A spirited and satisfying life of Mary, the not-so-contrary queen of Scotland, who met her end through the machinations of a bewildering range of enemies.
Born in 1542, Mary Stuart was, writes Guy (History/Cambridge Univ.) admiringly, “unreservedly generous and amiable.” Moreover, she was well-read, a captivating conversationalist, utterly charming, and capable of an almost unregal informality among her supposed inferiors—all of which served to make her enormously popular among her subjects who, like her, were Catholic. Enter Elizabeth I of England, whose chief minister, William Cecil, was obsessed with Mary and wished to see her overthrown for several reasons: he was ardently anti-Catholic, and his “overriding ambition was to remold the whole of the British Isles into a single Protestant community.” It did not help that Cecil, who would emerge as Mary’s nemesis, was also a closet republican, an enemy of monarchy wherever he found it. Whatever the case, he loudly disputed Mary’s dynastic claim to the throne of England—Elizabeth was the daughter of Anne Boleyn, whom Catholics, “the vast majority of the English population,” did not recognize as Henry VIII’s legal wife—and nursed a great hatred for the Scottish queen in days to come. Now, just to confuse matters, enter the great-grandson of Henry VII, one Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, an ally of Elizabeth’s who wandered into Mary’s heart only to meet his end in a strange murder plot; Cecil and his infamous lieutenant Walsingham labored endlessly to implicate Mary, whose one big mistake, Guy suggests, was having married Darnley in the first place. The so-called Casket Letters, which Guy ably analyzes in the closing chapters, were enough to seal Mary’s doom, all thanks to the dastardly Cecil—whose responsibility for Mary’s demise, if we are to trust Guy’s account, relieves Elizabeth of the burden of being the heavy, as history has often made her out to be vis-à-vis her unfortunate cousin.
Guy’s account has all the twists and turns of a good thriller—and plenty of horror, too.