01 January 2021
Historian Linda Porter, author of the book 'Crown of Thistles: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary Queen of Scots', looks at the rivalry between the Tudors and the Stewarts which shaped 16th century Britain.
On 16 May, 1568 a demoralised Mary Queen of Scots fled from her native land in a fishing boat across the Solway Firth. She had been forced to abdicate in favour of her baby son, James VI, nearly a year earlier by a confederation of disaffected Scottish aristocrats who had grown weary of the difficulties posed by a woman ruler.
Mary thus became the unwelcome guest of her cousin, Elizabeth I, whom she had always hoped would acknowledge her as the heir to the English crown. For the next nineteen years she would be held in the north of England, well away from the Tudor queen whose common ties of blood and monarchy she hoped would help her regain her throne. Eventually, after a series of plots against her life in which the increasingly desperate Mary became entangled, Elizabeth was persuaded to sign the warrant for Mary’s execution and the Scottish queen was beheaded at Fotheringhay in February, 1587.
Historians and novelists have been fascinated ever since by this tale of personal rivalry, but the struggle between the Tudors and the Stewarts had much deeper roots.
It is an epic tale of flamboyant kings and queens, sophisticated courts, murder and mayhem, sexual licence and bloody battles.
Often overlooked in the English obsession with the Tudors is the fact that Scotland, despite the fact that all its kings after 1400 acceded to the throne as minors, continued to function successfully, and that Mary’s father and grandfather were both capable Renaissance monarchs who raised the standing of their small country in Europe.
The Stewarts had been on the throne of Scotland for over a century when Henry VII won his unlikely victory at Bosworth in 1485, bringing to an end the Wars of the Roses. Henry had spent half his life in exile, was not aggressive by nature, and wanted to improve relations with Scotland, which were frequently bedevilled by violence in the contested area of the Borders.
This conciliatory approach was welcomed by James III of Scotland, a remote and austere man who passed his time in Edinburgh Castle and had none of the Stewart charm. But appeasement of the English irritated the Scottish nobility and James III was overthrown by a revolt in 1488 in which his own eldest son participated and he was murdered fleeing the battlefield.
The rebellious prince came to the throne at the age of fifteen as James IV and proceeded, after a period of adjustment, to leave his mark on Scotland. He did not share his father’s views on Anglo-Scottish relations, was keen on restoring the Auld Alliance with France and enhancing his prestige as the ruler of a nation that the rest of Europe could not ignore.
The reign of James IV
A charismatic man of restless energy and something of a polymath, James IV was a worthy rival to the more ascetic Henry VII. He built up the Scottish navy, was fascinated by the latest military technology and dabbled in everything from dentistry to making gunpowder, while seeing off the English in several successful Border skirmishes where his reckless personal bravery was noted. But at the turn of the sixteenth century he was still unmarried, though he had a string of mistresses and seven illegitimate children, an aspect of their rivalry in which he and his son, James V, who had at least nine bastards, beat the Tudors conclusively.
The search for a suitable match eventually led to Margaret Tudor, Henry VII’s elder daughter, who came north as a thirteen year-old bride in 1502. Her substantial dowry and the prospect that only Margaret’s brother, the future Henry VIII, stood between her and the English throne, were attractions enough. The couple kept a glittering court, encouraging a flowering of Scottish literature and the arts, but none of their children survived until the future James V was born in 1512.
A toddler king
His father’s tragic death the following year at the battle of Flodden left the toddler king at the age of seventeen months. This year is the 500th anniversary of Flodden, a battle which the Scots have long wished to forget and the English scarcely remember. James IV’s relationship with his brother-in-law had deteriorated sharply when Henry VIII joined an alliance against France. James took a huge force across the Tweed but his inexperience of commanding a large army and the wiliness of the English earl of Surrey, the opposing commander, led to the slaughter of the Scottish forces, destroying a generation in one afternoon. James IV himself fell in the fighting, leaving his country in deep shock.
But the English could not follow up their victory and Scotland survived. The minority of James V was long and difficult, as various factions vied for supremacy.
His mother, remarried to Archibald Douglas, earl of Angus, struggled not just with her husband’s opponents, but also with her own brother, whose astonishing lack of support for her bears witness to a Tudor sibling rivalry that is seldom noted.
As a teenager, James V was essentially held hostage by his stepfather and never lost his hatred of the Douglases thereafter. In 1528, he freed himself from their control and became a competent ruler in his own right. He was cultured, undertook extensive building works on his palaces, and married the French Princess Madeleine, a notable diplomatic coup. When Madeleine died he married another French noblewoman, Mary of Guise. She bore him two sons who perished young and, six days before his own death, a daughter, Mary.
All his life, James had evaded the clutches of his uncle, Henry VIII and ignored his advice. When James did not turn up for a meeting at York in 1541, his uncle was infuriated. Henry’s forces invaded Scotland in 1542, inflicting a resounding defeat on the Scots at Solway Moss. James died shortly afterwards, probably from cholera contracted while on campaign.
But, as after Flodden, the English could not capitalise on Scotland’s woes. Henry VIII hoped to marry Mary to his son, Edward, but the Scots could not stomach such a match and Mary of Guise sent her daughter to France in 1548, as the prospective bride of the French dauphin. There, this intelligent and charming child was brought up as a future queen consort, not as the Scottish queen regnant she already was. Her return in 1561, after her young husband’s death, saw her ride the whirlwinds of Scottish politics with considerable aplomb for four years, until her marriage to her cousin, Lord Darnley, set in train a series of events which caused a progressive loss of control of her country.
Still, there is much that remains unexplained about her downfall. The decision to flee to England after her supporters were defeated outside Glasgow seems to have been taken in panic. Fearful for her life in Scotland, she would eventually lose it in England, giving rise to the legend of the doomed, romantic queen, the most famous victim of the rivalry between the Tudors and the Stewarts.
Linda Porter is the author of Crown of Thistles the Fatal Inheritance of Mary Queen of Scots, published by Pan Macmillan. The book tells the story of a divided family, of flamboyant kings and queens, cultured courts and tribal hatreds, blood feuds, rape and sexual licence on a breath-taking scale, and violent deaths. It also brings alive a neglected aspect of British history – the blood-spattered steps of two small countries on the fringes of Europe towards an awkward unity that would ultimately forge a great nation.