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'Mary, Queen of Scots:' Facts From Fiction

With the much anticipated film, 'Mary Queen of Scots' being a hot topic of conversation, let’s get some things straight about the two queens depicted in the film.

Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart and Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I  

As a historian and English history fanatic, it’s kind of my job to know the truth about subjects such as the Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I and the Tudors, which are so often portrayed in film and media, so as to dispel any misconceptions about them. We live in an age where people are getting their history lessons from movies and television shows and that is just not okay! I am aware that when producing a film about a historical event, period of time or particular characters that artistic liberties must sometimes be taken in order to captivate and engage audiences in a dynamic storyline. Sometimes the cold hard facts (for most people) just don’t make an interesting enough story to be considered a box office best seller. However, for someone like myself, historical accuracy can make or break the experience. 

If you’re not an Anglofile or someone who knows a lot about the subject, there are a few really basic things that really bothered me about the film that may not have been on your radar. Here are some simple things you should know: 

1. Mary Stuart did not have a Scottish accent...

For some, the fact that the actress portraying the Queen of Scots is actually Gaelic and has a legitimate Scottish accent may seem to add authenticity to the character. However, how could the Queen of Scots have spoken with such a thick Scottish accent if she lived most of her life in France and spoke primarily in French?

Mary became Queen of Scots no more than a week after her birth as her father King James V of Scotland died from what most historians believe was a bad fever. Having been crowned queen at such a young age, Mary’s life was immediately in danger and so was the sovereignty of Scotland as its growing Protestant neighbour, England was becoming increasingly hostile. Mary’s mother, Marie De Guise who ruled Scotland as regent until her death in 1560 made a strategical decision to offer her daughter as the future bride to the Dauphin of France, Francois de’Valois which would secure a Catholic alliance with France against England as well as safety for her young Queen.

Barely six years of age Mary was sent to France and engaged to the Dauphin. When life at French court seemed too dangerous, the Queen consort of France (Catherine D’Medici) set her to a convent to live her days away from the prying eyes of courtiers who may seek to hurt her. Mary did not return to Scotland until the age of 18, after ruling France as Queen consort for only one year. For over 10 years, the Queen of Scots live in France where she spoke primarily in French, educated in French, and spoke with a French accent.

I’ve been told that I’m probably making to big of a deal of this, but to me it matters! 

2. Elizabeth I was very much Mary’s superior in (almost) every conceivable way...

In the film, Mary Stuart is portrayed as a bold, heroic and as the overall better to Elizabeth I. However, inspiring, the real Queen of Scots may have been, her role as an empowered and venerated queen was a tad bit embellished in the 2018 film.

There is no denying the many similarities between the lives of Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart. Both of these women had been targets from the very beginning of their lives as they were perceived as threats in one way or another. Elizabeth and Mary had to live everyday of the lives looking over their shoulder and wondering who will try to kill them next. However, in terms of education and political prowess, Elizabeth takes the cake.

Elizabeth had a hard time for it, considered to be the bastard child of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Although the Vatican stood strong behind the fact that Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was valid, the king choose to marry Anne Boleyn anyway and pronounce her as the rightful Queen of England. Elizabeth went from being the apple of the King’s eye, to being the symbol of everything he resented about his relationship with Anne.

So having been stashed away for most of her life, Elizabeth received a very well rounded education in all subjects which better prepared her for when she eventually became Queen. Mary’s education pales in comparison to Elizabeth’s, although it wasn’t entirely her fault. Elizabeth was a poet, musician, an author, a politician, a historian and so much more. While being imprisoned for most of her life, she was fortunate enough to be exposed to brilliant tutors and great thinkers who helped shape her. She knew how to charm and engage all of her advisers, as well as make the many men who surrounded her respect and fear her.

Mary on the other hand, received a rather normal and less than satisfactory education. While being rather witty and intelligent in her own right, her mind was not as well shaped as Elizabeth’s and this most certainly reflected in how she approached ruling Scotland. Mary ruled Scotland with her heart, Elizabeth ruled England with her heart and mind. This is the main difference between the two Queens as rulers, and why Mary eventually met her sad ending. 

3. Mary and Elizabeth never met one another in person...

In the trailer to the film, we see a very heated one on one conversation between the two queens. The two are set in what seems to be a very private location, where they engage in banter with each other. Makes for very interesting viewing material, to see the two focal points face off. However, not factual, at all.

This is something that gets me heated every time I watch a film or television programme where Mary and Elizabeth are the main subjects. While the relationship between the two queens was dynamic and multifaceted, they never met face to face. They didn’t even know what the other one looked like aside from portraits. Even when Elizabeth had brought Mary to England, they never stepped foot in the same building as one another.

A lot of the conversation material used in the movie was loosely based off the copious letters that they had written to one another. One could argue that because of these letters, they knew each other rather well but unfortunately the dramatic head to head confrontation never happened.

I have spent countless hours consuming media material about the Tudors, Mary Stuart, Elizabeth I and Henry VIII. As I said before, I fully understand that sometimes you have to fluff things up in order to make them more interesting, more dynamic in hopes that it will captivate audiences and sell a lot of tickets. However, when I engage in conversations with people about these subjects and they proceed to tell me all these things they know (which turn out to be absolute nonsense) I’m often not surprised to find out they learned these things from a movie or show they watched.

Now I’m not saying that you have to go out and get an English history degree in order to enjoy this movie or other movies like it, but you should keep in mind not to take it entirely as fact. You’ll look rather silly when talking to a historian about the historic meeting that took place between Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I of England— that never happened.

Get your history lessons from books, documentaries and classes kids! Not from a box office hit you saw in theatres a few weeks ago! 

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'Mary, Queen of Scots:' Facts From Fiction
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