Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser

10079.jpgNonfiction — print. Delta, 1993. Originally published 1969. 613 pgs. Library copy.

Because I am so interested in Tudor history, particularly that of Anne Boleyn and her daughter Queen Elizabeth I, I have often encountered Mary, Queen of Scots in readings and film adaptations, but it wasn’t until I saw the latest television adaptation of her life — and I use the term adaptation loosely — that I became interested in her life beyond the small blurbs included in biographies of Elizabeth. A friend of mine suggested I read Fraser’s biography in order to better understand the real Mary rather than the one using her name on television.

Given the portrayals I often see of Mary in biographies of Elizabeth, I was not expecting to feel so sympathetic towards this young queen. Her first marriage, although to a young teen with many deformities, was by all accounts based upon love, but the way she and her crown where used in geopolitics earned her little goodwill with her people. Her subsequent marriages read more like something out of a television drama reminding us all that life is far more interesting than art.

And there is something eerie about following Mary’s life with knowledge of what is to come and with context provided to the reader that is not provided to Mary. She was a privilege young woman, but so poorly guided and abandoned in life by her advisers and her relatives that it is impossible not to feel for her. A fact that is do in large part to Fraser’s writing and her presentation of Mary’s life, which kept me riveted throughout most of the book, as it is the perfect mixture of in depth research and storytelling. I would be interested in not only reading more of Fraser’s biographies but also learning more about the lives that intersected with Mary’s — her husband, Francis; his father and mother, King Henry and Queen Catherine of France; her husband, Lord Darnley; and her son, King James I of England (VI of Scotland).

Two difficulties with this tome, though, was Fraser’s decision to place Latin, Greek, and French phrases and sentences in the text without providing a translation. Because I know only the basics of Spanish and none of the languages written in this text, I either had to keep my iPad on hand to look up translations or hope that context clues from the surrounding text would be sufficient. The other issue seems kind of silly, but I am accustomed to a few glossy pages in the middle of the text with pictures and this book did not have those pages. Instead, once again, I had to keep my iPad on hand and look up portraits of the people discussed in this book.


  1. Interesting that you were able to sympathize with her! Like you before reading this, I’m mostly familiar with Mary Queen of Scots through biographies of the Tudor monarchs. I feel a little sorry for her, but mostly frustrated with her for being so dumb and never ever stopping planning treasons. Did the book say why she just KEPT ON doing it, even though she was obviously going to get herself executed if she carried on?


    • Well, according to this book, she wasn’t actively planning treason. While her third marriage was predicated upon the murder of her second husband, the author maintains she did not set out to murder him in order to be with her lover (later, her third husband). The rampant speculation behind her third marriage fueled by how quickly it occurred turned the Scots away from her giving the advisers now flocking around her infant son the opportunity to seize the throne in his name. She left Scotland and traveled to England not to steal Elizabeth’s throne, which can hardly be counted as treason since as a Scotsman she was not under Elizabeth’s rule, but because her cousin Elizabeth hinted at offering protection to her from the angry Scots who had stolen her throne and offering her support in allowing Mary to reseize her throne. Fear that she was planning to seize Elizabeth’s throne, which was not mentioned in Mary and Elizabeth’s correspondences to one another, was why she was held captive, and it is still debatable as to whether or not Elizabeth ordered her execution. The warrant was signed by Elizabeth, but she denied that she wanted it carried out after Mary’s death.


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