Interview with Scots historical fiction author Marie Macpherson

Anniversary giveaway

My blog is two years’ old this month (time flies) and to celebrate, I’m giving away a copy of Marie Macpherson’s novel “The First Blast of the Trumpet.”  

Leave a comment  on what interests you about Scottish history or a question for the author on this post by Saturday, August 24, 2013 at 8:00 p.m. US Central time to be entered into a drawing to win this book.  One person will be chosen randomly using Random.org. Please make sure to leave an e-mail address with your comment.  (US, Canada and UK entrants only.) 

THE GIVEAWAY IS NOW CLOSED. THANKS TO ALL WHO PARTICIPATED.    

About Marie Macpherson: Born in the historic town of Musselburgh, Scotland, Marie left the Honest Toun to study for an Honours Degree in Russian language and literature. She then went on to gain a PhD, spending a year in the former Soviet Union to carry out research on the 19th century Russian writer, Lermontov, said to be descended from the Scottish bard and seer, Thomas the Rhymer. Though she travelled widely throughout Europe, teaching languages and literature from Madrid to Moscow, she has never lost her passion for the culture and history of her homeland of Scotland. Now retired from academic life, she has more time to pursue her interest in creative writing. She won the Martha Hamilton Prize for Creative Writing from Edinburgh University and was named ‘Tyne & Esk Writer of the Year’ in 2011.

About Marie Macpherson: Born in the historic town of Musselburgh, Scotland, Marie left the Honest Toun to study for an Honours Degree in Russian language and literature. She then went on to gain a PhD, spending a year in the former Soviet Union to carry out research on the 19th century Russian writer, Lermontov, said to be descended from the Scottish bard and seer, Thomas the Rhymer.
Though she travelled widely throughout Europe, teaching languages and literature from Madrid to Moscow, she has never lost her passion for the culture and history of her homeland of Scotland.
Now retired from academic life, she has more time to pursue her interest in creative writing. She won the Martha Hamilton Prize for Creative Writing from Edinburgh University and was named ‘Tyne & Esk Writer of the Year’ in 2011.

Interview with Marie Macpherson

Marie Macpherson is the author of “The First Blast of the Trumpet,” her first novel and the first in a trilogy about Scottish Reformation preacher John Knox.  Her novel, reviewed here, is a refreshing take on Knox, an individual somewhat vilified by popular history.   She shared with me how John Knox chose her, what her researched revealed that surprised her and some of the best and worst advice she received while writing the book.

(If you aren’t familiar with John Knox, Marie narrates a wonderful documentary on YouTube, where you will also find a quick video synopsis of the novel.)

Q.  What inspired you to write “The First Blast of the Trumpet?”

A.  The louring figure of John Knox has cast a long shadow over Scottish history and culture, but I never thought I’d be inspired to write about him. The founding father of the Scottish Reformation is not exactly the obvious choice for the hero of a novel and so I’ve the spooky feeling he chose me. With his 500th birthday looming perhaps he needed someone to sound the fanfare. For I was doing research on the Treaty of Haddington (which betrothed Mary Queen of Scots to the Dauphin in 1548), when I became side-tracked by Haddington’s most famous son, who was then a galley slave and perhaps even rowed her to France. What a coincidence, I thought, and became curious to know how Knox had ended up imprisoned in the galleys. And what I found out could only be written as fiction. 

The First Blast of the Trumpet, the first of a trilogy, is a fictional account of the early, undocumented life of the Scottish Reformer, John Knox. Beginning just before Flodden in 1511 it ends in 1548 after the signing of the Treaty of Haddington that sends Mary Queen of Scots to France in a galley being rowed (possibly) by her nemesis, Knox.

The First Blast of the Trumpet, the first of a trilogy, is a fictional account of the early, undocumented life of the Scottish Reformer, John Knox. Beginning just before Flodden in 1511 it ends in 1548 after the signing of the Treaty of Haddington that sends Mary Queen of Scots to France in a galley being rowed (possibly) by her nemesis, Knox.

Q. History has not been terribly kind to John Knox, was it hard to develop his character and get beyond bias?

A.  It depends on how you regard him – superman or bogeyman. For some Knox is the champion who brought the Reformation to Scotland but in the popular imagination he’s become a caricature of himself: a cartoon Calvinist, a pulpit-thumping tyrant who hated women and banned not only Christmas but football on Sundays. Whatever his legacy, Knox will always be remembered as the author of that misogynist rant, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, which attacked contemporary female rulers: Marie de Guise in Scotland, Mary I in England and Mary Queen of Scots in France. Yet Knox was only voicing what most men of the time believed – that it was ‘monstrous’ or ‘unnatural’ for a woman to wear the pants never the mind the crown – though rather loudly and more vehemently.

So you can imagine my surprise to find out that Knox had a genuine regard for women – an affection that was mutual. Women loved him – not the three Marys, of course – but Knox was married twice and other men’s wives left their husbands to follow him. Did he, as one chronicler, claim… use the black arts to steal men’s wives from under their noses? All this made me reconsider the character and reputation of the Calvinist Reformer. No doubt as a preacher he had great charisma and his correspondence with women – especially his mother-in-law – reveals great patience, respect and even understanding. I even think other men were jealous as one said, ‘Whenever he makes a journey he takes around with him a certain number of women whom he uses to satisfy his lusts.’ Can you imagine! This is John Knox we’re talking about!

But why was this? It struck me that there might have been a strong female influence in his upbringing. Not his mother, for she died when he was very young, so who then?

English: The statue of the Scottish church ref...

Statue of John Knox in the quadrangle of New College, Edinburgh. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A. I can’t say that Knox was my favourite character but he certainly provides an interesting psychological case study. You can probably tell that his godmother, Elisabeth Hepburn, the real-life Prioress of St Mary’s Abbey is my favourite. While searching for clues as to who might have influenced the young Knox I was excited to come across this feisty dame, forced into the wealthy convent to protect the Hepburn family interests. Prioress Elisabeth was the aunt of Patrick, 3rd Earl of Bothwell and great-aunt to his son, James the 4th Earl, who married Mary Queen of Scots.

Patrick, the Fair Earl as he was known, is a rather despicable character. He was a real traitor – in the pay of the English for most of his life and forever changing sides depending on the highest bidder. He even divorced his wife to woo the widow queen, Marie de Guise who – clever lady that she was – kept him dangling. His treachery, I’m sure, explains his son’s decision to remain true to the Hepburn motto: Keep Tryst, which means keep trust or faith. Whatever his faults, James Hepburn was loyal to Mary Queen of Scots.

Q. How long did it take you to research the novel? 

A.  It’s difficult to say exactly how long it took to research. For many years it was a labour of love – delving in the archives of the local library, unearthing scraps of information and putting together the pieces, like a giant jigsaw – until I had enough to create a story with a dark secret at the centre!

Q.  Did your research yield any surprises in terms of historical events or illuminate a character in a particular way?  

A.  I was surprised to find out how little was known about Knox’s early life and that most of the so-called facts had all been disputed. Since historians and biographers couldn’t answer satisfactorily questions that bothered me such as: Who were his parents? How did a poor orphan lad get an expensive education? – I didn’t feel so guilty about creating a fictional life for him.

Another surprise was discovering that Sir David Lindsay played a very important part in persuading Knox to become a Protestant preacher.  But the role of the playwright of Ane Satire of the Three Estates – a scathing attack on the Roman Catholic Church – is generally overlooked.

Q.  How long did it take you to write it (first draft)?  

A.  The first draft took me ages to write, gathering information and then discarding it. I lost count of the number of rewrites. All in all, it probably took five years.

Q.  What part of the novel writing process was most difficult?  Easiest? 

A.  The most difficult part was finding my novelist’s voice. That was a struggle. Coming from an academic background, I was more inclined to preach and teach and so had to drag myself away from ‘telling’ and learn to do lots more ‘showing’. But writing fiction has given me a tremendous freedom – to speculate about facts, make leaps of the imagination and, more importantly, create an inner life for my characters.

Q.  Where did you unearth all those terrific Scots phrases, some of which are not used too often these days?  

A.  Though many may struggle with the dialect I would defend my use of Scots. Especially after one of the publisher’s readers advised ditching the dialect as it might put readers off, so I did. But then, after I’d rewritten the whole novel in Standard English, it was returned with the instruction: ‘Put all the Scots words back in! It’s lost it’s magic, it’s lost its authenticity, its uniqueness.’ In other words, I had lost my voice!

I deliberately don’t use colloquialisms such as cannae, dinnae etc., but try to pepper the narrative with Scots words and phrases to give it a strong flavour. I would also advise readers to relax and go with the flow – it’s not essential to understand the exact meaning of every word – but I hope the sense can be grasped within the context.

For authentic vocabulary I sifted through Scottish literature of the 16th century (which I love) including David Lindsay’s play Ane Satire of the Three Estates, the poetry of the makars; William Dunbar, Gavin Douglas and Robert Henryson. And tales and ballads were a great resource, too.

Q.  How did you plan your outline — or did it evolve organically?  Did you use any of the writing tools, software out there?  

A.  I read as widely as possible for the historical background and because I can’t read my own handwriting I type out all the information I’ve gleaned.  Then I sift through my notes, looking out for pivotal points, inciting scenes, hinges of the narrative: life-changing events when decisions have to be made, challenges met, characters fall in love or fall out. Anything that will provide drama and conflict.

I try to visualise these pivotal points in a scene, like a film, and draft it like a screenplay, with each scene forming the basis of a chapter. To keep me on track, I have to give a title to each chapter e.g. Birth, Flodden, The Miracle. Then I fill in the gaps with dialogue, description, details.

I don’t have any fancy writing tools or software – just Word. I did investigate one or two but in the time it would take me to learn how to work it I could have written the novel.

Q.  If you had one piece of advice for new historical fiction writers with work in progress what would it be?

A.  Write every day. The brain is like a muscle and gets flabby if not exercised – even if it’s only half-an-hour. It’s amazing what can get done in that time.

Q.  What is the best and worst advice you got while writing?

A.  Stay true to yourself and don’t be waylaid by the naysayers.  Worst piece of advice – for me at any rate – was: Ditch the dialect!  But there won’t be as much Scots in the next volume as Knox spent most his time in England and Geneva and had to learn to speak like a southerner!

Q. When is the next book in the trilogy due to be released?

A.  The working title of the next book is ‘The Second Blast of the Trumpet’ and is planned for released in 2015.  It  will cover Knox’s life in exile from 1549 to 1559 when he returns to Scotland.

Some other posts on John Knox you might find interesting 

Marie MacPherson’s debut novel makes John Knox likable

FirstblastThe First Blast of the Trumpet” is the first of three novels about the life and times of Scottish Reformation preacher John Knox, brilliantly told by Marie MacPherson. The novel begins in pre-Reformation Scotland under James IV, a period of relative stability in the country in which three young girls, including Elisabeth Hepburn, the daughter of the Earl of Bothwell, are coming of age. Elisabeth’s hopes for marriage to David Lindsay are thwarted when she is commanded by her family to enter a convent. It soon becomes clear that Elisabeth is the thread that ties together a diverse cast of characters, from John Knox and Marie of Guise to Cardinal David Beaton and Mary, Queen of Scots. Elisabeth’s family and friends become divided over the need to curtail some of the excesses of the Catholic Church in Scotland.

The author deftly tackles a very complicated, emotionally charged subject and brings it to life with historical and emotional accuracy. John Knox is not, to my mind, a particularly sympathetic figure in Scotland’s history, and yet in the young Knox Marie MacPherson creates a very likeable, though flawed character. I quite liked Knox and felt keenly his struggle to keep faith with his past but follow his calling. I also enjoyed the characterizations of Elisabeth, Davie Lindsay and George Wishart; their troubles tugged at the heartstrings. There is fantastic Scots dialect throughout the book, which as a Scot I enjoyed, but others may wish to have had a glossary in the back of the book.

This review was first published by the Historical Novel Society in the Historical Novel Review August 2013.  

Mary Queen of Scots, CW’s “Reign”, historical accuracy and why I’ll watch anyway

Reign

Cast of Reign, premiering on the CW Network 17 October 2013

Pity the poor writers and producers of CW’s “Reign.” It has not yet hit TV screens in the US, yet the network is already defending the dramatic license they have taken with the series. (“Reign’ boss defends show’s relaxed approach to historical accuracy“).  The CW team, defending the series, keeps saying that they are “not the History Channel.”No really?   They need to come up with a response that has a bit more credibility. “We’re not the History Channel, so we can make up whatever we like” is not a real defense.  “We’re meeting a market need for a teenage, historical fiction drama and we chose to create a series about Mary Queen of Scots because  a) b) c) …”  might get them less flak and enable them to take their tin hats off.

I’ve already posted a couple of times my surprise that the CW would take huge license with the story of Mary, Queen of Scots.  Her life is replete with all the drama and scandal a series could wish for when told with detailed accuracy.  From the day she  escaped from the approaching English army and hid at Inchmahome Priory on Lake Menteith, Mary’s life was a rollercoaster of dazzling highs (crowned Queen of France) and humiliating lows (abdicating her throne; eventually being beheaded by her cousin Elizabeth I).  Who needs to make s*** up?  I could have given the CW years of great storylines on Mary and her posse (I’m still available for the asking, btw).  Skillfully handled, her story is amazing and heartbreaking.

I love the true life story of Mary Stuart.  I still have a copy of from the early 1970s of Lady Antonia Fraser‘s wonderful non-fiction biography of her, which I read when I was just eleven years old (and very precocious with it!) and captivated me.  I hate that her life is being brought to the small screen with less than great attention to detail and the real drama that was her life.  It is my hope that the creators of Reign have color just a little outside the historical lines, and not disregarded them completely.

But I get it,  I watch the CW from time to time.  OK.  Week to week.  I confess I have a wee addiction to the CW’s ‘Vampire Diaries‘ and have always thought that Ian Somerhalder would make the perfect Pierre de Bocosel de Chastelard (here’s my blog post on that sensational story).   I know, I’m probably the oldest CW viewer (it’s sad really).   There is absolutely nothing real about the Vampire Diaries, nothing at all and yet I love it.  Similarly, I watched Starz’s ‘DaVinci’s Demons‘ which, I’m guessing, bears not much more than a passing nod to reality, but I enjoyed it anyway.  Ditto both  The Tudors and The Borgias TV series.  In the CW’s defense,  its target market is probably the 18-24 year-old crowd who want fast-paced, slightly steamy entertainment (I’m guessing here, but I was in that age bracket once) and that target audience are not too worried about what is true and what is not.  The CW is great at marketing to its target audience, and I have to believe they know what it wants.

So if writers and producers make free with historical fact, but create really entertaining drama, should we complain?  Is the CW getting an undeserved kicking before the show even airs?  Perhaps.  For me, I have to see how far they’ve taken their creative license.  I mean, if teenage Mary Stuart starts having it away with, say Nostradamus (who I understand is cast as a young big of al’right played by Rossif Sutherland) I might complain.  But if they are making more of the relationship between Mary and the Dauphin Francis, her betrothed, then I could be OK with it.

One way or another I’ll be watching the series end-to-end when it premiers in October.   For one thing, I can’t imagine Megan Fellows as Henry II’s wife, Catherine de Medici.  It will take some great acting to make me see her as anyone other than Anne of Green Gables!  (Megan, I’m rooting for you.)

Here’s a link to a preview.  (Someone tell me why Mary, Queen of Scots, has an English accent? — People! The actress is Australian, surely they could’ve coached her?)

The Beginning of the End – Rizzio’s Murder at Holyrood

English: The Murder of David Rizzio, oil on pa...

English: The Murder of David Rizzio, oil on panel, Depicts the killing of David Rizzio, secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots, by a group of nobles including Lord Darnley (the Queen’s husband), Lord Ruthven and the Earl of Morton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today marks the 447th anniversary of David Rizzio’s murder in Mary Queen of Scots’ chamber at Holyrood Palace.  Rizzio’s gruesome murder on March 9, 1566 marked a watershed in Mary Stuart’s reign in Scotland.  One could call it the beginning of the end.  Rizzio himself was not all that important except as a focal point for the Protestant Scottish nobles, led by Patrick, Lord Ruthven and aided and abetted by Mary’s husband Henry, Lord Darnley.   The pact that sealed Rizzio’s death also sealed Darnley’s, though he could not have known it at the time.  Rizzio’s death was the first in a series of incidents that destabilized Mary’s reign.  Eighteen months later Mary was forced to abdicate in favor of her son James.

David Riccio di Pancalieri was born about 1533 to a well-known Piedmontese family somewhere near Turin, Italy.  He was employed by the Duke of Savoy as a valet and musician and traveled with the Duke’s ambassador, Signor di Moretta to Scotland in 1561.  He left the Duke’s employ to become one of Mary’s musicians – she needed a bass singer!  This was not a particular sign of favor, according to John Guy in The True Life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots Mary “always” had musicians and minstrels on her payroll including five viol players, three lute players, several pipers and a shawm (early oboe) player.  Most contemporary sources agree that David “Davy” Rizzio was ugly.  Lady Fraser, author of Mary, Queen of Scots reports he “extremely ugly by the standards of the time, his face being considered ill-favored and his stature small and hunched.

How did Rizzio go from a singer in a “band” to Mary’s private secretary?   Prior to 1564 Mary’s French secretary was Raulett, a cipherer who was also a retainer of the Guise family, her relations on her mother’s side.  He was the only person beside Mary who had the key to the black box that contained her secret papers.  In the run up to Mary’s marriage to Darnley, something must have happened to precipitate Raulett’s dismissal.  She replaced him with David Rizzio – a move that seems odd in that he does not, on the face of it, appear to have been qualified.

Not long after Rizzio took over Mary’s French correspondence, she took a shine to her cousin Henry, Lord Darnley—the great-grandson of Henry VII through his daughter Margaret.  By April 1565 she was crazy in love with Darnley, so much that the English Ambassador Randolph said she “whom ever before I esteemed so worthy, so wise, so honorable in all her doings” was now altered “to the utter contempt of her best subjects.”   But as Darnley rose in Mary’s opinion he was falling out of favor with the Scots nobles who thought him arrogant and unpleasant.

Rizzio was riding high in favor of both Mary and Darnley in 1565.  John Guy flat out says the two men were found in bed together.  Clearly no one mentioned this to Mary, but Lady Fraser suggests the Four Maries and the majority of Scots nobles were against the match. Fraser notes that Rizzio was the only person who really supported her marriage to Darnley.

Mary’s marriage to Darnley was a disaster.  It provoked the Scots nobles, notably Mary’s brother James Stewart, Earl of Moray into a rebellion, ostensibly because they feared the return of Catholicism to Scotland.  Darnley was a member of the Lennox Stewart clan and there was a not unreasonable fear that clan’s power would overwhelm the others—in particular Moray and others who were de facto ousted from their closeness to Mary.  Moray fled to England where he continued to stir the nobles.

Darnley expected to become King Henry by receiving the crown matrimonial.  Even before the bloom was off their marriage, which didn’t take long, Mary shied from granting him that power.  When Darnley took out his frustrations on Rizzio, who he began to feel had undue influence on Mary.   It was not difficult for dissatisfied Protestant Lords to convince Darnley they could kill Rizzio and put him on the throne.   They convinced Darnley that Mary was committing adultery with Rizzio and further suggested he was a spy for the Pope. (No evidence exists to suggest he was anything on than a singer who gained the trust of a sovereign.)

More than a dozen Scottish nobles conspired to kill Rizzio in the Queen’s presence.  They ambushed Rizzio’s in Mary’s supper chamber – a small narrow room (I’ve seen it, amazingly tiny)—at Holyrood and demanded Mary hand him over.  She refused and in response had a gun pointed at her — Mary was seven month’s pregnant at the time.  They stabbed Rizzio more than 50 times before throwing him down the staircase, stripped of his jewels and clothes.  He was buried within a few hours of his death somewhere in the grounds at Holyrood.

It is not clear to me how much real power and influence Rizzio had with Mary.  He certainly died with a large sum of money (over £2,000, which is a lot for a man who made just £80/year), so perhaps he was taking bribes and peddling influence.  It is clear he rose high, had few friends and far too many enemies.

An accurate portrayal at the expense of empathy? The Forgotten Queen by D. L. Bogdan

The Forgotten QueenI was keen to read a novel about Margaret Tudor, the feisty grandmother of Mary, Queen of Scots.  Unfortunately, I liked Margaret Tudor less at the end of the book than I did at the beginning.

I’ve read a fair bit of history on Margaret and Mary, the sisters of Henry VIII – enough to know that D. L. Bogdan’s The Forgotten Queen is a fairly historically accurate, if fictionalized, account of the life and times of Margaret Tudor, Queen Consort of Scotland’s James IV.   It is a well-written chronological telling of Margaret’s life, from her childhood at Sheen to her three marriages in Scotland finally her last role as mother of James V.

Early in the novel, Bogdan does a good job of setting the stage for the later enmity Henry VIII had for his sister.  Keep in mind Henry VIII left Margaret and her heirs out of his will and out of the English succession.  Scotland and England were constantly on the brink of war–there were many Border skirmishes and several outright heartbreaking bloody battles, such as Flodden where James IV died.  Against this reality, Margaret struggled with where her loyalty lay – to England as a Tudor Princess, or to Scotland as a Stewart Queen and mother of the heir.  Bogdan captures this tension well.  Bogdan also does a great job evoking Scotland and its palaces – places I visited last year like Linlithgow, Holyrood, and Falkland.

But I’ll just say it.  As the main character in a novel, this Margaret Tudor left me cold.  I wanted to warm to her, but she was vain, greedy, petty and a bit of a narcissist.  Now perhaps she really was all those things, but it did not make me like her, or really want to read about her.  She was utterly lacking in humility.  (She might have been a bit like her brother Henry).  Ultimately, her negative character traits were not offset by enough positive traits.   It may have been an accurate portrayal of Margaret, but it could have used some empathy.  Perhaps that was hard given some of Margaret’s decisions.

This was my first D. L. Bogdan novel.  Despite my feelings for this Margaret Tudor, I would definitely read another.

So if you like all things Tudor, it is worth a read. And if you didn’t have much passion for Margaret Tudor before, you may not upon finishing the book.  I’d be interested to hear what you think.  Below I’ve linked to another review of The Forgotten Queen.

Mary Queen of Scots executed Chastelard 450 years ago today. Why?

Mary Stuart and Chastelard by Linton, Sir James Dromgole (1840-1916); Private Collection; (add.info.: Mary Stuart and Chastelard. Illustration for Mary Queen of Scots edited by W Shaw Sparrow (Hodder & Stoughton, c 1910).); © Look and Learn; English,  out of copyright

Mary Stuart and Chastelard by Linton, Sir James Dromgole (1840-1916); Private Collection http://www.bridemanart.com #460699

Pierre de Bocosel de Chastelard (1529-1563) was famous for nothing until he surprised Mary, Queen of Scots in her bedchamber (twice) and she had him hanged.  It is a fascinating story to tell on this, the 450th anniversary of his execution (reported as either 20 or 22 February, 1563) at the Mercat Cross in St. Andrews.

Pierre was born about 1529 to Jeanne de Bayard and Francois Bocosel in Dauphiné, in southeastern France.  The family name had prestige, Pierre was the grandson of the famous Chevalier de Bayard known as “the knight without fear and beyond reproach” who symbolized the values of the French knighthood at the end of the Middle Ages.  He was the third of five children, at least two of whom eventually took Holy Orders and rose to run their respective religious houses.  As the middle son, he would have been expected to seek his fortune by carving out a career at court, or in the military.

Pierre chose a life at court, and became a page in the service of Constable Montmorency at the court of Henri II.   Lady Antonia Fraser recounts in Mary Queen of Scots that he was ” well-born, charming-looking, and gallant.”  He tapped into his chivalric ancestry by writing courtly love poems.  He had some talent and achieved recognition as a fringe member of the Pléaiade, a group of 16th-century French Renaissance poets whose principal members were Pierre de RonsardJoachim du Bellay and Jean-Antoine de Baïf.

His good looks and way with words may account for how a mere page fell into the orbit of Mary, Queen of Scots, and thus avoided obscurity.  Mary was in residence at the French Court from 1547 until 1561, during her betrothal and marriage to the son of Henri II, Francis and their reign as King and Queen of France.

Pierre fell in love with Mary, who is said to have encouraged his passion.  It is not clear during what time period this flirtation occurred, but most likely it was after the death of Mary’s husband in December 1560.  At any rate, Pierre was in the party escorting Mary back to Scotland in August 1561 with Montmorency’s son.

The story goes that he wrote poems to her–and she wrote back in kind. John Guy writes in his magnificent biography  The True Life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots that Mary responded to Chastelard’s poems in the spirit of courtly love, nothing more.

Mary may not have harbored any romantic feelings for Chastelard but her behavior gave rise to plenty of gossip.  Who says Mary’s friendship with Chastelard was anything but innocent?  Thomas Randolph, the English Ambassador to Scotland, Brantome, a notoriously unreliable French source and Mary’s nemesis, John Knox all suggest theirs was much more than a friendship.  Note that at this time Mary was busy looking for a new husband from powerful Catholic countries.  If true, why risk the stain on her honour?

In Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley, author Alison Weir recounts Randolph’s claim “that she permitted too great a degree of familiarity with ‘so unworthy a creature and abject a varlet.'”  Weir reports that John Knox also had plenty to say about how “Chastelard was so familiar in the Queen’s cabinet that scarcely could any of the nobility have access to her.”  She “would lie upon Chastelard’s shoulder and sometimes she would privily kiss his neck.”  What? What was Mary thinking—by this time she had been back in Scotland long enough to know that what might pass without comment at the French Court would cause a stir at the Scottish Court.   But is it true? And if it is, does it mean anything than Mary was a bit foolish, a bit lonely?

Could Chastelard’s infatuation have cloaked more sinister intentions?  There is some suggestion that Chastelard was a spy for the English–in particular for Sir Francis Walsingham and Sir William Cecil–but history is inconclusive.  What we do know is that he left Scotland for some time between September 1561 and returned in the autumn of 1562 having traveled through London making noise about returning to his lady-love in Scotland.  He could have picked up an assignment.  Weir reports that after Chastelard’s death William Maitland, Mary’s Secretary of State, told the Spanish Ambassador De Quadra that Chastelard confessed to being sent by Huguenots in France to ruin Mary’s reputation and foil her marriage plans with the Spanish heir, Don Carlos.

On his return to Scotland, Mary was glad to see him.  She gave him the gift of a horse that her brother had given her (re-gifting…), and some money to buy new clothes and danced with him during New Year’s celebrations.  Still, none of these actions was out of keeping with her behavior to other favorites.

Rossend Castle, shades of former glory.  Here in February 1563 Mary, Queen of Scots found Chastelard hiding under her bed.

Rossend Castle, shades of former glory. Here in February 1563 Mary, Queen of Scots found Chastelard hiding under her bed.

If he was just an obsessed, love-sick swain, he was also unlucky.  On his return, he displayed the poor judgment, or luck, to get caught in Mary’s bedchamber not once, but twice.  The first time, he hid under Mary’s bed at Holyrood Palace but discovered during a routine security search.  Mary banished him from Scotland.   Two days later in a move of epic stupidity, he followed Mary to Fife surprised her at Rossend Castle in Burntisland (which I visited last year) and caught her in the middle of disrobing. Chastelard had a dagger and/or sword with him.  Her shouts brought her brother, James Stewart, Earl of Moray to her aid.  Mary was so rattled that her chief lady-in-waiting, Mary Fleming, slept at the foot of her bed thereafter.

Whatever Mary’s true feelings for Pierre, she did not have much choice but to hang him for the attempted assassination after refusing several pleas for a pardon. At worst, he threatened Queen Mary’s life; at best, he threatened her good name either through his stupidity or on purpose as a spy.  After a week in the dungeons at St. Andrews, Pierre was hanged at the Mercat Cross in St. Andrews on February 20, 1563.  Chastelard made a dramatic exit, reciting Ronsard’s poem “Hymn of Death” and reportedly saying “”Adieu, most lovely and cruel of princesses!” This cannot have helped Mary’s reputation with the Reformists like John Knox.

Algernon Charles Swinburne, a 19th century intellectual and author, wrote Chastelard: A Tragedy  about his relationship with Mary Stuart and one of her ladies-in-waiting, Mary Beaton.  In the story, the three are caught in a tragic triangle that ends with his execution.  I do not believe there is any historical accuracy behind the concept of the love triangle, but it is a compelling idea.

Chastelard’s relationship with Mary intrigues me.  Was he obsessed but unrequited in love?  Or was he an infatuation of Mary’s, the inappropriate predecessor to the inappropriate Darnley and Bothwell?  As a writer, the what-if’s in this story fascinate me.  I wonder what the CW’s Reign will make of this?  (I know what I’m doing with this plot line!)

Already Getting It Wrong: CW’s “Reign” about Mary, Queen of Scots

Already Getting It Wrong: CW’s “Reign” about Mary, Queen of Scots

History is not that hard to get right people!  I am sorry to see that the producers and writers of the CW’s new teen drama “Reign”- if this story (link above) is to be believed – are playing a bit fast and loose with historical fact.

Mary Stuart left Scotland for the Court of Henri II of France when she was 6, not 15 years old.  I’m not sure why the need to change it — unless budget constraints prevent flashback to the reasons for her departure.  But it is a material point:  Mary left France so young and became French in so many ways.  That she became more French than Scots was one of many factors that hampered her return to rule Scotland.

Mary had four friends, all called Mary — known historically as “The Four Marys” (and yes, they are the subject of my novel).  The CW has created three Marys — another budget decision?

Apart from that, hurrah for the casting…

I will still watch, but I can tell it is going to drive me nuts.