450 years ago (on July 24th 1567) Mary, Queen of Scots abdicated the Scottish throne and so set in motion the union of England and Scotland under her son James VI/I (in 1603). Events to mark this anniversary sprinkle the Scottish calendar this year and it’s highly likely that if you are visiting North of the border you will stumble across at least one of these (www.maryqueenofscotsfestival.co.uk.)
Often depicted as a glamorous, but foolish woman who was unable to control Scotland’s violent, self-serving aristocracy. Mary practised the wrong religion (she was Catholic in a country that had recently become Protestant) and had appalling judgement in men (marrying 3 times). Indeed she was labelled a murderess and adulteress and then finally a traitor – the reason for her ignominous beheading (under the order of Elizabeth I in 1587). Today history judges her less harshly – more romantic than profligate, more misunderstood than manipulator, more victim of an ambitious Elizabethan court than political conniver.
You’ll have seem them out and about; tall and eye-catching, with majestic crowns in pink or purple, thistles flourish where others daren’t – tough as old boots they are. Some say they are common (the edible ones, like celery, were eaten by the poor), nothing more than a weed. Others treat them like royalty, a noble addition to a floral display.
The thistle as the national emblem of Scotland may predate Mary’s reign – it was first adopted by Alexander III 1249–1286 and then later as the symbol of the Scottish chilvalric “Order of the Thistle” with the inscription “Nemo Me Impune Lacessit”, “No-one attacks me with impunity” – but as a symbol of protection, pain and pride and as a warning against unwanted meddling or intrusion, it’s certainly the perfect flower for the last Scottish Queen.
Protector: Touch a thistle and likely you will get prickled, those spikes are meant to deter. So the Greeks thought them useful guards against bad demons and later as the “herb of witches”. But in their prickliness there’s endurance and fortitude (and the legendary tale of how the thistle became the Scottish emblem – it’s said an invading Viking army sneaking up on a Scottish army camp one night, was undone by a thistle when a Norseman trod on one barefoot and cried out in pain – so alerting the Scots to battle). Mary’s return from France to take the Scottish crown in 1561 (she was sent to grow up on the Continent at the age of 5 by her French mother) was her attempt to protect the Scottish throne (and Catholicism). Recently bereaved (her husband Francis II had died a few months previously) she was young (just 19) and totally bereft. Presiding over increasingly disparate factions she did well to keep the Scottish throne as long as she did.
Pain: So pretty to look at but so very spiky to touch, the pink thistle is said to denote love, divine love (and hence more auspicious). Mary’s agony was her heart – her religious devoutness and the marital decisions she made. She married twice more. Her second husband was her first cousin and English; Lord Darnley. It was a love match that produced a much needed heir to the throne (James VI born in 1566), but is was ill-judged. Darnley wanted power and prestige; increasingly despotic he demanded to be made a co-sovereign. Mary refused and as their marriage faltered. Suspicion and jealousy infiltrated the Court turning it toxic, Mary was accused of having an affair with her private secretary, David Rizzio. Then at a dinner party in Holyrood Palace, a group of the conspirators, accompanied by her husband Darnley, murdered Rizzio in front of the pregnant Mary. But it didn’t end their, the plots thickened and darkened; Mary was rumoured to be in love with a protestant, Lord Bothwell; Darnley was murdered (possibly by Bothwell). Mary believing she was doing the right thing for her country, then married Bothwell (who abducted her and allegedly raped her). She miscarried twins, she faced rebellion in Scotland and hostility from Elizabeth I (who felt deeply insecure about Mary’s decent claim to the English throne). But, like the thistle of legend, Mary was brave, courageous and loyal in the face of such treachery.
Pride: The purple headed crowns of thistles denote royalty, justice, wealth and dignity. Attributes that could well be ascribed to Mary too. She was tall (nearly 6′) and beautiful (much more so it’s thought than the surviving portraits suggest – probably she was painted plain so as not to stoke the jealousy of her ‘sister queen’ Elizabeth I). She was generous, forgiving and sociable. She loved horse riding and dancing. She would dress up as a stable boy and escape at night into the streets of Edinburgh incognito. Her fun-loving ended when after escaping Scotland in 1658 seeking support in England, she found herself instead incarcerated by supporters of Elizabeth I. For the next 19 years she lived in castles, usually around the Midlands, a ‘prisoner’ of the English Queen (with whom she never met).
Mary was permitted her own domestic staff (about 16). Her chambers were decorated with fine tapestries and carpets, as well as her cloth of state on which she had embroidered, En ma fin est mon commencement (“In my end lies my beginning”). Her bedlinen was changed daily, and her own staff prepared meals – with a choice of 32 dishes served on silver plates. She was occasionally allowed outside under strict supervision but spent much of her time doing embroidery (now known as the Marian Hanging). Her health declined, perhaps through porphyria or lack of exercise, and by the 1580s, she had severe rheumatism in her legs.
Intrigue and double-dealing continued to determine Mary’s life. A series of letters (the casket letters) seemingly placing her as plotting against Elizabeth I. On 11 August 1586, she was implicated in the Babington Plot, Mary was arrested while out riding and later put on trial. Found guilty of treason, Elizabeth ordered her execution.
Proud to the end, Mary now 44, spent her last hours at Fotheringhay Castle, in prayer, distributing her belongings to her household, and writing her will and a letter to the King of France. Blindfolded by a white veil embroidered in gold, she knelt down on the cushion in front of the block, positioned her head, and stretched out her arms. Her last words were, “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum” (“Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”).
Purple thistles still grow on the site of Mary’s execution, they are known as ‘Queen Mary’s tears’.
BBC Radio 4, In Our Time http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b088fs7z
BBC – Bloody Queens; Elizabeth and Mary
Audrey Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave and Clemence Poesy have previously portrayed the queen on film. Margot Robbie is to star in a new production.