I write all my tea towel blogs initially by hand, as a draft, before committing them to the computer. It’s the only way in which I can get my thoughts straight. I had a draft of this one completed several days ago but I just couldn’t bring myself to publish it; my thoughts were in disarray. That’s what a Referendum does for you. I am one of those people who believe, fundamentally, that you have to understand your history in order to understand where you are now and how to move forward. From my childhood, through my teens and into adulthood, I have always loved a history book – from ‘1066 and All That’, to history text books, to biographies and even historical novels. Whoever thought it was a good idea to take history out of the compulsory curriculum after the age of 14 was absolutely crazy. This is how we find ourselves in the mess we are in today. We all have to understand where migration, immigration, religion, political parties and allegiances, territories, democracy and so forth originate and fit into our society; it’s not a straightforward story and goes back centuries.
If you ask me who my favourite historical character is, the answer would be Mary Queen of Scots. I bought this tea towel in Linlithgow, where Mary Queen of Scots was born in December 1542. It is a simple tea towel, good quality cotton, something to enjoy doing the wiping up with. I like the picture of Mary, that dominates the centre but also the fact that she is surrounded by the Four Mary’s (not the Four Mary’s from the Bunty comic of 1960s) which I will come to later. So why is she my favourite historical character? It’s difficult to say: it isn’t because she achieved great things, or reigned for a long time, or because she brought unity to Scotland or because she had a charmed and happy life: quite the opposite in fact. Mary Queen of Scots was a controversial figure; she was either loved or hated by history. Was she a pawn in the hands of powerful people? Was she badly advised? Was she complicit in the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley? Did she plot to replace Elizabeth I? Was she betrayed by Elizabeth I? I’m not a historian; I don’t know the answers but I do think she had to cope with more than anyone should be expected to. She was a central figure in a very political world: the longstanding enmity between England and Scotland; the fragility of the Tudor crown and the line of succession; England’s longstanding rivalry with France and Spain; and finally, the religious upheaval, in both England and Scotland, between Catholics and Protestants. There are shades of the familiar here.
Six days after Mary Queen of Scots was born, her father died and she became Queen of Scotland, a Stewart; Regents were appointed. Almost immediately, Henry VIII of England negotiated an agreement that Mary would become betrothed to his only son, Edward; this would mean that, once the marriage took place, when they both came of age, England and Scotland would become united into one nation, led by a Protestant king. However, this was a ‘political’ move which came to nothing because the Scottish barons had other ideas and at the age of six, Mary Queen of Scots was sent to France to live in the French court with a view that when she became of age she would marry Prince Francis, heir to the throne of France. Here come the Four Mary’s. Mary Beaton, Mary Seton, Mary Fleming and Mary Livingstone were of a similar age, grew up with the young queen and were sent to accompany her in France. In fact, they stayed with her throughout her life, as life-long companions and great friends. The story goes that Mary enjoyed her life in France, was great friends with Prince Francis and by the time they married in 1558, at the age of 16, she had fallen in love with him. Sadly, not long after their marriage, Francis became King and two years later he died. Here was a very tall (5 feet 11 inches was very tall for a woman in those days), beautiful, talented woman who fell in love with a short and not particularly attractive man. Mary was truly distraught at his death. France had given Mary Queen of Scots a thorough education: she was fluent in French, Italian, Spanish, Latin and Greek; she played the lute and virginals, wrote poetry and prose; she was a horsewoman and falconer and exceptionally good at embrodiery, sewing and tapestry. There is hardly a National Trust property in England or Scotland where there isn’t a piece of tapestry or embrodiery completed by Mary.
On the death of Francis, Mary Queen of Scots returned to Scotland, in 1561, to take up her crown. Scotland, although ruled by the Stewarts who were Catholics, was in fact mainly Protestant because John Knox was leading a reform of the church. One of the things I really liked about Mary was, despite the prevailing mood that nations were either Protestant or Catholic, Mary wanted to work with the Protestants, not ‘convert’ the country, and exist peacefully alongside each other. She was criticised, and ranted against, by John Knox. For both the Protestants and Catholics it had to be one thing or another, no compromise. Mary was under a lot of pressure to marry in order to produce an heir; she rejected all advice and married Lord Darnley, a cousin, in 1565. This was not a happy marriage and while pregnant her favourite musician and confidante was murdered in front of her; it was thought this was a plot by her husband to cause her to miscarry. She didn’t and gave birth to her son in 1566. In 1567, she was forced to abdicate in favour of her son because of the issue of religion. At this point she was still only 25; and had reigned for six years. During her reign she had travelled extensively across the country. Around the tea towel are some of the places she had visited; the quote on the tea towel “God Bless that sweet face” is attributed to crowds cheering her when she, and the Four Mary’s attended parliament in 1563. This was counterbalanced by John Knox saying “Such a stinking pride of women…..was never before seen in Scotland”.
Eventually, Mary was forced to take refuge in England. She did this without seeking ‘safe passage’ from Elizabeth I who saw fit to put her under ‘house arrest’ for nineteen years, moving her from castle to country house, from fortress to stately home, living in comfortable circumstances but without freedom. There were very few places she stayed, or people she stayed with, that did not like her, and feel she was wrongly done to. While Elizabeth never met Mary, she always felt that Mary was a threat to her crown and eventually, in 1587, she was executed in Fotheringay Castle. The irony of all this is that Mary’s son was the rightful heir to the English throne, because Elizabeth had no children, and became James I of England and James VI of Scotland, a Protestant King.
This, for me, is why Mary Queen of Scots is so important and so intriguing. If you really want to understand where we are today, you do have to understand our history and a lot of it has its roots around this episode in history – the tension between Catholics and Protestants; “Sports clubs are a focal point for religious communities……Sectarianism in Glasgow is visible in the rivalry between the supporters of Glasgow’s main two football clubs, Celtic and Rangers”. If you listen to the Proclaimers song ‘Which school do you go to?’ it is about if you know the school someone attends you can find out all you want to know about them – their religion, which football team they support, their ancestry, their political affiliations, their attitude towards Scottish Nationalism and so forth.
If you think about the Scottish Independence Referendum, Mary Queen of Scots is where the issue started, the unification of England and Scotland under her son. That is why history is so important and every time I look at this tea towel I think that it is very sad that the religious tolerance that Mary proposed was so vehemently turned down but I like to think that, although this was a woman who lead a horrendous life, most people who met her, loved her. She may have been badly advised and misunderstood but her life provides a great story to liven up the wiping up.
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