Elizabeth and Mary – Battling Down the Centuries (Guest Post)


Guest article by Sarah Gristwood

It would be hard to find two women about whom more has been written than Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart – separately and, of course, together. I’ve written repeatedly of them both myself, in fiction as well as in factual history. Each a star turn, they are often presented as counterbalance to each other: Mary the heart to Elizabeth’s head. And which one you prefer isn’t only a matter of personal taste – perceptions of the pair have changed radically down the centuries.

Mary Queen of Scots, of course, was both canonised and vilified even in her own day. Reviled as a murderess by those one side of the religious divide, she was revered as a martyr by those on the other. Her reputation rehabilitated after the Stuarts gained the English throne, she was reinvented as a feeling heroine for the late eighteenth century. This was the picture  that led to her being presented as opposite to Queen Elizabeth in Schiller’s 1800 play Mary Stuart  (later made into an opera by Donizetti). The picture, too, that caused Jane Austen, in a gloriously prejudiced piece of juvenilia, to describe her as ‘this amiable woman’, in contrast to ‘that disgrace to humanity, that pest to society’, Elizabeth.

The Victorians viewed Mary with a mixture of repulsion and fascination: romantic, yes, and fetchingly feminine but oh dear, oh dear, Bothwell and Darnley . . . So different from the home life of their own dear Queen! The pre-Raphaelites of course adored her – but she still represents a challenge for today.

Recent work has sought to rediscover Mary’s queenship and highlight her abilities;  notably My Heart is My Own, by John Guy. To defeat the idea that she was simply a silly woman, given great power and throwing it away.  The effort has succeeded  – to a degree. We now appreciate that the situation Mary faced in Scotland was an impossible one – that her failure was not due only to her own weaknesses. All the same, unlucky in both love and war, she remains a highly dubious role model. And a role model, it seems, is very often what we want our heroines to be.

Of course the crimes of which Mary has been accused, murder and adultery, are still very definitely sins. By contrast the charges once levelled against Elizabeth by male historians  – of unwomanliness, of sexual froideur or alternatively of excessive closeness to her male favourites – hardly look like major crimes today. All the same her reputation too changed down the centuries. We all make Elizabeths after the image of our own age, and find evidence for them, all too easily.

In 1603 when Elizabeth died, England had become tired of an ageing woman’s rule. But by the later seventeenth century Elizabeth’s whole era was already beginning to look like a golden age, by contrast with the foibles of the Stuart monarchy. And the eighteenth century age of sensibility which so supported Mary could shed a tear for the Virgin Queen too, in the character of victim, forced by a cruel fate to throw her chance of love away. The influence of Sir Walter Scott’s Kenilworth in 1821 was slow to die.

The Victorians – while relishing the brave and beruffed ruler as an icon of empire – were troubled by the whole question of Elizabeth’s sexuality. Insofar as she had chosen to present herself as an eternal virgin, she was unwomanly; if on the other hand she were in any way sexual without the marriage tie . . . ‘when the character of a lady is at issue, to doubt is to condemn’, as Fraser’s Magazine put it memorably. Elizabeth, wrote Jacob Abbott in 1849, ‘would not have been a desirable wife for any of us’. The ultimate put down, clearly.

Lytton Strachey in his 1928 psychobiography Elizabeth and Essex reinvented Elizabeth yet again as a post-Freudian creature of frustrated sexuality. As Strachey wrote of Essex’s downfall : ‘Manhood – the fascinating, detestable entity, which had first come upon her concealed in yellow magnificence in her father’s lap – manhood was overthrown at last, and in the person of the traitor it should be rooted out.’ This interpretation has never to date quite gone away. Certainly it stuck around long enough to influence the Bette Davis/Errol Flynn movie, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.

By the second half of the twentieth century Elizabeth had moved an again – a heroine for our own day. I for one grew up on the novels of Margaret Irwin – Young Bess, Elizabeth, Captive Princess and Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain – and much preferred them to those of Jean Plaidy, who of course wrote also also on Mary. Elizabeth was well on the way to becoming effectively the ultimate  career woman – now, books on the management secrets of Elizabeth I, and ‘Elizabeth CEO’, can be found on the shelves, along with feminist academic study and  the novels of Philippa Gregory.

If the two queens could be said to have gone on confronting each other down the centuries, then there’s one battle of the war Elizabeth surely won. From the days of Flora Robson on, it’s she who is the ultimate screen queen . . . Even the old Vanessa Redgrave movie Mary Queen of Scots was stolen by Glenda Jackson, reprising her role from the BBC’s great Elizabeth R. More recently we’ve had Cate Blanchett in Shekhar Kapur’s feature film Elizabeth and Helen Mirren in the two plays on Channel Four tv, to say nothing of the BBC’s The Virgin Queen, and Judi Dench’s cameo in Shakespeare in Love, and, and, and . . . the list goes on, basically.

It’s true that in 1895 Thomas Edison’s The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots was one of the first movies ever made – but it was only 18 seconds long. There was John Ford’s 1936 version with Katherine Hepburn; but more recently that pair of tv plays about Mary and her son James, Gunpowder, Treason & Plot, hardly live in the memory.

There was a Swiss film made of Mary in 2013, but the movie review website Rotten Tomatoes memorably summed up its subject as a queen who lost three kingdoms and a woman who lost three husbands. The ultimate loser, basically. Which leaves us with the US tv series Reign which ran to an extraordinary 78 episodes . . . but could any one of them be said really to have shown  the historical Mary?

That may all be about to change. A new film Mary Queen of Scots is shooting right now, with Saoirse Ronan as Mary. Top billing seems still to be going to Margot Robbie as Elizabeth, rather oddly, but it is based on the Mary biography by John Guy. A good sign – but it remains to be seen whether this, at last, will manage to make the Queen of Scots a heroine for the 21st century.

Sarah Gristwood is the author of The Queen’s Mary and of Game of Queens.

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