Book Review: Mary Queen of Scots’ Secretary by Robert Stedall



Book Review by Sarah J. Hodder,

This book centres around William Maitland, secretary to Mary Queen of Scots and one of the men around her who both supported her and, it seems, played a large part in engineering her downfall. I have long had an interest in Mary as a character, who seems to have been an incredibly strong woman who made some incredibly bad decisions. But I knew nothing about Maitland, other than perhaps his name, so was keen to find out how more about him and his association with Mary.

I have to say firstly that the author obviously knows his stuff, particularly with regards to Scottish politics. The book is highly detailed and well referenced. However, I personally found this an incredibly tough read. The Scottish court was a hotbed of differing political and religious views – why Mary had such a tough time during her rule – and the Scottish lords were hugely powerful men, from powerful families and they changed allegiances all the time. The book is heavy on the political detail, and I have to admit I found it hard to follow at times and remember who was who. This I recognise says more about me than it does the author who has expertly detailed all the different factions around Mary, how they conspired for their own personal gains and of course the ongoing communication with the English court who were also keen to steer Mary’s queenship in a particular direction.

Although the book is primarily about William Maitland, it is not a biography about him in the general sense as there is no detail about his family, his birth, his growing up and his marriage is touched on only briefly. It is more the story of his involvement in the Scottish court and Scottish politics during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots, the decisions he made and how they affected Mary. I accept I am not the author’s target audience, as my historical interest is social history and what I mainly took away from the book was perhaps a better understanding that Maitland was to Mary what Cecil was to Elizabeth I (although it has to be said Cecil was much more loyal to his Queen than Maitland turned out to be). And because of my own personal interest in the social lives of women, I couldn’t help but feel this book confirmed my feelings of pity for Mary, Queen of Scots, surrounded as she was by scheming councillors and advisors who either wanted to control her or remove her from power to suit their own needs.

All in all, this is a hugely comprehensive book on Maitland’s role as advisor to the Scottish queen. If you are looking for a light and easy historical read on either Maitland or Mary, this is probably not for you. But if your interest is in Scottish politics and you want an in depth look at the man who played such a large role, both good and bad, in Mary’s destiny then this is a good, academic read.     ***



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