Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Foundations of the Anglican Church XCII

Mary, Queen of Scots
I want to share with you what I have found to be the best piece of historical writing that I have come across in my forty some years of historical reading and research.  It is the prologue for Garrett Mattingly’s Armada (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1959).  Mattingly begins his account of the 1588 attempt by Spain to invade England with this narrative of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.  There is still much to be written about the recent Synod on the Family and I will do several entries about it over the next two weeks, but I want to get back on track with a more distant history and in particular with our episodes on the Church of England.  Mattingly was a professor at Columbia and while a serious scholar could write historical narrative that would read with the dramatic style of a novel.  In 1960 Mattingly won a Pulitzer for the Armada.   I will use this wonderful piece of writing as a frame of reference for the role that Mary, Queen of Scots, played in the saga of Elizabethan Catholicism. 

Curtain Raiser

Fotheringhay, February 18, 1587

      Mr. Beale had not brought the warrant until Sunday evening but by Wednesday morning before dawn out-lined its high windows, the great hall at Fotheringhay was ready.    Though the earl of Shrewsbury had returned only the day before, nobody wanted any more delay. Nobody knew what messenger might be riding on the London road. Nobody knew which of the others might not weaken if they waited another day.
        The hall had been cleared of all its ordinary furniture.  Halfway along its length a huge fire of logs blazing in the chimney battled against the creeping chill.  Towards the upper end of the hall they had set up a small platform, like a miniature stage for traveling actors, jutting twelve feet into the hall, eight or nine feet wide and less than three feet high. At one side a pair of stairs led up to it, and the fresh wood of the scaffolding had been everywhere decently covered in black velvet. On the platform, in line with the stairs, stood a single high-backed chair, also draped in black, and three or four feet in front of it a black cushion. Next to the cushion and rising above it something like a little low bench showed where the velvet imperfectly concealed an ordinary wooden chopping block. By seven in the morning the stage managers were satisfied, the sheriff's men trying to look soldierly in morion and breastplate and to hold their halberds stiffly had taken their places, and the chosen audience, two hundred or more knights and gentlemen of the neighborhood peremptorily summoned for that early hour, had filed into the lower end of the hall. The star kept them waiting more than three hours.  In the almost thirty years since she had wedded a future king of France in the glittering, devious court beside the Loire she had failed repeatedly to learn some of the more important lessons of politics, but  she  had  learned  how  to  dominate  a  scene.   She entered through a little door at the side, and before they saw her was already in the great hall, walking towards the dais, six of her own people, two by two, behind her, oblivious of the stir and rustle as her audience craned forward, oblivious, apparently, of the officer on whose sleeve her hand rested, walking as quietly, thought one pious soul, as if she were going to her prayers.  Only for a moment, as she mounted the steps and before she sank back into the black-draped chair, did she seem to need the supporting arm, and if her hands trembled before she locked them in her lap, no one saw.  Then, as if acknowledging the plaudits of a multitude (though the hall was very still), she turned for the first time to face her audience and, some thought, she smiled.
       Against the black velvet of the chair and dais her figure, clad in black velvet, was almost lost. The gray winter daylight dulled the gleam of white hands, the glint of yellow gold in her kerchief and of red gold in the piled masses of auburn hair beneath. But the audience could see dearly enough the delicate frill of white lace at her throat and above it, a white, heart-shaped petal against the blackness, the face with its great dark eyes and tiny, wistful mouth. This was she for whom Rizzio had died, and Darnley, the young fool, and Huntly, and Norfolk, and Babington and a thousand nameless men on the moors and gallows of the north. This was she whose legend had hung over England like a sword ever since she had hastened across its borders with her subjects in pursuit.  This was the last captive princess of romance, the dowager queen of France, the exiled queen of Scotland, the heir to the English throne and (there must have been some among the silent witnesses who thought so), at this very moment, if she had her rights, England’s lawful queen. This was Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. For a moment she held all their eyes, then she sank back into the darkness of her chair and turned her grave inattention to her Judges.  She was satisfied that her audience would look at no one else.
       The earls of Kent and Shrewsbury who had entered with her almost unobserved, had seated themselves opposite, and Mr. Beale was standing, clearing his throat and crackling the parchment of the warrant he had to read. He need not have been nervous. One doubts whether anyone was listening. "Stubborn disobedience . . . incitement to insurrection . . . against the life and person of her sacred Majesty. . . high treason . . . death "
       Nothing in .the phrases could have mattered to Mary Stuart or to any person in the hall. Everyone knew that this was not the sentence for a crime. This was another stroke in a political duel which had been going on as long as most of them could remember, which had begun, indeed, before either of the enemy queens was born. Sixty years ago the parties had begun to form, the party of the old religion, the party of the new, and always by some trick of fate, one party or the other, and usually both, had been rallied and led by a woman. Catherine of Aragon against Anne Boleyn, Mary Tudor against Elizabeth Tudor, Elizabeth Tudor against Mary of Lorraine, and now, for nearly thirty years, Elizabeth Tudor against Mary Stuart, the prisoner on the scaffold. The shrewdest politicians might wonder how for almost two decades England had managed to contain both these predestinate enemies and keep them both alive.
  Whatever Elizabeth had done, Mary Stuart had, of course, sought by every means in her power to destroy her cousin and bring her low. In a duel to the death like theirs there were no foul strokes. When the arms of strength had fallen from her hands she had used whatever weapons weakness could grasp: lies, tears, evasions, threats and pleadings, and the hands and lives of whatever men her crowns, her beauty or her faith could win to her cause. They had proved two-edged weapons at last; but if they cut her now, she had dealt wounds with them, and kept her cousin’s realm in greater turmoil from her English prison than ever she had been able to do from her Scottish throne. And she meant to strike one blow more. She turned a bored chin on Mr. Beale's concluding phrases.
      The dean of Peterborough was even more nervous than Mr. Beale. She let him repeat his stumbling exordium three times before she cut him contemptuously short. "Mr. Dean," she told him, "I shall die as I have lived, in the true and holy Catholic faith. All you can say to me on that score is but vain, and all your prayers, I think, can avail me but little."
      This, she was sure, was the one weapon which would not turn in her hand. She had been closely watched at Fotheringhay, but not so closely that she could have no word from the daring, subtle men who slipped in and out of the Channel ports in disguise. The north was Catholic, they said, and the west, and even here in the heretic's own strongholds, even in the midlands, even in London, more and more turned daily to the ancient faith.  While the heir  to  the  throne  was  a  Catholic,  likely  to succeed  without a struggle on her heretic cousin's death, those thousands had been quiet, but now, should the heretic  slay her orthodox  successor, surely they would rise in their wrath to sweep away all this iniquity. And there were Catholic kings beyond the seas who would be more eager to avenge the Queen of Scots dead than ever they had been to keep her alive.
       That Mary herself was a devout Catholic is one of the few things about her not open to dispute, but it was not enough for her simply to die in her faith. The duel would go on. All men must know that she had died not only in her faith, but for it.  Perhaps she had not always been its steadiest pillar. Perhaps her dubious intrigues had sometimes harmed her cause more than her devotion had helped it. Now the glittering sweep of the axe would cut off forever the burden of old mistakes, silence the whispered slanders, and her blood would cry out for vengeance on her enemies more unmistakably than her living voice could ever have done again. For years she had favored an ambiguous motto, "My end is my beginning." Martyrdom might make good both the promise and the threat.  She had only to play this last scene well.
      So she held the crucifix high, visible all down the long hall as she flung defiance at her judges, and her voice rose with a kind of triumph above the voice of the dean of Peterborough, always higher and clearer than his rising tones, arching over the vehement English prayers the mysterious, dominating invocations of ancient faith. The queen's voice held on for a minute after the clergyman had finished.  Her words were in English now; she was praying for the people of England and for the soul of her cousin Elizabeth; she was forgiving all her enemies. Then for a moment her ladies were busy about her. The black velvet fell below her knees revealing underbodice and petticoat of crimson silk and she stepped forward, suddenly, shockingly, in color of martyrdom, blood red from top to toe against the somber background. Quietly she knelt and bowed herself low over the little chopping block. "In manus tuas, domine . . ." and they heard twice the dull chunk of the axe.
     There was one more ceremony to accomplish. The executioner must exhibit the head and speak the customary words.  The masked black figure stooped and rose, crying in a loud voice, “Long live the queen!" But all he held in his hand that had belonged  to the rival queen of hearts was a kerchief, and pinned to it an elaborate auburn wig. Rolled nearer the edge of the platform, shrunken and withered and gray, with a sparse silver stubble on the small, shiny skull was the head of the martyr. Mary had always known how to embarrass her enemies.

Catholic writers have romanticized Mary into a martyr for the faith and as Mattingly points out so well, Mary herself orchestrated the foundations of this myth.  In fact, her death was the result of a complicated political scheme which had a religious element—indeed a very strong religious ratio—but which is far too complex to reduce to the story of a martyrdom.  Enjoy Mattingly’s superb writing—I wish I could write as well as he—and in several  postings yet to come we will look more in depth into the enigma of Mary, The Queen of Scots, Dowager Queen of France, and Queen Pretender to the Throne of England.     

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