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 Ronsard, Joachim 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.
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!)