'Mary Queen of Scots, A Study in Failure' by Jenny Wormald (John Donald, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd)
Few recent Scottish history books have resonated as loudly as Wormald's account of Mary Queen of Scots. Its publishing history tells its own story. Originally appearing in 1988, it was republished in paperback in 1991. A revised edition was published in 2001. Now in 2017 we have a new edition that includes an 'appreciation' by the late author's son Luke, a 'foreword' and 'afterword' by Anna Groundwater, an Edinburgh University historian – and the preface to the 1991 edition.
What is so special about this unequivocally rigorous academic study of Scotland's most famous queen? The answer is there in the book's subtitle – 'A Study in Failure.' 'Failure' is not a word normally associated with Mary Queen of Scots.
Wormald's book consciously flies in the face of a well-established and popular tradition in Scottish history that treasures the doomed Mary as a romantically tragic figure. In 1987, the 400th anniversary of her execution in England, that very much remained the prevailing view. But published a year later, Wormald's study deliberately challenges the historical accuracy of that established tradition. As she tells us in the preface, the 400th centenary was swamped by 'tours, plays, conferences, exhibitions, books, pamphlets, newspaper articles, radio and television programmes' with the result that the writing of her book was done 'in a state of constant perplexity.' To sit in the peace of her study, she tells us, 'contemplating the reality, while the howls of enthusiasm for the legend thundered outside, was a very puzzling experience.'
However, having completed and published her book – which inevitably proved not to be to the taste of a range of readers and at least some historians – Wormald stuck fast to her guns. As late as 2012, in the 'Oxford Handbook to Modern Scottish History,' she and her co-editor Tom Devine returned to the 'sentimentalised Scottish fascination with failure,' attacking what they saw as the 'passion for romance, invented or quasi-real… in the obsession with that lamentable figure, Mary, Queen of Scots,' in which 'the equally lamentable Bonnie Prince Charlie runs her a close second.' The result of this obsession, they conclude, is that too many 'Scottish historians have spent proportionately too much time on a minor issue, at the expense of infinitely more important and interesting ones.'
For Wormald's study of Mary, the 'minor issue' is the queen's personality, her entanglements with her lovers Darnley and Bothwell, and her years of imprisonment in Fotheringhay Castle. Rather than the doomed romance of Mary's life and loves, her focus is on the years 1560-1567 when Mary, finally back in Scotland after her upbringing and life in France, attempted to play out her role as queen regnant of Scotland. The conclusion she comes to is that Mary failed to become an effective ruler.
To make her case she leads the reader through the exceptionally complex political dealings between the queen and the Scottish nobility already deeply divided by religion. A practising Catholic herself, Mary had to face a situation in which Scottish Protestantism – led by the formidable John Knox – was an increasingly powerful political reality. Yet the situation in these years remained an incredibly fluid one.
Support for Mary ebbed and flowed. The Stewart monarchy, as we shall see, had been remarkably successful in making Scotland count on the European stage. As a result, respect for the established dynasty was deep-rooted, and any attempt to overthrow the ruling monarch inevitably faced major opposition. Bonds and alliances between different factions were made – and in no time broken. Leading figures changed sides with some regularity. Religious persuasion alone rarely determined resistance or support for Mary. All of this, as it were, local Scottish complexity, is analysed with equal thoroughness in the context of a similarly complicated international scene involving England, France and Spain. With flair and impressive authority, Wormald guides the reader through these crucial years when Mary actually was 'Queen of Scotland.'
The result is a book which is not for the casual or faint-hearted reader. Attention has to be paid. The reader has to share at least something of the author's rigorous focus. In the end, however, the case that Wormald makes for Mary's failure as a ruler is a formidable one. No doubt there are readers who disagree – and historians who will wish at least to qualify her conclusions. In her afterword, Anna Groundwater, for example, suggests that recent developments in a more gender-based approach to the exercise of power might throw a different light on some of her conclusions. This may or may not be so, but in any event there can be no doubt that this book continues to provide a major challenge to traditional Marian studies.
In terms of my own reading of the book, I took particular note of two of its aspects. On several occasions Jenny Wormald suggests that Mary's failure to take decisive action to restrain the rising power of Knoxian Protestantism in Scotland was ultimately the consequence of her obsession with the idea that she could be the successor to Elizabeth on the throne of England. This may be true, but it is striking that such a conclusion is based on mind-reading rather than any kind of documentary evidence.
What in the end I take away from this book, however, has nothing to do with the argument over the rights and wrongs of Mary's actions or her character. Rather it concerns Wormald's superb second chapter – 'The Queen's Inheritance 1424-1542' – which provides an eye-opening account of the striking success of the Stewart monarchs from James I to James V, despite in every case the short-lived nature of their reigns, in creating and sustaining Scotland's importance in both political and cultural terms on the European stage.
Familiar with the argument that post-Mary, more than a century of religious strife and economic backwardness reduced Scotland to European insignificance, and that it was only the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment in the 18th century who gained for their country major status as a centre of modern progress and improvement, I had not realised how far in a sense this was a European reputation restored rather than newly created. In a similar way, I suspect that many readers of Wormald's challenging book will find themselves made to think again about the real Mary Queen of Scots.
Return to ambit homepage