‘Sisters’ of doom: Mary and Elizabeth, cousins who fought to the death
As my biography of Mary, Queen of Scots comes to the screen, let's reflect on the strange story of the monarchs
Just over two years ago I received a phone call from Working Title Films. My 2004 biography of Mary, Queen of Scots was about to move from page to screen, directed by Josie Rourke, with a screenplay by Beau Willimon, the creator of Netflix’s drama about Machiavellian politicians, House of Cards.
The idea was to tell the story of love, betrayal and tragedy within Mary’s turbulent court against the backdrop of Mary’s relationship with her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. These two female rulers, inspirationally played in the film, Mary Queen of Scots, by the Oscar-nominated actors Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, uniquely understood, captivated and challenged each other. They called each other “sister”. Each believed she had been called to rule her country by God. Each was the only other woman on the planet who could know what it was like to be in the other’s shoes.
My role was to comment on the historical authenticity of the script, to help the actors understand their characters, and to advise on everything from Elizabeth and Mary’s leisure interests (exotic horses, say, in Elizabeth’s case; cross-dressing pranks in Mary’s) to who should be present at the scene of Mary’s execution at Fotheringhay Castle. I also have a small walk-on cameo part in the film.
Theatrical representation can never exactly replicate a book, but I believe the film is an utterly compelling drama, brilliantly scripted, directed and acted. Careful preparation was crucial. A highlight was the day I spent at Hampton Court Palace with Robbie. The Australian actress grasped instantly from our conversation as we toured the state apartments that the key to playing Elizabeth was to remember that she and Mary were both young and vulnerable at the start of their tangled relationship.
Elizabeth was far from being Mary’s mortal enemy then – both “British” queens were, as it might be said, fully paid-up members of the female monarchs’ trade union – and Mary did not want to claim Elizabeth’s throne during her cousin’s lifetime; she wanted Elizabeth to recognise her as the lawful successor should the English queen not marry and have a child. And for much of the time that was what Elizabeth wanted too.
In her dealings with her Catholic cousin, the Protestant Elizabeth was caught in a trap. She wanted to do what she believed to be the right thing – for Mary as much as for England itself. That meant making a pact, if she could; one in which the Scottish queen’s dynastic claim was preserved for the future, but by which Scotland, meanwhile, would be turned into a satellite state of England.
The crux is that Elizabeth ranked blood ahead of religious faith. Mary was the great-granddaughter of Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty, and her legitimacy was never in doubt, whereas Elizabeth, Henry VIII’s child by his second wife, Anne Boleyn, had been declared a bastard by parliament and her own father. Early in her reign, Elizabeth told William Maitland, the Scottish secretary of state, that in her heart she did indeed consider Mary to be her rightful heir. She simply refused to name her as such for fears of plots and conspiracies.
In the film, Elizabeth candidly confesses her anxieties on the rooftop at Hampton Court, telling her chief minister, William Cecil, played silkily by Guy Pearce: “No prince’s revenues be so great that they are able to satisfy the insatiable ambition of men.” Here and elsewhere in this scene, Robbie is actually quoting the real-life Elizabeth’s confidences given to Maitland.
Elizabeth’s public image may be that of a strong leader, but when it came to Mary she spent much of her time in a fug of indecision. Appealing to Cecil six years into her reign, she fretted: “In such a quandary am I ... I’m at a loss to know how to satisfy her, and have no idea as to what I now ought to say.”
Cecil had little sympathy, because Elizabeth had just bungled one of the most sensitive political negotiations she would attempt in the whole of her long reign: an attempt to persuade Mary to marry Lord Robert Dudley.
Dudley was England’s most glittering courtier – the only man Elizabeth ever truly loved or (for a while) seriously contemplated marrying. Elizabeth had thought, by sacrificing him as a husband for Mary, the Scottish queen would be subordinated to someone she felt she could trust. But Mary scorned the idea of marriage to a man commonly reputed to be her cousin’s cast-off lover. In the film, Ronan uses Mary’s own words: “Do you think it might stand with my honour to marry my sister’s subject?”
What’s telling, though, isn’t so much the plan’s implausibility as what it reveals about Elizabeth’s psychology. Besides an insecurity surrounding her legitimacy, she, like Mary, felt a keen vulnerability at a time when female monarchs were at best considered an aberration. It’s also important to remember what a traumatic childhood Elizabeth had. Quite apart from the shocking fact that her father killed her mother, Elizabeth had been abused while living with her stepmother, Catherine Parr, after Henry VIII’s death.
When the oversexed, overweening Thomas Seymour came to the 14-year-old Elizabeth early in the mornings to pull off her bedclothes, tickle and try to kiss her, or to “strike her upon the back or on the buttocks familiarly ... and make as though he would come at her”, she learnt fast that women in power had a sexual body as well as a political one, and that predatory, ambitious men sought to use the one to control the other.
If anything persuaded her never to marry, this was it. So when the Scottish nobles began their cabals and conspiracies, attacking Mary with allegations of sexual misconduct, stirred by the firebrand Calvinist preacher John Knox, who maintained that a female ruler was a “monster in nature”, Elizabeth’s sympathies were with her cousin.
Only when they killed Lord Darnley – the narcissistic husband Mary chose in place of Dudley – in a gunpowder plot were the first seeds of doubt sown in her mind. But when Mary’s rebels forced her to remarry, and then abdicate, the English queen denounced it as a crime against God and demanded her unconditional restoration.
Elizabeth’s inability to make good on that demand was indicative of the talent her chief minister had for going behind her back, claiming that only he could save her from herself. Cecil wanted Mary deposed, and preferably dead, to which end he’d been smuggling money and weapons across the border to aid her rebels. After Mary escaped and fled to England, Elizabeth was torn in two. But while she wavered over how far to assist and protect her cousin, Cecil put Mary under strict guard.
A Protestant zealot, he’d feared all along that if Elizabeth made a pact with her cousin, a Catholic queen might one day rule the whole of the British Isles. He was determined that the charges of adultery and complicity in Darnley’s murder levelled against Mary in Scotland should be investigated. And Elizabeth could not reasonably object to this without herself becoming embroiled in scandal.
For all that, Cecil never fully persuaded a sceptical Elizabeth of Mary’s guilt. Instinctively, she felt impelled to defend a fellow female ruler. She more than once believed – as Mary always did – that if only these two British queens could look each other in the eye and talk things over, woman to woman, they might settle their differences.
For the screen version, Rourke and Willimon took a creative decision that the two queens really should meet. And a meeting (had it happened in history) would almost certainly have ended just as it does in the film. Faced by English intransigence over restoring the Scottish queen to her rightful throne, Mary – a woman of spirit as shown by her tempestuous confrontations with Knox – would finally have lost her temper and delivered an outright claim to the English throne.
It took Cecil 19 years to cajole Elizabeth into killing her cousin. Even after Mary became desperate enough to connive in Anthony Babington’s plot of 1586 to assassinate Elizabeth, the English queen refused to send a fellow monarch to her death by signing a warrant. Only on February 1 1587, after Cecil spread a false rumour that Spanish troops had landed in Wales and advised Elizabeth to double her bodyguards (the Armada of 1588 was already in its early stages of recruitment) was she prepared to send for pen and ink and sign.
That decision struck her to the core. Despite Mary’s complicity with Babington, Elizabeth knew that by signing her cousin’s death warrant she’d condoned regicide, no matter what she chose to tell herself or others about it. When in the film the axe falls, in a dramatic scene that follows the historical account to the letter, an anointed queen is killed and the ideal of monarchy attenuated.
Elizabeth had to live with her conscience; she would find it to be no easy task. For the rest of her life she claimed her cousin’s death had been “a miserable accident” and protested “how innocent I am in this case”.
In history as in the film, Mary’s execution would prove to be Elizabeth’s armada of the soul.
• My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots, by John Guy, is published by Harper Perennial.
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