All shed fresh light on the penultimate phase of Mary’s 19-year imprisonment in England, many illustrating a mounting obsession over the possibility of her escape, as the threat of foreign invasion grew. One thrilling letter changes our view of history.
[SNIP] Several will star in a landmark exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, which opens next week. It’s the first major show to consider Elizabeth and Mary together, putting both women centre stage and giving them equal billing, each on her own terms. It tells their stories from their autographed letters, state papers, drafts of speeches, portraits, drawings, jewels, textiles, cipher codes, maps, and woodcut engravings.
[SNIP] Even so, for me the prize is the document the British Library’s curators now call the John Guy letter, the one that rewrites history. It proves conclusively that, in defiance of her ministers, Elizabeth sought a last-minute reconciliation with her rival, possibly even a meeting – as has been imagined in Schiller’s play Mary Stuart, Donizetti’s opera Mary Stuarda and Hollywood films such as Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots.
When the letter was written in October 1584, Mary had been imprisoned for 16 years. Overthrown by her Scottish rebels, who ruled in the name of her young son James VI, she had fled across the Solway Firth to England in 1568, presenting the Protestant Elizabeth with a stark choice: should she protect her Catholic cousin, maybe even restore her to her throne, or treat her as a threat?
[SNIP] The “John Guy letter” is addressed to Sadler, but he was to show or read it to Mary. To avoid a fight to the death, Elizabeth tendered an olive branch. She was “content to assent” that Mary’s confidential secretary, Claude Nau, should ride south “to acquaint us with such matter as she shall think meet by him to impart to us”. He was to bring with him such proposals “as might work upon good ground a thorough reconciliation between us, which as she seemeth greatly to desire, so should we also be most glad thereof”.
Seeing this letter headlined in the upcoming exhibition is, for me, a personal vindication. I’d always suspected that a letter of this sort could turn up. Deep down, what Elizabeth really wanted was to settle with her cousin, as Mary did, too. Elizabeth didn’t feel this way because both rulers were women (although that played its part), but because Mary was a sovereign, and not a subject. To put a fellow sovereign on trial and execute her was akin to sacrilege.
Six weeks after Elizabeth wrote her letter, Nau presented her with Mary’s proposals. They’re tucked away in the National Archives in Kew. I knew about them before, but not why Nau submitted them at this moment. I’d assumed him to be acting off his own bat, thrashing about in the dark. Finding Elizabeth’s letter inviting them is the missing piece of the jigsaw.
Closer investigation shows that Elizabeth took the proposals so seriously, she disappeared for a month to reflect on them in conditions of absolute secrecy, to the consternation of her ministers.
Mary was offering close to total surrender. In exchange for her freedom and the right to return to Scotland to rule jointly with her son, she would recognise Elizabeth as the lawful queen of England and never again claim her throne, would not support her cousin’s rebels, would not conspire against her, would uphold the Protestant Reformation in Scotland (although without changing her personal faith), and so on. Elizabeth, moreover, was to have a veto on James VI’s marriage, and he was to join with her in approving a final settlement.
All came to naught. There would be no reconciliation, no last-minute meeting of the two queens. But failure cannot be laid at either queen’s door. The negotiations collapsed only because James, now 18, had no intention of sharing his throne with a mother he barely knew, or being married off by Elizabeth. Instead, he informed Mary that he would always honour her with the title of “queen mother”, but that was all. There could be no question of joint sovereignty or her return to Scotland.
For Mary, this was matricide, the cruellest of betrayals. “I pray you to note”, she fulminated in a letter to James, “I am your true and only queen. Do not insult me further with this title of queen mother... there is neither king nor queen in Scotland except me.” This was her direct reaction to her son’s rejection.
Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens is at the British Library, from Oct 8 until Feb 20.
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