Saturday, 10 March 2018

Failed Monarchs

Let no-one convince you that history, even academic history, is boring. It might seem like a rather staid and dry sort of subject, with crumbling professors poring over even more crumbling manuscripts, but, sometimes, a light is shone on a previous ‘thoroughly understood’ subject and it is turned upside down.

Thus, for example, the historiography of the English Civil War was well understood in the middle of the twentieth century as the rise of the landed gentry linked with the up and coming merchant and legal classes in London and important cities, who fed into the members of the Long Parliament. These controlled the means of production and, as any good Marxist materialist historian will tell you, the class that controls production eventually wins political power.

It took someone to go and take a look at the data to dent this idea. The new generation of historians traced the careers of merchants and MPs in the 1630’s, 1640’s and 1650’s. They did not find, for example, that the court sponsored monopolists of the 1630’s automatically supported the King, nor that the London merchant class supported Parliament. Things were, inevitably, a lot more complicated than that. The nice neat, clean, materialist narrative was holed below the water line, and finally exploded when it was noted that, in fact, religion mattered to the people involved.

As with the seventeenth century, so with the sixteenth and, I suppose, probably with most other centuries as well. The case in point here is Jenny Wormald’s book, Mary, Queen of Scots: A Study in Failure (Edinburgh, John Donald, 2017). This is a re-issue of a book first published in 1988, almost as a reaction to the outpouring of work relating to Mary Stuart that occurred around the three hundredth anniversary of her execution.

The book is not a life of Mary. Wormald notes that such a work had been performed, highly competently, by Antonia Fraser. Wormald has a narrower focus than the whole of Mary’s life, although she does fill in a lot of the bits of her life to give context to the points of interest. Those points are that as a monarch, Mary Stuart was a useless failure.

I suppose that, to wargamers, this is a rather less than interesting point. After all, Mary was hardly a military commander. Her involvement in the Scottish Civil Wars of the late sixteenth century was fairly marginal, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the wargaming of such stand offs and action as did take place is infrequent, to say the least. Nevertheless, I think there is a point or two worth making.

The first point is about Mary herself. Wormald argues that she failed as a monarch of Scotland because she was never interesting in being Queen of Scotland. She had, after all, been married off very young to the King of France’s son, Charles, and brought up at the French court, out of the reach of Scotland’s English enemies. Charles acceded to the throne and Mary became queen consort. In terms of early modern achievement, this counted as a success. Scotland, of course, was ruled through a regency.

It did not last. Charles died and Mary was forced to return to her native land. The normal historical narrative then goes that her reign was subverted by Protestant lords and her own romantic entanglements. Factional fighting in Scotland fatally undermined Mary’s reign, and she was forced to flee to England to what she thought would be safety. Bored in confinement, she got involved in Catholic plots and, probably promoted by the English Secret Service, betrayed her cousin Elizabeth who eventually had no choice but to execute her.

Wormald has little truck with this narrative. The problem was, she argues (and I am convinced, even if no everyone will agree) that Mary wanted to be Queen of France, or England, but not of Scotland. Her marriages were part of attempts to find a Scottish ‘strong man’ who could run the country for her. But make decisions as a royal ruler was expected to, she would not. She just was not interested.

Thus, the Scottish nobility eventually deposed her. This was not for the reason of religion, particularly. The Reformation already had a deep hold in Scotland by then. It was because she was useless as a monarch. The only decent thing that Mary did, on this analysis, is produce a male heir. The comparison is, of course, with Elizabeth. Also female (no, really?) she managed to hold onto power and executive decision making for decades, defying the demands of nobility, foreign powers, Parliament and people to marry, of make decisions she did not want to. But Elizabeth, too, wanted to be Queen of England. The difference was that she was Queen of England, and was determined to remain so. Mary did get involved in plots against Elizabeth and so, ultimately, she had to be removed. Elizabeth’s prevarication was, in fact, policy to avoid blame for killing a fellow ruling monarch.

The second point is about reputations. I have done a bit here to lay into a few reputations of people who probably do not deserve it. Alexander III of Macedon, for example, is commonly called ‘the Great’ but the reality seems to be more that he was an egocentric, unstable, war obsessed murderer. Yes, he conquered most of the known world but, given the nature of the known world at the time, anyone who inherited a decent army from his father probably could have done the same.

As with Alexander, so it is with Mary Stuart. She has an aura of a tragic, romantic, heroine. Who cannot be melted by the story of her ride into the wilds of the Borders to nurse her true love wounded in a skirmish? There are trails to follow her perambulations around the country, and exhibitions and books about the lost Queen of Scotland, and her callous cousin.

Alternatively we can ask: what on earth was the Queen doing dashing across the countryside and catching what nearly turned out to be her death of cold? Why was she not doing some ruling? Elizabeth perambulated widely across the south, anyway, of her kingdom. But she actually did ruling along the way. She did not remove herself from the seat of power; she took it with her.

Wormald’s case, then, is that Mary failed as a renaissance ruler because she did not want to rule Scotland. Romantic as the other narrative might be, and much more appealing to a sentimental age, Mary failed because she did not want to engage in the real political decisions that were needed in Scotland at the time. Romance only takes a ruler so far, at least during their lifetimes.


  1. Very interesting, thank you. Now, based on no academic study whatsoever, can I suggest that the root cause of the ECW was that Charles was simply a very bad King?

    1. Interestingly, I've just finished a new biography of CI; I will rack up the priority of wriging about it.