On this day in 1542, Mary Stuart was born. Six days later, she was crowned Mary, Queen of Scots, when her father James V of Scotland died. During her lifetime, Mary briefly ruled France and then Scotland and had a claim to the throne of England too. At age 44, she was was executed by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England.
Mary Queen of Scots is hard to pin down, difficult to understand or pigeonhole. Starting soon after her execution, images popped up purporting to be authentic portraits of Mary Stuart. Some of these were made by her son, James VI of Scotland / I of England, and many more such images were made during the Victorian craze for all things Scottish. Mary Queen of Scots is at once romanticized as a Scottish heroine yet also reviled because she made bad marriages and was an ineffective ruler. But plenty of male royalty and leaders made terrible marriages and were much worse rulers. Mary’s worst offense seems to be that of living at the same time and on the same continent as the uniquely successful Elizabeth of England. The virgin queen, never married. The Elizabethan age, a time of prosperity and flowering of the arts. One of England’s longest reigning monarchs and universally most loved and admired queens. She also killed Mary, an anointed queen by birth, if reluctantly.
What was Mary’s crime? Either the one she was killed for or the ones history dislikes her for? Both are inconclusive. Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, entrapped Mary into agreeing with the Babington Plot to assassinate Elizabeth. So we come back to Mary’s bad marriages and weak rulership. Her first marriage, to Francois II of France, was arranged when they were both toddlers. The goal was to protect Scotland under France. But the marriage was never consummated, and Francois died after less than two years. Mary was no longer queen of France and had to return “home” to a country she had not lived in since she was 5 years old.
She was raised to be a queen consort of France, although Mary always knew and asserted her full and equal status as a queen in her own right. The importance of politics and statecraft was not meant as Mary of Scotland’s domain. It was never part of her training or experience — not until she was jolted back to Scottish shores at age 19, knowing hardly no one and very little about this land or current government. Add to that her Catholicism and Scotland’s turn to Protestantism, and the cards were stacked against Mary Queen of Scots. Had she been a naturally brilliant political mind or had she been surrounded by skillful and wise advisers, maybe Mary could have better navigated her way through the bristly conflicts with the lords of the congregation. Maybe.
But Mary’s choice of a husband was always going to be troublesome. We remember Elizabeth as the virgin queen, but it wasn’t until 10 or 12 years into her reign that talk died down of her accepting suitors. Ruling queens always married, and Mary Queen of Scots did not need to be an exception. She’d already been married, she knew the political and personal benefits. Why should she go against the grain? On the face of things, Darnley seemed like an excellent prospect. He was a descendant of Henry VII, as was Mary, so their union would strengthen her claim to Elizabeth’s throne. Darnley was Catholic, well educated, handsome, tall, athletic, and about the same age. Then as now, it’s hard to tell if your partner will become a dissolute asshole after you tie the knot.
Their marriage did result in an heir, who, as we know, came to rule both Scotland and England and this lead to the joining of both as the United Kingdom of Great Britain. “In the end is my beginning” is Mary Queen of Scots’ motto, and thus she was proven correct.
Unfortunately for Mary, at least, one bad marriage lead to another, and here’s where the history is muddy. What really happened between her and the Earl of Bothwell? Was the queen abducted and raped by him and forced into her third marriage? Many biographies suggest this was the case. But most movie and TV versions can’t hack that possibility and want to make it into a secret romance and conspiracy — which is what was said in the so-called ‘Casket Letters’ used by the Scottish privy council and Queen Elizabeth’s inquisitors in an attempt to pin Darnley’s murder on Mary and Bothwell working together. Yet the letters were inconclusive in the period, and they’ve been discredited by modern historians. Still, filmmakers want to show Mary Queen of Scots in love with Bothwell from the start, then marrying Darnley out of obligation, and finally plotting with Bothwell to kill her husband so she can run away with her “real” love Bothwell. Hello, fiction!
Another great fictionalization is that Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I of England met in person. Nope, never happened. They wrote to each other extensively throughout their lives, definitely, but they never met face to face. A popular play, Maria Stuart, written by Friedrich Schiller around 1800, featured a meeting between the two queens, and this story was the basis for the opera Maria Stuarda by Gaetano Donizetti in 1835. Both the Schiller play and the Donizetti opera were revived in the 1950s through 1980s, including TV broadcasts of the performances. These were big influences for film and TV stories about Mary of Scotland.
Mary Queen of Scots in Movies and TV
While Queen Elizabeth has had dozens, if not hundreds, of screen appearances, her Scottish cousin has received relatively few film treatments, and many are just plot-points in QEI’s story. So when looking for Mary Queen of Scots in movies and TV, we’ll include those Elizabeth bios, but primarily we’re looking at MQoS biopics of her own still in existence.
Mary of Scotland (1936)
MQoS: Katharine Hepburn
Historical accuracy, plot: Highly romanticized. Mary loves Bothwell, Darnley is a fop she only marries to piss off Elizabeth, whom Mary meets the night before she is executed. Nominal attention is paid to the political conflict between Scotland and England or even much about the fractions within Scotland. Instead, the flick works out how Mary will fall in love with (historically inaccurately) kilt-clad Bothwell.
Historical accuracy, costumes: Surprisingly good for the period. Walter Plunkett was the costume designer, ramping up to Gone With the Wind with this flick. The womens’ costumes clearly reference several historical portraits of Mary and Elizabeth, but with 1930s construction and makeup.
Is it Scottish or is it crap?: I love this film, despite the inaccuracies! Katharine Hepburn is my homegirl, and while this was during a box-office slump for her, I think she’s perfectly suited to the role. In her autobiography, Hepburn said, “I never cared for Mary. I thought she was a bit of an ass. I would have preferred to do a script on Elizabeth.” None-the-less, she brought a wonderful combination of strength and sensitivity to the character of Mary Queen of Scots that few, if any, actors have since.
Elizabeth R (1971): Episode 4
MQoS: Vivian Pickles
Historical accuracy, plot: Very accurate! This episode only covers the lead up to and final execution of Mary Queen of Scots at the hands of Queen Elizabeth, but the story is true to both sides. Vivian Pickles’ Mary is imperious, determined, frustrated, and every inch the match for Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth (who is, hands down, my favorite QEI on screen ever). My only complaint is that this is just a brief part of Mary’s life — I wish the BBC had done this quality of treatment for her like they did for Henry VIII and Elizabeth I at the time.
Historical accuracy, costumes: Costume designer Elizabeth Waller created stunningly historically accurate outfits for this entire miniseries, so of course what she put Mary Queen of Scots in looks perfect. This TV series may only have one episode about Mary, but the character gets a complete wardrobe of four different gowns with two distinct cap and veil combos, plus a loose gown that’s worn over one gown. She even has a red wig, thankyouverymuch.
Is it Scottish or is it crap?: It’s true Scots, trapped under English rule — and what’s more Scottish than that?
Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)
MQoS: Vanessa Redgrave
Historical accuracy, plot: Highly romanticized, again. This starts with the plot of the 1936 film, except Darnley (played by Timothy Dalton) is more accurate in that he’s an erratic drunk after marriage, not a prissy pansy as the earlier movie depicted. The Bothwell love story is key to this version, and worse, this edition has Mary Queen of Scots meeting Elizabeth twice, first when MQoS first arrives in England, and again before her execution.
Historical accuracy, costumes: Margaret Furse won the Best Costume Oscar for Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) before creating the costumes for Mary Queen of Scots. As with Anne, the look is mostly historical and very lush with some questionable fabric choices.
Is it Scottish or is it crap?: Pretty looking crap. Vanessa Redgrave portrays Mary as a flighty, emotional, none-too-bright creature (also, she’s blonde, what’s up with that?). And sure, that may have been part of Mary’s character, but pitting this portrayal against Glenda Jackson’s steely, shrewd Elizabeth is just mean. Who’s this movie supposed to be about anyway?
Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (2004): Part 1
MQoS: Clémence Poésy
Historical accuracy, plot: Romanticized, weird, and offensive at times, ranging from misogynistic to homophobic (though more in part 2 for the latter). Mary is shown to be an idiot who’s bullied and used by everyone in her life — OK, maybe that happened, but if so, how about portraying it with a sense of humanity instead of sadistic glee? She’s not the only character who comes off poorly though. Queen Elizabeth is a barren shrew, the Earl of Moray is by turns ineffectual and a powerful snake, Bothwell is a rapey jerk (who Mary falls for anyway), and Darnley is a religious fanatic.
Historical accuracy, costumes: Costume designer Nic Ede had a long career in historical costume movies and TV before (Wilde, 1997; Far From the Madding Crowd, 1998) and since (Indian Summers, 2015), so we know he can do better than this. Did he have a tight budget? Was the director pushing for a certain look? I don’t know, but there are major problems with the shape, fit, fabrics, and details in most every costume in this flick.
Is it Scottish or is it crap?: Crap! It hurts me to watch.
Elizabeth I (2005): Part 1
MQoS: Barbara Flynn
Historical accuracy, plot: The overall story tried to be accurate, but then Queen Elizabeth had to go and meet Mary Queen of Scots in captivity. I found Helen Mirren‘s Elizabeth condescending and not terribly invested in this scene, while Flynn’s Mary was blandly timid and wishy-washy with Elizabeth and at her trial. She did have a French accent, which was a nice touch.
Historical accuracy, costumes: Designer Mike O’Neill justifiably won an Emmy for Outstanding Costumes for a Miniseries, Movie, or a Special for this work, and the costumes on Elizabeth are stunning. But Mary gets only two costumes — one plain gown for prison and the obligatory red execution gown. They’re understated and historically accurate, at least.
Is it Scottish or is it crap?: It’s a gorgeous miniseries, but don’t watch it for Mary Queen of Scots.
Elizabeth I: The Virgin Queen (2005): Episode 2
MQoS: Charlotte Winner
Historical accuracy, plot: It’s all about Elizabeth here. Mary Queen of Scots literally gets a walk-on — she’s shown standing in her prison room, about to receive a letter in the Babington Plot and walking through where her trial will be held. Mary is heard in voiceover as Elizabeth reads a letter from her, and Mary does have a proper French accent. The execution scene is kind of weird, like a bad dream sequence through Elizabeth’s eyes.
Historical accuracy, costumes: Designer Amy Roberts has worked in British historical TV and film since the 1970s, and her work on this production is generally good. But Mary is hardly seen, and all she gets is one outfit recreating the familiar Hilliard portrait.
Is it Scottish or is it crap?: Not very Scottish, that’s for sure. It’s a good QEI story, but a bad MQoS one.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)
MQoS: Samantha Morton
Historical accuracy, plot: Both Elizabeth (1998) and this sequel Golden Age play fast and loose with history, and the telling of Mary Queen of Scots’ story is no exception. It could be worse, but it could be a whole lot better.
Historical accuracy, costumes: Designer Alexandra Byrne won the Best Costume Oscar for this film, and woah, they were not judging on historical merit. Plenty of Cate Blanchett‘s outfits as Elizabeth have shown up in Snark Week, and likewise, what Morton wears as Mary Queen of Scots is a total clusterfrock. Not a stitch of historical accuracy to be found!
Is it Scottish or is it crap?: Rather crappy.
Mary Queen of Scots (2013)
MQoS: Camille Rutherford
Historical accuracy, plot: Impressionistic. This isn’t as romantic as earlier versions of Mary Queen of Scots’ life, and the movie does cover parts of her history that other films gloss over, like her childhood in Scotland and her life in France. The story tries to get inside Mary’s head, using the conceit of her writing letters to Queen Elizabeth. Sometimes, landscape and music are turned into heavy-handed metaphors for Mary’s emotions as well. But the story winds its way to predicable places, with Mary and Bothwell becoming lovers, and John Knox himself performs their wedding ceremony. Still, the only meeting with Elizabeth is glancing in a dream, as is the execution, which is not the focus of this flick.
Historical accuracy, costumes: Relative unknown costume designer Rudolf Jost does an OK job; the costumes have a decent 16th-century silhouette, but the look is very minimalist and stripped-down without embellishments or accessories. It’s definitely not a lush historical costume movie, but it doesn’t look totally wrong either.
Is it Scottish or is it crap?: As a history and a movie, it’s in the middle of the pack.
MQoS: Adelaide Kane
Historical accuracy, plot: You don’t need me to tell you — this TV series turns Mary Queen of Scots’ childhood and marriage in France into a teenage soap opera with designer dresses. Though in recent episodes, Queen Elizabeth has been a source of conflict and then Francis died, and maybe Mary will return to Scotland, so teeny-tiny point for accuracy?
Historical accuracy, costumes: Hahahahahaha! No. Designer Meredith Markworth-Pollack uses a lot of Alexander McQueen, Marchesa, Dolce & Gabbana, and other haute couture gowns, and when she makes something, it can’t be too ‘costumey,’ read: historical.
Is it Scottish or is it crap?: I have to admit, even I’ve gotten bored with this silly soap opera. I needs more scenery chewing (other than Megan Follows as Catherine de Medici) to match the level of ridiculousness in the inaccurate plot and outrageously pretty costumes.
Which is your favorite Mary Queen of Scots in movies or TV?