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Mary Queen of Scots had her Head Chopped Off. On This Day.

February 8, 2017


Yes, it’s that time of year again.  On February 8, 1587, the former Queen of Scotland, the widow of the King of France, and the distant cousin of the Queen of England, had her head removed in three awkward strokes.

It’s the kind of anniversary that makes me think a deal about what sort of lives matter and how the “mattering” of lives creates the Starkeyfied creature that we now know of “History”.

During the Scottish independence referendum (the FIRST Scottish independence referendum I should say), Alex Salmond, who did felt (wrongly I think) that republicanism was a step too far for the Scottish people, suggested that following independence, Queen Elizabeth could remain “Queen of Scots”.  It would be hard to think of a less encouraging historical precedent.  To be accused of murder, deposed, unable to return to either of the countries you care about, kept under house arrest for two decades and then decapitated.  I can’t imagine the present Queen jumping for joy at the prospect of replaying that narrative.

The execution of Mary Queen of Scots is one of those things that people still can’t forgive Elizabeth for.  Apparently.  Odd really.   There are people who’ve never heard of the many thousands killed in Munster in the 1590s who find it “unforgivable” that Elizabeth orders (eventually) the death of a distant relative who she’d never met and who was assuredly trying to kill her.  Oh,  for sure, Walsingham caught Mary is a sort of sting operation and may have spiced up her correspondence, but no historian doubts that she gave her assent to the Babington Plot.   She was decapitatible by any 16th century definition.   Mary’s was a fascinating and passionate life that makes for a great story.  She played the game of power politics and lost.  She tried to destroy Elizabeth and failed.

This kind of entertaining mafia history of course ignores all the people who get in the way.  Dynastic warfare (lavishly costumed top down dynastic warfare), makes these characters look like gladiators who are fighting for our belated amusement.   The poor serfs who are pressed ganged into being arrow and cannon fodder in the course of these wars are obliterated from sight.   At least Game of Thrones lingers over the battlefields and permits some serf-eyed views of proceedings.   And in Ireland in the 1590s, it was not just armies that clashed or men in arms who perished.  Despoilation.  Famine.  Desolation.   No man woman or child was deemed innocent in a campaign against an entire population.

Yet the apparent enormity of Mary Queen of Scots’ eventual execution is far more familiar to far more people.  Perhaps the sense of shock relates to one woman killing another, a circumstance that seems rare, but whose rarity is merely a function of the historical rarity of two women enjoying sovereignty in two adjacent jurisdictions at the same time.  But I wonder if a male king executing a distant male relative would have had anything like the same narrative resonance.  Women, as always, are held to a different standard.   It is clear in any case that Elizabeth herself  went to elaborate lengths to establish “deniability”, claiming that various ministers and underlings had overstepped their authority.  But as long as Mary lived, she was going to be a threat to Elizabeth, would be the focus of one plot after another.

Mary lived.  She played the game.  She lost.   Her death is privileged because it has suits us to stare at the past from the top down, from where the costumes are prettier.

Though I like this treatment of The Death of Mary Queen of Scots…


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