It was to be quite the performance. Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart had grown up in each other’s shadows, and the two cousins now asserted shaky authority on neighbouring thrones. Finally, the queen of England and the queen of Scots were to meet. Elizabeth was to be the hostess and pulled out all the stops to impress, commissioning a series of masques for the occasion.
According to the masques’ central theme, ‘False Report’ and ‘Discord’ had slandered the two queens by spreading rumours of their rivalry. Over the course of three nights, Elizabeth and Mary could watch as the allegorical figures of ‘Prudentia’ and ‘Temperantia’ vanquished these malicious enemies and condemned them to eternal imprisonment in a dank Tudor dungeon.
After leading numerous prisoners around the stage in chains, the two heroines were to hand these enemies over to a jailor, arming him with a lock labelled ‘ineternum’ (forever) and key labelled ‘numquam’ (never). Few watching might have predicted that it was their royal guest, for whom this lavish entertainment had been commissioned, who would soon find herself the country’s most notorious prisoner.
The summit – and the masque – never happened. The proposed meeting in 1562, to be held at either Nottingham or York, was torpedoed by news of a massacre in the French village of Vassy. Mary’s French uncle, the Duke of Guise, had uncovered a barn hosting a large congregation of Huguenots for a semi-legal Protestant service; as a leader of the nation’s ultra-Catholic faction, he had been outraged (and later claimed the worshippers had hit him on the face with a shower of stones.) By the end of the altercation, his soldiers, who were armed with muskets, had slaughtered up to a hundred Protestants. It was one of the first clashes in what would become the French Wars of Religion.
Back in England, a meeting between Elizabeth and Mary had now become unthinkable. Elizabeth, Europe’s foremost Protestant, could hardly receive the Duke of Guise’s niece and so, after some discussion, the summit was cancelled. William Cecil, who had opposed it, was delighted. Mary, who had been convinced her personal charisma could induce Elizabeth to name her as her successor, took to her bed in tears.
As literary historians, we are left with Cecil’s detailed correspondence, full of fine details on how Mary was to be provisioned – a makeshift bureau de change would allow Mary’s ladies to exchange the Scottish coins for English sterling – and a haunting story treatment for the official entertainment, scene by scene. Elizabeth and Mary would never again come so close to encountering one another in the flesh.
That hasn’t stopped a slew of writers and composers from imagining the drama of a meeting, Schiller foremost among them. Mary Stuart is the play that firmly established the tradition of such a showdown with Elizabeth as essential to any fantasy of Mary’s life. Taking this cue from Schiller, most writers prefer to construct a confrontation in Mary’s captivity.
For his Maria Stuarda, Donizetti took Schiller’s script, had it adapted by a young student named Giuseppe Bardari, and amped up the melodrama. Divas ever since have competed to interpolate the highest possible note as Mary brands Elizabeth ‘vil bastarda’. In the first orchestral rehearsal of the opera, the soprano Giuseppina Ronzi decided to direct these lines with a bit too much intent at Anna del Sere, who was singing the role of ‘Elisabetta’. Del Sere subsequently set upon her rival with her fists, although eventually coming off the worse and being carried home unconscious. The fracas may have contributed to the first production of Donizetti’s opera being cancelled by the Neapolitan censors.
To the fury of feminists, many artists have imagined the meeting of these two queens as a face-off between age and beauty. In the John Ford film, Mary of Scotland, a sultry Katharine Hepburn is forced to beg for her life from a haggish Florence Eldridge; in Charles Jarrott’s Mary, Queen of Scots, a fair-haired Vanessa Redgrave twice has a chance to utter defiance to Glenda Jackson’s manipulative, controlling Elizabeth (a world away from Jackson’s turn in the more historically precise Elizabeth R.) The tradition of Elizabeth’s jealousy has a long, predictably male pedigree - in 1844, the prominent editor Robert Chambers even blamed the cancelled 1562 meeting on ‘the jealousy of Elizabeth regarding the superior beauty of Mary’ – oblivious to the international politics involved.
Elizabeth certainly performed the rituals of royal vanity with glee – on hearing that Mary was the taller of the two, she insisted that her cousin must be overly lanky, ‘for I myself am neither too high nor too low.’ (Or so Mary’s Ambassador, James Melvile, tells us.) And she was nine years older than Mary – the most significant aspect of which was that it increased the possibility that Catholic Mary might one day succeed her. Even so, the ecumenical Elizabeth’s greater loyalty was to the patina of monarchy, not to Protestant exceptionalism. Should she die naturally, the possibility of Mary presiding over a Catholic restoration was a vague threat; as a child of questionable legitimacy, the prospect of being undermined during her own lifetime was a very real one. She could not tolerate a rival who openly plotted against her, but she was famously loathe to set the precedent of executing a fellow queen.
If Elizabeth ever had reason to feel jealous of Mary, it could only have been in those early days of the 1560s, when both had all the possibilities of royal rule before them and both, still single, were hot properties on the European marriage market. There is, unsurprisingly, little real evidence as to who was more beautiful – both were flattered by friends and slandered by enemies – but Mary’s sensationally ill-judged love life, contrasted with Elizabeth’s image as a repressed career woman, has ensured her survival as a romantic heroine and continues to enthral even contemporary male historians.
Mary’s posthumous popularity also owes something to Scottish nationalism; for many later Scottish writers, a ruler long imprisoned by the English could only be a heroine. The Scots courtiers who scrambled in August 1561 to line the route from Leith to Edinburgh, to greet a new ruler with a strong French accent, would have found this a surprising historical irony. When they forced Mary’s abdication in 1567, just before she fled to England, many argued that they were maintaining Scotland’s independence from French influence. (John Knox, thundering against the Catholic Mary, would complain that she shunned the bagpipes in favour of ‘her French fillocks, fiddlers, and others of that band.’)
Realistically, Mary could never have met with Elizabeth once her legal status had been thrown into doubt. Meetings with Queen Elizabeth were governed by all manner of protocols – would a Mary-in-exile have been permitted to approach Elizabeth on horseback, an intimacy only acceptable between fellow monarchs? For Elizabeth to even be in the same room with Mary would have forced her to make decisions about Mary’s position in the English pecking order – decisions she had spent years carefully avoiding. Even without the question of Mary’s place in the English succession, there are few Tudor handbooks on how you formally receive a monarch who has abdicated her throne.
So we fall back then, on that abortive confrontation of 1562, at Nottingham – or would it have been York? For a brief, unhappy period, Elizabeth and Mary were equals, both queens ruling their own domain. Perhaps then they could have encountered each other as peers. Mary might have had to bite her tongue as the Roman goddess Pallas Athene lectured her from the stage about those benefits of prudence and temperance, familiar themes in letters from Elizabeth. But would that lost chance to charm her cousin have made any difference to her final fate? We will never know.
Kate is a theatre critic for The Times, and a PhD candidate at University College London, researching the intellectual life of Elizabeth I.
Created by Robert Icke, our new adaptation of Schiller's tragedy Mary Stuart takes us behind the scenes of some of British history's most crucial days. From 2 December 2016 - 28 January 2017.