Released in late-2018, Mary, Queen of Scots, directed by Josie Rourke and starring Saoirse Ronan as the eponymous Mary Stuart, received broad acclaim for the performances both of its leading lady as well as Margot Robbie in a supporting role as Elizabeth I of England. Expected to compete for the top prizes at the 2019 Academy Awards, the film, despite its commercial success, quickly became mired in controversy surrounding its historical inconsistencies. From recasting and altering the personalities of historical figures, anachronistic inclusions, and even fundamental changes to the core narrative of the historical tale, Mary, Queen of Scots ignited a debate within the historical community regarding just how far cinema should alter history in order to appeal to modern audiences.
Here are 18 historical details from Mary, Queen of Scots that were either astonishingly accurate or woefully wrong:
18. Wrong: Mary I of Scotland most probably did not possess a Scottish accent, having spent the preponderance of her childhood living abroad in France
Born on December 8, 1542, at Linlithgow Palace in Scotland, Mary Stuart was the daughter of King James V and his second wife, Mary of Guise. Promised, at just six months old, to King Henry VIII of England’s son Edward, disagreements between England and Scotland led to the rejection of the Treaty of Greenwich and the union between the two nations. Suffering defeat at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547, Mary’s protectors sought to send her to safety on the continent. Negotiating with King Henry II of France, Mary was arranged to marry the French Dauphin – heir apparent – Francis, who was just three at the time.
Leaving Scotland aged five, Mary spent the next thirteen years at the French court. Arriving in Brittany on August 7, 1548, Mary was accompanied by her two illegitimate half-brothers and four noble daughters of her own age all named Mary. Quickly becoming a favorite at court, except with the notable exception of Henry II’s wife, Catherine de’ Medici, Mary became impressively multi-lingual, learning French as her first language, as well as Italian, Latin, Spanish, Greek, and her native Scottish. Not returning until 1561 to Scotland, it is immensely unlikely Mary, who continued to write personal letters in French, spoke with a pronounced Scottish accent.
17. Wrong: The royal courts of England and Scotland were nowhere near as culturally or ethnically diverse as depicted by the film
One of the most noticeable imprecise historical inaccuracies in Mary, Queen of Scots, is the presence of a sizable proportion of non-white actors as characters who were historically, for the most part, ethnically homogeneous. Bess of Hardwick, for example, was a daughter of Derbyshire, whilst the cinematic presentation depicts her being played by Gemma Chan, an English-born actress with Chinese parents. Similarly, the role of David Rizzio – Mary’s Italian secretary, who in real-life was of white Mediterranean ethnicity, is performed by Puerto-Rican actor Ismael Cruz Cordova whilst Lord Thomas Randolph – Elizabeth’s ambassador to Scotland – is represented by black actor Andrew Lester despite being unquestionably Caucasian.
Defending her adaptational decisions, the film’s director Josie Rourke acknowledged “we know that the characters that Gemma and Adria and Ismael Cruz Cordova [play] were white” and hence “those are people of color playing those who were historically not people of color.” However, Rourke, claiming influence from her theater background, asserted she demanded at the outset of studio discussions that she would not “direct an all-white period drama”. Instead, in justifying her choices Rourke contended her work was “a restorative piece” and that through her casting decisions “the past becomes the present”.
16. Correct: Mary and Elizabeth did actually exchange portraits to better understand how one another looked, as well as sending each other further gifts
As depicted in Mary, Queen of Scots, following Mary’s return to Scotland in 1561 the young monarch initiated contact with her English cousin. Whilst the film speeds up the timeline of events to spare the audience unbearable tedium, which in real-life spanned more than a year of messages between the pair and their representatives, Mary requested a portrait of Elizabeth to gain a greater understanding of her distant relation. Elizabeth, in turn, stubbornly insisted that she receive a portrait of Mary first before sending one depicting herself. Receiving a painting from the Queen of Scotland later that year, Elizabeth did not reciprocate with her own until the following year.
As suggested by the film, it is entirely plausible and in line with Elizabeth’s character that the Virgin Queen grew immensely insecure at her younger cousin’s reputed beauty. Elizabeth’s vanity would go some way to explain the delay in sending her own portrait to Scotland, intimating repeated drafts before she was finally satisfied with its portrayal of her aging self. These portraits would not be the last tokens sent between the monarchs, for although not depicted in the film Elizabeth gifted the widowed Mary a diamond ring in 1563 alongside the suggestion of a suitable English husband.
15. Wrong: The film’s taglines states that Elizabeth was “Born to Power” and Mary was “Born to Fight” when in truth the reverse is far more historically accurate
As part of the marketing for the film, in line with the story being told predominantly from Mary’s perspective and placing the Queen of Scotland as the wronged protagonist, two taglines were used for the female monarchs: “Born to Power” and “Born to Fight”. Used for Elizabeth and Mary respectively, situating Mary as the underdog and elevating Elizabeth into her historically acclaimed position of authority, in actuality the reverse is far more truthful. Mary, in spite of the film’s portrayal of her a rebellious stalwart, became Queen of Scotland at the age of just six days old after her father died suddenly on December 14, 1542, without any other living children.
In contrast to Mary, who was literally born into power and who subsequently married the crown prince of France, Elizabeth was born into a far more uncertain future and one she was forced to persistently fight for. The daughter of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife beheaded for treason, her mother was killed when Elizabeth was just two-years-and-eight-months old. Declared illegitimate following this event, Elizabeth endured her childhood and adolescence under the constant threat of the executioner’s ax. This threat only intensified after her Catholic sister, Mary, became Queen of England in 1553.
14. Wrong: Despite serving as the climax of the film, Elizabeth and Mary never met in person but did nevertheless exchange letters and correspond including during the latter’s captivity
The most controversial scene in Mary, Queen of Scots, provoking considerable debate among academics regarding the ethical limitations of making narrative changes in historical dramas, the movie’s climax comes down to a secret meeting between Elizabeth and Mary after the latter’s escape to England. Despite serving as a cathartic and vital scene, wherein Mary declares that should Elizabeth kill her then she would “murder [her] queen”, in actuality neither monarch ever physically encountered one another. Spending most of their lives hundreds of miles apart, even after Mary’s imprisonment in England the duo never came face-to-face.
Although a meeting was planned in 1562, the year after Mary’s return to Scotland, it was abandoned due to political turmoil on both sides of the border and civil war in France. Mary, Queen of Scots is not the first dramatic production to fall foul of this historical inaccuracy, becoming a staple of period pieces exploring the duo’s relationship ever since Friedrich Schiller’s production of his play Mary Stuart in 1800. Despite being fictitious, the scene does offer audiences an acceptable mode to represent decades of written correspondence between the pair. More than fifty letters between Mary and Elizabeth have survived just from the time of the former’s imprisonment, depicting Mary’s fruitless efforts to mend her relationship with her English cousin.
13. Correct: Elizabeth I of England did contract smallpox in the years following Mary’s return to Scotland, suffering lifelong facial scarring symptomatic of the illness
Coinciding in Mary, Queen of Scots with Elizabeth’s attempts to wed her Scottish cousin to a Protestant Englishman, even prompting Mary’s acceptance of the offer on condition she is named the heir to the throne of England, Elizabeth I is shown afflicted with smallpox. Depicted in gruesome fashion, with a veiled Elizabeth secluded in convalescence and descending into madness, whilst the particulars of the event are less clear it is widely accepted by the historical community the Queen of England did indeed contract the highly contagious and deadly virus. Believed to have infected Elizabeth in either 1562 or 1563, her affliction prompted the succession question to be raised in Parliament.
Resulting in Parliament urging the sick monarch to either marry or nominate a successor to avert civil war upon her death, it appears a significant portion of the English elite genuinely feared Elizabeth would succumb to the incurable condition. In response, a furious Elizabeth prorogued Parliament, with the legislative body not reconvening until summoned to raise taxes three years later. Although defying her critics and recovering, Elizabeth bore signs of her infection for the rest of her life. Causing noticeable facial scarring, portraits of the Virgin Queen after this event became increasingly unrealistic, attempting to compensate for her aged and damaged complexion.
12. Wrong: Mary I of Scotland, in line with the customs and fashion styles of the 16th century, would not have worn a multitude of earrings
A minor historical grievance, but nevertheless an inaccuracy, as represented in Mary, Queen of Scots – which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Costume Design – Mary I of Scotland was a passionate fan of earrings. Seen throughout the movie wearing a series of jewelry pieces, of greatest notice is the repeated appearance of earrings on the Scottish warrior-queen. Ear piercing, as a fashion trend, dramatically declined in popularity throughout Europe after the tenth century, only enjoying a minor resurgence in popularity during the sixteenth century before becoming mainstream again in more recent times.
However, even allowing for the possibility that Mary Stuart was among those advocating the return of earrings – a plausible suggestion with earrings sometimes included in portraiture of the monarch – there is no indication women wore several earrings in the same ear at the same time. Furthermore, more generally the designs used in Mary, Queen of Scots were inaccurate for the sixteenth century. Whilst representations of Mary, as well as surviving pieces from the period, are commonly of single-stud or unobtrusive styles, the film depicts Mary wearing multiple hoop earrings, a design unrecorded and completely opposing contextual styles.
11. Correct: Elizabeth I did indeed attempt to choose her younger cousin’s husband for her in order to reinforce and secure her unstable position as an umarried and childless Queen of England
Upon the return of the widowed Mary to Scotland at the age of eighteen, the young Queen of Scotland was arguably the most eligible woman in Europe. Rivaling her older cousin for desirability, Mary enjoyed a strong claim against the throne of England and the fervent support of discontented Catholics. Terrifying Elizabeth, the prospect of Mary electing to marry a Catholic, especially the available heir-apparents of either Spain or Austria, threatened to undermine her hard-won crown. In response to this danger, Elizabeth attempted to neutralize the threat posed by Mary by pushing her towards a more amenable marriage with a loyal English Protestant.
Suggesting Mary wed Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, whom evidence indicates Elizabeth was herself in a secret relationship with, the English Queen hoped to gain a measure of control over her Scottish cousin and avert disaster. Dispatching Lord Thomas Randolph as her ambassador, Elizabeth, in her desperation, even offered Mary that she would “proceed to the inquisition of her right and title to be our next cousin and heir”. Failing due to the unwillingness of Dudley to marry, hoping at this time to still win Elizabeth’s hand, Mary instead wed English Catholic Henry Stuart, her own cousin, strengthening her claim to Elizabeth’s throne even further.
10. Wrong: Although Mary was present at the murder of David Rizzio – who was inaccurately portrayed as a homosexual rather than her alleged lover in Mary, Queen of Scots – his death most likely did not occur literally in front of her
An Italian courtier from Turin, David Rizzio, failing to ingratiate himself into the circles of Italian nobility, departed for Scotland in 1561 with the embassy led by the Count de Moretto. Failing once again to find employment at the Court of Scotland, Rizzio successfully attached himself to Mary’s musicians as a bass singer. Gaining the attentions of the young monarch, Rizzio grew immensely wealthy and rose to the position of the Queen’s private secretary by 1564. Unlike in Mary, Queen of Scots, which falsely depicted Rizzio as a homosexual and engaging in adulterous relations with Mary’s second husband, Lord Darnley, the preponderance of historical gossip centered on Mary’s supposed infidelity with the Italian.
Sparking jealously in Darnley, and with Mary five months pregnant, the Scottish nobility felt action was needed to stem the damaging rumors surrounding the crown and prospective heir. On the evening of March 9, 1566, a group of nobles, led by Patrick Ruthven, stormed the Queen’s apartments in the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Interrupting Rizzio and Mary eating dinner, the former, as represented accurately by the film, sought to hide behind Mary for protection. Dragged into a separate room, rather than in front of Mary, Rizzio was indeed brutally murdered after being stabbed fifty-seven times by the conspirators.
9. Wrong: Whilst both Queens were polite and courteous towards one another, maintaining at best a cordial relationship, Mary, Queen of Scots at times ahistorically exaggerates the affection between the pair
Upon her return to Scotland in 1561, where Mary, Queen of Scots begins Mary’s story, the young widow understood the political difficulties facing her. A Catholic, and a foreigner in the eyes of many, in a newly Protestant country bordered by a Protestant England, Mary was compelled to adopt a degree of congeniality and friendliness towards her cousin. Similarly, Elizabeth sought to ensure Scotland remained a stable neighbor and, most importantly, Protestant. With a Catholic Scotland posing a genuine threat to herself, Elizabeth likewise was forced to adopt an accommodating posture towards her relation.
However, Mary was equally combative and disruptive towards Elizabeth and it would be inaccurate to depict either as anything more than polite rivals. During her residency in France and marriage to Francis, his father, Henry II, had declared Elizabeth unfit and proclaimed Mary the rightful Queen of England. Maintaining this claim throughout her husband’s brief reign, Mary’s public attempt to usurp Elizabeth’s crown precluded any sisterly bond as depicted in the film. Elizabeth’s concerns for Mary, depicted as genuine and legitimately traumatizing for the English monarch, were exaggerated, with Elizabeth and Mary’s familial bond muted at best.
8. Correct: Elizabeth I of England did wear immensely complicated and elaborate wigs, plastering herself with lead-based makeup to obscure the scars of smallpox and effects of time
Earning Mary, Queen of Scots an Academy Award nomination for Best Makeup and Hairstyling, one of the film’s most redeeming historical qualities is its physical depiction of the changing public image of Elizabeth I of England. The Virgin Queen, renowned for her beauty and desirability throughout Europe, used this persona in no small part to retain ownership of her crown without the support of a husband or consort, carefully crafting every aspect of her physical appearance to maintain this perception. However, due in part to the ravages of smallpox, as well as the passage of time, Elizabeth was forced to apply ever more intrusive means to create this illusion of perpetual youth.
Her almost fatal encounter with smallpox had not only rendered Elizabeth scarred and pocked, but had also left the Queen of England half bald. To combat this unsightly appearance, combined with the deterioration of her natural reddish coloration with age, for the remainder of her life Elizabeth was forced to rely upon wigs. A sign of prestige in Tudor England, Elizabeth reputedly donned immensely ostentatious hairpieces of bright red designed to both intimidate and catch the eye. Equally, Elizabeth endured hours each day of maids painting her face with a lead-based makeup to disguise her scars, inadvertently orally ingesting a distinctly unhealthy quantity of the toxic substance.
7. Wrong: While Mary undoubtedly considered Elizabeth to be her inferior, the Queen of Scotland would never have expressed this belief directly to her English cousin
In the climatic face-to-face meeting between Mary and Elizabeth in Mary, Queen of Scots, the dethroned Scottish Queen denounced her English cousin’s criticisms. Responding that she would not be “scolded by her inferior”, moving beyond the already considered historical reality that the pair never, in fact, met in person, Mary’s behavior in this scene would never have transpired in real life. Not only was Elizabeth at this time Mary’s salvation, fleeing from imprisonment in Scotland and hoping the English Queen might assist her in reclaiming her lost crown and child, but Mary would have felt no need to explicitly state something so impolitely which she believed to be true.
However, that Mary did indeed regard herself as Elizabeth’s better is incontrovertibly accurate. Along with the bulk of her Catholic contemporaries across Europe, Mary was considered the rightful ruler of England due to Elizabeth’s heretical Protestantism, as well as a treasonous mother, invalidating her claim. Mary repeatedly sought to contest the throne of England, strongly opposing the Treaty of Edinburgh in 1560 – which declared Elizabeth the official monarch and denied Mary the right to use the arms of signs of England and Ireland in her heraldry – successfully blocking its ratification.
6. Correct: Although not believed to have been intimately involved with David Rizzio, Mary’s second husband, Lord Darnley, is suspected of having relationships with other men
Departing London on February 3, 1565, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, presented himself before Mary on February 17 at Wemyss Castle. Instantly besotted with the Englishman, the pair were within days inseparable from one another’s company. Mary’s half-first-cousin via two different marriages by their grandmother, Margaret Tudor, consequently placing both Darnley and Mary prominently in the line of succession for the English crown, the couple were married on July 29, 1565. In advance of the wedding, Elizabeth commanded in vain Darnely, one of her subjects, to return to England in an attempt to prevent the union against her.
As accurately portrayed in Mary, Queen of Scots, Darnley and Mary’s relationship quickly soured following their nuptials. Arrogant and prone to excessive drinking, Darnley was an unpleasant husband who grew immensely jealous of his wife’s companions, especially David Rizzio. Despite his own extramarital relations with women, habitual chasing after others even once married, historical evidence suggests Darnley equally engaged in same-sex relations. Of particular note, and overlooked by the film in favor of a fictional relationship with Rizzio himself, Darnley’s close friendship with Don Francisco de Alava has come under modern scrutiny, with the pair described as “intimate” and enjoyed prolonged overseas trips together.
5. Wrong: Whilst Mary did indeed flee Scotland after being forced to abdicate in favor of her infant son, James Stuart, the former Queen of Scotland was imprisoned for a year before she could actually escape to England
As represented accurately in Mary, Queen of Scots, in the aftermath of the death of Mary’s second husband, Lord Darnley, the Scottish Queen sought to quickly remarry a member of the nobility believing it would shore up her claim. Overlooked by the cinematic production was that her protector, James Hepburn, Lord Bothwell, abducted Mary on April 24, 1567, likely raping her at Dunbar Castle, before forcibly marrying the widowed monarch at Holyrood on May 15. Prompting outrage among the wider nobility, with the public scandalized by their ruler marrying the very man accused of murdering her former husband, a coalition formed to remove Mary from the throne.
Confronting her enemies at Carberry Hill, her army deserted during negotiations leaving Mary no option but to abdicate the crown in favor of her one-year-old son on July 24. However, whereas Mary, Queen of Scots, largely for the sake of narrative pace, depicts Mary immediately departing into exile in England, in reality the former monarch was imprisoned at Loch Leven Castle for more than a year. Escaping on May 2, 1568, Mary raised an army of six thousand but was defeated at the Battle of Langside eleven days later. Only after this loss did Mary flee across the border, entering via fishing boat, in the hope her cousin would provide military assistance.
4. Correct: Mary’s second husband and royal consort, Lord Darnley, was murdered in bizarre circumstances, with his body discovered outdoors after an explosion hit Kirk O’ Field in 1567
Approximately eight months after the birth of Mary’s son James, on February 10, 1567, his father, Lord Darnley, suddenly died at Kirk o’ Field, Edinburgh, where the royal consort had been staying. Brought back by Mary after a period of estrangement to recover from an illness, claimed at the time to be smallpox but more recently speculated to have been syphilis, around two in the morning on the night of the tenth an explosion rocked the foundations of Kirk o’ Field. The product of two barrels of gunpowder placed in a room beneath Darnley’s sleeping quarters, the assassination failed to immediately claim the life of Darnley.
Miraculously surviving by reasons unknown, lying in just a nightshirt Darnley’s body, alongside that of his valet, William Taylor, were found in a nearby orchard. Although official post-mortems claimed the explosion had taken his life, speculation circulated, including by surgeons who examined the body, that the consort had been strangled. Depicting the latter cause of death explicitly, Mary, Queen of Scots carefully treads the line of historical accuracy by strongly implying, but never explicitly stating, whether or not Mary herself was responsible for the murder. Never admitting wrongdoing, and denying it throughout her life, either way, Mary mourned little for her husband’s death.
3. Correct: Expressing accurately the difficulty placed upon Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen was nevertheless compelled to sign her cousin’s death warrant after Mary became closely implicated in an assassination plot against the English monarch
Neglected for the most part by Mary, Queen of Scots, the period of Mary’s imprisonment, and accordingly the series of plots against Elizabeth I, received limited airing. Executing the Duke of Norfolk after discovery of the Ridolfi Plot – a scheme to replace Elizabeth with Mary through the aid of Spanish troops – in 1571, following the Throckmorton Plot in 1583 the Bond of Association and Act for the Queen’s Safety was passed. Sanctioning the death of any individual who plotted against Elizabeth, the Babington Plot of 1586, which sought to assassinate Elizabeth, was to be Mary’s ultimate downfall.
Consenting to the plot in letters intercepted by the Queen’s men, although Mary protested the words were not written by her hand but instead forged, the Babington Plot wished to supplant Elizabeth and restore a Catholic monarchy in England. Arrested whilst out riding, Mary was placed on trial for treason in October 1586. Continuing to assert her innocence, as will be discussed Elizabeth did not desire her cousin’s death. However, part of Mary’s defense was her status as a queen, placing her above the judgment of English courts, inexcusably putting Elizabeth in an awkward position. Relenting at last, Elizabeth was forced to order Mary’s death for her alleged crimes.
2. Wrong: Elizabeth did not sign the death warrant of Mary Stuart surrounded by councilors in a special meeting, nor did the English Queen probably intend for her cousin to be executed at that time
As depicted in Mary, Queen of Scots, overlooking the nineteen years of Mary’s captivity in England, hastily compressed into only a couple of scenes at the end of the movie is the eponymous character’s death. Concluding with Mary’s execution, on February 1, 1587, Elizabeth finally signed a death warrant for her cousin and entrusted it into the care of William Davison. Unlike in the film, however, Elizabeth did not sign the warrant with any pomp or circumstance, nor did she in front of her privy councilors. Instead, it is likely the order was signed as part of a routine series of documents in private without special comment.
Similarly ignored by Mary, Queen of Scots was the immediate aftermath of the execution itself. Having been called, in secret, a meeting of some members of the privy council on February 3, it was agreed to carry out the execution immediately. Beheading Mary on February 8, the sentence was performed without Elizabeth being informed of the proceedings. Reportedly becoming outraged and irate, it is unclear whether Elizabeth’s anger was merely for show as a form of plausible deniability or if she had not actually intended to kill her cousin. Imprisoning Davison in the Tower of London, the unfortunate noble was only released after other councilors interceded on his behalf.
1. Wrong: Cutting to black with a swing the executioner’s ax, implying the sudden beheading of Mary Stuart, the execution of the former Queen of Scotland was, in fact, a botched affair
Informed on the evening of February 7, 1587, that she was to die the following morning, Mary Stuart walked freely and with dignity onto the scaffold erected in the Great Hall of Fotheringhay Castle. As depicted accurately in Mary, Queen of Scots, two servants removed their mistresses outer garments to reveal a crimson petticoat: the liturgical color of martyrdom in the Roman Catholic Church. Accepting a blindfold, unlike in the film whereupon she refuses it, Mary, Queen of Scots ends by cutting to black as the executioner swings his ax down upon the neck of the condemned and praying Mary.
Strongly implying Mary’s sudden death, the real-life execution of the Queen of Scots was far less clean. Having accepted per convention the apologies of the executioner, replying “I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles”, the pardoned soul incompetently bungled his task. The first blow failed to behead the slender woman, missing Mary’s neck and striking instead the back of her head. Unsuccessful with his second swing, the next attempt severed Mary’s neck albeit not entirely, remaining connected by pieces of sinew. Forced to cut through the remnants with his ax, the executioner finally completed his gruesome objective.
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