A thick snow and a treacherous layer of ice enveloped the Scottish countryside as the faithful made their way to church to observe the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on that dark and frigid day in 1542. Now, the feast and its name are frequently misunderstood, for the Immaculate Conception has in fact nothing to do with the virgin birth or the Incarnation of Christ, as is so often assumed. Instead, it is the belief that at the moment of her conception in the womb of her mother, Saint Anne, the Holy Virgin - having been conceived by normal and earthly means - underwent a pre-natal miracle, whereby she was preserved forever from the stain of Original Sin. She therefore became, in the moment of her conception, full of grace. Debates about this philosophical concept had both bedevilled and enlightened the Middle Ages, where the issue of whether or not the Immaculate Conception
was true, false or unknowable had been hotly debated within the universities and monasteries of the West. It was only in 1854 that it was infallibly defined as requisite dogma for believing Roman Catholics, but it had enjoyed its own feast day in the west for nearly eight centuries by that stage. It had not always been the happiest or most tranquil of theological beliefs. The Dominican Order were still, in the sixteenth century, objecting that the entire notion of the Immaculate Conception pertained to blasphemy and implicitly belittled the sacrifice at Golgotha. Even some of the medieval church's most devout enthusiasts
for veneration of Mary in its fullest form had been opposed to the Feast - Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, in particular, had waxed into near apoplectic fury at the very mention of it. Aquinas insisted that Mary had become
immaculate at the end of her life, not at the beginning. Bernard was more aggressive, dispatching a scathing letter to the priests of Lyon Cathedral when he heard they were contemplating celebrating a Mass in honour of the Immaculate Conception in 1150. As far as he was concerned, venerating Mary's conception in Saint Anne's womb was tantamount to venerating a sexual encounter - "Or are we to assume that there was no sin where lust was not absent?" he snapped. The belief in Mary's innate sinlessness, however, was particularly popular amongst lay Christians, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the Franciscan order, which had much more flexibility and sensitivity when it came to the feelings of the laity, leant their support to the Immaculate Conception, in opposition to the Dominicans, who still zealously opposed it.
By the beginning of the fifth decade of the sixteenth century, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception was therefore an optional festival to be observed as the diocese, priest or congregation felt appropriate. If any Scotsman or woman had been able to brave the horrific winter blizzards to make it to the local chapel in time for Mass that day, it is likely that they would have been attending a church which did celebrate the festival. In Scotland, it was generally popular with Catholics across most of the social hierarchy. If any parishioners had been attending Mass in the tiny chapels which dotted the countryside in the forty snow-covered miles between the Palace of Linlithgow and the Palace of Falkland, it may have been that at the very moment sweet hymns, prayers and incense were wafting their way towards Heaven in praise of a celestial Mary that their thoughts would have been interrupted as they heard the royal messengers thunder-by on horseback outside, carrying news that another, more terrestial Mary had entered the world.
The 27 year-old Queen of Scotland, Marie, had not relished sending out those messengers. She had wanted more than anything to give her husband a male heir. Both of their sons - James and Robert - had died as infants and now the hopes of the Stewart dynasty rested on the tiny, frail little princess sleeping contentedly in her sumptuous cradle. Her mother, Marie de Guise, was a woman whose entire life had been spent as living proof of accepting the things one cannot change. She recovered quickly, both from the rigours of childbirth and from the disappointment of the baby's gender. The same could not be said for her royal husband, who was lying in the midst of a soul-crushing depression in his apartments at Falkland Palace, not having made it to his wife's side either because of the weather or because of his mental health. When the news was brought to him that Queen Marie had been delivered of a girl, rather than a boy, the King lay in his bed stock-still for a moment, before muttering, "It came from a woman, and it will end in a woman." Then, he turned his face to the wall and gave up even the pretence of wanting to carry on living.
James V's cryptic comment was an acknowledgement of his ancestress, Marjorie Bruce, a Scottish princess from whom the Stewarts had acquired their subsequent claim to the throne. The rule of the Stewarts had begun with a woman and, in the shape of his tiny daughter, it would end with one as well. No woman could possibly hope to hold a kingdom as troublesome as Scotland, considering how many men had failed to do so over the last few centuries. That Mary would prove incapable of holding Scotland under her rule was true, but her father could not known how incorrect he was in saying the Stewarts' association with monarchy would die with her. It is thanks to Mary that James V's descendants still sit on the British throne today.
The King was ensconced at Falkland Palace when he heard the news of his daughter's birth, one of the Scottish royal family's most conspicuously magnificent homes. The birth itself had taken place at Linlithgow Palace, a fantastically beautiful residence which seemed like something lifted right out of a fairy tale. With its many turrets and graceful stonework, rolling green fields and breathtaking setting beside a loch, Linlithgow belonged to a world of Arthurian legend, rather than 16th century reality. It was here, in its luxurious and pretty confines, that Marie de Guise had chosen to give birth for the third time since her marriage to the King of Scots, a man curiously torn between his twin obsessions of the sacred and the sexual. He had loved God as he had loved women - intensely, viscerally, potently. He had been married before, to Princess Madeleine de Valois, a delicate teenager who had not long survived the traumatic sea journey to the harsher climate of Scotland.
Marie de Guise had been born in 1515 into one of the greatest and most ancient families of the French aristocracy, the House of Guise, whose wealth and power had already begun to rival that of the Valois, France's royal family at the time. As a young girl, she had been married off to the Duc de Longueville and with him she had become the mother of two sons. When the duke died in 1537, he left Marie a widow at the relatively tender age of twenty-two. She was not beautiful, or even particularly pretty, but she was intelligent, gracious, sophisticated and determined. She was also fabulously well-connected and had proven her ability to procreate thanks to her first marriage. By the standards of her day, Marie was a tall woman and hearing news of this, King Henry VIII of England, recently made a widower by his third wife's death in childbed
, proposed marriage to the fetching French heiress. Henry too was tall (as well as increasingly wide) and he proclaimed, "I am a big man and I need a big woman!" Marie replied that although she was a big woman, she had a tiny neck and therefore couldn't risk a marriage like poor Anne Boleyn's. Henry's pique was turned into incandescent fury when Marie added insult to injury by marrying his troublesome nephew, James, King of Scots, a year later. The thwarted monarch then flounced off into a disastrously short-lived marriage to the Princess of Cleves. Only time would show what a dangerous enemy he had become to Marie de Guise.
Now, four years later, it was difficult to tell if Marie regretted her decision to marry into Edinburgh rather than London. The great love of her life had been her first husband, not her second, and the Scottish nobility was fractious, quarrelsome and treacherous. Many resented the "Auld Alliance," the ancient diplomatic ties between Scotland and France, which Marie represented and more and more of the people were beginning to turn towards the new Protestant religion, rather than the old Catholic faith which Marie's family in France considered themselves to be one of the European champions of. Still, perhaps Scotland with all its troubles was preferable to a marriage with Henry VIII. After all, earlier that year he had cut off the head of his fifth wife, a flighty and vivacious teenager who had allegedly been carrying on affair with a handsome young buck of the court behind her corpulent husband's sizable back. To butcher one wife was extraordinary; to butcher a second looked like a worrying habit. Moreover, Marie had never intimated by word or gesture that she found Scotland anything other than delightful. In her justly acclaimed 1968 biography of Mary of Scots, Lady Antonia Fraser wrote that her mother Marie was "a woman of innate tact [who] was at pains to please her husband by praising his country. Fife, for example, she admired extravagantly, and confided to James that although she had been warned in France that she would find Scotland a barbarous country, destitute of comforts, ever since her arrival she had found the exact reverse". Scotland was both more civilised and more luxurious than its European counterparts liked to pretend, but it was also a political minefield as Marie eventually discovered to her cost.
The thick blanket of snow presented Scotland at its most rugged, its most perfectly and spectacularly beautiful on the day of Mary Stewart's birth. But, it would not be a true part of Mary's story if it was not saturated in drama and intrigue. Scotland was in the depth of one of the worst national catastrophes and humiliations in its history. Her father the King had badly bungled his torturous diplomatic interactions with England or, more specifically, with his uncle King Henry. The rapid deterioration in Anglo-Scottish relations had been sped-up by a lethal combination of King James's poor decisions and King Henry's venomous cruetly. On November 24th, two weeks before the princess's birth, the two armies had clashed at the Battle of Solway Moss. The result was a devastating defeat for Scotland, in which half of the fighting flower of the Scottish army lost their lives. Grief stricken and traumatised by what he had seen on the battlefield and realising that his kingdom was now essentially defenceless in the face of his uncle's vindictive wrath, King James had returned to his palace at Falkland, taking to his bed. And it was there that the news that his two dead baby boys and thousands of dead soldiers had been replaced by a screaming, useless, defenceless girl was brought to him by messengers who knew they could expect no reward for bringing such tidings.
Back at Linlithgow, Queen Marie proceeded like a model of propriety. Everything must be done according to the rule book of royal etiquette and it was arranged that the princess should be baptised in the nearby Church of Saint Michael, which stood at the palace gates and which can still be seen today. The baby had been born a trifle premature, with the Queen perhaps going into labour as a result of the worry caused by the recent defeat of the national army. The result was unhelpful rumours that the "Queen was delivered before her time of a daughter, a very weak child, and not likely to live". The Queen Dowager of Hungary heard later that it was a miracle the baby had lived to see Christmas given the state she was in at the time of her birth.
Much of what happened next sounds miraculous or, rather, improbable. James V died six days after his daughter's birth, at the age of thirty. His daughter thus became a reigning queen before her one week-birthday and his 27 year-old widow assumed the Herculean task of ruling Scotland for her, struggling to preserve Mary's inheritance in the face of the epic political turmoil James V left in his wake. It was a task which would have felled a lesser-woman and whatever one might think of the de Guise clan, Marie de Guise was never anything less than an heroic woman.
And so it was, in a turret room in the north-west tower overlooking a freezing loch that the tragic, mesmerising and improbable life of Mary, Queen of Scots first began. It was a life which was to bewitch and betray, dazzle and destroy, in equal measure. She was the daughter of a great woman and a troubled man, born into a turbulent age. It's difficult to think of a more appropriate entrance for the life of one of history's most enigmatic and controversial queens.