Mary Stuart and Cleopatra are the two women who have most attracted the
fancy of poets, dramatists, novelists, and painters, from their own time
down to the present day.
In some respects there is a certain likeness in their careers. Each
was queen of a nation whose affairs were entangled with those of a much
greater one. Each sought for her own ideal of love until she found it.
Each won that love recklessly, almost madly. Each, in its attainment,
fell from power and fortune. Each died before her natural life was
ended. One caused the man she loved to cast away the sovereignty of
a mighty state. The other lost her own crown in order that she might
achieve the whole desire of her heart.
There is still another parallel which may be found. Each of these women
was reputed to be exquisitely beautiful; yet each fell short of beauty's
highest standards. They are alike remembered in song and story because
of qualities that are far more powerful than any physical charm can be.
They impressed the imagination of their own contemporaries just as they
had impressed the imagination of all succeeding ages, by reason of a
strange and irresistible fascination which no one could explain, but
which very few could experience and resist.
Mary Stuart was born six days before her father's death, and when the
kingdom which was her heritage seemed to be almost in its death-throes.
James V. of Scotland, half Stuart and half Tudor, was no ordinary
monarch. As a mere boy he had burst the bonds with which a regency had
bound him, and he had ruled the wild Scotland of the sixteenth century.
He was brave and crafty, keen in statesmanship, and dissolute in
His first wife had given him no heirs; so at her death he sought out
a princess whom he pursued all the more ardently because she was also
courted by the burly Henry VIII. of England. This girl was Marie of
Lorraine, daughter of the Duc de Guise. She was fit to be the mother of
a lion's brood, for she was above six feet in height and of proportions
so ample as to excite the admiration of the royal voluptuary who sat
upon the throne of England.
"I am big," said he, "and I want a wife who is as big as I am."
But James of Scotland wooed in person, and not by embassies, and he
triumphantly carried off his strapping princess. Henry of England gnawed
his beard in vain; and, though in time he found consolation in another
woman's arms, he viewed James not only as a public but as a private
There was war between the two countries. First the Scots repelled an
English army; but soon they were themselves disgracefully defeated at
Solway Moss by a force much their inferior in numbers. The shame of it
broke King James's heart. As he was galloping from the battle-field the
news was brought him that his wife had given birth to a daughter.
He took little notice of the message; and in a few days he had died,
moaning with his last breath the mysterious words:
"It came with a lass--with a lass it will go!"
The child who was born at this ill-omened crisis was Mary Stuart, who
within a week became, in her own right, Queen of Scotland. Her mother
acted as regent of the kingdom. Henry of England demanded that the
infant girl should be betrothed to his young son, Prince Edward, who
afterward reigned as Edward VI., though he died while still a boy. The
proposal was rejected, and the war between England and Scotland went on
its bloody course; but meanwhile the little queen was sent to France,
her mother's home, so that she might be trained in accomplishments which
were rare in Scotland.
In France she grew up at the court of Catherine de' Medici, that
imperious intriguer whose splendid surroundings were tainted with the
corruption which she had brought from her native Italy. It was, indeed,
a singular training-school for a girl of Mary Stuart's character. She
saw about her a superficial chivalry and a most profound depravity.
Poets like Ronsard graced the life of the court with exquisite verse.
Troubadours and minstrels sang sweet music there. There were fetes and
tournaments and gallantry of bearing; yet, on the other hand, there was
every possible refinement and variety of vice. Men were slain before
the eyes of the queen herself. The talk of the court was of intrigue and
lust and evil things which often verged on crime. Catherine de' Medici
herself kept her nominal husband at arm's-length; and in order to
maintain her grasp on France she connived at the corruption of her own
children, three of whom were destined in their turn to sit upon the
Mary Stuart grew up in these surroundings until she was sixteen, eating
the fruit which gave a knowledge of both good and evil. Her intelligence
was very great. She quickly learned Italian, French, and Latin. She was
a daring horsewoman. She was a poet and an artist even in her teens. She
was also a keen judge of human motives, for those early years of hers
had forced her into a womanhood that was premature but wonderful. It had
been proposed that she should marry the eldest son of Catherine, so
that in time the kingdom of Scotland and that of France might be united,
while if Elizabeth of England were to die unmarried her realm also would
fall to this pair of children.
And so Mary, at sixteen, wedded the Dauphin Francis, who was a year her
junior. The prince was a wretched, whimpering little creature, with a
cankered body and a blighted soul. Marriage with such a husband seemed
absurd. It never was a marriage in reality. The sickly child would cry
all night, for he suffered from abscesses in his ears, and his manhood
had been prematurely taken from him. Nevertheless, within a twelvemonth
the French king died and Mary Stuart was Queen of France as well as of
Scotland, hampered only by her nominal obedience to the sick boy whom
she openly despised. At seventeen she showed herself a master spirit.
She held her own against the ambitious Catherine de' Medici, whom she
contemptuously nicknamed "the apothecary's daughter." For the brief
period of a year she was actually the ruler of France; but then her
husband died and she was left a widow, restless, ambitious, and yet no
longer having any of the power she loved.
Mary Stuart at this time had become a woman whose fascination was
exerted over all who knew her. She was very tall and very slim, with
chestnut hair, "like a flower of the heat, both lax and delicate." Her
skin was fair and pale, so clear and so transparent as to make the story
plausible that when she drank from a flask of wine, the red liquid could
be seen passing down her slender throat.
Yet with all this she was not fine in texture, but hardy as a man. She
could endure immense fatigue without yielding to it. Her supple form had
the strength of steel. There was a gleam in her hazel eyes that showed
her to be brimful of an almost fierce vitality. Young as she was,
she was the mistress of a thousand arts, and she exhaled a sort of
atmosphere that turned the heads of men. The Stuart blood made her
impatient of control, careless of state, and easy-mannered. The French
and the Tudor strain gave her vivacity. She could be submissive in
appearance while still persisting in her aims. She could be languorous
and seductive while cold within. Again, she could assume the haughtiness
which belonged to one who was twice a queen.
Two motives swayed her, and they fought together for supremacy. One was
the love of power, and the other was the love of love. The first was
natural to a girl who was a sovereign in her own right. The second was
inherited, and was then forced into a rank luxuriance by the sort
of life that she had seen about her. At eighteen she was a strangely
amorous creature, given to fondling and kissing every one about her,
with slight discrimination. From her sense of touch she received
emotions that were almost necessary to her existence. With her slender,
graceful hands she was always stroking the face of some favorite--it
might be only the face of a child, or it might be the face of some
courtier or poet, or one of the four Marys whose names are linked with
hers--Mary Livingstone, Mary Fleming, Mary Beaton, and Mary Seton, the
last of whom remained with her royal mistress until her death.
But one must not be too censorious in thinking of Mary Stuart. She was
surrounded everywhere by enemies. During her stay in France she was
hated by the faction of Catherine de' Medici. When she returned to
Scotland she was hated because of her religion by the Protestant lords.
Her every action was set forth in the worst possible light. The most
sinister meaning was given to everything she said or did. In truth, we
must reject almost all the stories which accuse her of anything more
than a certain levity of conduct.
She was not a woman to yield herself in love's last surrender unless her
intellect and heart alike had been made captive. She would listen to the
passionate outpourings of poets and courtiers, and she would plunge her
eyes into theirs, and let her hair just touch their faces, and give them
her white hands to kiss--but that was all. Even in this she was only
following the fashion of the court where she was bred, and she was
not unlike her royal relative, Elizabeth of England, who had the same
external amorousness coupled with the same internal self-control.
Mary Stuart's love life makes a piteous story, for it is the life of one
who was ever seeking--seeking for the man to whom she could look up, who
could be strong and brave and ardent like herself, and at the same time
be more powerful and more steadfast even than she herself in mind and
thought. Whatever may be said of her, and howsoever the facts may be
colored by partisans, this royal girl, stung though she was by passion
and goaded by desire, cared nothing for any man who could not match her
in body and mind and spirit all at once.
It was in her early widowhood that she first met the man, and when their
union came it brought ruin on them both. In France there came to her
one day one of her own subjects, the Earl of Bothwell. He was but a few
years older than she, and in his presence for the first time she
felt, in her own despite, that profoundly moving, indescribable, and
never-to-be-forgotten thrill which shakes a woman to the very center of
her being, since it is the recognition of a complete affinity.
Lord Bothwell, like Queen Mary, has been terribly maligned. Unlike her,
he has found only a few defenders. Maurice Hewlett has drawn a picture
of him more favorable than many, and yet it is a picture that repels.
Bothwell, says he, was of a type esteemed by those who pronounce vice
to be their virtue. He was "a galliard, flushed with rich blood,
broad-shouldered, square-jawed, with a laugh so happy and so prompt that
the world, rejoicing to hear it, thought all must be well wherever
he might be. He wore brave clothes, sat a brave horse, and kept brave
company bravely. His high color, while it betokened high feeding, got
him the credit of good health. His little eyes twinkled so merrily that
you did not see they were like a pig's, sly and greedy at once, and
bloodshot. His tawny beard concealed a jaw underhung, a chin jutting and
dangerous. His mouth had a cruel twist; but his laughing hid that too.
The bridge of his nose had been broken; few observed it, or guessed
at the brawl which must have given it to him. Frankness was his great
charm, careless ease in high places."
And so, when Mary Stuart first met him in her eighteenth year, Lord
Bothwell made her think as she had never thought of any other man, and
as she was not to think of any other man again. She grew to look eagerly
for the frank mockery "in those twinkling eyes, in that quick mouth";
and to wonder whether it was with him always--asleep, at prayers,
fighting, furious, or in love.
Something more, however, must be said of Bothwell. He was undoubtedly a
roisterer, but he was very much a man. He made easy love to women. His
sword leaped quickly from its sheath. He could fight, and he could also
think. He was no brawling ruffian, no ordinary rake. Remembering what
Scotland was in those days, Bothwell might well seem in reality a
princely figure. He knew Italian; he was at home in French; he could
write fluent Latin. He was a collector of books and a reader of them
also. He was perhaps the only Scottish noble of his time who had a
book-plate of his own. Here is something more than a mere reveler. Here
is a man of varied accomplishments and of a complex character.
Though he stayed but a short time near the queen in France, he kindled
her imagination, so that when she seriously thought of men she thought
of Bothwell. And yet all the time she was fondling the young pages in
her retinue and kissing her maids of honor with her scarlet lips, and
lying on their knees, while poets like Ronsard and Chastelard wrote
ardent love sonnets to her and sighed and pined for something more than
the privilege of kissing her two dainty hands.
In 1561, less than a year after her widowhood, Mary set sail for
Scotland, never to return. The great high-decked ships which escorted
her sailed into the harbor of Leith, and she pressed on to Edinburgh. A
depressing change indeed from the sunny terraces and fields of France!
In her own realm were fog and rain and only a hut to shelter her upon
her landing. When she reached her capital there were few welcoming
cheers; but as she rode over the cobblestones to Holyrood, the squalid
wynds vomited forth great mobs of hard-featured, grim-visaged men and
women who stared with curiosity and a half-contempt at the girl queen
and her retinue of foreigners.
The Scots were Protestants of the most dour sort, and they distrusted
their new ruler because of her religion and because she loved to
surround herself with dainty things and bright colors and exotic
elegance. They feared lest she should try to repeal the law of
Scotland's Parliament which had made the country Protestant.
The very indifference of her subjects stirred up the nobler part of
Mary's nature. For a time she was indeed a queen. She governed wisely.
She respected the religious rights of her Protestant subjects. She
strove to bring order out of the chaos into which her country had
fallen. And she met with some success. The time came when her people
cheered her as she rode among them. Her subtle fascination was her
greatest source of strength. Even John Knox, that iron-visaged,
stentorian preacher, fell for a time under the charm of her presence.
She met him frankly and pleaded with him as a woman, instead of
commanding him as a queen. The surly ranter became softened for a time,
and, though he spoke of her to others as "Honeypot," he ruled his tongue
in public. She had offers of marriage from Austrian and Spanish princes.
The new King of France, her brother-in-law, would perhaps have wedded
her. It mattered little to Mary that Elizabeth of England was hostile.
She felt that she was strong enough to hold her own and govern Scotland.
But who could govern a country such as Scotland was? It was a land of
broils and feuds, of clan enmities and fierce vendettas. Its nobles were
half barbarous, and they fought and slashed at one another with drawn
dirks almost in the presence of the queen herself. No matter whom she
favored, there rose up a swarm of enemies. Here was a Corsica of the
north, more savage and untamed than even the other Corsica.
In her perplexity Mary felt a woman's need of some man on whom she
would have the right to lean, and whom she could make king consort.
She thought that she had found him in the person of her cousin, Lord
Darnley, a Catholic, and by his upbringing half an Englishman. Darnley
came to Scotland, and for the moment Mary fancied that she had forgotten
Bothwell. Here again she was in love with love, and she idealized the
man who came to give it to her. Darnley seemed, indeed, well worthy to
be loved, for he was tall and handsome, appearing well on horseback and
having some of the accomplishments which Mary valued.
It was a hasty wooing, and the queen herself was first of all the wooer.
Her quick imagination saw in Darnley traits and gifts of which he really
had no share. Therefore, the marriage was soon concluded, and Scotland
had two sovereigns, King Henry and Queen Mary. So sure was Mary of her
indifference to Bothwell that she urged the earl to marry, and he did
marry a girl of the great house of Gordon.
Mary's self-suggested love for Darnley was extinguished almost on
her wedding-night. The man was a drunkard who came into her presence
befuddled and almost bestial. He had no brains. His vanity was enormous.
He loved no one but himself, and least of all this queen, whom he
regarded as having thrown herself at his empty head.
The first-fruits of the marriage were uprisings among the Protestant
lords. Mary then showed herself a heroic queen. At the head of a
motley band of soldiery who came at her call--half-clad, uncouth, and
savage--she rode into the west, sleeping at night upon the bare ground,
sharing the camp food, dressed in plain tartan, but swift and fierce
as any eagle. Her spirit ran like fire through the veins of those who
followed her. She crushed the insurrection, scattered its leaders, and
returned in triumph to her capital.
Now she was really queen, but here came in the other motive which was
interwoven in her character. She had shown herself a man in courage.
Should she not have the pleasures of a woman? To her court in Holyrood
came Bothwell once again, and this time Mary knew that he was all the
world to her. Darnley had shrunk from the hardships of battle. He was
steeped in low intrigues. He roused the constant irritation of the queen
by his folly and utter lack of sense and decency. Mary felt she owed him
nothing, but she forgot that she owed much to herself.
Her old amorous ways came back to her, and she relapsed into the joys of
sense. The scandal-mongers of the capital saw a lover in every man
with whom she talked. She did, in fact, set convention at defiance. She
dressed in men's clothing. She showed what the unemotional Scots thought
to be unseemly levity. The French poet, Chastelard, misled by her
external signs of favor, believed himself to be her choice. At the end
of one mad revel he was found secreted beneath her bed, and was driven
out by force. A second time he ventured to secrete himself within the
covers of the bed. Then he was dragged forth, imprisoned, and condemned
to death. He met his fate without a murmur, save at the last when he
stood upon the scaffold and, gazing toward the palace, cried in French:
"Oh, cruel queen! I die for you!"
Another favorite, the Italian, David Rizzio, or Riccio, in like manner
wrote love verses to the queen, and she replied to them in kind; but
there is no evidence that she valued him save for his ability, which
was very great. She made him her foreign secretary, and the man whom he
supplanted worked on the jealousy of Darnley; so that one night, while
Mary and Rizzio were at dinner in a small private chamber, Darnley and
the others broke in upon her. Darnley held her by the waist while Rizzio
was stabbed before her eyes with a cruelty the greater because the queen
was soon to become a mother.
From that moment she hated Darnley as one would hate a snake. She
tolerated him only that he might acknowledge her child as his son. This
child was the future James VI. of Scotland and James I. of England. It
is recorded of him that never throughout his life could he bear to look
upon drawn steel.
After this Mary summoned Bothwell again and again. It was revealed to
her as in a blaze of light that, after all, he was the one and only
man who could be everything to her. His frankness, his cynicism, his
mockery, his carelessness, his courage, and the power of his mind
matched her moods completely. She threw away all semblance of
concealment. She ignored the fact that he had married at her wish. She
was queen. She desired him. She must have him at any cost.
"Though I lose Scotland and England both," she cried in a passion of
abandonment, "I shall have him for my own!"
Bothwell, in his turn, was nothing loath, and they leaped at each other
like two flames.
It was then that Mary wrote those letters which were afterward
discovered in a casket and which were used against her when she was on
trial for her life. These so-called Casket Letters, though we have
not now the originals, are among the most extraordinary letters ever
written. All shame, all hesitation, all innocence, are flung away in
them. The writer is so fired with passion that each sentence is like
a cry to a lover in the dark. As De Peyster says: "In them the animal
instincts override and spur and lash the pen." Mary was committing to
paper the frenzied madness of a woman consumed to her very marrow by the
scorching blaze of unendurable desire.
Events moved quickly. Darnley, convalescent from an attack of smallpox,
was mysteriously destroyed by an explosion of gunpowder. Bothwell was
divorced from his young wife on curious grounds. A dispensation allowed
Mary to wed a Protestant, and she married Bothwell three months after
Here one sees the consummation of what had begun many years before
in France. From the moment that she and Bothwell met, their union was
inevitable. Seas could not sunder them. Other loves and other fancies
were as nothing to them. Even the bonds of marriage were burst asunder
so that these two fiery, panting souls could meet.
It was the irony of fate that when they had so met it was only to be
parted. Mary's subjects, outraged by her conduct, rose against her. As
she passed through the streets of Edinburgh the women hurled after
her indecent names. Great banners were raised with execrable daubs
representing the murdered Darnley. The short and dreadful monosyllable
which is familiar to us in the pages of the Bible was hurled after her
wherever she went.
With Bothwell by her side she led a wild and ragged horde of followers
against the rebellious nobles, whose forces met her at Carberry Hill.
Her motley followers melted away, and Mary surrendered to the hostile
chieftains, who took her to the castle at Lochleven. There she became
the mother of twins--a fact that is seldom mentioned by historians.
These children were the fruit of her union with Bothwell. From this time
forth she cared but little for herself, and she signed, without great
reluctance, a document by which she abdicated in favor of her infant
Even in this place of imprisonment, however, her fascination had power
to charm. Among those who guarded her, two of the Douglas family--George
Douglas and William Douglas--for love of her, effected her escape. The
first attempt failed. Mary, disguised as a laundress, was betrayed by
the delicacy of her hands. But a second attempt was successful. The
queen passed through a postern gate and made her way to the lake, where
George Douglas met her with a boat. Crossing the lake, fifty horsemen
under Lord Claude Hamilton gave her their escort and bore her away in
But Mary was sick of Scotland, for Bothwell could not be there. She
had tasted all the bitterness of life, and for a few months all the
sweetness; but she would have no more of this rough and barbarous
country. Of her own free will she crossed the Solway into England, to
find herself at once a prisoner.
Never again did she set eyes on Bothwell. After the battle of Carberry
Hill he escaped to the north, gathered some ships together, and preyed
upon English merchantmen, very much as a pirate might have done. Ere
long, however, when he had learned of Mary's fate, he set sail for
Norway. King Frederick of Denmark made him a prisoner of state. He was
not confined within prison walls, however, but was allowed to hunt and
ride in the vicinity of Malmo Castle and of Dragsholm. It is probably in
Malmo Castle that he died. In 1858 a coffin which was thought to be
the coffin of the earl was opened, and a Danish artist sketched the
head--which corresponds quite well with the other portraits of the
ill-fated Scottish noble.
It is a sad story. Had Mary been less ambitious when she first met
Bothwell, or had he been a little bolder, they might have reigned
together and lived out their lives in the plenitude of that great love
which held them both in thrall. But a queen is not as other women; and
she found too late that the teaching of her heart was, after all, the
truest teaching. She went to her death as Bothwell went to his, alone,
in a strange, unfriendly land.
Yet, even this, perhaps, was better so. It has at least touched both
their lives with pathos and has made the name of Mary Stuart one to be
remembered throughout all the ages.