Was My Field Research on the Queen and the Four Marys Just a Boondoggle?

Just a “few” guidebooks I picked up (which added 5 lbs to my suitcase weight)!

I’m back home, after an excruciatingly long flight from Scotland that involved at least eight hours of flight delays.  I was sorry we picked the day I returned to bring home our new puppy, because I was a weary mess.

The purpose of my trip was to see as many of the historical sites important to Mary, Queen of Scots and her Four Maries and kick off a fierce summer of writing with the goal of completing the first draft of my novel by the end of the year.  So how did I do?  What did I really accomplish?   And, was it even necessary in the era of Google Earth/Google Images?  Was I just on a big fat boondoggle? (What’s a boondoggle? It is when you go somewhere under the guise of doing work or business and in fact it is more party than anything else. Favorite American expression.)

Yes! I admit there was an element of boondoggle about my journey.  My parents are from Scotland (Fife) and I spent a lot of time there growing up.  Returning to see my cousins and old friends was fantastic, and I could have spent the two weeks roaming around seeing them.  As it was, I did not get to visit every relative and friend I had hoped to see.  Next time…

Could Google Earth have been a solid substitute?  I have a friend who writes romance novels and has written one set it Germany and England without ever having set foot in either country.  I thought she did a good job capturing England in the 1980s—and I was there at the time.  I’m writing about the 16th Century, which I can’t visit either.  So did being on the ground, viewing ruined castles help me write more detailed scenes?

I did a fair bit of research on Google Earth and Google Images and while it was helpful, there was nothing like being on site, or en route to a site.  I’d seen plenty of photographs of Hermitage Castle but nothing I saw prepared me for the sheer size of it tucked away in the lonely Borders.  No photograph can capture the pure joy I felt traveling through the Scottish countryside on a sunny day, or the miserable feeling I got when on a rainy day the relentless damp chilled my bones. My characters will feel that too.

As I went from place to place, photographing the ruins and researching what happened at each site, I was a little surprised at how being on the ground in castles like Loch Leven, Hermitage, Stirling gave me a greater appreciation for the chaos and strife of Queen Mary’s short, 7-year residence in Scotland during her reign.  I have known Queen Mary’s story since I was 12 and read Lady Antonia Fraser‘s biography Mary Queen of Scots (yes, I was a precocious child).  But knowing a story and feeling it are quite different.

Being on the ground here, I saw my characters a little differently, more deeply.  From the minute I hit the runway at Edinburgh airport I was more aware of the what it was like for five young women under 20 to return to their native lands and their families as almost foreigners.  They were, for all intents and purposes, French women but now expected to pick up a culture and life they had left behind 13 years earlier.  I could even liken their experiences to my own.

As I traveled to the sites and focused on what happened in the lives of Queen Mary or the Maries at each, it hit home how crisis-driven their lives became once they returned to Scotland.  I think of Queen Mary and her Maries as the “it” girls–the celebrities–of their day at the cutting edge of Renaissance culture and fashion. They caused comment wherever they went, whatever they did–and tabloid talk followed.  John Knox was like our on TMZ or News of the World. Queen Mary was a lightning rod for scandal—men fell deeply in love with her (John Gordon, Chastelard, Willie Douglas), never mind the men who wanted her crown (Darnley, Bothwell just for starters).

In that environment, I start to wonder what kept Queen Mary going?  Even after her low point, imprisoned at Loch Leven, she pulled herself together and escaped, rallied troops and went into battle.  She was no coward, no shrinking violet and neither were her Maries.  Seton was bold enough to join her at the Battle of Carberry, then body-double for Mary in her escape from Loch Leven, run with her to England, sharing her imprisonment.   Livingston likewise was at Carberry and she held onto Mary’s jewels and money even under duress from the Regent Morton as late at 1573.  Fleming and her husband held Edinburgh Castle in what can only have been diabolical conditions.

Queen Mary lurched from one crisis to the next, doing her best to manage each.  But with each crisis the stakes were raised higher and she finally lost everything.  Once Queen of France and Scotland, she spent half her life imprisoned.  And yet Queen Mary’s cause was not lost the day she fled to England–there were many, many in Scotland who remained loyal to her.  Not just Edinburgh Castle, but also Doune Castle and Dunbar held for her up until early 1570s, after she was under Elizabeth I’s eye.  Her Maries, their husbands and families all worked for her release and did not give up on it for a long time.  Queen Mary had been escaping from one sort of danger or another since her mother removed her from Linlithgow to Stirling in case she was abducted and taken to England at seven months old.  There was no reason to think once in England she would never see Scotland again.

For me, I can’t imagine writing this book without spending time in Scotland in the footsteps of my characters, seeing the worn stone steps in an ancient castle and knowing my characters helped with the wear and tear, or the fireplace where they would have sat and warmed themselves on a cold day, or following the route they took from one location to the next.

I admit I did not achieve everything I hoped to.  I could easily have spent another two weeks, or three, to really cover the ground.  And I might yet before it’s all done.  Remember, Queen Mary spent a lot of time in France…and England…Just sayin’.

In the meantime, I have journals and drafts and ideas floating in my head and a summer to get them all cohesively on paper. Carpe Diem!

17 comments on “Was My Field Research on the Queen and the Four Marys Just a Boondoggle?

  1. msemiliesofie says:

    Hi. I really enjoyed your posts as I am
    a huge history geek. I really like Reign but one thing that is now driving me crazy is the question who which of Mary’s ladies in waiting is which in real life. I know the story and perhaps the characters are quite different from history but do you have any idea which of the four Mary’s Kenna, Greer and Ayleen are supposed to be. I’m assuming Lola is Mary Hamilton because (spoiler) of the song (legend) of her having a kings bastard. Or what do you think/guess? 🙂

    • I would not keep yourself up at night worrying — there is really no discernible correlation between the girls on the CW’s Reign and the four girls named Mary (Beaton, Seton, Livingston and Fleming) who were Queen Mary’s life long friends and confidantes. Mary Hamilton, from the song, was not one of the Four Marys and had no connection to Mary Stuart. The person who had a King’s bastard was Janet Fleming, mother of Mary Fleming. Janet was the governess of Queen Mary. Reign is good fun, but from its setting to its costumes to its mastery of history it is an epic fail 🙂 Best, G

  2. Harry Doyle says:

    Geri, I’m doing a talk on Hamilton ladies. CAN YOU POINT TO A PORTRAIT OF Lady Margaret Douglas who married James Duke of Chatelherault?

    • Hi Harry – I am sorry, I can’t the only ones I’ve seen are for the other Margaret Douglas — daughter of Margaret Tudor. When’s your talk?

    • Jennifer Kristy McDOnald says:

      Lady Margaret Douglas and her sister Elizabeth were the daughters of James Douglas 3rd Earl of Morton and Lady Catherine Stewart (the daughter of James IV and Marion Boyd).

      Margaret married James Hamilton 2nd Earl of Arran, Regent and Duke of Chatelherault. He was the flip-flop who seemed unsure of his faith, or who the Queen should marry. Nonetheless, it seems he was always a supporter, and faithful servant of Mary; even though he often presented himself as otherwise, for example in his personal dealings with Henry VIII. They say that it was Arran’s departure from Edinburgh that sparked the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh because Henry lost confidence in the Scots to hand Queen Mary over.

      Elizabeth married James Douglas 4th Earl of Morton (through Elizabeth), and Regent, who assisted in the murder of Rizzo, was instrumental in the imprisonment of Mary in Loch-Leven Castle, he even helped write and signed the charter authorizing and detailing the reasons for her internment. Interestingly, among the stated reasons were her endangerment of her son and heir, and her conspiracy to kill Darnley. When he murdered Rizzo the pregnancy of Mary was put in grave danger, and a gun was even pointed to her belly—was it his? Later he was actually tried executed for his part in the conspiracy to murder Darnley.

      Margaret was a 1st cousin to Queen Mary and also is my 15x great-grandmother. I have searched everywhere for portraits of her and of her mother, Catherine Stewart without any success. The only portrait I have see is of Catherine’s half sister Janet Stewart, aka Lady Flemming, the mother of Mary Flemming. One would assume that there would at least be small portraits for carrying about. Given the extreme wealth of these Earls, I would be shocked if there were not full portraits painted at some point in time. However, as the homes of these people changed hands many times, saw serious damage due to neglect, destruction in battle, even housing of soldiers in the 20th century, it is easy to imagine much being lost to posterity.

      If anyone has any knowledge of portraits of any of these fine women, or more information on their lives, or letters. Please post that information here! TTFN Jennifer

      • That portrait of Janet “Jenny” Stewart is quite unflattering! There may well have been full portraits painted but they could have been burned, painted over, ruined…lots of damp weather, lots of mayhem in Scottish history.

    • Jennifer Kristy McDOnald says:

      Hi Harry!

      I think you’re in luck. I was just rummaging in a drawer of notes and I found a page with portraits of Hamilton the elusive Lady Margaret Douglas!! I am not sure the source. I could scan it in and send it to you, or search tomorrow for the source. Let me know!!!

      TTFN Jennifer

      • That would be terrific! Thanks

      • Jennifer Kristy McDOnald says:

        Hi Geri,

        I think there is one detail I need dear… How can I send the
        image to you and/or Harry?

        BTW… While the image was referred to as Margaret Douglas
        the wife of James Hamilton, Earl of Arran, I cannot recall the source
        collection, which should be able to confirm the identity; one learns
        to be careful—there is always the chance it could be Lady Margaret
        Douglas, daughter of Margaret Tudor. Her image is much more common
        being that she was a Tudor.

        I will see what I can discover.

        TTFN Jennifer

  3. Jennifer Kristy McDOnald says:

    Hi!! I think your research trip to Scotland was amazing, and will doubtlessly add to the authenticity and sense of connection in your writing. I am a “Highland Girl/Lass”, well at least by ancestry on both sides of my family—-“Jennifer Kristy McDonald”… Dad was a McDonald and my maternal grandmother was a MacDonald. Same name actually; it turns out that my Catholic mom and Presbyterian father were 9th cousins—that is using the data I have,,, They may be closer as there are only three lines that I can trace back beyond their immigration to Nova Scotia. My MacDonald forbears came either as a direct result of the Jacobite Rebellion of 45/46 (many were killed at Culloden) or the Highland Clearances.

    My research has discovered very deep faimily connections with the saga of Mary Queen of Scots that includes her “four Marys”. There is a deep kin/blood relationships between the MacDonalds and the Stewarts fostered by many generations of inter-marriage. Similar to Clan Donald and many of the other great clans, the Stewarts, and their descendants, including Elizabeth II, are directly descended from the Father of Clan Donald—the 1st Gaelic (half anyway) Lord of the Isles: Somerled.

    One of my 8th great-grandfathers, Hugh MacDonald of Glenmore was married to Anne Robertson of Struan—daughter of Sir Alexander Robertson, 16th Earl of Struan and 12th Chief of Clan mac Donnchaihd. Anne Robertson, herself the half sister of Alexander Sturan—the 17th Earl of Struan, the satirical anti-English poet and only Clan Chief to have participated as an active combatant in all three Jacobite uprisings, was the great-great-great grand-daughter of James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Arran and his wife Lady Margaret Douglas—daughter of James Douglas, 3rd Earl of Morton and Catherine Stewart—daughter of King James IV and Margaret Boyd. So, my 14th great-grandmother Margaret Douglas was the (1/2) 1st Cousin of Mary Queen of Scotts. Moreover, her husband,my 14th great-grandfather was the flimsy Earl of Arran, James Hamilton.

    Arran, who was “2nd” of the realm served and 1st Regent in the minority of Mary, and was so consumed with maximizing the “opportunities” he had that he failed Scotland and Mary. He wore the crown at the infant Mary’s coronation—the first person to wear it (it was designed by James V). He first supported the marriage of Mary to Edward VI, then helped arrange the betrothal the French Daupin. When the young French King died he lobbied for Mary to wed his son James Hamilton, 3rd Earl of Arran who was known to be very mentally unstable. Then he offered his son’s hand to Elizabeth 1st who rapidly declined with due respects.

    Certainly, there were many Douglases and Hamiltons who played important roles in the fate of Mary Queen of Scots, Scotland, and indeed the entire future of Britain and her empire, including the American Colonies. The were also tied by kinship with the Stewarts, the Beatons, the Setons, the Flemings and the Livingstones. Lady Margaret Douglas was 1st cousin to both Queen Mary of Scots and Mary “Lusty” Livingstone, and she was 1st cousin once removed to Mary Seton!.Also, since Mary Fleming’s mother Lady Janet Fleming was also the daughter of James IV (through his 4th mistress), she was a (1/2) first cousin to the Queen and also to Margart Douglas. All this makes me very curious about the relationship of Margaret to Queen Mary, and indeed all the Marys!?

    Another interesting twist is that Lady Margaret Douglas had a sister—Elizabeth Douglas, also the first cousin of Mary Queen of Scots. She, however, married James Douglas, the 4th Earl of Morton, Regent during the minority of James VI, and Chancellor of Scotland. He was among the lords who forced Mary to abdicate while held at Loch-Leven, He was likely one of the active participants in the murder of Rizzo, and was also suspected of being involved in the murder of Darnley. He was eventually tried, convicted and beheaded for his part in the murder of Rizzo. But how deeply did his treachery go? Was he involved with Walsingham and the conjured plots used to implicate the emotionally tortured and physically fragile Mary Stuart? He did his part in quashing as much Scottish support for her during her 19 years held in England as an untried “enemy combatant”. It was as much the tenor of Scottish opinion and action/inaction as the fears of Elizabeth and plots of Walsingham that kept Mary in England, and lead to her eventual entrapment and execution. How did these huge divides within these families affect the relationships? There must have been love, hate, betrayal, conspiracy—and of course plenty of clandestine affairs and secretive lusts going on!

    My family connections to the saga do not stop there. Anne Robertson was also great-great-great grand-daughter of Agnes Beaton, daughter of David Beaton, 4th Laird of Creich and the brother of Mary Beaton! Mary Beaton herself was only a distant cousin of the Queen who was a 1st Cousin of Mary Fleming and 3rd Cousin to both Mary Livingstone and Mary Seton. In turn, Mary Livingstone was 2nd Cousin to both Mary Fleming and Mary Seton. Finally, Marys Seton and Fleming were 3rd Cousins, Of course the Seton and Beton brothers had important roles in the support of Queen Mary. It is apparent that my ancestor Margaret Douglas, and her sister Elizabeth, the wife of Hamilton, 4th of Morton (anti-Mary) had the closest kin connection with all five of the Marys. I wish there were letters, and other clues as to the nature of all these relationships and how they evolved over time. For those who lived to know of the brutal end to Mary Queen of Scots, how did it affect them and their families—on either side? Was there reconciliation or forgiveness? Given the strife and looming civil wars and religious revolutions I wonder if things didn’t just get even worse—more divided. In those times people turn to other things—romance, comfort and safety whenever and however they can get it.

    As a final word a comment about the Douglases of Lochleven. and Angus. It was William Douglas, 8th of Lochleven and 5th Earl of Morton (he succeeded to the title after the forfeiture of James Douglas, 4th of Morton on his execution—of course he only inherited the title through his wife Elizabeth, daughter of his distant kin James Douglas 3rd Earl of Morton. William Douglas of Lochleven must have conspired with the 4th Morton in the entire affair. Of course his wife was a mistress of James V, and mother of Queen Mary’s half-brother James. Sticky! There was kin relationship between my Lady Margaret and her sister Elizabeth Douglas and this William of Lochleven. The 5 x great-grand-father of the Morton Douglas sisters and the same of the Lochleven Douglas William were brothers! They were 7th cousins—about 200 years of distance. Nonetheless, in Scotland kin is kin. Finally, the Angus Douglases played their own role being part of the Lennox/Darnley Stuart family. They too were kin to the Morton Douglases. Perhaps even a little closer than the Lochlevens.

    So… As you think about and write on the four Marys I think you should consider some of the families and relationships that tied them together—and that pulled Scotland apart. The Douglas Houses of Morton, Lochleven and Angus, and the Hamilton house of Arran. Powerful families with split beliefs, objectives and loyalties—loyalties that could change for love, money or power at any time! Along with the FIVE Mary girls, their families played huge roles in the fate of Mary Queen of Scots and the three kingdoms, and they were close kin to the Douglas and Hamilton Lords—and these otherwise obscure to history, but intriguing sisters: Margaret and Elizabeth Douglas (of Morton) who were positioned to play pivotal roles in the lives of the five Marys.

    I am really so excited about your book. If you tell me something about any historical source material you know of w.r.t. the four Marys I would be thrilled. So little information seems available. Even that great book by Antonia Fraser, that I also read as a young girl, has very little of substance to say about them, or their relationships with the Queen. The exception being, to some extent her relationship with Mary Seton. There must be letter between the Queen and her guardians, her mother, her confidants, her ministers that mention the Marys? There must be letters between her and the Marys, between the Marys, between the Marys and their family members. There must be diaries, charters, records of expenditures, itineraries… anything that can fill in more details about these intimate and at times fun-loving, youthful, and naive girlhood-to-womanhood relationships. Likewise. why have the relations and roles of the Douglas sisters been ignored? Is there any documentary record? How could people be so closely involved without being invested in the people—especially when the are all close cousins? Why would it be neglected by history???

    I’ll tell you why. Because most history has been written by men. Would a man be so interested in the four Marys? Well, OK, maybe today… But, not over most of the years since 1542. What men would have searched for the feminine relationships between all these women—as girls and as adult woman. There are after all so many men who had the power and we all know that it was Mary Queen of Scots femaleness that destroyed her… At least that is the contemporary male view—it started with a lass—it’ll end with a lass… Know and his hatred of all things feminine or female. But, today we know that femininity is powerful, and femaleness is a characteristic to celebrate and have pride in, hope in. It is strong and meaningful. The girls and women are every bit as important as the men and their killing.

    As a woman I am thrilled to hear about you and your interests. As an aspiring writer myself you a great inspiration with respect to your work, and your work in particular as a woman. I have great pride in the entire range of my heritage; but it seems so dominated by men and the masculine. I a proud of my femaleness, and long to learn more about the women of my families past, and the women who shaped history in silent obscurity!

    Mary Queen of Scots was the first any only female Scottish monarch (in her own right). She was assailed, used and scapegoated for being a woman—a feminine woman at that. In the same era England had their first true female monarchs: the Tudor half-sisters Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth I; I believe their inherent and glorious femininity. especially that of Elizabeth has been revised and relegated to a spurious, weak and unwanted characteristic. The rhetoric of the speech that was never given by Elizabeth prior to expected arrival of the Spanish Armada is an example. As a female I find it a sad commentary that we still seem to hold strong to these views in so many ways…The wonderful films of Elizabeth with Gwen Paltrow portrayed her as a woman, a beautiful women with love, lust and stunning feminine grace and power. But, they still emphasized her full-scale “transformation” to something “less than a woman”, “Kingly” but still not man. They even had her recite the words “I have but the weak and feeble body of a woman. But I have the heart of a Prince…” Words she never said. Anyone with a heart need only see the letter written to her by Dudley just before his death. Elizabeth kept it in a special place. On the reverse of the folded page she simple wrote the words “His last letter”. A solemn reminder that she had the heart of woman. How she must have held that letter, how deeply she must have felt and examined her own life as she wrote those words and placed the letter in a box.
    Britain has only had three female monarchs since then… Queen Anne — the last Stuart whose reign was very short, Queen Victoria and the present Queen: Elizabeth II (Anne, Victoria and Elizabeth I are all direct descendants of Mary Queen of Scots). Elizabeth I and Victoria are seen as so influential that each has an “age” named for her.

    I am so sorry for rambling so long… Your work sounds wonderful. I cannot wait to read the book.

    With best respects, TTFN
    Jennifer Kristy McDonald

    • Wow! Jennifer — Such rich and amazing information. I have a plan to produce the family trees of the Four Marys going back to their grandparents but just have not put it together yet, but I take your point that Scotland had its own version of civil war – brother vs. brother around the time of MQS and the Protestant Reformation.

      There is not a lot extant about the Four Marys, and I have talked with several historians. But these women and their mothers, for the most part, served Mary and her mother and there is more fodder than you think! In fact, my critique partner and I wonder if I don’t have two books.

      But I am a bit of a ways from publication – though the gap closes every day I write another 500 words.
      Thanks for stopping, I’ll keep you posted on how it is going and cannot thank you enough for such a magnificent post and genealogy!


    • Arsen says:

      Jennifer, after reading your post I felt compelled to write and say thank you for sharing. I have always felt a strange connection to Scotland and especially around Loch Leven at the time of the Queen’s imprisonment. I never understood how I can feel so connected when my family heritage is nowhere close (I’m American from Armenian descendants). The only way I’ve been able to express how I feel about that area and era is like being homesick for a place I’ve never been. Weird, I know, but it gets weirder. First time hearing about Mary, Queen of Scots was 7th grade world history class. Seeing the royal monogram used by the queen for the first time in a book, a great sadness, almost depression, came over me. I ended up at the nurses office feeling light headed. I concluded it was something I ate or coming down with a cold, but here I am, more than 25 years later, I still feel a great sense of sadness when encountering anything from her or from the times spent at Loch Leven castle. And as far as I know, I’m a fairly sane and practical person, but haven’t had much luck explaining the connection.

      Anyway, great to hear from someone with deep bloodline from a time and a place I hold close to my heart.

      And Geri, great site you have here. Best of luck with the book; looking forward to reading it.

      • Arsen – isn’t it true that there are places that move us, almost like they’ve been encoded in our DNA. For me, there were places in Donegal where I know my forefathers and mothers trod that resonated – like the earth recognized me. Not logical, not rational but there it was.
        Thanks for your great comment.
        Book progresses, slower than I would like…but all progress is good progress.

  4. Evelyne Coleman says:

    I love your blogs and am interested in reading your coming book.

  5. fmgibbons says:

    Does it matter? You had fun, no? Most of the time anyway.

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