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Was she a traitor, an adulteress, or a martyr? A new festival tries to sort out her complicated life

Divisive character

428 years after her bloody execution, Mary, Queen of Scots, is still stirring up controversy

By Brigit Katz on September 15, 2015

In June of 1567, a boatman rowed across the dark waters of Scotland’s Loch Leven, towards a small island in the center of the lake. The cargo of this unceremonious voyage was none other than Mary Stewart—better known as Mary, Queen of Scots—who had been ousted from the throne after losing control of both her reign and her personal life. A once-promising ruler, Mary had become reviled and ridiculous.

A stout castle on the island acted as Mary’s prison and the setting of the most traumatic year of her life. While she was sequestered there, the queen was forced — under the threat of death — to abdicate the throne in favor of her infant son, James. A few weeks after her imprisonment, she miscarried twins. In May of 1568, Mary escaped from Loch Leven and sailed to England, hoping to find sanctuary with her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. Instead, Elizabeth kept her imprisoned for 18 years, until, in 1587, she had Mary executed on grounds of treason.

Mary’s stay at Loch Leven marked the beginning of the downward spiral that led to her death. Somewhat paradoxically, this rather unhappy location recently played host to an inaugural celebration of Mary’s life. Between September 11 and 13, the aptly-named “Mary, Queen of Scots Festival” took over the town of Kinross-shire, which is nestled along the northeastern side of the Loch. A number of attractions sought to immerse visitors in Tudor court life, and illuminate the legacy of Scotland’s most famous queen.

The festival featured a falconer, equestrian events, a pipe band, and an open kitchen, which cooked up the sort of delicacies that would appeal to a 16th century palate. On Sunday, a boat sailed patrons out to the island, where an actress playing Mary, Queen of Scots described the hardships of the queen’s year of imprisonment. Additional actors took on the guises of the four women who made up Mary’s loyal entourage—all of whom were also named Mary.

“Mary’s such a world-renowned figure, and obviously a woman in Scottish history, to celebrate [her], that’s a fantastic thing,” said Thomas Moffat, director of the Visit Dunfermline tourism agency and organizer of the festival. “So it just seemed a no-brainer for us to go ahead and do something.”

Moira Gow of Lyon and Turnbull auctioneers studies a wax Death Mask of Mary Queen of Scots made in 1587 after the queen's execution, which is on display at the auctioneers in Edinburgh, Scotland, REUTERS/David Moir
Moira Gow of Lyon and Turnbull auctioneers studies a wax Death Mask of Mary Queen of Scots made in 1587 after the queen’s execution, which is on display at the auctioneers in Edinburgh, Scotland, REUTERS/David Moir

But honoring the life of a Scottish queen was not the only reason for launching the event. For 18 years, Kinross-shire was home to T in the Park, a major U.K. music festival. A pipeline runs beneath part of the festival site, however, and health inspectors became concerned that an accident could cause serious casualties to the influx of visitors that flocks to the area. T in the Park will move to a new location next year, and so Moffat and his team sought to establish another event that would bolster the community of Kinross-shire.

An historical celebration might seem like an odd substitute for a music festival, but Mary, Queen of Scots has emerged as a pop culture icon of the extended Tudor clan, whose celebrity is perhaps exclusively rivaled by her nemesis Queen Elizabeth I. Mary was portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave in a 1971 biopic. More recently, her story was given the art-house treatment in a 2013 film by Swiss director Thomas Imbach. The CW series Reign presents a gleefully campy and unabashedly inaccurate representation of Mary’s life. She is an object of fascination for scholars too. As British historian Kristen Walton put it during an interview with Women in the World: “There’s more written on [Mary, Queen of Scots] than any Mary but the Virgin.”

Interest in Mary endures, at least in part, because she lived a rather sensational life. Mary was born in Scotland in 1542, the daughter of James V and his second wife, Mary de Guise. Her father died when she was only six days old, and at the age of five, Mary was sent to France as the betrothed of the Dauphin of France, Francis II. She spent 13 years in French court and grew into a vivacious, striking woman. Mary stood at five-feet ten, and her features were crowned with a shock of auburn hair. When she was only 10 years old, Mary delivered a Latin oration on the importance of educating women. “It was so important that she kept a copy of it,” Walton said. “It was something that was really dear to her heart.”

British-born US actress Elizabeth Taylor is pictured 12 December 1980 in London costumed for the film "The Mirror crack'd" produced by Guy Hamilton in which she portrays Mary, Queen of Scots. AFP/Getty Images
British-born U.S. actress Elizabeth Taylor is pictured in December 1980 in London costumed for the film “The Mirror crack’d” produced by Guy Hamilton in which she portrays Mary, Queen of Scots. AFP/Getty Images

In 1558, Mary was wed to Francis, who ascended the throne in 1559. Their relationship appears to have been an affectionate one, but Francis died two years into the marriage and Mary returned to Scotland. The country had changed drastically while she was away: under the influence of John Knox, Scotland’s official religion had shifted from Catholicism to Protestantism. The Catholic Mary was forced to navigate a very complex and precarious political landscape, in which many of her Protestant subjects—not to mention the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I—regarded her with suspicion. Some historians believe that Mary handled this difficult situation deftly: rather than launch a religious war, she set up a governing council of Protestants to appease hostile noble factions. In doing so, however, Mary alienated many of her Catholic supporters.

But it was Mary’s marriage to her cousin Lord Darnley that proved to be her undoing. Darnley was tall, handsome, and widely regarded as an idiot (a letter by one of Darnley’s contemporaries refers to him as a “nincompoop”). The Scottish nobility viewed Darnley as an unsuitable consort for the queen, and the union enraged Elizabeth I. Catholic factions in England had been vocal about wanting to see Mary supplant Elizabeth as a ruler, but her Scottish heritage made her a problematic candidate. Mary’s marriage to Lord Darnley—who was also Elizabeth’s cousin and who, unlike Mary, was born in England—united two of the strongest claimants to the English throne. None of this seems to have been at the forefront of Mary’s mind, however: she was infatuated with Darnley and loved him deeply. The sentiment quickly fizzled.

Darnley proved himself to be an ineffective ruler and an unfaithful husband. In 1566, a gang of Darnley’s friends burst into Mary’s quarters and stabbed one of her closest confidantes to death because Darnley believed they were having an affair. Mary was six months pregnant at the time, and a loaded gun was pointed at her stomach to stop her from intervening. In 1567, Darnley’s home at Kirk O’ Field erupted in a mysterious explosion. His body was found outside the residence, and he appeared to have been strangled, perhaps while making an escape. Mary was never implicated in the crime, and historians continue to debate her involvement. But three months after the explosion, she married James Hepburn—the main suspect in her husband’s murder.

Scottish nobles were scandalized by the union, which led to Mary’s forced abdication and imprisonment on Loch Leven. After spending 18 years as a prisoner in England, she was implicated in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth I. It was a flagrant instance of entrapment: Elizabeth’s spymaster hired a double agent to lure Mary into the plot, hoping it would convince the Queen to sign off on her cousin’s death and extinguish the threat of insurrection. Mary was indeed executed on February 8, 1587. She asked to be accompanied by her chaplain during her last moments, and was refused this final comfort.

The soap operatic aspects of Mary’s life—a passionate romance, a mysterious murder, intrigue, treason, a bloody execution—make her a compulsively fascinating figure. But Mary’s enduring appeal may also lie in the fact that she is so very difficult to parse. Mary was in some ways a brash, headstrong female leader—she once led troops on horseback to suppress an insurrection—but buckled in the face of a dashing, foolish love interest. She tried to rule her divided nation with sensitivity and tolerance, but seems to have been somewhat oblivious to the delicacies of the country’s political landscape.

“I still can’t tell you if I really like her or if I really dislike her,” said Walton, who has written a book and several scholarly articles on Mary. “I find her very fascinating, but she’s such an enigma … When she’s painted as a martyr, she comes forth as being a great tragic figure who you want to embrace. But on the other hand, she does some really not very bright things.”

To this day, Mary’s legacy remains politicized. A recent Scotsman article on the Mary, Queen of Scots Festival drew a slew of comments that ranged from enthusiastic (“Excellent idea. It’ll be good for Kinross.”) to sardonic (“futile nationalist propaganda”). For Moffat, Mary’s ability to stir up passions 428 years after her death makes her the perfect focal point of the festival—despite the fact that her controversial legacy might turn potential patrons off the event.

“She’s a very divisive character,” he said. “There are a lot of stories about her being a traitor, or being an adulteress. And there are a lot of people who think she was a martyr, [that] she was a very brave person … I think that’s what makes her so interesting.”