She had arranged to arrive in Scotland a fortnight before she was expected, for she had feared some opposition to her landing. But word of her arrival at Leith spread through the capital, and soon the streets were crowded with people. They were surprised to find that their Queen was a pretty and vivacious girl not yet nineteen years old; most of them cheered her as she rode gracefully on her palfrey to Holyrood Palace; and there the lords, Protestant and Catholic, welcomed her, proud that Scotland had so charming a ruler, who might someday, in person or through a son, bring England under a Scottish sovereign.

The two portraits8 that have come down to us support her reputation as one of the most beautiful women of her time. We cannot tell how far the now nameless painters idealized her, but in both cases we see the finely molded features, the lovely hands, the luxuriant chestnut hair that entranced barons and biographers. Yet those pictures hardly reveal to us the real attractiveness of the young Queen—her buoyant spirit, her “laughing mouth,” her nimble-witted speech, her fresh enthusiasm, her capacity for kindness and friendliness, her longing for affection, her reckless admiration of strong men. It was her tragedy that she wished to be a woman as well as a queen—to feel all the warmth of romance without abating the privileges of rule. She thought of herself in terms of chivalric tales—of proud yet gentle beauties, at once chaste and sensuous, capable of ardent longing and sensitive suffering, of tender pity, incorruptible loyalty, and a courage rising as danger rose. She was an expert horsewoman, leaped fences and ditches rashly, and could bear the hardship of campaigns without weariness or complaint. But she was neither physically nor mentally fit to be a queen. She was frail in all but nervous vigor, she was subject to fainting fits that looked like epilepsy, and some undiagnosed ailment often hampered her with pain.9 She had not the masculine intelligence of Elizabeth. She was often clever, but rarely wise; repeatedly she let passion ruin diplomacy. At times she showed remarkable self-control, patience, and tact, and then again she would let go with hot temper and sharp tongue. She was cursed with beauty, unblessed with brains; and her character was her fate.

She tried hard to meet the manifold dangers of her situation, poised between grasping lords, hostile preachers and a decadent Catholic clergy that did no honor to her trusting faith. She chose as leaders of her Privy Council two Protestants: her bastard half-brother Lord James Stuart, later Earl of Murray (or Moray), aged twenty-six, and William Maitland of Lethington, thirty-six, who had more intellect than his character could handle, and who shifted from side to side in compromises till his death. The goal of Lethington’s diplomacy was admirable—the union of England and Scotland as the only alternative to a consuming hostility. In May of 1562 Mary sent him to England to arrange an interview between herself and Elizabeth; Elizabeth consented, but her Council demurred, fearing that even the most indirect admission of Mary’s claim to the succession would encourage Catholic attempts to assassinate Elizabeth. The two queens corresponded with diplomatic affection, while each sought to play cat to the other’s mouse.

Mary’s first three years of rule were a success in everything but religion. Though she could never reconcile herself to the climate or the culture of Scotland, she sought, with dances, masques, and charm, to make Holyrood Palace a little Paris in a subarctic zone, and most of the lords thawed under the sun of her gaiety; Knox growled that they were bewitched. She allowed Murray and Lethington to administer the kingdom, which they did reasonably well. For a time even the religious problem seemed to be solved by her concessions. When papal agents urged her to restore Catholicism as the official religion of the land she replied that this was at present impossible; Elizabeth would forcibly intervene. To appease the Scottish Protestants she issued (August 26, 1561) a proclamation forbidding the Catholics to attempt changes in the established religion, but she asked to be allowed to practice her own worship privately and to have Mass said for her in the royal chapel.10 On Sunday, August 24, Mass was there celebrated. A few Protestants gathered outside and demanded that “the idolatrous priest should die”;11 but Murray barred their entry into the chapel, while his aides led the priest to safety. On the following Sunday Knox denounced the lords for permitting the Mass, and told his congregation that to him one Mass was more offense than ten thousand armed foes.12

The Queen sent for him and strove to win his tolerance. On September 4, in her palace, the two faiths met in a historic interview, whose details are known to us only from Knox’s report.13 She reproached him for having stirred up rebellion against the duly constituted authority of her mother, and for having written his “blast” against “the monstrous regiment of women”—which had denounced all female sovereigns. He answered that “if to rebuke idolatry be to raise subjects against their princes, then cannot I be excused, for it has pleased God … to make me one (amongst many) to disclose unto this realm the vanity of the papistical religions, and the deceit, pride, and tyranny of that Roman Antichrist,” the Pope. As for the blast, “Madam, that book was written most especially against that wicked Jezebel of England,” Mary Tudor. Knox’s report continues:

“Think ye (quod she) that subjects may resist their princes?”

“If (he [Knox] replied) their princes exceed their bounds … it is no doubt they may be resisted, even by power.”

… The Queen stood as it were amazed … At length she said:

“Well, then, I perceive that my subjects shall obey you, and not me.

“God forbid (answered he) that ever I take upon me to command any to obey me, or yet to let subjects at liberty to do what pleaseth them. But my travail is that both princes and subjects obey God … And this subjection, Madam, unto God and unto His troubled Church, is the greatest dignity that flesh can get upon this earth.”

“Yea (quod she), but ye are not the Kirk that I will nourish. I will defend the Kirk of Rome, for I think it is the true Kirk of God.”

“Your will (quod he), Madam, is no reason; neither doth your thought make that Roman harlot to be the true and immaculate spouse of Jesus Christ. And wonder not, Madam, that I call Rome a harlot, for that Church is altogether polluted with all kind of spiritual fornication …”

“My conscience (said she) is not so.”

If this conversation is faithfully reported, it was a dramatic confrontation of monarchy with theocratic democracy, of Catholicism with Calvinism. If we may believe Knox, the Queen took his reproofs without retaliation, merely saying, “Ye are oure sain [overmuch sore] for me”; she went off to dinner, and Knox to his ministry. Lethington wished “Mr. Knox would deal more gently with her, being a young princess unpersuaded.”14

His followers did not feel that he had been too hard with her. When she appeared in public some called her idolater, and children informed her that hearing Mass was a sin. The Edinburgh magistrates issued a decree of banishment for “monks, friars, priests, nuns, adulterers, and all sic filthy persons.”15 Mary deposed the magistrates and ordered new elections. At Stirling the priests who tried to minister to her were driven off with bloody heads, “while she wept helplessly.”16 The General Assembly of the Kirk demanded that she should be forbidden to hear Mass anywhere, but the lords of the Council refused to comply. In December 1561 a hot dispute arose between the Council and the Kirk over the distribution of ecclesiastical revenues: the Protestant ministers were allotted a sixth, the Queen a sixth, the Catholic clergy (still in the great majority) two thirds. Knox summarized the matter by saying that two parts were given to the Devil and the third was divided between the Devil and God.17 The ministers received, on an average, one hundred marks ($3,333?) per year.18

Throughout the ensuing year the clergy of the Kirk continued to denounce the Queen. They were scandalized by the masques and revels, the singing, dancing, and flirting, that went on at Mary’s court. She diminished her amusements in deference to the protests, but the ministers felt that she had yet far to go, for she still heard Mass. “John Knox,” wrote a contemporary, “thundereth out of the pulpit, so that I fear nothing so much as that one day he will mar all. He ruleth the roost, and of him all men stand in fear.”19 Here again the Reformation came to grips with the Renaissance.

On December 15, 1562, Mary summoned Knox. Before Murray, Lethington, and others she accused him of teaching his followers to hate her. He answered, he says, that “princes … are more exercised in fiddling and flinging than in reading or hearing of God’s most blessed word; and fiddlers and flatterers … are more precious in their eyes than men of wisdom and gravity, who, by wholesome admonition, might beat down in them some part of that vanity and pride whereunto all are born, but in princes take deep root and strength by wicked education.” According to Knox, the Queen replied (with unwonted meekness), “If ye hear anything of myself that mislikes you, come to myself and tell me, and I shall hear you”; and he answered, “I am called, Madam, to a public function within the Kirk of God, and was appointed by God to rebuke the sins and vices of all. I am not appointed to come to every man in particular to show him his offense, for that labor were infinite. If your Grace please to frequent the public sermons, then doubt I not but that ye shall fully understand both what I like and mislike.”20

She let him go in peace, but the war of faiths went on. At Easter of 1563 several Catholic priests who had violated the law by saying Mass were seized by local agents and were threatened with death for idolatry.21 Some were jailed, some escaped and hid in the woods. Mary sent for Knox once more and interceded for the imprisoned priests; he replied that if she would enforce the law he would guarantee Protestant docility; otherwise he thought the papists deserved a lesson. “I promise to do as you require,” she said, and for a moment they were friends. At her order the Archbishop of St. Andrews and forty-seven other priests were tried for saying Mass and were sentenced to prison. The ministers rejoiced, but a week later (May 26, 1563), when Mary and her ladies attended Parliament in their best raiment and some of the people cried “God bless that sweet face!” the ministers denounced “the targetting [tasseling] of their tails,” and Knox wrote, “Such stinking pride of women … was never seen before in Scotland.”22

Shortly thereafter he heard that Lethington was trying to arrange a marriage between Mary and Don Carlos, son of Philip II. Feeling that such a marriage would be fatal to Scottish Protestantism, Knox spoke his mind on the subject in a sermon preached to the nobles attending Parliament:

And now, my Lords, to put an end to all, I hear of the Queen’s marriage … This, my Lords, will I say: Whensoever the nobility of Scotland professing to Lord Jesus consents that an infidel (and all papists are infidels) shall be head to your sovereign, ye do so far as in ye lieth to banish Christ Jesus from this realm.23

The Queen lost her temper. She summoned him and asked (he reports), “What have ye to do with my marriage? Or what are ye in this commonwealth?” He made a famous reply: “A subject born within the same, madam. And albeit I neither be earl, lord, nor baron within it, yet has God made me (how abject that ever I be in your eyes) a profitable member within the same.”24 Mary broke into tears and bade him leave her.

His boldness reached its peak in October (1563). A crowd again gathered about the royal chapel to protest against the Mass that was about to be said there. Andrew Armstrong and Patrick Cranstoun entered the chapel and frightened the priest into retiring. The Queen, who had not been present, ordered the trial of the two Calvinists for invading her premises. On October 8 Knox sent out a letter bidding all “my brethren, of all estates [classes], that have preferred the truth,” to attend the trial. The Queen’s Council judged this call to be treason, and cited Knox to stand trial before her. He came (December 21, 1563), but so great a crowd of his supporters gathered in the courtyard and on the stairs and “even to the chamber door where the Queen and her Council sat,” and he defended himself so skillfully, that the Council acquitted him, and the Queen said, “Mr. Knox, you may return to your home for this night.” “I pray God,” he replied, “to purge your heart from papistry.”25

On Palm Sunday, 1564, the indomitable prophet, aged fifty-nine, married his second wife, Margaret Stuart, aged seventeen, a distant relative of the Queen. A year later the Queen too married a second time.

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