Mary of Guise Lorraine: The story of Scotland's queen and regent

01 January 2021
Historian Annette Bachstadt charts the history of Mary of Guise Lorraine, Scotland's queen alongside James V and regent during the minority of Mary Queen of Scots. ...

Mary of Lorraine, born 1515 in the duchy of Bar, at that time only partly French territory, was an exceptional Renaissance woman. Her life was full of war, struggle and death, deeply shaken by profound changes in society and religion. But it was also filled with glory and splendid court life, with love for her children, with passion for the arts, for music and the new exciting Renaissance architecture.

The powerful Guise family

At first sight a typical 16th-century noblewoman, Mary of Guise was guided and ordered by her highly ambitious family, the Guises, in particular by her younger brothers Francis and Charles of Guise, sons of her war hero father and King Francis’ I esteemed friend, Claude of Guise.

The life of Mary's mother, Antoinette of Bourbon, inspired french historian Gabriel de Pimodan to write a biography, published in 1889. The book's title, 'The mother of the Guises', values her of being the founder of her numerous (male) descendants. Pimodan’s foreword makes it quite clear: in the 16th century, Antoinette was simply 'the best of wives and mothers'.

But both women were much more than just 'mother of'. Antoinette has been a long-living and very influential duchess. Her eldest daughter Mary of Lorraine, known as the mother of Mary Queen of Scots, was no less than queen of Scotland, then became queen regent.

And this is maybe the reason for her non-existence in France: powerful women always had  – and still have –  a very bad reputation in France. Queens like Isabeau of Bavaria or Marie de’ Medici still suffer from it.

Ruling without a man at their side – or worse, with a weak one – has always been a very bad idea for a woman and a queen.

Mary of Lorraine as queen of Scotland, living in a remote and, in the eyes of 16th century France, 'barbarian' country, who was trying to maintain her daughter’s realm without a king at her side, wasn’t probably sufficiently 'queenlike' and feminine, and therefore not worth remembering.

The Guise family, too close to the throne of France

Mary was a Guise. She had been born into a highly ambitious and very influential family. Her father Claude was a battle hero and close friend of french King Francis I. It was the king himself who organised Mary’s wedding to Scotland's King James V (pictured below) in 1538. His son, King Henry II of France, was closely counselled by her brothers Francis of Guise and Charles, cardinal of Lorraine. When the king died of a jousting accident in July 1559, his eldest son Francis married Mary’s daugher, Mary Stuart, who had been living in France since 1548.

Like all the Guises, Mary was a Catholic, but unlike her brothers, she had always been more tolerant and open-minded. The wars of religion swept over Europe with more and more violence, and she died in 1560 before she had to weep for her male family members ending up murdered one by one.

Her brother Francis was stabbed by a Protestant in 1563, and several years later, his son Henry was assassinated by men of the french King Henry III. At the end of the 16th century, the once glorious name of Guise was doomed.

A woman from Lorraine

Mary was born in the country of Lorraine, which had been an independent realm for centuries. Even after her father Claude had been naturalised french by king Francis I, the Guise family members were often regarded as strangers in France.

Parts of Lorraine, ruled by Claude’s elder brother Anthony, were still linked to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of the Habsbourg family, the hated enemy of France. In the following centuries, the Lorraine region became the center of a long fight between French kings and German emperors, and even today, the Lorraine is sometimes seen as 'not wholly French'.

Only the mother of ...?

Mary of Lorraine was mother to the famous Mary Stuart. Her daughter had always been a star in European history writing, and Mary mostly appears as 'mother of ', like her own mother Antoinette appears as 'mother of the Guises'. When Mary of Lorraine left Scotland in 1550 and sailed to France to see her family and daughter again, she could have stayed in the Guise family castle at Joinville. Nothing was left for her in Scotland: her husband, king James V, was dead, her daughter Mary promised to the French dauphin.

But she decided to leave 'la douce France' for Scotland the next year. Did she only obey her brothers and French king Henry II, charging her to defend Scotland against the English? Did she go back to maintain and watch over her daughter’s rights as queen of Scots?

Or was it not her own strong will to fulfill her destiny, and therefore ride out in the battlefield like Joan of Arc, another woman from Lorraine?

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Did she not speak in person and as queen regent of Scotland to the French, Scottish and German soldiers fighting the invading English army in 1559? How could she have forgotten that this English army had plundered the abbey of Holyrood near Edinburgh back in 1544, where she had been crowned, and where the tombs of her husband James V and her little sons lay destroyed?

It is fascinating to realise that at the end of her life, Mary of Lorraine fought the army of another powerful and 'unromantic' queen, Elizabeth I of England, yet another Renaissance woman who had decided she didn’t need a man to rule her realm, nor her life.

Read more about the life of Marie de Guise on Annette Bachstadt's Marie de Guise 500 blog.

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