The True Life of Mary Stuart

By John Guy. Houghton Mifflin. 581 pp. $28 History has not been kind to Mary Queen of Scots. According to contemporary accounts, she went to her death by execution at Fotheringhay Castle on Feb. 8, 1587, with enormous dignity, her calm demeanor and stately bearing worthy of the great queen she had been. Yet the stories most often repeated about that day are shockingly banal. As the executioner held up her severed head by its halo of auburn curls, the hair came away in his hand, revealing itself to be a wig, worn over her thinning grey hair. Hours after the execution, Mary's pet dog, which had managed to hide itself under the folds of her burgundy velvet petticoat, was discovered whimpering and soaked in blood, and could not be persuaded to abandon its mistress's corpse.

The true story of Mary Stuart encourages sensationalism. Every incident in her eventful life seems to lend itself to the kind of presentation that dwells on salacious and lurid detail. Born in December 1542, she was crowned queen of Scotland before she was a year old, betrothed to the French dauphin at the age of 5 and his bride before she was 16. Queen of France the following year, she was a widow a year later. Spurning Elizabeth I's former lover Robert Dudley, she chose a dissolute younger man as her new husband, promising to make him king of Scotland.

When she was 23, her private secretary was murdered in front of the five-months-pregnant queen, while one of the assailants held a pistol to her head. Her second husband was assassinated in spectacular fashion when the house in which he slept was blown to smithereens in a massive explosion caused by gunpowder packed into its basement. Forced to abdicate in favor of her infant son (later James I of England) in 1567, Mary was betrayed to the English and spent the last 18 years of her life in prison. At the age of 44 she was executed on the orders of her "sister" queen, Elizabeth I.

A striking six-foot redhead with flawless skin, Mary was a legendary beauty. Wherever she went she turned heads, and she was the talk of Europe from the day she arrived in France, age 5, as the wife-to-be of the future French king. Gossip swirled around her. Her obstinate determination to pick her own second husband when the callow Francis II died, and her choice of the 17-year-old, pampered, good-looking Henry Lord Darnley against the express wishes of the queen of England, led to her being labeled a wayward woman with an insatiable sexual appetite. The gossip following her swift third marriage to the Earl of Bothwell after Darnley's murder proclaimed her an adulteress, complicit in that murder, and a fatal temptress. To the Scots she was a political liability, headstrong and unreliable. To the English she was a loose-living Catholic harlot, in striking contrast to their beloved Protestant virgin queen.

Yet in reality Mary was the dynastic ruler of Scotland, a figure of power and political importance at a critical time of factional strife and instability in that country's history. Her decisions and actions were those of a shrewd major player on the international stage. As John Guy is at pains to point out in his new biography, Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart, she was an astute politician and tactician. At several key moments it was she, rather than her ministers and advisers, who "shaped her own destiny" and thereby Scotland's destiny also. On her return to Scotland after the death of her first husband, for example, it was Mary herself, according to Guy, who negotiated a prudent "middle way" between Catholics and Calvinists, one designed to strengthen her position as queen in Scotland without antagonizing her English neighbors. One of those negotiating with the English on her behalf at the time wrote that she displayed "a wisdom far exceeding her age."

Using a wealth of contemporary documents, Guy sifts truth from fiction, real report from fabrication and gossip, to give us a gripping yet considered narrative that combines the sleuthing skills of a private detective with the skill of the master historian at reconstructing detailed events from the past. "History is written by the winners, and after her incarceration, [Mary] was to be a spectacular loser," he writes. "When the lords wove their damning fiction, Mary's version of history was forgotten." The task he sets himself is to recover Mary's version of history. By contrast with the lurid tales that have been told about Mary ever since her death, Guy's biography is a masterpiece of moderation that steadfastly avoids the lure of her scandalous reputation. Here is a life of Mary Stuart that painstakingly assembles all the surviving documentary evidence and scrupulously assesses it, weighing the false testimony of her enemies against the whitewashing of her friends.

Yet the book wears its scholarship lightly. The easy informality of its style and the accessibility of the prose make it a pure pleasure to read. It is a tribute to the depth and breadth of Guy's understanding of the period that one can predict that Queen of Scots will be the definitive biography of Mary Stuart for many years to come. *

Lisa Jardine is director of the AHRB Research Centre for Editing Lives and Letters and professor of Renaissance Studies, at Queen Mary, University of London.

Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, from a miniature