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There's something about Mary, Queen of Scots

Centuries after her tumultuous life, the Scottish queen still fascinates. Wander the countryside around Edinburgh to learn a few truths, recapture a few dreams.

March 01, 2009|Susan Spano

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND — Standing in the rain atop Calton Hill, I could see the icy blue Firth of Forth. When the wind tried to grab my coat, I spun around and found the tapestry of Edinburgh at my feet.

Built up solidly now between city and bay, it isn't the town I dreamed of as a girl. But when I looked through my mind's eye, I could see the capital of the wild, green kingdom that 17-year-old Mary Stuart inherited from her father, King James V of Scotland.

Everyone who comes here, it seems, knows about the hapless Scottish queen whose execution for treason in 1587 at the behest of her cousin Elizabeth I of England has inspired books, plays, movies and continuing debate. When Elizabeth died childless in 1603, Mary's son, James VI of Scotland, was summoned to the English throne, uniting two incessantly warring realms into the nation we now know as Great Britain.

Once upon a time, I read every book about Mary in the library, most of them fictionalized accounts of her life that filled in the blanks left by history with sword fights and stolen kisses. To me, she was a brave and beautiful 16th century Princess Diana, ruled by her heart, ensnarled in events she couldn't control.

Historians have been equally fascinated by Mary, though their assessments have varied dramatically over time. In the immediate aftermath of her death, fellow Catholics thought of her as a martyr, while tracts appeared in Protestant Scotland that called her a traitor and libertine.

More recent considerations, including Antonia Fraser's 1969 biography, have sought to balance the quotients of scoundrel and saint, without finally determining what kind of woman she was. So I came to Scotland in August, trusting in travel to resolve the mystery or, at least, to help me remember why she once starred in my dreams.

By the time Mary landed at Leith just north of Edinburgh in 1561, she had been through more sorrows and joys than most people know in a lifetime. Her father, James V, died just days after she was born, lamenting that he had not been able to give the kingdom a male heir.

Crowned queen of Scotland as a wee babe, she had enough royal blood to sit on the throne of England as well (were Henry VIII not already occupying it). She was stalked by English armies and then taken to France for safekeeping; she eventually married Francis, the dauphin, who ascended the French throne a year later. Together, they ruled France for 13 months before he died of an ear infection in 1560, leaving Mary a young widow with one crown left -- a crown she had to return to Scotland to claim.

That is why I started my pilgrimage looking toward Leith, wondering how Mary, reared in the cultivated French court, felt when she set foot in Scotland. By all accounts, it was a cold, wet, poor, perpetually war-torn country on the fringe of European civilization, governed in her absence by a group of lords who, unlike devoutly Catholic Mary, had embraced the Protestant Reformation.

According to Brantome, a French courtier who accompanied Mary to Scotland, the horses provided to take her party from Leith to the Palace of Holyroodhouse were pitiful nags compared with the steeds she had ridden in France. Mary was an accomplished equestrian, statuesque, her mantle flying behind her. She spoke perfect French but hadn't forgotten the language of her people, which endeared her to commoners who lined the roads hoping for a glimpse of the goddess.

On landing, she immediately would have spied dour, gray Edinburgh Castle, but the royal party headed instead to Holyroodhouse on the eastern side of town, beneath the volcanic crag known as Arthur's Seat. Built around a medieval abbey, Holyroodhouse was Scotland's finest royal residence, turreted and towered in the manner of a Loire Valley chateau.

Today, the graceful palace faces the Scottish Parliament, a contemporary nightmare of a building opened in 2004. I pretended it wasn't there, went to the palace gate and bought a ticket, which includes an audio guide. The forecourt was the first stop, where, the guide said, Queen Elizabeth II approved the 1998 act hat gave Scotland home rule for the first time in almost 300 years.

Sovereignty was also the question when Mary first saw Holyroodhouse Palace. In the political chess game played by France and England, Scotland, and, more specifically, Mary were the prizes.

When the Scots annulled a treaty betrothing her to Henry VIII's son, Edward, the English king sent troops across the border into battles known as the Rough Wooing. Her marriage to the French dauphin made the English apoplectic, and she was an incessant nettle in the flesh of Henry's daughter by Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I, whom Catholics considered an illegitimately born usurper to the throne.

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