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The Scot Abroad
Chapter 4 - Queen Mary - Part 1


The Birth of Queen Mary—French Writers on her Life and Character—Her Influence on the Fate of Europe—Catherine of Medici.—Their Strife— Mary’s Bequest to Philip—The apparent Supremacy of the Old League—The Underworkings that were destroying it—French Government in Scotland—Reaction—Recent Revelations—The Reformation in Scotland, and how it came about—The Winding-up.

ON the 7th of December in the year 1542 was born the infant afterwards renowned over the world as Mary Queen of Scots. The heir to the throne of England was a boy five years older — Edward, the son of her grand - uncle, Henry VIII. They were in the degree of what is called first and second cousins. Nothing seemed so rational as that these two should be united, and so heal the wounds of two bleeding countries. It was indeed so extremely reasonable, that Henry VIII., to prevent any possibility of its falling through, resolved to effect it at once by force—the most dangerous of all means for accomplishing any object with the Scots. He demanded the personal custody of the royal child; and when this was refused, he restored the old claims of superiority, and sent an army to fetch her. Here again history is overloaded with the cruel feats of one exterminating army following on the heels of another, and all set to their bloody work because their passionate tyrant had resolved to cut the child out of the very heart of her people. He had almost accomplished his object, and Scotland seemed but a step from annexation, when, on the 16th of June 1548, strange sails were seen in the Firth of Forth, and, to the joy of high and low, the Sieur d’Essé, a tried soldier, landed with a small army in the pay of France, accompanied by a field-train of unusual strength for the times. These men were of all nations—soldiers by trade, and ready to fight for any paymaster. They were well accustomed, of course, to all sort of scenes of ruffianism; but they had yet to know, and they did so with some twinges of revulsion, the ferocity imparted to those who fight for their homes against the invader. When the mercenaries took prisoners from the English, they were of course ready to sell them, by way of ransom, to the highest bidder—friend or enemy. The highest bidders were in many instances the Scots, who thus invested their scant supply of money that they might have the gratification of putting the hated invaders to death. These were symptoms of a spirit that snapped at once all the ties of diplomacy and royal alliances. The great object now was how to render Henry’s object impossible. This was done by spiriting the royal infant off to France—a feat skilfully and gallantly accomplished with the assistance of the French vessels.

We now approach the time when the destinies of Europe depended on the character and actions of three women—a sort of three Fates who spun and cut the threads of nations. These were Catherine of Medici, Queen Elizabeth, and Mary of Scotland. It is with the last that we have chiefly to do here. The story of the alliance between France and Scotland had reached its climax when both had the same queen. Her influence on the two nations is not alone historical: it has affected the tenor of French literature, and the eye with which it has regarded Scotland; and in this respect the position of the two countries towards each other can be exemplified among the people of our own generation.

French authors have indeed lately thrown themselves, with their natural impetuosity, on the great problems of Mary’s character and actions. And though we claim credit for more coolness and historical impartiality than our neighbours, yet it may be that those qualities which we count defects in them, enable them to take a more genial and natural view of such a nature as hers. With nothing but our plain black and white to paint with, we are unable to impart to our picture the rich blending of hues which harmonises the light with the shade, and imparts a general richness to the tone of the composition throughout. It will require a hardish course of reading in the Causes Célébres, the Mémoires, and the recent school of French novels, to give a native of this country a conception of the assimilation of French people’s thoughts to such a topic—to let one see how thoroughly, and almost devoutly, they would relish the story of her beauty, her wit, her lively vitality, her marvellous capacity for fathoming the human heart, her equally marvellous power of allurement, and her perfect good sense, good taste, and good-humour. And indeed these qualities were rather enhanced than blotted by the one prevailing weakness—a submission to the empire of the master passion so entire, that under its relentless rule no duty to God or man was powerful enough in restraint; and if such a thing as the life of a wretched poltroon calling himself husband stood in the way,—why, let it go. When we convince ourselves, as in the story of Chatelar, that the resources of the syren’s fascinations are drawn upon to awaken wild hopeless love in a poor youth until he is driven frantic, and rushes into such scrapes that he must be killed out of the way, we get angry and use hard words, instead of looking at the affair in a purely artistic aspect. Hence one set of our writers will have it that she was a meek and injured angel, the other that she was a remorseless and cruel demon.

Unless Mr Froude is to be counted an exception, our writers have made coarse work of this delicate historical morsel. We cannot enter into the spirit of that long, patient, noble supplice—we have not a word for it in our own language — which dignifies guilt. Once believing in what we call the guilt, we cast the unclean thing away, and will give it no place in our heart. It is very difficult for us, indeed, to understand how lightly murder would lie on a conscience trained under the shadow of Catherine of Medici, and how consistently a laxness about it might coexist with beauty, gentleness, and kindness. The ethics, indeed, which ruled that court were deeper and more devilish than anything of native-born French origin. They were Italian— the views which the Borgias practised, and Machiavelli taught. Among the small states of their native growth they might be used for the slaughtering of half a village, or the poisoning-off of a family: imported to the mighty kingdom of France, their fruit expanded into the great battle of St Bartholomew’s Day. The Florentine’s precepts were intended for the private use of the Medici family; and there was something so self-contradictory in their publication to the world, that he was supposed to be in jest, like Swift with his advice to servants; for it is the ruling spirit of all such policy that it is personal to the owner, hidden within the dark recesses of his own breast, and concealed for use against the scrutiny of the keenest adversary. There was no better place of concealment for it than behind youth, beauty, genial courtesy, and gaiety of heart.

In addition to a more genial appreciation of the nature of the heroine, the French were placed in a better position to see the whole expanse of the stage on which she acted. Our own historians, dealing with but a corner of the world, are not prepared duly to estimate the expansive scene which Mary’s peculiar position opened up. I propose, in a few words, before winding up the "Ancient League," to sketch the chief conditions of which she was in the several steps of her career the centre.

It was not alone her queenly rank, her extraordinary beauty, and her mental gifts, even accompanied as these were by the more potent gift of an irresistible seductiveness, that gave her the influence she held over her age, as the manner in which these fine court cards were played. They happened to be in the hand, or rather in the several hands, of a house which counted within its own family circle a group of the most accomplished, daring, and successful political gamesters of the day. The fortune which made Mary the daughter of a Guise, put a character on the events of the time. Had she been the daughter of her father’s first wife, poor gentle Madeleine of Valois, whatever destinies might have awaited her, it is not likely that they would have been so high. It was not the greatness of her mother’s family, but its characteristic of being a pushing rising family, that gave her name its wide influence. During that period and for some time later—so late, indeed, as the construction of the Prussian kingdom — the regal duchies which fell into the hands of clever ambitious families had a way of expanding into kingdoms and empires. The King of France represented but a Duke of Paris, and the Czar a Duke of Muscovia. It seemed clear to contemporaries that the Guises of Lorraine were to aggrandise themselves into a royal house. They fell by their too eagerly grasping at a great crown, and the ambition that o’erleaps its sell. Their aim was to rule over France, if not farther; and how near they were to accomplishing that object we can only now judge by looking back on that age by the light of the present, in which the experiment which was then made, but failed, has been successful.

What the Buonaparte dynasty has done for itself, was in fact pretty nearly anticipated by the dynasty of Guise. It is extremely interesting to compare, at the two extremes of such a stretch of time, conditions so unlike in their mere external and incidental characteristics, yet possessing so much unity in their real essence. There was the same restlessness and fickleness among all classes of the French people, the same vibration between anarchy and abject submission, the same insane determination to drive the one principle uppermost for the time to its most relentless conclusions; and, what is more to the point, the same thirsting for it leader brave, strong, relentless, and successful. Since the tide turned against Francis I.—since the date of the battle of Pavia, we may say—the French were losing conceit of the house of Valois. They did not satisfy the national craving for brilliancy and success, for the satisfaction of which Frenchmen will at once cheerfully abandon their liberties. France, indeed, was waning in the eyes of Europe before the rising influence of Spain and England, the great representatives of the two contending forces of the age. She thus continued in imminent peril of revolution, until Henry IV. gave the crown the lustre of heroism. Immediately afterwards Richelien handed over a well-drilled territory to Louis XIV., by whose brilliant career of victories and unjust aggrandisements the lease was effectually renewed, and the Revolution postponed.

Le Balafré, or the Scarred, the head of the Guises, had in the period of weakness and despondency performed the one redeeming achievement which was glorious to his countrymen, in the capture of Calais from the English. He was the most popular man of his day, and he knew how by a subtle diplomacy to make that as well as every other element of his strength tell. There can be no doubt that he was the supreme guiding spirit in that bold movement by which the precious infant was spirited out of Scotland, and carried far beyond the reach of Henry VIII., and the influence of his plans for uniting England and Scotland under his son and her. The next great step was her marriage with the Dauphin. Fortune favoured them mightily at one stroke, when Montgomery poked out the eye of Henry II. in the tilt-yard. A member of the house of Guise was now Queen of France. It does not seem probable that then they looked to sovereignty in France. They were but increasing their power by every feasible means that offered, and the displacement of their niece’s husband was not to be so defined. Indeed, it is not likely that the Balafré himself ever thought of the throne of France. It was on his more unscrupulous and restless son that that consummation of their power seems to have dawned.

To the world in general it seemed as if all this fabric of power had toppled down at once with the death of the poor feeble King of France. Queen of France and Queen of Scotland—the two things were as far apart in power and brilliancy as the palace from the cottage, and the latter now only remained. To these restless and ambitious spirits, however, the game was by no means up. The court card was still in their hands to be played again; and though they lost the fortune that seemed secured, there were others even greater within the range of possibilities. No time was lost before their busy brains were at work devising a new alliance. The several available monarchs and heirs to thrones were scrutinised. Denmark and some of the smaller German states were lightly passed over by an eye that looked ever upwards, and at last rested on the supreme pinnacle of European power—the Spanish empire. It was there that whatever France lost had been gained. It was the empire whose monarch boasted that the sun never set on his dominions. As his ambassador Don Ferdinand de Mandosa put it, "God was supreme in heaven, but the King of Spain was supreme on earth." He had brought under his feet the independent states of Spain, snatched Portugal, ruled the greater part of Italy; and though the Dutch were then working out their independence, they were, in the eye of Spain and the greater part of Europe, merely a handful of rebels struggling in a swamp, and earning for themselves condign punishment. He crushed the Moors, and in the conflict afterwards crowned at Lepanto he had proved himself the champion and protector of Christendom against the domineering Turk.

To preserve a full impression of the mighty position of Spain under Philip II., it is necessary to remember that the revival of the Empire was the aim of every great Continental power. Spain seemed marching on to this high destiny. France was thrown out in the misfortunes of Francis I. Germany, though nominally in possession of the Caesarship, had not throughout her scattered states concentrated power to give it vitality. The greatness of England was of another kind—a fresh growth, totally apart from the remains of the imperial system, and supported by the separate vitality of its energetic, free, industrious people. Thus the Spanish monarch had no effective rival in the ambitious course which he was slowly, but cunningly and resolutely, pursuing; and when he finally succeeded, his would be a greater empire than ever Roman eagle soared above: for had there not been found a new world on the other side of the Atlantic—the yet undeveloped empire called "the Indies"?

What a position, then, for these ambitious princes of Lorraine, could they get their niece, with her possession of Scotland and her claims to the succession of England, made Queen of Spain! With such sources of influence in their hands, it would go hard but that the head of the house of Lorraine ruled in France, be it as Mayor of the Palace, as deputy of the Emperor of Europe, or as actual King. And then there was the Empire itself to look forward to.

It is significant of the reach of their ambition that the great Duke, when, as head of the League, he was more powerful than any contemporary monarch except the King of Spain, had it spoken of that he was a descendant of Charlemagne. The pedigree was not very accurate, but it was as good as that which served the turn of the Lorraine Hapsburgs. The spirit of his policy is reflected in the ‘Argenis’ of Barclay, who was a keen observe; and designed to leave behind him in his book a closer view of the inner intricacies of the statecraft of the age than the common histories afforded. He wanted to do the difficult duty of speaking to posterity without letting his own generation hear what he said, and so he wove his revelations into a ponderous allegory. In his Lycogenes, however, the great Duke was at once recognised. His talk is exactly that of his position and views. He is not himself a king, but is at the head of a kingly family. So, when a relation, in the course of some flattering talk, rails against monarchs, Lycogenes rebukes him: None should govern but those of kingly race; but they should not be absolutely hereditary; there should be a choice, and the best man among them should get each vacant throne—precisely the doctrine to suit his position and views. It has often been maintained that he was not sincere in the Popish fanaticism which he professed. He knew, however that the Pontificate and the Empire were necessary to each other as the two orbs of one system—Pope and Emperor being as natural a conjunction as Church and King.

Accordingly a marriage was projected, and all but concluded, with Don Carlos, the heir to the Spanish crown. The project suited admirably with the ambitious notions of Philip II. In fact, like the Guises on the death of King Francis, he had just lost by death the hold he had on England through his marriage with Henry VIII’s daughter Mary; and here was another available in its place; for with all the Roman Catholics there was no doubt that Queen Mary of Scotland was the true heiress of the throne of England, and that the overthrow of Elizabeth the usurper was to be brought about by Providence in its own good time, with such judicious aid from the sword as Philip was able and very willing to supply.

There was a dark and subtle spirit, however, which in close quarters might come to be more powerful than the Guises or the King of Spain either dead against the match. This was our friend Catherine of Medici, the mother-in-law of Mary. The motives of this terrible woman have been an enigma to historians. And yet there is a view of them simple enough, which tallies pretty well with the facts of history: it is, that she had no scruples of any kind, and let nothing stand between her and her object. If lies could accomplish her object, tell them; if life were in the way, out with it, by bullet, steel, or poison, as may be most convenient, considering time and purpose. Her policy was an engine to be kept going, though nothing but human blood should be available for working it; and as to the nature of her policy, it was not that of despotism or of liberty, of the Church of Rome or of freedom of conscience, but the enjoyment of self-centred power. It seems to add a new shade to one of the darkest pictures of human wickedness, to say that the author of the Massacre of St Bartholomew had no fanaticism or religious zeal in her; but so it was. As to Philip, he was a thorough bigot, who consoled himself on his deathbed by reflecting on the numbers he had put to death, and the quantity of human agony he had inflicted for the sake of the Church; but as to his rival in bloodshed and cruelty, she would have become a Huguenot or a Mohammedan could it have served her purpose. At a celebrated conference at Bayonne, on the frontier, whither she went professedly to meet her daughter, she met also with the Duke of Alva and other historic personages. It was a general opinion that there, in dark conclave, a league was formed for the extirpation of the Protestants, of which Catherine honestly observed her part on St Bartholomew’s Day. But in their recently published state papers the French Government have given the world a full and particular account of the sayings and doings at this conference, and represent to us Catherine cool and politic, sarcastic almost, at the fiery enthusiasm of Spain, and absolutely charged with a secret partiality towards the Huguenots.


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