We speak to bestselling author, historian and broadcaster Kate Williams about her new book, Rival Queens: The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the need for a new, modern perspective
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Firstly, could you sum up for our readers what your book, Rival Queens: The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots, is all about?
My book is all about Mary, Queen of Scots, the betrayal and Elizabeth’s relationship with her, looking at how indeed Mary was undermined and set up to fail from the beginning.
Obviously, Elizabeth is a great queen and we rightly see a lot of what she did as effective, such as religious toleration, but Mary also attempted to do this and failed. I am fascinated by the story of two queens and one island and this incredible rivalry between them.
A lot of work has already been done on the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth. What inspired you to write this book?
I think I was so fascinated by the queenship aspect. We usually see Mary as a tragic queen or a failed queen but she did everything by the book, everything was textbook.
There was religious toleration and she listened to her ministers, but rather than just trying to undermine her like Elizabeth’s did by going behind her back, they tried to kidnap her and attack her. They staged power coups against her from the beginning and it really shows how hard it was to be a woman living in a man’s world.
Have you discovered anything new to this topic?
Well I think the role of her half-brother, James Stuart, Earl of Moray, has been underestimated and how he undermined Mary. It is clear that he is behind a lot of what goes wrong for her and that he had a large influence in the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley. In fact it was thought, at the time, that he had been rather overlooked and forgotten – he is definitely the evil genius in Mary’s life. I think that is my new contribution, apart from looking at Mary in terms of queenship, to see her as a successful queen rather than a failed queen and assess what James did and why as a consequence of that everything went wrong for her.
Do you believe that Mary could have kept her throne?
I think she could have kept her throne. After the death of her husband there was kind of an easy peace and things had settled down.
However, with Bothwell abducting and raping her, followed by their marriage, it really was the end. It is a complicated question because if he hadn’t abducted and raped Mary then someone else probably would have done and that brought her down.
I do think that at the end when she is imprisoned at Loch Leven and she escapes, Mary could have gotten power back since her half-brother was unpopular and there was a lot of dislike for him.
Unfortunately, she made the fatal error of going into England and trying to throw herself at Elizabeth to seek her help, which was a big mistake! Elizabeth didn’t want to get her throne back for her and really felt that she couldn’t because it would result in a long and difficult war against James in Scotland.
Cecil always saw Mary as a threat and he did a lot to undermine her relationship with Elizabeth. If he hadn’t interfered as much as he did, do you think Elizabeth could have done more to help her?
I think certainly Cecil did persuade Elizabeth not to help. She had sympathy for Mary and felt strongly that queens should be protected, but Cecil obviously thought Mary was part of the Catholic threat. Most of all, I think, is the fact that Elizabeth felt that if she executed Mary, she would undermine the specialness of all queens and that was a strong consideration with her – but I don’t think Cecil minded the specialness of all queens. He was happy that the state progressed the more Elizabeth lost power, and I think that definitely both him and parliament supported the decline of monarchical power. They were happy for Elizabeth to be there but they also undermined her and went behind her back. I do think that Cecil was particularly instrumental about undermining Mary and she even said, “I see you are my enemy.”
If Elizabeth completely had her way, Mary would have had more support but certainly Cecil’s terror was that he always felt that Elizabeth didn’t understand the Scottish threat and that she just didn’t see it.
Elizabeth feared that undermining queenship or the authority of a monarch would mean that she too could potentially lose her throne. Do you think Mary’s death set a precedent, considering that King Charles I was executed the following century?
I definitely think it set a precedent in every way and that was Elizabeth’s fear, that it did set a precedent for undermining the monarchy. The fact that you can put a queen on trial and execute her means that she is a mortal rather than a divine ruler and if you can take away her power, then you can keep on doing it. I think it opens the door for what happens with Charles I and I think Elizabeth knew that as well.
In many ways, the two queens were similar – so why did Elizabeth succeed and Mary didn’t?
I think there are two reasons. Elizabeth was surrounded by men that she had built up as loyal in her teenage years while Mary was sent to France where she had no one, no men to protect her, and she did not have that circle of male friends to build up. The other reason is that it was just such a different country, the lords in Scotland had been used to doing what they wanted for a long time and there was a lot of long-living feuds that went way back. There was also a lot more violence, I mean with Elizabeth they tried to undermine her by not telling her things and holding meetings without her, but they never would have dreamt of trying to kidnap her or trying to rape her, they just wouldn’t have done.
Yet there are people trying to kidnap Mary from the beginning so I think they were clearly two very different countries. To all the men around Mary, even though she was a great queen, even though she was royal and rich and much taller than them, she was still just a woman and they could reduce her in the same way that they could reduce all women.
In Rival Queens, you offer a new, modern perspective on Mary rather than the complicit queen, responsible for her own downfall, or the victim of the machinations of those around her. Do you think this is long overdue?
I think it is, we are reassessing sexual assault now – once upon a time it seemed to be the case that you could only get a conviction if it had been a stranger that you had never met before or saw again, who used violence and you fought back. Now, we are increasingly recognising that in a lot of sexual assaults women freeze or they don’t fight back because they want to preserve their life or they know the person – Mary went with Bothwell because she trusted him, he had many more men, and she believed he would look after her.
Before, we might have said ‘well what did she think was going to happen?’. But now we would say that Mary trusted him, that you have to trust people, and that because Bothwell took everything from her, she felt she had no choice but to marry him. I do think that although Me Too is a modern movement, there were people in the period that did understand this went on, that men would groom or capture women, get them in the wrong position and then exploit them.
I think we do need a perspective on sexual assault in history, one that recognises how it was seen back then.
Everyone agreed that Mary was raped, I mean she said it, the men around her said it, even Bothwell said it! They all agreed it happened but it is interesting that since then, there has been this argument that it didn’t happen because she didn’t scream her head off when it happened. You know it is funny that sometimes we are told that rape cannot be prosecuted because it is her word against his, she said she was raped while he says it was consensual but in Mary’s case, she said he did it, he said he did it and so did everybody else, and still she wasn’t believed. Why not believe her? I think now we are having a big change around believing people and not blaming them, which is really important, but we have a long way to go.