Saturday 16 November 2013

Resounding to the Name of Mary: British queens and the Virgin

16 November is the Feast of the Patronage of Our Lady in the Roman Catholic communion and in honour of the Virgin's feast day, I would like to briefly profile the queens of England and Scotland who shared her name.

Marie de Coucy was the second wife of King Alexander II of Scotland. The daughter of a French lord, when her husband died of a fever in the Hebrides in 1249, Marie moved swiftly to ensure the succession of their seven year-old son, Alexander III. The boy, who went on to be one of medieval Scotland's greatest kings, was crowned at Scone at the height of summer. With the kingdom properly established under her son, Marie was able to remarry to a fellow Frenchman, to undertake pilgrimages to the great shrine of Saint Thomas Becket in Kent and to split her time between France and Scotland. She died in her native country in 1285, in her late sixties. Her death spared her from enduring the death of her son, who was killed in a riding accident a year later. 

Mary de Bohun never became queen, nor was she expected to. Co-heiress of the enormously wealthy Earl of Hereford, she was married off to the King's grandson Henry, the son of one of the King's younger sons John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Henry was only a year or two older than Mary and as a concession to the bride's young age, her father-in-law indicated that he did not want the couple's marriage to be consummated until she was sixteen. The bridegroom disobeyed these instructions and Mary gave birth at the age of fourteen to a baby boy who lived for only a few days. Her surviving prayer books indicate that she was a woman of both piety and culture. In quick succession, the young woman gave birth to four more boys, Henry, Thomas, John and Humphrey, and then two girls, Blanche and Philippa. The exertion of giving birth to her youngest daughter, the future queen consort of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, killed Mary de Bohun at the age of twenty-five. Five years after her death, her husband seized the throne from his unpopular cousin and proclaimed himself King Henry IV. Mary's eldest surviving child later became the celebrated victor of the Battle of Agincourt, King Henry V.

Mary of Guelders was the second cousin of Henry VIII's shortest-lasting queen, the allegedly ugly Anne of Cleves, who was divorced after only six months of marriage in 1540. Half-Clevian on her mother's side, Mary of Guelders was born in the Netherlands in the mid-1430s and married to King James II of Scotland in 1449. The couple had seven children together, with six living into adulthood. Her husband was a strong but often controversial king, who toured his kingdom to advertise royal power but was not above dubious financial mechanisms to keep the monarchy solvent. During the siege of Roxburgh Castle in 1460, the King was killed when he was standing too close to one of the army's new cannons. Mary immediately declared herself regent for her nine year-old son, James III. When the Wars of the Roses broke out, she initially wanted to exploit the situation to Scotland's advantage but when the Lancastrian queen, Marguerite of Anjou, sought sanctuary in Scotland, Mary provided shelter and support for her and her son, Edward of Westminster. Very devout, Mary died at the age of twenty-nine, shortly after concluding a new peace treaty with England, and she was buried in Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh.

Marie de Guise, the statuesque French widow who famously rejected Henry VIII's clumsy proposal of marriage by making a thinly-veiled quip about poor Anne Boleyn, went on to marry Henry's estranged nephew, King James V of Scotland, a man torn between his twin desires for flesh and faith. Marie had just given birth to their only surviving child, Mary, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception 1542, when James sickened and died, apparently broken by Scotland's defeat at the hands of the English army. Threatened by Henry VIII, Marie sent her daughter to France to live with her French family, the Guises, arguably the most powerful non-reigning clan in Europe at the time. Eventually, a marriage was arranged with the young girl to the French Dauphin. Back in Scotland, Marie held on to the reins of government in her daughter's name. It was a thankless task for which she was vilified by the new Protestant sect known as Presbyterianism, which originated in Scotland and which viewed the French-born Catholic queen regent as an evil strumpet. Pious and dignified, Marie died at Edinburgh Castle of oedema at the age of forty-four.

Mary I England and Ireland's first successful Queen regnant was born at Greenwich in February 1516. Her life as heiress-presumptive was turned upside down when her parents became locked in an increasingly bitter divorce battle, which ultimately saw both Mary and her mother Katherine lose their titles, England sever its ties of obedience to the Vatican and the birth of a new heiress presumptive from Mary's stepmother, Anne Boleyn. Understandably, Mary detested Anne but her father's ill-treatment of her actually increased during his subsequent marriage to Jane Seymour. Psychologically bullied into swearing allegiance to the new Church of England, Mary's known sympathy for the old religion landed in her hot water during the reign of her Protestant half-brother, Edward VI. When he died in 1553, she seized the throne for herself, outwitting an attempted coup to replace her with her Protestant cousin, Lady Jane Dudley (nee Grey). Mary's five years as queen are best remembered for her unpopular marriage to Philip of Spain, their disastrous war against France and the execution of hundreds of Protestants, a persecution which earned her the nickname of "Bloody Mary." More recently, scholarship has focused on Mary's popularity with certain segments of the population, her skill as a political survivor and her attempts to safeguard England's independence from the Hapsburgs. Fittingly for one so devout, she died while hearing Mass in November 1558.

Mary, Queen of Scots Born on a feast day of the Virgin Mary in 1542, Mary Stewart grew up with her mother's relatives in France. Left a widow at the age of eighteen, she returned to her native Scotland to find it crippled by sectarian tensions, an over-mighty nobility and a truculent power-hungry Presbyterian Kirk. Mary's French manners, her preference for foreign favourites and the shambles of her marriage to the handsome but unhinged Lord Darnley further weakened her position. Her beauty, her charm, her elegance and her charisma had all stood her in good stead in France, but they failed to help her in Scotland. She was forced to abdicate in 1567 and fled to England, where her youthful claim that she was the rightful queen of England came back to haunt her. Her cousin Elizabeth I, once sympathetic, placed Mary under house arrest for the best part of twenty years. Protestant public opinion in England was no less strident of its hatred of Mary than it had been in Scotland and when evidence was uncovered that Mary may have been involved in encouraging Catholic plots against Elizabeth, the Queen was bounced, some might say bullied, into signing her death warrant. Mary died with great dignity and courage at Fotheringhay Castle in February 1587.

Henrietta-Maria of France was another French Catholic who struggled in the face of Protestant populism. A spirited sixteen year-old when her brother Louis XIII arranged her marriage to King Charles I in 1625, Henrietta-Maria was often criticised for her extravagance, her lavish entertainments and her Catholic faith. While she was certainly interested in alleviating the condition of British Catholics, it was not true that she encouraged her husband in his quarrel with parliament. In spite of the absolutism she had been raised to revere in France, Henrietta-Maria tried to win over Scottish Presbyterianism and she was never the bigoted reactionary that propaganda painted her as. She fled to France during the English civil war of the 1640s and suffered a nervous breakdown when her husband was executed and a republic was proclaimed. In 1660, the diminutive brunette returned to England with the restoration of the monarchy. A shadow of her former vivacious self although still known to speak her mind (her middle son's marriage to a commoner particularly enraged her, with courtiers predictably enjoying the feud), she died in France when her doctors administered an accidental opium overdose to alleviate her chronic insomnia. Her tomb and her remains were lost during the French Revolution. 

Mary-Beatrice of Modena was the last Catholic consort in British history. Related to the beautiful but scandal-prone Mancini sisters on her mother's side, the Italian princess had inherited the Mancinis' looks but not their temperament. So gentle and religious that she wanted to become a nun, she was eventually persuaded to accept her duty in marrying the recently-converted Duke of York, a widower with two young daughters. Gorgeous and amiable, Mary-Beatrice won many admirers, including her brother-in-law Charles II and her husband's cousin, King Louis XIV. When her husband became King James II in 1685, he was the first Catholic sovereign since Mary Tudor a century earlier. Protestant fears of a reborn Catholic monarchy were only soothed by the fact that Mary-Beatrice's pregnancies had so far failed to produce a healthy son meaning that the throne would therefore eventually pass to James's Protestant daughter from his first marriage. In 1688, Mary-Beatrice gave birth to a son, Prince James-Francis-Edward, and popular paranoia went into overdrive. Hysterical allegations that the child must be a changeling and part of a widespread Catholic conspiracy led to riots and the accusation justified an invasion by James II's son-in-law, Prince William of Orange. Mary-Beatrice and her family were granted asylum at Versailles and later their own palace nearby. The deposed queen was applauded by the French court for her grace and dignity in the face of such loss. She kept the cause of her husband and son alive until her own death in 1718. She was an enthusiast of veneration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, an image which rose to popularity in her lifetime and which she greatly encouraged. 

Mary II was the Protestant stepdaughter who helped displace Mary-Beatrice in the Glorious Revolution. As devout an Anglican as her father was a Catholic, it is hard to know how much Mary believed of the stories against her father and stepmother. She had been living in Holland for most of her married life and despite her husband's cold and eccentric personality, she remained very popular. Without her, it is highly unlikely that William's invasion would have succeeded. Despite technically being William's co-sovereign, Mary II exerted almost no say in government. When she died of smallpox in 1694, she was deeply mourned and public grief at her early death was both widespread and sincere. She left no children and her husband ruled alone until his death in 1702. At that stage, the throne passed to Mary's younger sister Anne, who had certainly been more deeply, and more knowingly, involved in the plots to disinherit their little brother and depose their father.

Mary of Teck grew up relatively poor by royal standards, but her ancestry and concept of duty helped win her the approval of Queen Victoria. In 1893, she married Victoria's grandson, the Duke of York, in a splendid ceremony at Saint James's Palace. Mary's husband became King George V when his father died in 1910 and Mary was as devoted to him as she was to the institution of monarchy. A revealing insight into her mind came when she said of George, "I must never forget that he is not only my husband; he is also my Sovereign."  Her conservative politics, her indefatigable commitment to her public duties, her dignity and her unshakable stiff upper lip made her the ideal queen consort during the troubled times that came with the First World War and Great Depression. Mary never quite accustomed herself to the end of the pre-war status quo in which monarchies ruled most of the earth, but public celebrations for her husband's Silver Jubilee in 1935 helped show how popular they had both remained and how successful they had been in navigating the monarchy through an era of unprecedented change and uncertainty. In 1936, the largest British ship built for over twenty years (below) was named in her honour and it captured the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the North Atlantic. Queen Mary lived to see her eldest son abdicate in order to marry a divorced American, Mrs Wallis Simpson, a decision she abhorred and she was one of those who supported the decision to deny the new Duchess of Windsor the use of the title "Her Royal Highness." She also lived throughout the entirety of her son George VI's reign and lived long enough to see her granddaughter become Queen Elizabeth II. She died in 1953.

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