however, that she would bear him the much longed-for son to succeed Henry on the throne of England. Like most European rulers, Henry adhered to prevailing ideas that female rulers were unacceptable and contrary to God. This idea had, of course, provided the context for the annulment of his first marriage and his belief that his daughter Mary was illegitimate. Elizabeth enjoyed the luxury and splendour befitting an English princess, with her own household and servants, but because this occurred in the first three years of her life it is questionable to what extent she remembered or fully appreciated these luxurious early years.


In 1536, before her third birthday, Elizabeth’s fortunes changed dramatically with her mother’s loss of favour and eventual execution on charges of treason, adultery, and incest. While most historians firmly believe in Anne’s innocence, her daughter was presumably shattered by the news of her mother’s death, although at two years old how much she understood of the situation was very limited. Historians such as Sarah Gristwood and Maria Perry question how closely Elizabeth had bonded with her mother, for she had never resided with her. Following the custom of sixteenth century royal practice, Elizabeth had been nourished by a wet nurse and had been assigned her own household at Hatfield. Her visits to court had been relatively infrequent. Perhaps, as John Neale suggests, Elizabeth’s ’emotional life was unaffected by her mother’s fortunes’.


But this is slightly dubious. Following her mother’s execution, Elizabeth was also, like Mary, declared a bastard, no longer in line to the English throne. Her title of princess was stripped from her, and it is probable that her father, by virtue of who her mother was, viewed her with considerable disfavour for a time. Probably Henry neglected Elizabeth in the immediate aftermath of her mother’s death, for in the late summer of 1536 her governess Lady Bryan was forced to beg Cromwell for new clothes for the toddler. Later that year, however, she had returned to court and the Cardinal du Bellay observed the king’s affection for his youngest daughter. By all accounts, during her life Elizabeth revered her father’s memory and proudly proclaimed her parentage. By contrast, she is said to have mentioned Anne Boleyn’s name only three times in her seventy-year long life. Does this indicate suspicion or even hostility towards her mother, who had been executed for the foulest of crimes? Historians such as Alison Weir think not, believing that she may have, as queen, commissioned George Wyatt to write a secret defence of her mother.


Although Elizabeth was probably not severely affected personally in the immediate aftermath of this event, it is likely that her mother’s execution ‘must have overshadowed Elizabeth’s childhood. Over the years, guarded revelations, gossip, rumour and innuendo… and the growing awareness of her bastard status, must have caused the maturing Elizabeth recurring distress and enduring insecurities, and certainly affected her emotional development’ (Weir, 2009). The executions of both Katherine Howard (1542) and Lady Jane Grey (1554, by her sister Queen Mary) likely caused Elizabeth considerable distress, bringing back painful memories of her own mother’s brutal end. But how did these early childhood experiences govern Elizabeth’s decisions and choices as a ruler?


For one thing, as Antonia Fraser suggests, she learned from a very early age to hide her true feelings. Although Elizabeth was notoriously prone to fits of anger, distress, and annoyance, her own personal feelings regarding, for instance, personages such as Anne and her cousin Mary Stuart, queen of Scots, remain mysterious, as do her personal feelings for Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester and her lifelong suitor. Wisely, Elizabeth chose not to become embroiled in plots against her sister Queen Mary, although she was imprisoned in the Tower of London for a time. When Thomas Seymour tried to seduce her in 1549 during the reign of her brother Edward as a means of pursuing power at court, Elizabeth wisely refused to have nothing to do with him, and at the news of his execution she noted his ‘very little judgement’. 

In other ways, too, the impact of Elizabeth’s early childhood experiences can be clearly discerned. She was notoriously touchy about her status, and reacted furiously to allegations that she was a bastard and thus no rightful queen of England. 


Elizabeth’s reign was characterised by her caution and indecisiveness. She sought to placate foreign powers such as Spain while cautiously supporting fellow Protestants in the Netherlands, who sought to free themselves from the tyranny of the Spanish monarchy. Nevertheless, she did not seek to invade Scotland or France as a means of asserting her authority as her father, Henry VIII, sought to do. Her own horror of bloodshed and her desire for clemency can also be explained as a result of her personal aversion to the bloody experiences of her youth. Famously, she spent weeks, even months, agonising over her duty to sign the death warrant of Mary Stuart, and unlike her Catholic sister, refused to instigate a full scale Holocaust of religious deviants during her throne. Notwithstanding this, English Catholics were, of course, harshly persecuted from the 1570s on in light of the menacing threat of Spain and, to a lesser extent, France.


But above all the impact of Elizabeth’s childhood can most illuminatingly be seen in her attitudes to marriage and her decision to remain unmarried as England’s Virgin Queen. Her father had not prioritised her marriage in her youth, although suggestions of a betrothal to the son of the French king had surfaced during her early years. Later, when Mary Tudor sought to marry Elizabeth to the duke of Savoy, Elizabeth personally refused, on grounds of her decision, already made in her early twenties, to remain single, a decision which revolted her unhappily married sister. Why she chose to do so can only be guessed at, although most historians attribute her momentous decision to the bloody experiences of marriage suffered by her mother Anne and her stepmother Katherine Howard. Potentially, the death in childhood of two of her stepmothers, Jane Seymour and Katherine Parr, also influenced Elizabeth’s aversion to marriage, for she may have come to associate the married position with an early death, pain, even bloodshed. Others argue that she feared the loss of both personal and political power if she had to give way to a husband, while some contended that she refused to marry because she was physically unable to bear children.


In her illuminating article ‘Why Elizabeth I Never Married’, Retha Warnicke suggests that political issues were far more important, for ‘every British queen regnant who married soon discovered that her husband and his family complicated her life politically’. The unsuccessful marriages of three other queen regnants at this time, Lady Jane Grey, Mary Tudor and Mary Stuart, probably influenced Elizabeth’s marital beliefs. Jane’s Dudley in-laws were unpopular, while Mary Tudor’s Spanish husband was so hated that a popular rebellion was directed against him in 1554. Mary Stuart’s second marriage to Henry lord Darnley had, of course, ended in his brutal murder, attributed by hostile individuals to the Scottish queen herself. Her third husband brutally raped her and left her alone in a hostile Scotland. In view of Warnicke’s arguments, it is extremely likely that both Elizabeth’s childhood experiences and the experiences of later queen regnants in relation to marriage governed her momentous decision to remain unmarried.

Above: Queens Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart in their youth.

Above: Queens Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart in their youth.

It is clear that Queen Elizabeth’s personal views and decisions regarding foreign policy, marriage, and the shedding of bloodshed were strongly governed by her formative childhood experiences. Is the same notion true for Mary Stuart, queen regnant of Scotland and, at one stage, queen consort of France? As second cousin to the English queen, Mary Stuart had enjoyed a far different childhood to Elizabeth. While Mary as dauphiness of France was to enjoy a life of luxury and splendour similar to that of the English princess before the execution of her mother, beforehand her birth in 1542 to the Scottish king James V occurred at a time of political and foreign difficulties in Scotland. The hostility of Henry VIII, directed in continuing invasions of Scotland, was worsened by the death of James six days after his daughter’s birth. At 6 days old, therefore, Mary Stuart became queen of Scotland. Her mother, Queen Mary, became regent of Scotland during her daughter’s minority, but her French lineage and her Catholic faith rendered her an unpopular figure to Scottish Protestants. It is significant that the Scottish Reformation occurred from this time.


The hostile misadventures of the English king encouraged the Scottish dowager queen’s decision to send her infant daughter to the land of her own birth, France, where she would be brought up by her Guise relatives and groomed for a splendid marriage to the French dauphin, Francois, who would day accede to the crown of France. Although, like Elizabeth, Mary’s infant years had been traumatic and complex, during her adolescence she enjoyed a life of luxury and fulfilment as a princess of France. She grew into a tall, striking, charming woman who enjoyed poetry, music, and dancing, and who sought personal satisfaction in outdoor physical exercise. While she was of the Catholic faith, during her teenage years she was not devout. However, the year 1558 was significant for Mary and the course of her life. Aged fifteen at the time, Mary’s position in Europe was immeasurably strengthened by the death of her cousin Queen Mary Tudor, ruler of England, in November. Because Catholic powers, as mentioned, identified Elizabeth as a bastard, in the eyes of Europe, Mary Stuart was now the rightful queen of England. Elizabeth’s Protestant faith rendered her a heretic, and her illegitimacy was proclaimed to be a pressing reason why she should never accede to the crown of England. Accordingly, Mary and her French husband, whom she had married in April of that year in Paris, began using the royal arms of England alongside those of France and Scotland and it was ordered that they should be referred to as the king and queen of France, Scotland and England.


Mary’s childhood and adolescence had encouraged her to believe that, by virtue of her excellent lineage and her Catholic faith, she was the rightful queen of England. But her future became uncertain in 1560 when, aged only seventeen, the French dauphin died prematurely. No longer queen consort of France, Mary decided to return home to Scotland as its queen regnant, although not after considering a second marriage alliance with a powerful nation such as Spain. Once in Scotland, Mary’s political decisions and choices as queen are intriguing in view of her childhood experiences. Her religious policy was famously fair and liberal, for although she was a Catholic, the Scottish Reformation had progressed so extensively that she quickly discerned that it would be unwise to press for Catholicism to become the state religion. Her own mother had faced mounting hostility in view of her Catholic faith, culminating in an invasion. Wisely, Mary learned from her childhood experiences in accordance with the political and religious situation prevailing in Scotland. Like Elizabeth in the early years of her reign, who famously desired not ‘to make windows into men’s souls’, Queen Mary sought peace and stability in a kingdom which was slowly experiencing increasing inner tensions. She may also have been influenced by the religious violence in France between Catholics and Huguenots during her childhood. As Fraser contends, she seems to have had a personal aversion to bloodshed and violence, like her cousin Elizabeth.


Mary’s beliefs regarding marriage and motherhood were significantly different to those of Elizabeth, most likely because of her own childhood experiences in that regard. While Elizabeth may have equated motherhood and marriage with bloodshed and an early death, Mary’s acquaintance with the fertility of the French royal family, coupled with her own maternal feelings, meant that marriage was a promising prospect for her. She also regarded it as essential in order to preserve dynastic and political stability in Scotland. Unlike Elizabeth, who feared the loss of her authority through marriage, Mary naturally desired a strong ruling hand to aid her in her queenship. In view of this, in 1565 Mary, having fallen in love with the dashing but volatile Henry Stewart, lord Darnley, chose to marry once more. Her choice, aside from his own personal failings, was a wise one, for Henry had royal blood by virtue of being the son of Lady Margaret Douglas, niece of Henry VIII as the daughter of Margaret Tudor. Since Mary Stuart was the granddaughter of Margaret Tudor, she was first cousin to Lord Darnley.


Mary’s political decisions and views were dictated entirely by her childhood experiences in France. There, absolutism reigned, and the monarchy was entirely respected with its due reverence. By contrast, the Scottish monarchy was beset with difficulties in view of increasing religious conflict among the Scottish lords. They were violent and sought only to pursue their own interests. Abduction and rape of rich widows was commonly used as a means of achieving power and greater wealth. It was therefore impossible for Mary to appreciate the tensions and resentment prevalent among her nobility. Despite her religious tolerance, her Catholic faith rendered her unacceptable to hostile Protestants such as John Knox and her brother, the earl of Moray. Her husband, Lord Darnley, soon proved to be a disastrous choice as consort. Immature, jealous and easily manipulated, he was soon embroiled in a plot to kill Mary’s beloved secretary Riccio, who was blamed for causing the Queen’s disillusionment with her second husband. Less than a year after Riccio’s brutal end, Darnley himself had been murdered, his strangled body found at Kirk o’Field. His house had been blown up in a plot to kill him, probably governed largely by the Earl of Bothwell who subsequently abducted the Scottish queen and raped her. Their marriage ceremony followed shortly afterwards. Mary now totally lost any support she had formerly enjoyed from the nobility. Viewing her as an adulteress and whore, they imprisoned her at Lochleven, and forced her to abdicate in favour of her infant son James. Months later, she managed to escape to England, where she would endure 19 years of imprisonment before Queen Elizabeth signed her death warrant, when evidence gradually but quickly emerged that Mary had been involved in a number of plots against her. Mary’s life came to an end at the hands of the executioner’s axe in Fotheringhay Castle in February 1587.


While Elizabeth’s decisions were governed by caution and indecision, Mary’s have often been considered reckless and impulsive, although her early religious policies were tolerant and well-considered. She also sought to pursue a policy of conciliation with the nobility, in order to avoid bloodshed and violence at the Scottish court. Both women were influenced supremely by their childhood experiences. In relation to marriage, Elizabeth shrunk from the prospect due to her own psychological views and her political awareness, while Mary’s association of marriage with lineage and power, formed at the court of France, governed her decisions to remarry once in Scotland. Both women pursued strong alliances with European powers as a means of strengthening their positions politically and personally; Elizabeth because of the experiences of her father and sister in their reigns and because of England’s own insecurities; and Mary because she was aware that Scotland’s conflict could only be assuaged by the helping hand of a loyal Catholic ally. Both women also sought conciliating religious policies since both had a horror of bloodshed and violence. But in the most important decisions, it seems clear that Elizabeth was both more politically astute and more aware of the importance of her people’s opinions. Consequently, she refused to marry Robert Dudley in 1560 following the mysterious death of his wife because she was aware that she was implicated by some in Amy Robsart’s death; she refused to go to war with fellow Protestants because she feared England’s loss of security at the hands of hostile powers such as Spain; and she refused to suffer the loss of her virgin status. Elizabeth was understandably reluctant to place her political and personal authority in doubt were she to marry an overbearing husband. Her own sister’s example had demonstrated such a risk. 


By contrast, Mary Stuart’s decision to marry Darnley appears singularly misguided even if, at the time, it was considered a strong alliance. But her own decision to marry Bothwell scandalised her people and alienated her nobility, although it seems hardly fair to blame Mary since he had both abducted and raped her and it is certain that she had very little choice. But the belief that she was a constant schemer and plotter against the English queen, whatever the truths of it, and the association of her name with murder blackened her reputation irretrievably. Unlike Elizabeth, who at an early age by virtue of her childhood experiences became cautious and indecisive, Mary was more impulsive and reckless by virtue of the fact that her childhood had not prepared her in the same manner for a successful queenship. Her sense of absolutism political sense and her views regarding marriage were significantly different to those of Queen Elizabeth.


Queen regnants faced hostility and suspicion in the sixteenth century, when it was believed that women were inferior to men and as such had no right to rule over them. The example of Queen Elizabeth proved that a woman could rule successfully, while that of Mary Stuart indicated the difficulties a female ruler faced by virtue of her gender. Both women’s childhoods dictated their decisions later in life and their own personal characteristics, but while Elizabeth has been generally praised as a successful ruler and perhaps even England’s greatest monarch, Mary has often been condemned, as a result of her political and religious decisions, as a failure, notwithstanding the prevailing image of her as a religious martyr or tragic figure.

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5 Comments

Filed under Across/Beyond Genres with The Tudors: Guest Posts by Novelists, Historians, Cultural Observers, Poets, Memoirists, Artists, and Bloggers

5 responses to “A Formative Childhood? A Comparison of the Reigns of Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor

  1. Esther

    Great post. According to Jane Dunn’s joint biography of Elizabeth and Mary, the women Mary observed in France were actually more influential than any of the stepmothers that Elizabeth could observe. David Starkey has suggested that Catherine Parr’s stint as regent had an effect on the young Elizabeth …. IMO, this. combined with what Elizabeth would have heard, if not seen, during her sister’s reign, taught Elizabeth that women could exercise power, just like men, but only in the absence of a husband. Mary, OTOH, learned in France that women exercise power by virtue of their influence on the king … so a husband was essential to a woman who wanted to exercise power.

    Esther Sorkin

  2. ” Both women are descendants of the first Tudor king , Henry VII , who gained the crown of England through his defeat last Yorkist king , Richard III , at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485 . Born Elizabeth Tudor ‘s only been brought about by the destruction of the marriage of her father ‘s first marriage and his next to Anne Boleyn in 1533 , with her ​​birth occurred in September of that year . marriage and break associated with the Roman Catholic Church has proved very important in European politics , especially later in the sixteenth century , the Catholic powers such as France and Spain , have seen Henry VIII ‘s divorce illegal and invalid remarried his second daughter Elizabeth made ​​her a bitch does not have the right to participate in the throne of England . Mary Stuart , by contrast , is great – granddaughter of Henry VIII since she was the daughter of the king of Scotland , James V ( grandson of Henry ) , and his French queen , Mary of Guise . their field and require native English throne she adopted Henry ‘s sister Margaret Tudor , second child of Henry VII . ” two queen is very talented and gifted , her childhood so many situations , she’s beautiful and smart and interested

  3. Interesting, I also read somewhere that Elizabeth refused to marry because she feared the consequences of childbirth or something like them. Mary Stuart’s pampered, lengthy permanence in France definitely didn’t aid her reign in Scotland. I don’t know if you’re aware of the television series Reign, which carelessness for historical accuracy about Stuart’s life reaches new heights, making her entire early life up. I even wrote an entire piece about that: http://prettyandwittyandbright.wordpress.com/2014/10/03/on-tv-revisting-reigns-first-season-and-the-horrors-of-historical-fanfiction-ahem/

    Check it out and let me know what you think!

  4. Pingback: A Formative Childhood? A Comparison of the Reigns of Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor | The son of Louis Chapuys and Guigonne Dupuys, was a Savoyard diplomat who served Charles V as Imperial ambassador to England

  5. Reblogged this on A Passion for History and commented:
    A well-written, well-researched, and generally balanced article that seems to get more and more fascinating every time I reread it, especially as I get to know the intriguing and much-misunderstood figures of Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I of England. 🙂

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