by Amy Blakeway
For over half the sixteenth century Scotland was ruled by children. In an age when the monarch’s will was the axis upon which political life turned and his or her authority was the source of all justice, periods without an adult ruler, known as royal minorities, were dangerous times indeed. Of course, six-day olds or four year olds did not actually control the country, but the question of who should rule on their behalf was a fraught one – and the person who answered it rarely satisfied everyone. Contemporaries said that Regents ‘bore the person of the monarch’ – that is, they were the monarch for the time. This total control over royal power made their rule potentially dangerous.
Because of a preference for appointing the adult heir to the throne as regent, usually, regents were men: six out of eight in the sixteenth century. However, female regents could be appointed in their husband’s will, or if a monarch was living abroad and needed to delegate their power during their absence. This is what happened in 1554: Mary, Queen of Scots was living in France and, since she was betrothed to the French heir to the throne, would be for the foreseeable future. Claiming that (aged just over eleven) she was now an adult, Mary ordered that James Hamilton, earl of Arran should give up the regency to her mother, Marie de Guise. Since the scheme was really masterminded by the powerful Henri II of France, the Scots had little choice but to agree.
Marie de Guise followed in the footsteps of other Stewart wives and mothers in the previous century, such as Joan Beaufort, mother of James II, and Mary of Gueldres, mother of James III. Between 1513 and 1514 Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII of England’s big sister and the widow of James IV, was regent for her son James V – she lost power when her remarriage meant she passed into the legal control of her new husband. But Marie de Guise was different: all these regents were only ever temporary rulers, who would give power when their child came of age. As Mary would remain in France with her husband, Marie de Guise was a new kind of regent, a permanent ruler on behalf of a perpetually absent monarch.
Despite widespread anxiety about women rulers, a dowager queen was a sound choice as regent for the simple reason that she loved her children. Shakespeare didn’t write Richard III in a vacuum and the fear that an ambitious uncle would take a leaf from Richard III’s book, kill his nephew and steal the crown, was frequently voiced. By contrast, it was assumed a mother would protect her children – and female regents manipulated that rhetoric to their own advantage, perhaps never more skilfully than Catherine de Medici, regent for her young son Charles IX of France.
However, Queen Mothers were not only defined by their gender. Their nationality posed problems for their candidacy as a regent. Catherine de Medici was Italian. Margaret Tudor was English, and Marie de Guise herself was French. Could a foreign-born woman really have Scotland’s interests at heart? For Marie de Guise, the mixture of gender and nationality combined with the extra-flammable ingredient of religious tension in a lethal cocktail which eventually caused her downfall.
Ironically, given that Marie would end her life as the hated face of French power in Scotland, in France she would have been regarded as slightly foreign. Her father, Claude, Duke of Guise, was one of the Princes Étrangers (stranger Princes) at the French court – this title denoted membership of an independent sovereign dynasty. They were descendants of the independent Dukes of Lorraine, whose lands would only be incorporated into France in the eighteenth century.
Marie arrived in Scotland in 1538 to marry James V – it was the second marriage for both of them. He had previously been married to Madeline, the sickly daughter of Francois I. Marie had in fact attended their marriage in Paris, accompanied by her first husband, Louis, duc de Longueville.
As Queen consort she brought considerable cultural capital to Scotland, corresponding with relatives in France to arrange for craftsmen to come over and remodel the royal palaces, and securing technical know-how for the Scottish mining projects. References to her ‘chariot’ suggest she may have been the owner of the first, or at least one of the first, carriages in Scotland. She also fulfilled her main job as Queen consort: to get pregnant and produce, preferably male, children, although sadly two boys she had in 1540 and 1541 lived only a short time.
In other words, Marie de Guise was a model Queen consort, but there is no evidence to suggest that she sought political influence. After James V died in 1542 no-one suggested that his widow should become regent: Marie de Guise’s job was to bring up the new Queen.
This poses an interesting question: how did Guise move from an apparently apolitical royal spouse in 1542 to becoming regent and ruling Scotland?
The process had begun by 1544 when she and a group of the nobility dissatisfied with the regent Arran, proposed a scheme that she should share power with him. Unsurprisingly, he rejected this and for a few months Marie de Guise tried to head up an alternative government. However, this failed – even the English, with whom the Scots were at war, were reluctant to negotiate with her. She and Arran made it up by the autumn and seem to have managed a working relationship of sorts until she took power in 1554.
Even when Guise was part of Arran’s regime, the fact she controlled a third of the crown lands posed problems for the regent. Crown revenues were reduced, and a rival source of patronage had the potential to eat away at his support. However, she enjoyed the trust of the King of France and in fighting the ongoing war against the English French support was crucial. This increased after 1548 when the Treaty of Haddington between France and Scotland promised French support for the war effort and arranged for Mary’s marriage to the Dauphin, Francois. This treaty meant that Mary would be absent from Scotland on a permanent basis and so created the circumstances which eventually developed into Guise becoming regent.
Many historians identify Marie de Guise’s visit to France from August 1550 until November 1551 as another key moment in her gradual ascent to the regency. Accompanied by many Scottish nobles, Guise certainly played a central role in French court life during this period and negotiated continued French support for Scotland. What is less clear, however, is whether these negotiations included discussion of the possibility that she herself would become regent, and, if so, whether Guise herself arrived in France ready to discuss this, or whether it emerged during the conversations.
Once she arrived back in Scotland, however, it was only the rapidly changing international situation in late 1553 which made the possibility of Guise becoming regent a reality. Mary Tudor’s accession to the throne of England meant the strengthening of France’s great rivals, the Hapsburgs, Mary Tudor’s maternal relations and the family from whom she sought a husband. Scotland needed to be bound more securely to France and following months of intense negotiations Arran agreed to resign the regency.
Mary’s enemies would later claim that she subverted the ceremony which appointed her regent by wearing the crown which belonged to her daughter – and that to make matters worse it was the French king’s representative who placed it on her head. Her arch-rival John Knox remarked that seeing Marie crowned in this way was ‘as seemly a sight (if men had eyes) as to place a saddle on the back of an unruly cow’. But, there is no corroborative evidence for this story and the only authors who mention it were not in Edinburgh when Guise became regent. It’s far more likely that this was either a fabrication or a wilful manipulation of the fact that the crown was moved from in front of Arran to Guise to symbolise the transfer of power. This story was designed to signal Guise’s dangerous ambition and so that she was dangerously unsuitable to rule.
Nevertheless, for the six years of her regency, she took her duties as regent seriously. For example, she held numerous justice ayres – peripatetic justice courts which moved around Scotland – this was particularly significant because dispensing justice was understood to be one of the key aspects of being a good ruler.
Even so, by 1555 the reality of an absentee Queen and a French regent who appointed French advisers to key posts was beginning to bite home. Parliament passed an act complaining that many Scots had been ‘speiking aganis the quenis grace [Marie de Guise] and sawing evill brute anent [spreading evil rumours about] the Maist Christin King of Frances subjectis send in this realme for the commoun weill’ and laying down heavy penalties for those who opposed it. In October 1557 the nobility refused Guise’s orders to invade England – they claimed that this was not in the best interests of Scotland, but only an attempt to please the French. John Knox reported that Guise was furious, but other evidence shows she and the nobility did manage to rebuild relations and remained on friendly terms for another year. When they did desert her, and explained to the public in Scotland and potential allies abroad why they were resisting their lawfully appointed regent, the nobles cited their religious concerns but, more importantly, their fear of French rule overturning Scottish laws and an eventual French conquest of Scotland.
Was there any truth in this? Marie always denied it. However, she had appointed trusted French officials to major roles in Scotland. She also at times viewed Scotland as a country which needed to be changed, and once wrote to her brother ‘God knows…what a life I lead. It is no small matter to bring a young nation to a state of perfection’.
From September 1558 onwards the growing Protestant party in Scotland became increasingly vocal. But it was only in May 1559 when this spilled over into violent rebellion against the regent – and even after this, it took many months of temporary compromise for key nobles to desert Guise. John Knox’s History of the Reformation in Scotland is one of the most important sources we have for this period. However, the fact he was absent from Scotland for much of Guise’s regency, combined with his obvious self-interest in the events he discussed, also makes it one of the most problematic. His attitude to Marie de Guise can only be described as venomous. For instance, he claimed that Marie de Guise persuaded the reformers to agree to Mary’s marriage to the Dauphin. Once they had agreed, she ‘began to spew furthe and disclose the latent venom of her dowble harte’. When the Archbishop of St Andrews executed the reformer Walter Milne, Knox said that Guise ‘as a woman born to dissemble and deceave’ was so persuasive in claiming that she had no foreknowledge of the execution that the Protestants, ‘suspecting nothing that the Queen consented to the foirnamed murder’ continued to seek out her support.
Knox’s need to justify the rebellion which he encouraged against Marie de Guise lead him to portray her as a dangerous villain, a French, Catholic, Woman, driven by ambition, which led her to bribe, deceive and corrupt those she encountered. It’s impossible to know which of these concerns prompted her subjects to rise against her in rebellion, but, it’s clear that by 1559 the exercise of power had transformed this once conforming Queen consort into a very dangerous woman indeed.
Amy Blakeway is a lecturer in History at the University of Kent. She is interested in the power and politics of sixteenth-century Scotland and the author of ‘Regency in Sixteenth-Century Scotland’. She currently lives in Canterbury but comes to Edinburgh whenever she can.
Article courtesy of the Dangerous Women Project, University of Edinburgh. Please contact Dr Ben Fletcher-Watson with any questions.
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Feature image: Attributed to Corneille de Lyon (1500/1510–1575) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons