David Jamieson reviews Mary Queen of Scots, showing now on BBCiPlayer. Why are we transfixed by the implausible story it tells, and why can’t modern Scotland face its founding father?
The return of Mary Queen of Scots (MQS) to BBC screens (and still available for a time on iPlayer) urges me to ask a question of this film: why is its story so contrary to the real events of Scottish history?
The film enjoyed positive, if restrained, reviews at its launch, and was lauded in Scotland by political and cultural figures – not least First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who patronised the production as she does so much Scottish (or Scottish themed) produce, particularly when it expresses the cultural and moral attitudes I am about to discuss.
Put simply, MQS is the story of a modern, cosmopolitan young woman who takes on conservative, macho Scotland, struggling bravely but ultimately in vain to move the country forward. This is a shameless distortion of the historical record, but a telling one.
In its depiction of their famous first meeting, where Knox challenges Mary to abandon her hardline Catholic beliefs and allegiances, MQS portrays an argument over “tolerance”, where Mary proposes Scots worship how they please, and Knox appears to propose a Protestant only Scotland before unleashing a tirade of misogyny. And so, the scene is set for a struggle between the 16th and 21st centuries.
Thereafter we have Mary swanning around at parties that seem populated by New York arts hipsters, wearing armour and firing guns at targets for no obvious reason, and generally being confrontational and untameable in a male dominated society. We achieve the height of inanity when Mary tells David Rizzio, her doomed Italian courtier, that she accepts his homosexuality and gender non-conformity.
Knox, meanwhile, is her nemesis, and photo-negative. In all the ways she is progressive, he is backward – motivated entirely by malevolence and, in particular, the hatred of women.
The real Mary was a Catholic absolutist, imposed on Scotland by an alliance between a foreign power and a Catholic faction of the domestic ruling class of noblemen. She arrived in Scotland from France, where she had lived for her own protection since the age of five. Her mother, Mary of Guise, ruled in her stead, much of her time locked in a violent conflict with Scotland’s Protestants.
By the time of the meeting between Knox and Mary, he would have been scarred, physically and psychologically, by the long struggle he had waged against Scotland’s ruling elites. Mary of Guise and her followers launched a crackdown on Scotland’s small but growing Protestant movement in the 1540s. Protestants were viewed as a threat, due to their dispute with the authority of the church and their increasingly democratic attitudes. They believed church congregations (or at least portions of them) should choose preachers. As Knox and his co-thinkers radicalised under the influence of Calvinism, they increasingly extended this attitude to political leaders as well, who, if agreeing with the ‘false doctrines’ of Roman Catholicism, could be deposed with Biblical sanction.
Knox summed up this view up with the slogan: “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.” It was a treasonous and heretical call to arms, unacceptable to a generation of monarchs who viewed their right to rule as God-given and beyond challenge.
In 1545 Cardinal Beaton killed Knox’s leader and dear friend, George Wishart, by burning him at the stake in St Andrews. Protestant noblemen murdered Beaton in response and seized his castle. Knox was elected the garrison chaplain. The siege collapsed under French assault, and Knox spent gruelling years as a galley slave as punishment.
The Scottish Reformation was a complex development, involving a confusion of class interests and motivations. It was no ‘bourgeois revolution’ creating the basis for modernity and capitalist development proper, though the Reformation anticipated some of the dynamics of such a revolution.
With no substantial city classes and a politically weak rural poor in the 1500s, Scotland was deprived of the social elements that made the Reformation more radical elsewhere. Leading reformers were drawn from the nobility – the Lords of the Congregation – and their struggle with more established Catholic leaders partly reflected their own desire for ascendancy as a faction. At the same time, the Scottish Reformation represented a struggle for Scotland between Catholic France and increasingly Protestant England. The Reformation would, however, develop a large popular base, escalating to a huge movement by the time of the ‘Second Reformation’ during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (or English Revolution).
Knox himself was a complicated, tortured figure. For all his acts of astonishing principle and bravery, he could be short-sighted and opportunist. His infamous 1558 pamphlet Against the Monstrous Regimen of Women was intended to undermine the authority of Guise, by asserting that female rule was unbiblical. It backfired spectacularly when a Protestant monarch, Elizabeth I, came to the throne in England (an eventuality that Knox’s co-thinkers in Geneva warned him about) and he had to offer a grovelling recantation.
Returning from a long exile in 1559, Knox whipped followers into a frenzy by ecstatic preaching. His mobs would destroy images of power and wealth, including St Andrews Cathedral, one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the medieval Catholic world. Conflict escalated into civil war, and Mary of Guise was ultimately deposed. Protestant leaders appealed to an emerging sense of Scottish patriotism in their resistance to Guise’s French armies, and in 1560 the Scottish Parliament was opened by the reformers.
It was as a representative of this new world, tentatively emerging from medieval backwardness, that Knox met Guise’s daughter, a natural enemy of the new settlement. Mary’s tears at their fiery first exchange expressed her bewilderment at the revolution, and the lack of deference shown by her new subjects. She was a person out of time, clinging to a dying world.
How do we explain the strange reversal of the historical record in MQS, where Knox, the real agent of social transformation, is usurped by a reactionary? And why is there so little appetite for telling Knox’s own story in modern Scotland.
Of course, the object of a film, even one depicting real events, shouldn’t be documentary. Artistic interpretations of history generally depict the contemporary society of the artist. This is why characters in medieval and early modern depictions of antiquity or Biblical scenes wear suits of armour and western European cassocks. What clothes have we dressed early modern Scotland in?
Mary Queen of Scots suggests the overriding preoccupations and neuroses of artists and audiences in the modern day west. Mary is the archetypical aspirational person of our society, and we tell her story all the time – in films, books and music. We even project her on to real people, typically politicians, when we want to promote or protect them.
Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, Nicola Sturgeon, Kamala Harris, Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai, Amanda Gorman and many more have been subject to this treatment. We’re repeatedly welcomed to erratic and patronising celebrations of this Mary (remember the ‘girly swots’ and Lady Hale, the endless choruses of ‘Yas Kween’) who often emerge as a talisman when professional and managerial layers feel threatened or culturally diminished. The practice may centre on cults of women in public life (or other ‘marginal groups’), but they are promoted by men who wish to appear virtuous by association.
Young woman as fresh broom, sweeping aside the accumulated reactionary traditions of the old men, is one of a few similar stories we tell ourselves compulsively. It belongs to a school of debased Whiggism, where evil history is continuously superseded by enlightened social liberalism. The story is told in a society where that liberalism is already hegemonic. There is no cost or danger in the telling, or in reducing historical events to the crude narrative. Indeed, accordance with Mary eases entry into the professional sphere – a kind of guild morality dividing the righteous lawyer or academic from the untrained generality. As is by now apparent to most observers, these fake cultural revolutions of the screen, music or literature are really a holding pattern for elite interests. Despite the worthy feel, MQS is about as radical as The Crown – indeed probably less.
We shouldn’t allow today’s cultural fixations to cloud the history of our country and one of the figures so formative to its modern polity. The proto-democratic, proto-national character of the Scottish Reformation should be recognised, cautiously and with a sensitivity to the contradictions of real historical development. And at the very least, Knox deserves more than the condescensions of historical fiction and all the would-be courtiers.