Mary of Guise was loved by many French Catholics, hated by Scottish Protestants and grudgingly respected by the English.
Also known as Mary of Lorraine she was born into a staunchly Catholic family on 20 November 1515, in the rather forbidding castle of Bar-le-Duc in north-east France.
Her father was Claude, Count (later Duke) of Guise, a powerful figure in France, and her mother was Antoinette of Bourbon.
At the age of four, the family moved to Joinville Castle in north-eastern France, previously the home of Mary’s grandmother Philippa of Gueldres who, driven by ill health, had moved to the convent of Poor Clares near Nancy.
Initially, the family considered Mary’s future to be one of service to the church and in order to prepare for that life she joined her grandmother at the convent to continue her education.
Guise dynastic ambition
However, as she grew, her family ever mindful of Guise dynastic ambition, plucked her from the austere life of a Poor Clare and introduced her, at the age of 14, to the opulence of the French court of Francis I.
She stayed at court, almost like a daughter to the king, for three years.
At the age of 17, she married Louis, Duke of Longueville in 1534, and their first son, christened Francis after the king, was born on 30 October 1535.
James V of Scotland
On the first day of 1537 Mary, pregnant with her second child, and Louis attended the wedding of her friend.
It was the king’s eldest daughter, Madeleine Valois to King James V of Scotland, an arrangement made possible by the 1517 Treaty of Rouen.
Within six months Louis, perhaps a victim of smallpox, was dead leaving Mary a widow at the age of 21.
Her second son, also Louis, was born on 4 August, only weeks after the death of his father. Sadly, the infant was also dead within months.
During this terrible period in her life, word arrived from Scotland that James’s new wife Madeleine had also died at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh.
Her wish to live quietly, looking after the interests of her surviving son was never realised.
Within two months of the death of her husband, the French king commanded her to marry James, who by this time was in search of a second French wife.
Henry VIII of England
For this recently bereaved young woman, her situation was difficult and distressing, further compounded by the unwelcome demand from Henry VIII of England, that he should have her hand.
Certainly, any union with Henry would have been a matter, not of love, but of political necessity designed to prevent the strengthening of Scotland’s alliance with France.
Despite Henry’s intervention, Mary was promised to James.
Their marriage negotiations, particularly over the dowry, were complex but eventually, a sum of 150,000 livres was agreed.
Of this sum, 80,000 was to be paid by Mary’s father and the rest by the king.
In return, James would settle on her, as her jointure, the Palace of Falkland and the Castles of Stirling, Dingwall and Threave.
She also received the earldoms of Strathearn, Ross, Orkney and Fife and the Lordships of Galloway, Ardmannach and the Isles.
The wedding ceremony, held at Châteaudun near Orleans, took place on 9 May 1538. The ring was placed on Mary’s finger by Robert, Lord Maxwell as James’s proxy.
Scotland: A wild and savage place
With the warnings from her friends that Scotland was a wild and savage place, Mary set sail for her new home accompanied by family members and an entourage of servants and advisors.
Her entry into St Andrews, where her marriage to James was confirmed, was a grand occasion with pageantry and speeches.
Mary’s influence at court was soon evident with ‘Scottish ladies’ adopting French custom and fashion. She brought craftsmen from France to work on her palaces,
Miners arrived to look for gold at Crawfordmuir and cuttings from French fruit trees arrived in Scotland to add variety to the queen’s food.
Six months pregnant, she was finally crowned queen on 22 February 1540, at Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh. James, Duke of Rothesay was born in May.
A second son Robert, Duke of Albany, Earl of Fife and Earl of Menteith arrived in April of the following year but died only two days later.
To compound the misery, her first child also died within a few days of his brother.
With the deaths of his children and the growing pressure from Henry VIII to join him in plundering the riches of the Catholic Church, James’s health deteriorated quickly.
Henry’s demand that he should travel south to meet him and James’s refusal to do so saw the mobilising of English forces at the border during the summer of 1542.
Battle of Solway Moss
The ensuing defeat for the Scots at the Battle of Solway Moss in November saw the king descend into a “state of appalling mental anguish. “
James lived long enough to hear the news that his wife had given birth to a daughter Mary Stewart (Stuart), born at Linlithgow on 8 December 1542.
Mary considered the duties of the regent should be hers. However, despite the fact that tradition dictated that this should be the case, her position both as a queen newly widowed and one who had recently given birth dictated that other strict rules of etiquette applied.
It meant that unable at that point to serve as regent she accepted the title of Queen Dowager.
She watched on the sidelines as the Catholic pro-French Cardinal Beaton and the Protestant pro-English James Hamilton the 2nd Earl of Arran sought the position.
In the end, after much acrimonious squabbling among Scottish nobles, Arran was proclaimed Lord Governor of Scotland and Beaton was made Lord Chancellor.
There were few at the time who had anything good to say about Arran and Beaton’s reputation was little better.
Following the death of James, Henry VIII, sensing an opportunity to gain influence in Scotland made strenuous efforts to force the young Queen Mary’s marriage to his son Edward.
It was the period of ‘Rough Wooing’.
On 1 July 1543 with the Scottish Parliament feeling powerless to oppose him, an agreement to the marriage was enshrined in the Treaties of Greenwich,
One of the conditions was that once Mary reached the age of 11, she should be taken to England and married to Prince Edward. Scotland would remain an independent nation with Arran as Lord Governor.
Scottish history articles
Mary of Guise, supported by Cardinal Beaton, worked hard to influence Scottish lords against the Treaties while at the same time trying to give the impression to a predatory English king that she approved of the proposed union. It was a delicate balancing act.
Crowned at Stirling Castle
By September the infant Mary Queen of Scots was crowned in the Chapel Royal of Stirling Castle and much to the displeasure of the English the final month of the year saw the repeal of the Treaties of Greenwich as the Scots once again embraced their traditional French allies.
In the May of 1544, an infuriated Henry VIII turned to military force. His army under Edward, Earl of Hertford landed at Leith and destroyed much of Edinburgh, the Lothians and Fife.
Mary was particularly upset at the desecration of Holyrood Abbey where her husband and sons were buried. She blamed Arran for the devastation.
With the Lord Governor under pressure, Mary tried unsuccessfully to take the regency from him.
With the death of Henry VIII in January 1547, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset established himself as Lord Protector of England during the minority of Henry’s son, Edward VII.
Continuing Henry’s Scottish policy, Somerset vehemently believed that it was his, “Godly purpose to enjoin the Queen [Mary of Guise] and Council to deliver the young queen to be suitably nourished and brought up with her husband as Queen of England.”
As Somerset planned his campaign to join “both the kingdoms” the French king died bringing his son Henry II to the throne.
Battle of Pinkie Cleugh
Taking advantage of an already established military foothold in Scotland, Somerset’s army met the Scots under Arran on the battlefield at Pinkie Cleugh near Edinburgh in September.
An overwhelming English victory forced Mary to send her daughter from Stirling Castle to the small island of Inchmahome on the Lake of Menteith for safety.
Afraid of further aggression, her mother begged the French for help.
Following Pinkie Cleugh the French were anxious to put an end to English ambition in Scotland.
It wasn’t that they simply wanted to put a reassuring fatherly arm around a Scottish shoulder.
No, they demanded something in return for their support – the marriage between the dauphin (Francis, eldest son of the King of France) and Mary Stewart, a figure described as a…
Should Mary, also with a strong claim to the English throne, marry Francis it might have been possible to unite Scotland, England and Ireland under a Catholic crown. For the French, it was a prize worth fighting for.
There was considerable opposition in Scotland to the marriage proposal but French bribes eased the process.
Arran, for example, in return for his support, was offered the Duchy of Châtelherault worth £12,000 a year. His son, Lord James, took his father’s old title of Earl of Arran.
French soldiers in Leith
With French soldiers already in Scotland (arrived Leith in June) the marriage agreement was enshrined in the Treaty of Haddington (signed in July) and the young queen left for France the following month.
By August 1550, the political situation was such that Mary, whose father died in April, felt able to travel to France to visit family and consult with the French king.
She hadn’t seen her son Francis, now almost fifteen years old, for twelve years and her beloved daughter Mary was by this time nearly eight.
Her return to Scotland, unexpected by many, in the spring of 1551 was delayed after a plot to poison her daughter was discovered. Although she was unharmed, her son Francis died unexpectedly. Mary of Guise was distraught.
More than a decade after the death of James V she finally obtained the regency in 1554 after Châtelherault was offered a number of ‘irresistible financial inducements’ to step aside.
The years that followed were punctuated by events that shaped the Scottish political landscape.
In particular, 1558 saw the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots to the sickly dauphin, the death of the Catholic Mary I of England and the succession of her half-sister Elizabeth I who determined to remove the French from England’s northern border provided support for the rising number of Scottish Protestants.
St Andrews Castle
Without her Catholic supporter Cardinal Beaton, murdered at St Andrews Castle in 1456, the regent fought against the rising tide of Protestant reform, driven by the Lords of the Congregation a group of influential Scottish nobles led by James Stewart the illegitimate half-brother of Mary Queen of Scots. The Scottish Reformation was gathering pace.
During the early months of 1560, an English army with around 6000 soldiers, supported by artillery, arrived in Leith to support the Congregation.
Although the French, already entrenched in Leith, were initially able to withstand the English in what became known as the Siege of Leith it was the inability of the French king to send reinforcements that turned the tables in favour of the Congregation.
Although the situation looked bleak, but still hopeful that help might come, Mary, by this time in the relative safety of Edinburgh Castle, tried to negotiate with the Protestant Lords.
Despite her desperate position she fought hard to maintain her authority. Ritchie makes the point that Mary of Guisewas unyielding in her defence of the Franco-Scottish dynastic alliance while the Congregation continued to demand the withdrawal of the French from Scotland.
In the end, it was Mary’s death that brought proceedings to a close. On 11 June 1560, she passed away. John Knox wrote, “She finished her unhappy life; unhappy, we say, to Scotland, from the first day she entered into it unto the day she departed this life…”
Lords of the Congregation
Fearing riots, the Lords of the Congregation refused to allow her to be buried in Holyrood Abbey next to her husband and sons. Nor would any Roman Catholic funeral be allowed anywhere else.
Her body was placed in a lead casket and taken to the little Chapel of St Margaret set high up on the castle rock where it lay until March of the following year.
Within months of Mary’s death, the Treaty of Edinburgh signed by the Scots, the English and the French dictated that all English and French soldiers would leave Scotland.
Mary’s body was finally taken to France and laid to rest in the choir of the Church of St Pierre-les-Dames where her sister was abbess.
When it comes to an examination of the role of Mary of Guise in Scotland opinion in academic circles is divided.
Rosiland K Marshall, Mary of Guise said that “She believed her mission was to bring order, peace and justice to Scotland, regardless of personal cost.”
However, Pamela E Ritchie argued that the role of Mary of Guise in Scotland should not be examined in a narrow personal or religious framework but in a much wider context, that of European dynastic politics.
However, there is little disagreement that Mary of Guise has left an indelible mark on the pages of Scotland’s history.
The British Royal Family – more information
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REFERENCES: research and data
- Rosalind K. Marshall, Mary of Guise (National Museums of Scotland, 2001)
- Antonia Fraser, Mary Queen of Scots (Phoenix Press, 2001), pp 6,9,10,11,12,13.
- C J Guthrie, The Reformation in Scotland (The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982) pp 17, 34, 100, 118, 221-222
See also: further reading
- Mary [Mary Stewart] (1542–1587), Queen of Scots
- A letter from Mary Queen of Scots to the Duke of Guise, January 1562,
- Archaeology Notes: Palace and Chapel of Mary-de-Guise. Queen Regent (NR) (16 Century) (Site of).
- Historic Environment Scotland: Convents, Courts and Coronations: How Mary of Guise Came to Scotland.