Sunday, July 15, 2007

John Guy's biography of Mary, Queen of Scots

It is a terrific read. Deeply sympathetic towards his subject, Guy brings to life Mary's winning qualities and her struggles with Scottish lords and English opponents, including Elizabeth I, her cousin queen (actually, her father's cousin). The archival research is mind-boggling, the interpretations sure and nuanced, the writing clear, argumentative, and exciting.

It opens with a set-piece description of the execution, and closes with a narrative of Mary's final hours. In the first, we follow the movement, and view, of Sir Thomas Andrews, the sheriff of the county of Northamptonshire, as he knocked on Mary's door; in the closing, we are in the room with Mary praying with her servants when she heard the fateful knock. The heart of the book is Guy's detailed interpretation of the casket letters, documents the Scottish rebels made up to prove Mary's guilt in killing her husband and king, Darnley.

And the epilogue, like the closing chapter of eighteenth century novels, describes the fates of the main players in Mary's life, underlining their unhappy ends, in contrast with Mary's posthumous vindication in her son's re-burial of her in Westminster Abbey, her transformation into a Catholic martyr and saint, and her exoneration by history of any blame in the murder of her husband.

And, most prettily, vindication too in the form of a popular nursery rhyme I had learned and never realized referred to her:

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockleshells
And pretty maids all in a row.

As Guy explains, the garden refers to the ornamental garden at the palace of Holyroodhouse, in Edinburgh, where Mary stayed between 1561-67.

Picture from Royal Residences website.

The silver bells are the Sanctus bells used in Mary's private chapel at Mass. Here's a picture of a Sanctus bell in St. Mary's Ecclesfield in Sheffield.

According to the church bell-ringers' website: "The purpose of a Sanctus bell was to signal to the village and those not able to attend the service that Mass was being celebrated. The Sanctus bell is dated c1520 making it the oldest bell in the tower. It is 15" diameter mounted on a timber headstock."

The cockleshells refer to the pilgrim badges obtained from the shrine of Saint James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. These badges were pinned or sewn on pilgrim hats.

Picture from Fish Eaters website.

And the pretty maids are the four Maries who were Mary's playmates and companions for as long as she could remember.

My websurfing shows that the nursery rhyme is capable of other interpretations, but I am partial to Guy's, since it fits so well into his narrative. Mary is quite contrary.

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