Famous Affinities of History
By Lyndon Orr

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Public Domain Books

Nell Gwyn
Simon Verelst, ca. 1680
At the National Gallery

Mary Queen of Scots and Lord Bothwell

Mary Stuart and Cleopatra are the two women who have most attracted the fancy of poets, dramatists, novelists, and painters, from their own time down to the present day.

In some respects there is a certain likeness in their careers. Each was queen of a nation whose affairs were entangled with those of a much greater one. Each sought for her own ideal of love until she found it. Each won that love recklessly, almost madly. Each, in its attainment, fell from power and fortune. Each died before her natural life was ended. One caused the man she loved to cast away the sovereignty of a mighty state. The other lost her own crown in order that she might achieve the whole desire of her heart.

There is still another parallel which may be found. Each of these women was reputed to be exquisitely beautiful; yet each fell short of beauty’s highest standards. They are alike remembered in song and story because of qualities that are far more powerful than any physical charm can be. They impressed the imagination of their own contemporaries just as they had impressed the imagination of all succeeding ages, by reason of a strange and irresistible fascination which no one could explain, but which very few could experience and resist.

Mary Stuart was born six days before her father’s death, and when the kingdom which was her heritage seemed to be almost in its death-throes. James V. of Scotland, half Stuart and half Tudor, was no ordinary monarch. As a mere boy he had burst the bonds with which a regency had bound him, and he had ruled the wild Scotland of the sixteenth century. He was brave and crafty, keen in statesmanship, and dissolute in pleasure.

His first wife had given him no heirs; so at her death he sought out a princess whom he pursued all the more ardently because she was also courted by the burly Henry VIII. of England. This girl was Marie of Lorraine, daughter of the Duc de Guise. She was fit to be the mother of a lion’s brood, for she was above six feet in height and of proportions so ample as to excite the admiration of the royal voluptuary who sat upon the throne of England.

“I am big,” said he, “and I want a wife who is as big as I am.”

But James of Scotland wooed in person, and not by embassies, and he triumphantly carried off his strapping princess. Henry of England gnawed his beard in vain; and, though in time he found consolation in another woman’s arms, he viewed James not only as a public but as a private enemy.

There was war between the two countries. First the Scots repelled an English army; but soon they were themselves disgracefully defeated at Solway Moss by a force much their inferior in numbers. The shame of it broke King James’s heart. As he was galloping from the battle-field the news was brought him that his wife had given birth to a daughter. He took little notice of the message; and in a few days he had died, moaning with his last breath the mysterious words:

“It came with a lass–with a lass it will go!”

The child who was born at this ill-omened crisis was Mary Stuart, who within a week became, in her own right, Queen of Scotland. Her mother acted as regent of the kingdom. Henry of England demanded that the infant girl should be betrothed to his young son, Prince Edward, who afterward reigned as Edward VI., though he died while still a boy. The proposal was rejected, and the war between England and Scotland went on its bloody course; but meanwhile the little queen was sent to France, her mother’s home, so that she might be trained in accomplishments which were rare in Scotland.

In France she grew up at the court of Catherine de’ Medici, that imperious intriguer whose splendid surroundings were tainted with the corruption which she had brought from her native Italy. It was, indeed, a singular training-school for a girl of Mary Stuart’s character. She saw about her a superficial chivalry and a most profound depravity. Poets like Ronsard graced the life of the court with exquisite verse. Troubadours and minstrels sang sweet music there. There were fetes and tournaments and gallantry of bearing; yet, on the other hand, there was every possible refinement and variety of vice. Men were slain before the eyes of the queen herself. The talk of the court was of intrigue and lust and evil things which often verged on crime. Catherine de’ Medici herself kept her nominal husband at arm’s-length; and in order to maintain her grasp on France she connived at the corruption of her own children, three of whom were destined in their turn to sit upon the throne.

Mary Stuart grew up in these surroundings until she was sixteen, eating the fruit which gave a knowledge of both good and evil. Her intelligence was very great. She quickly learned Italian, French, and Latin. She was a daring horsewoman. She was a poet and an artist even in her teens. She was also a keen judge of human motives, for those early years of hers had forced her into a womanhood that was premature but wonderful. It had been proposed that she should marry the eldest son of Catherine, so that in time the kingdom of Scotland and that of France might be united, while if Elizabeth of England were to die unmarried her realm also would fall to this pair of children.

And so Mary, at sixteen, wedded the Dauphin Francis, who was a year her junior. The prince was a wretched, whimpering little creature, with a cankered body and a blighted soul. Marriage with such a husband seemed absurd. It never was a marriage in reality. The sickly child would cry all night, for he suffered from abscesses in his ears, and his manhood had been prematurely taken from him. Nevertheless, within a twelvemonth the French king died and Mary Stuart was Queen of France as well as of Scotland, hampered only by her nominal obedience to the sick boy whom she openly despised. At seventeen she showed herself a master spirit. She held her own against the ambitious Catherine de’ Medici, whom she contemptuously nicknamed “the apothecary’s daughter.” For the brief period of a year she was actually the ruler of France; but then her husband died and she was left a widow, restless, ambitious, and yet no longer having any of the power she loved.

Mary Stuart at this time had become a woman whose fascination was exerted over all who knew her. She was very tall and very slim, with chestnut hair, “like a flower of the heat, both lax and delicate.” Her skin was fair and pale, so clear and so transparent as to make the story plausible that when she drank from a flask of wine, the red liquid could be seen passing down her slender throat.

Yet with all this she was not fine in texture, but hardy as a man. She could endure immense fatigue without yielding to it. Her supple form had the strength of steel. There was a gleam in her hazel eyes that showed her to be brimful of an almost fierce vitality. Young as she was, she was the mistress of a thousand arts, and she exhaled a sort of atmosphere that turned the heads of men. The Stuart blood made her impatient of control, careless of state, and easy-mannered. The French and the Tudor strain gave her vivacity. She could be submissive in appearance while still persisting in her aims. She could be languorous and seductive while cold within. Again, she could assume the haughtiness which belonged to one who was twice a queen.

Two motives swayed her, and they fought together for supremacy. One was the love of power, and the other was the love of love. The first was natural to a girl who was a sovereign in her own right. The second was inherited, and was then forced into a rank luxuriance by the sort of life that she had seen about her. At eighteen she was a strangely amorous creature, given to fondling and kissing every one about her, with slight discrimination. From her sense of touch she received emotions that were almost necessary to her existence. With her slender, graceful hands she was always stroking the face of some favorite–it might be only the face of a child, or it might be the face of some courtier or poet, or one of the four Marys whose names are linked with hers– Mary Livingstone, Mary Fleming, Mary Beaton, and Mary Seton, the last of whom remained with her royal mistress until her death.

But one must not be too censorious in thinking of Mary Stuart. She was surrounded everywhere by enemies. During her stay in France she was hated by the faction of Catherine de’ Medici. When she returned to Scotland she was hated because of her religion by the Protestant lords. Her every action was set forth in the worst possible light. The most sinister meaning was given to everything she said or did. In truth, we must reject almost all the stories which accuse her of anything more than a certain levity of conduct.

She was not a woman to yield herself in love’s last surrender unless her intellect and heart alike had been made captive. She would listen to the passionate outpourings of poets and courtiers, and she would plunge her eyes into theirs, and let her hair just touch their faces, and give them her white hands to kiss–but that was all. Even in this she was only following the fashion of the court where she was bred, and she was not unlike her royal relative, Elizabeth of England, who had the same external amorousness coupled with the same internal self-control.

Mary Stuart’s love life makes a piteous story, for it is the life of one who was ever seeking–seeking for the man to whom she could look up, who could be strong and brave and ardent like herself, and at the same time be more powerful and more steadfast even than she herself in mind and thought. Whatever may be said of her, and howsoever the facts may be colored by partisans, this royal girl, stung though she was by passion and goaded by desire, cared nothing for any man who could not match her in body and mind and spirit all at once.

It was in her early widowhood that she first met the man, and when their union came it brought ruin on them both. In France there came to her one day one of her own subjects, the Earl of Bothwell. He was but a few years older than she, and in his presence for the first time she felt, in her own despite, that profoundly moving, indescribable, and never-to-be-forgotten thrill which shakes a woman to the very center of her being, since it is the recognition of a complete affinity.

Lord Bothwell, like Queen Mary, has been terribly maligned. Unlike her, he has found only a few defenders. Maurice Hewlett has drawn a picture of him more favorable than many, and yet it is a picture that repels. Bothwell, says he, was of a type esteemed by those who pronounce vice to be their virtue. He was “a galliard, flushed with rich blood, broad-shouldered, square-jawed, with a laugh so happy and so prompt that the world, rejoicing to hear it, thought all must be well wherever he might be. He wore brave clothes, sat a brave horse, and kept brave company bravely. His high color, while it betokened high feeding, got him the credit of good health. His little eyes twinkled so merrily that you did not see they were like a pig’s, sly and greedy at once, and bloodshot. His tawny beard concealed a jaw underhung, a chin jutting and dangerous. His mouth had a cruel twist; but his laughing hid that too. The bridge of his nose had been broken; few observed it, or guessed at the brawl which must have given it to him. Frankness was his great charm, careless ease in high places.”

And so, when Mary Stuart first met him in her eighteenth year, Lord Bothwell made her think as she had never thought of any other man, and as she was not to think of any other man again. She grew to look eagerly for the frank mockery “in those twinkling eyes, in that quick mouth"; and to wonder whether it was with him always– asleep, at prayers, fighting, furious, or in love.

Something more, however, must be said of Bothwell. He was undoubtedly a roisterer, but he was very much a man. He made easy love to women. His sword leaped quickly from its sheath. He could fight, and he could also think. He was no brawling ruffian, no ordinary rake. Remembering what Scotland was in those days, Bothwell might well seem in reality a princely figure. He knew Italian; he was at home in French; he could write fluent Latin. He was a collector of books and a reader of them also. He was perhaps the only Scottish noble of his time who had a book-plate of his own. Here is something more than a mere reveler. Here is a man of varied accomplishments and of a complex character.

Though he stayed but a short time near the queen in France, he kindled her imagination, so that when she seriously thought of men she thought of Bothwell. And yet all the time she was fondling the young pages in her retinue and kissing her maids of honor with her scarlet lips, and lying on their knees, while poets like Ronsard and Chastelard wrote ardent love sonnets to her and sighed and pined for something more than the privilege of kissing her two dainty hands.

In 1561, less than a year after her widowhood, Mary set sail for Scotland, never to return. The great high-decked ships which escorted her sailed into the harbor of Leith, and she pressed on to Edinburgh. A depressing change indeed from the sunny terraces and fields of France! In her own realm were fog and rain and only a hut to shelter her upon her landing. When she reached her capital there were few welcoming cheers; but as she rode over the cobblestones to Holyrood, the squalid wynds vomited forth great mobs of hard-featured, grim-visaged men and women who stared with curiosity and a half-contempt at the girl queen and her retinue of foreigners.

The Scots were Protestants of the most dour sort, and they distrusted their new ruler because of her religion and because she loved to surround herself with dainty things and bright colors and exotic elegance. They feared lest she should try to repeal the law of Scotland’s Parliament which had made the country Protestant.

The very indifference of her subjects stirred up the nobler part of Mary’s nature. For a time she was indeed a queen. She governed wisely. She respected the religious rights of her Protestant subjects. She strove to bring order out of the chaos into which her country had fallen. And she met with some success. The time came when her people cheered her as she rode among them. Her subtle fascination was her greatest source of strength. Even John Knox, that iron-visaged, stentorian preacher, fell for a time under the charm of her presence. She met him frankly and pleaded with him as a woman, instead of commanding him as a queen. The surly ranter became softened for a time, and, though he spoke of her to others as “Honeypot,” he ruled his tongue in public. She had offers of marriage from Austrian and Spanish princes. The new King of France, her brother-in-law, would perhaps have wedded her. It mattered little to Mary that Elizabeth of England was hostile. She felt that she was strong enough to hold her own and govern Scotland.

But who could govern a country such as Scotland was? It was a land of broils and feuds, of clan enmities and fierce vendettas. Its nobles were half barbarous, and they fought and slashed at one another with drawn dirks almost in the presence of the queen herself. No matter whom she favored, there rose up a swarm of enemies. Here was a Corsica of the north, more savage and untamed than even the other Corsica.

In her perplexity Mary felt a woman’s need of some man on whom she would have the right to lean, and whom she could make king consort. She thought that she had found him in the person of her cousin, Lord Darnley, a Catholic, and by his upbringing half an Englishman. Darnley came to Scotland, and for the moment Mary fancied that she had forgotten Bothwell. Here again she was in love with love, and she idealized the man who came to give it to her. Darnley seemed, indeed, well worthy to be loved, for he was tall and handsome, appearing well on horseback and having some of the accomplishments which Mary valued.

It was a hasty wooing, and the queen herself was first of all the wooer. Her quick imagination saw in Darnley traits and gifts of which he really had no share. Therefore, the marriage was soon concluded, and Scotland had two sovereigns, King Henry and Queen Mary. So sure was Mary of her indifference to Bothwell that she urged the earl to marry, and he did marry a girl of the great house of Gordon.

Mary’s self-suggested love for Darnley was extinguished almost on her wedding-night. The man was a drunkard who came into her presence befuddled and almost bestial. He had no brains. His vanity was enormous. He loved no one but himself, and least of all this queen, whom he regarded as having thrown herself at his empty head.

The first-fruits of the marriage were uprisings among the Protestant lords. Mary then showed herself a heroic queen. At the head of a motley band of soldiery who came at her call–half- clad, uncouth, and savage–she rode into the west, sleeping at night upon the bare ground, sharing the camp food, dressed in plain tartan, but swift and fierce as any eagle. Her spirit ran like fire through the veins of those who followed her. She crushed the insurrection, scattered its leaders, and returned in triumph to her capital.

Now she was really queen, but here came in the other motive which was interwoven in her character. She had shown herself a man in courage. Should she not have the pleasures of a woman? To her court in Holyrood came Bothwell once again, and this time Mary knew that he was all the world to her. Darnley had shrunk from the hardships of battle. He was steeped in low intrigues. He roused the constant irritation of the queen by his folly and utter lack of sense and decency. Mary felt she owed him nothing, but she forgot that she owed much to herself.

Her old amorous ways came back to her, and she relapsed into the joys of sense. The scandal-mongers of the capital saw a lover in every man with whom she talked. She did, in fact, set convention at defiance. She dressed in men’s clothing. She showed what the unemotional Scots thought to be unseemly levity. The French poet, Chastelard, misled by her external signs of favor, believed himself to be her choice. At the end of one mad revel he was found secreted beneath her bed, and was driven out by force. A second time he ventured to secrete himself within the covers of the bed. Then he was dragged forth, imprisoned, and condemned to death. He met his fate without a murmur, save at the last when he stood upon the scaffold and, gazing toward the palace, cried in French:

“Oh, cruel queen! I die for you!”

Another favorite, the Italian, David Rizzio, or Riccio, in like manner wrote love verses to the queen, and she replied to them in kind; but there is no evidence that she valued him save for his ability, which was very great. She made him her foreign secretary, and the man whom he supplanted worked on the jealousy of Darnley; so that one night, while Mary and Rizzio were at dinner in a small private chamber, Darnley and the others broke in upon her. Darnley held her by the waist while Rizzio was stabbed before her eyes with a cruelty the greater because the queen was soon to become a mother.

From that moment she hated Darnley as one would hate a snake. She tolerated him only that he might acknowledge her child as his son. This child was the future James VI. of Scotland and James I. of England. It is recorded of him that never throughout his life could he bear to look upon drawn steel.

After this Mary summoned Bothwell again and again. It was revealed to her as in a blaze of light that, after all, he was the one and only man who could be everything to her. His frankness, his cynicism, his mockery, his carelessness, his courage, and the power of his mind matched her moods completely. She threw away all semblance of concealment. She ignored the fact that he had married at her wish. She was queen. She desired him. She must have him at any cost.

“Though I lose Scotland and England both,” she cried in a passion of abandonment, “I shall have him for my own!”

Bothwell, in his turn, was nothing loath, and they leaped at each other like two flames.

It was then that Mary wrote those letters which were afterward discovered in a casket and which were used against her when she was on trial for her life. These so-called Casket Letters, though we have not now the originals, are among the most extraordinary letters ever written. All shame, all hesitation, all innocence, are flung away in them. The writer is so fired with passion that each sentence is like a cry to a lover in the dark. As De Peyster says: “In them the animal instincts override and spur and lash the pen.” Mary was committing to paper the frenzied madness of a woman consumed to her very marrow by the scorching blaze of unedurable desire.

Events moved quickly. Darnley, convalescent from an attack of smallpox, was mysteriously destroyed by an explosion of gunpowder. Bothwell was divorced from his young wife on curious grounds. A dispensation allowed Mary to wed a Protestant, and she married Bothwell three months after Darnley’s death.

Here one sees the consummation of what had begun many years before in France. From the moment that she and Bothwell met, their union was inevitable. Seas could not sunder them. Other loves and other fancies were as nothing to them. Even the bonds of marriage were burst asunder so that these two fiery, panting souls could meet.

It was the irony of fate that when they had so met it was only to be parted. Mary’s subjects, outraged by her conduct, rose against her. As she passed through the streets of Edinburgh the women hurled after her indecent names. Great banners were raised with execrable daubs representing the murdered Darnley. The short and dreadful monosyllable which is familiar to us in the pages of the Bible was hurled after her wherever she went.

With Bothwell by her side she led a wild and ragged horde of followers against the rebellious nobles, whose forces met her at Carberry Hill. Her motley followers melted away, and Mary surrendered to the hostile chieftains, who took her to the castle at Lochleven. There she became the mother of twins–a fact that is seldom mentioned by historians. These children were the fruit of her union with Bothwell. From this time forth she cared but little for herself, and she signed, without great reluctance, a document by which she abdicated in favor of her infant son.

Even in this place of imprisonment, however, her fascination had power to charm. Among those who guarded her, two of the Douglas family–George Douglas and William Douglas–for love of her, effected her escape. The first attempt failed. Mary, disguised as a laundress, was betrayed by the delicacy of her hands. But a second attempt was successful. The queen passed through a postern gate and made her way to the lake, where George Douglas met her with a boat. Crossing the lake, fifty horsemen under Lord Claude Hamilton gave her their escort and bore her away in safety.

But Mary was sick of Scotland, for Bothwell could not be there. She had tasted all the bitterness of life, and for a few months all the sweetness; but she would have no more of this rough and barbarous country. Of her own free will she crossed the Solway into England, to find herself at once a prisoner.

Never again did she set eyes on Bothwell. After the battle of Carberry Hill he escaped to the north, gathered some ships together, and preyed upon English merchantmen, very much as a pirate might have done. Ere long, however, when he had learned of Mary’s fate, he set sail for Norway. King Frederick of Denmark made him a prisoner of state. He was not confined within prison walls, however, but was allowed to hunt and ride in the vicinity of Malmo Castle and of Dragsholm. It is probably in Malmo Castle that he died. In 1858 a coffin which was thought to be the coffin of the earl was opened, and a Danish artist sketched the head– which corresponds quite well with the other portraits of the ill- fated Scottish noble.

It is a sad story. Had Mary been less ambitious when she first met Bothwell, or had he been a little bolder, they might have reigned together and lived out their lives in the plenitude of that great love which held them both in thrall. But a queen is not as other women; and she found too late that the teaching of her heart was, after all, the truest teaching. She went to her death as Bothwell went to his, alone, in a strange, unfriendly land.

Yet, even this, perhaps, was better so. It has at least touched both their lives with pathos and has made the name of Mary Stuart one to be remembered throughout all the ages.


The Story of Antony and Cleopatra  •  Abelard and Heloise  •  Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester  •  Mary Queen of Scots and Lord Bothwell  •  Queen Christina of Sweden and the Marquis Monaldeschi  •  King Charles II. and Nell Gwyn  •  Maurice of Saxony and Adrienne Lecouvreur

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