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A Feminist Glance at History: Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots
September 1, 2018

This is a guest post by Marina Jovanović. Thanks Marina!

Today, when feminism is stronger than ever, it is interesting to see there have always been powerful women who stood for what “girl power” stands for today as well. Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, are prime examples. Let’s see how they struggled to maintain power in the male-dominated world.

Mary was crowned when she was six days old. However, for safety, she grew up at the French court and, there, the young queen fell in love with life. She adored dancing, people, outdoor activities, enjoyed poetry and also spoke many languages. One can only imagine how cold and distant Scotland was to her when, widowed at eighteen, she had to return. She was nowhere near ready to deal with the turbulent time of religious factions, and noblemen who neither knew nor liked her.

On a bit warmer side of the island, we have Elizabeth Tudor, who went almost straight from prison to sit on the throne of England. Probably the most educated woman of the day, she excelled at rhetoric, diplomacy, and bargaining. Always able to snatch the best part of the deal, Elizabeth was an extremely shrewd ruler. She knew how to manipulate the female stereotypes, appearing indecisive so as to avoid matters she could not deal with at the moment. She was a perfect mix of her firm, short-tempered father and sly, hot-headed, and flirtatious mother.


Mary claims the English throne

Upon marrying King Francis II, he and Mary were proclaimed King and Queen of France, Scotland, and England. A granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister and a devout Catholic, Mary was viewed by many as the rightful heir to the English throne, instead of a bastard Elizabeth. This gave Elizabeth a sound reason to be wary of her. However, this was the deed of King Henry II of France, who wanted to gain England through Mary. At sixteen, she could not have predicted how this act would only do her harm later in life. When Francis died young, Mary went back to Scotland, and a search for the next husband began.


Marriage to Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley

That husband was Lord Darnley—a Catholic with his own claim to the English throne—so Mary infuriated both Elizabeth and her prominently Protestant nation. Though they conceived a male heir— and a very important one—the couple was anything but happy. Darnley was soon murdered and all the fingers were pointed to none other but Mary’s rumored lover and the future husband. Though we cannot be sure if this third marriage to Lord Bothwell was forced upon Mary, as many historians claim he might have raped her. What is sure is that this led to the uprising and the Queen was forced to abdicate. On Elizabeth’s promise of support to regain the Scottish throne, Mary fled to England—a fatal mistake as she would soon learn.


Mary’s nineteen years of imprisonment

Instead of Elizabeth’s open arms, Mary was greeted with imprisonment that lasted until the end of her days. Elizabeth’s excuse was that she could not aid a queen accused of murder. But Mary did not give up, and continued to write her cousin, send gifts, and plead for help. Unfortunately, the forces against the English queen used the situation and continued to plot her overthrow. One specific assassination attempt directly led to Mary’s involvement which was the cause of Elizabeth finally signing her execution warrant. Mary claimed her innocence until the end, and always a lady of style, decided her death would be long remembered.


Elizabeth haunted by Mary’s ghost

The Queen of Scots, wearing red beneath her gown, made sure she went down as a martyr. Cool, calm, and collected, she even made jokes to her executioners. It needed three strokes to decapitate her, all the more reason why her death was truly symbolic and a terrifying event. Some say that Elizabeth never made peace with this decision, that she was haunted by Mary’s ghost, and even panted her name on her deathbed exclaiming: “I never killed that Queene”.

The two queens kept a regular correspondence through letters that give us insight into how they felt towards each other, how they both tried to reach agreements and often attacked through sharp words. Mary always tried to set up a meeting, but Elizabeth avoided it. She might have been afraid that she would grow to care for her. In one of her letters, Elizabeth even jokes that that no greater happiness would come to their kingdoms than “if one of us had been a king and married the other.” Alas, the harsh circumstances of the time and influential people around them kept them not only apart, but in an endless rivalry.


Mary, Queen of Scots (2018)

In many ways, the story of these monarchs’ relationship is timeless. We won’t get complete accuracy from the historical fiction that is the upcoming movie Mary, Queen of Scots. However, it will give us a fresh feminist perspective to the story, as it is a feminist story. The two powerful females were pinned against each other since birth. They were constantly scrutinized by their male nobles and advisers, and had to earn and keep their trust and support. They were both ahead of their time, clever, and fierce warriors, fighting even when all the cards were stacked against them.


Marina Jovanović is a student of English language and literature at the University of Belgrade. She has a passion for writing and can drink up to four strong black coffees a day. Her major interest is classic literature and the freshness that hundreds years old texts still have today. She hopes to start her own blog soon where you can read all about it.


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Jillianne Hamilton writes delightful historical fiction and historical romance featuring rebellious heroines and happy endings.

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