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Mary, Queen of Scots was a poet – and you should know it

Mary’s poems give a unique insight into how the queen experienced her bloody, passionate and tragic life. Dave McLear

Think Mary, Queen of Scots and a few key facts probably come to mind: she was Catholic, she was imprisoned and she had her head chopped off. But a poet who offers insight into 16th-century women’s writing and what it was like to be a queen? Not so much.

Some 39 poems have been attributed to Mary, some circulated only in manuscript, some written in the margins of her prayer book, and others published and circulated widely in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Mary Stuart at 16, about the time of her marriage to the French heir Francis of Valois, the later King Francis II of France. François Clouet/Wikimedia Commons

It is likely some of these poems were not written by the queen, but were forgeries. All, however, were circulated as Mary’s writing and under her signature at the time – meaning she was one of the most widely-read women writers of the 16th century.

She was known not only for her political status, but also for her textual skill – whether authentic or imagined.

Raised in the French court and educated by humanist tutors, Mary was briefly Queen of France, then Queen of Scotland. During her short and turbulent Scottish reign (1561-8), she was accused of the murder of her second husband, Lord Darnley, and abducted and imprisoned by her third husband, Lord Bothwell, before they were married.

Forced to abdicate the Scottish throne in a civil uprising, she fled to England seeking the protection of her Protestant cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. The presence of a rival, female and Catholic sovereign on English soil created a politically volatile situation for Elizabeth, especially as Mary had legitimate claim to the English throne.

After public trial, Mary was imprisoned in a series of aristocratic houses for 18 years. The discovery of her involvement in the Babington plot of 1586, in which she was to be freed by her Catholic supporters and Elizabeth assassinated, meant that eventually, in 1587, Mary was publicly beheaded at her cousin’s command.

Her poems were produced at key moments during that history. An extended elegy to her first husband, who had been King of France for only a year, is both a conventional poem and a surprisingly intimate expression of grief.

It describes the speaker lying within her bedchamber, dreaming of her husband’s voice and touch, as well as his presence accompanying her in her duties and work.

Si je suis en repos
Sommeillante sur ma couche
J'ois qu'il me tient propos
Je le sens qu'il me touche
En labeur, en recoi
Toujours est pres de moi

If I am at rest
Sleeping on my couch
I hear him speak to me
I can feel his touch
In my work, as I receive
He is always near me.

More scandalously, a sonnet sequence widely circulated in print under Mary’s name was alleged at the time to describe her rape by her third husband, Bothwell. In this sequence, the speaker is an adulterous mistress, seeking to show proof of her passion for her beloved in direct rivalry with his wife.

Not only do these poems have the speaker giving up her kingdom to her lover, sonnet 9 of the sequence begins by describing that lover possessing the speaker physically, without her emotional consent.

This was published both in the original French in which Mary wrote, and in Scots translation, reproduced here with an additional translation in standard English:

For him also I powred out many tearis,
First quhen he made himselfe possessor of thys body.
Of the quhilk then he had nat the hart.
Efter he did give me one vther hard charge,
Quhen he bled of his blud great quantitie,
Through the great sorow of the quhilk came to mee that dolour,
That almost caryit away my life, and the feire
To lese the onely strength that armit me.

For him also I poured out many tears
First when he made himself possessor of this body.
Of which then he had not the heart.
After he gave me one other hard charge,
When he bled great quantities of blood,
Through which great sorrow brought further sadness to me
That almost carried away my life, and the fear
Of losing the only strength that armed me.

This sequence is formally inventive, combining the everyday elements of popular complaint with the more elite genre of the sonnet sequence. It probably was not written by Mary, and it certainly was circulated widely by her enemies as a way of slandering her and implicating her in her second husband’s murder, motivated by her desire to marry again.

Mary Queen of Scots in Captivity. Wikimedia Commons

But there is some evidence that some 16th-century readers believed these poems to be genuine. They provide a new insight into what might have been considered possible for an early modern woman to write about, as well as an acceptance that a queen might write in popular as well as elite forms.

The least known, but most interesting, of Mary Queen of Scots’ poetry lies in 14 poems and fragments written in her distinctive hand in the margins of her Book of Hours, over her lifetime. She was given the beautiful, richly illuminated prayer book during her childhood in the French court and kept it until her death.

As was typical of the time, the Book of Hours contains signatures by the queen herself and by ten others, some her friends and relatives and others, more disturbingly, her enemies, who wrote in her book after her death.

Most sinister of these signatures is that of Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster, who was instrumental in uncovering the plot that led to Mary’s death and for advocating her execution.

The Book of Hours poems vividly lament the queen’s loss of status in imprisonment, and her anger at her public vilification:

en feinte mes amis change leur bienveillance tout le ben quils me font est desirer ma mort et comme si mourant jestois en deffailance
dessus mes vestements ils ont jette le sort

My friends feign their concern
Wishing instead to see me dead
And as if dying I was merely in a faint
They have cast lots for my clothes

Yet they also position Mary as a martyr, whose political and religious power will extend after her death, and who fights for her cause until death:

ils ne apartient porter ces armes
qua ceus qui dun coeur indomte
com[m]e nous nont peur des allarmes
du temps puissant mais sans bonte

Only those with an indomitable spirit
Who have no fear of danger
Should carry the fight
In these hard-hearted times

The poems give a unique insight into how the queen herself experienced her bloody, passionate and tragic life. They also illuminate how early modern women were thought of as writers, as lovers and as queens.

Despite their historical and literary significance, however, there is no scholarly modern edition of these poems and very little critical work on them. That these poems are so little known is itself a scandal.

Mary was not only an extraordinary political figure but also an extraordinary writer.

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