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Issue 78 - Mary Queen of France

Scotland Magazine Issue 78
December 2014


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Mary Queen of France

John Hannavy has toured France in search of Mary Queen of Scots' childhood

Brittany Ferries’ superferry Armorique turned in little more than her own length before backing up to the linkspan at Roscoff, after a relatively smooth crossing from Plymouth – and certainly one very different in every respect from that which was experienced by the five year-old Mary Stuart in the summer of 1548.

Mary Stuart – or Marie as she is known in France – had already had an event-filled life despite her young age. Born in Linlithgow Palace on 8 December 1542, she had become Queen of Scots less than a week later. She was crowned in September 1543, although as a child she was Queen only in name, the power being wielded by her mother, Mary of Guise, and a large group of powerful Scottish and French nobles.

Scotland was a turbulent place at the time and for reasons of safety and politics, it was decided to send her to France, to be educated in French ways, and to forge a stronger bond between the two countries. With her four closest friends and an entourage of other children, nobles and servants, the child Queen sailed from Dumbarton on the Clyde in late July, enduring a long and stormy passage before the tiny vessel carrying her dropped anchor at Roscoff on 13 August. Her four friends were her maids of honour, the ‘Four Marys’ – Mary Seton, Mary Beaton, Mary Fleming and Mary Livingstone who would remain with her throughout her life. In the Scotland and France of the 16th Century, ‘Marie’ meant both ‘virgin’ and ‘maid’.

Unlike the four Marys – who were violently seasick during much of the stormy crossing – the young Queen apparently showed remarkable resilience, supporting and comforting her friends during their ordeal. For a five year-old child, being shipped to a new life in what might as well have been the other side of the world so fas as she was concerned, Mary was already showing her character.

In Roscoff, in the wall of an old building, there is a Gothic doorway – all that survives from the chapel of St Ninian, a saint unknown in France but, of course, very familiar to all Scots. Tradition has it that the chapel was built to give thanks for the Queen’s safe passage, so it is fitting that the doorway was preserved when the chapel was demolished in 1919. Today, it bears a much eroded commemoration of Mary’s arrival in France.

For a five year-old Scots girl, even a five year-old Scots Queen, the transition to France must have been both traumatic and enchanting. Traumatic as she was rarely to see her mother again; enchanting, because the world of a young royal at the French court must have been much more engaging than anything she had experienced back home.

Brought up with the children of the French King – and given a very high status amongst them because she was already a crowned Queen – she entered into, and readily adopted, French culture and the court lifestyle – one which surrounded her with servants and wealth the like of which she had probably never dreamed.

Marie grew up alongside the Dauphin, the heir to the French throne, and by the age of fifteen was married to him, promising a union of the French and Scots crowns – the idea which had prompted her being sent to France in the first place. On 10 July 1559, five months before her seventeenth birthday, she was Queen of both France and Scotland, albeit married to the rather sickly François II.

Life in the French court was a strange one – the family seems to have been constantly on the move. So, while in her few years under the protection of the French monarch, the young Marie enjoyed a relatively stable childhood, much of it at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where the French King’s own children lived. However, the itinerant lifestyle of the French Court meant that she and François spent a lot of time in many of the great châteaux of France.

Starting in the year 1550, at Saint-Germain, the household moved to Fontainebleau for the month of April, and spent much of the autumn in Touraine and on the Loire. 1551 saw them start the year at Muedon, before spending time at Blois, Fontainebleau, Amboise and Saint-Germain.

While King Henri II of France thought ‘the little Queen of Scots is the most perfect child I have ever seen’ others were less kindly towards her. At the age of only nine, during a visit to the great château at Amboise on the Loire in 1551, an attempt was made on her life by one of her own guards who tried to poison her through her favourite dessert of frittered pears. Nobody has ever fully explained the reason behind this attempt on her life – or why – but one Robert Stuart was eventually imprisoned at Angers before being hanged, drawn and quartered for the crime.

Mary is said to have very quickly adapted to court life, learning to speak French fluently, becoming interested in French art and history, and readily adopting all of the trappings of an important royal personage. The French court’s legendary extravagance certainly introduced her to a heavily pampered lifestyle. Writing in 1891 in
La Première Jeunesse de Marie Stuart, Alphonse de Ruble recounted just one day’s food for the royal children’s household – on 8 June 1553, while in residence at Blois, they allegedly consumed 250 loaves, 18 sides of beef, eight sheep, four calves, 20 capons, 120 chickens and pigeons, three deer, six geese, and four hares! It was a very large household!

Amboise was a regular home for the French Royal Family, its close proximity to good hunting country, and its heavy fortification made is especially attractive at times when the French throne was under threat. But Mary also enjoyed many visits to Chenonceau, where Diane de Poitiers, Henri II’s favourite mistress, took her riding and taught her falconry.

Mary and François were married at Notre Dame on 24 April 1558, less than three weeks after their betrothal had been announced at the Louvre Palace, and the teenage couple honeymooned at Villiers-Cotterets before starting their married life together at Fontainebleau.

Fontainebleau was one of François’s favourite residences. It was where he had been born in 1543, and for much of his childhood the palace was undergoing a major expansion and refurbishment under the guidance of his father. Like the lands around Blois and Chambord, the forest of Fontainebleau allowed the young Dauphin to indulge his passion for hunting – a passion which also took him to Chartres and the lands around Loches.

François was crowned at Rheims on 18 September 1559, and under French tradition, his Queen would normally have been crowned separately and later, but as Mary was already a Queen, that was not deemed necessary. A bright future for Scotland and France was envisaged, but typical of the tragedy which repeatedly beset her life, the young Mary was widowed just over a year later when François died at Orléans on 5 December 1560, a month short of his 17th birthday.

1560 had not been a good year for François or Mary. They had narrowly escaped an attack at Blois in the spring of that year – Huguenots under the command of Godefroy de Barry, Seigneur de La Renaudie, had planned to kidnap the young King and Queen – but La Renaudie and his followers had not realised that the court had moved to Amboise. The failed conspirators – 1,200 of them reportedly – were arrested, brought to Amboise and hanged or butchered outside the castle windows so everyone could watch. Mary, perhaps because she was unwell, or perhaps just because she abhorred violence, avoided witnessing the hideous spectacle.

After the death of François, Mary went into the expected period of mourning, but her days in France were numbered. Despite having lived there for the majority of her life, she was no longer at the centre of court life, and pressures were mounting for her to return to Scotland, the country she had last seen when she was just five years old. In the spring and early summer of 1651, she travelled around all her de Guise relatives to bid her farewells, and on 14 August 1561 sailed from Calais to Leith in Scotland.

The tumultuous events which punctuated the rest of her life must have made her childhood at the French court seem idyllic.

The Scottish fleet came to Calais to take her home, and she arrived just a few days later at Leith before making her way to Holyrood. She was just 18 years old, and would never see her beloved France again.