Scottish writer and producer Graham (BBC’s Elizabeth) delivers a robust, evenhanded life of Elizabeth I’s Catholic cousin and eventual betrayer.
The author clearly has little sympathy for pampered Mary Stuart (1542–87), who lacked her older cousin’s masculine education, not to mention Elizabeth’s shrewd political instincts, and relied instead on her charming good looks to manipulate men. (Graham calls Mary “one of the great weepers of history.”) Early on, Mary was treated as a pawn by the Guises, her mother’s aristocratic French family, who controlled the Scottish throne she inherited from her father, James V, when she was six days old. The Guises arranged Mary’s upbringing at the French court of Henri II and her betrothal at age four to his son and heir. Raised under the wily blandishments of Henri’s beautiful mistress, Diane de Poitiers, Mary was steeped in Catholicism and courtly romances. Her 1558 marriage to the unstable, sickly Dauphin (who became king a year later) ended with his untimely death in 1560. She was returned to Scotland at age 18 mostly because no one knew what to do with her, an unfortunate theme throughout her life. Mary provoked her own expulsion from her native country and throne with her two subsequent marriages. She was implicated in the assassination of Lord Darnley, father of her only child, the future James VI, and later compromised by the ambitious machinations of the adulterous Lord Bothwell. Facing imprisonment in Scotland, the “whore queen” threw herself on the mercy of her reluctant cousin. During the next 20 years, her shelter in England gradually grew into a stricter imprisonment as the spy network of William Cecil, Elizabeth’s closest advisor, intercepted Mary’s treasonous letters seeking help among Catholic factions and even from England’s archenemy, Philip II of Spain. Despite his occasional exasperation with his subject, Graham is a knowledgeable guide to the tricky terrains of Scottish and British history in the 16th century.
An intelligent author gracefully feeds readers a great deal of complicated dynastic information in a most palatable fashion.