Fatal Majesty. The Drama of Mary Queen of Scots.

By Reay Tannahill

Printed: 1998

Publisher: Orion. London

Edition: First edition

Dimensions 17 × 24 × 5 cm

Language: English

Size (cminches): 17 x 24 x 5

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In the original dustsheet. Red cloth binding with gilt title on the spine.

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Brought up in France, Mary returned to Scotland as a widow at eighteen to take up her throne. Beautiful, clever, with immense personal charm, she was totally unprepared for the brutal realities of ruling a country just emerging from civil war.

In an era when religion and politics were one and the same, the inevitable clash between Catholic queen and Protestant subjects was intensified by the most bitter personal rivalries, and Mary found herself in ever-increasing danger: from the fearsome John Knox, who preached damnation to queens and death to Catholics; from her sanctimonious and ambitious brother; from her brilliant secretary of state; and from Elizabeth I, dazzling and unscrupulous, who feared Mary as a threat to her own throne …

Review: For myself, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book; yes, we’ve all read a million books before about Mary Queen of Scots – her relationships with John Knox, Darnley, Riccio, Bothwell, James Earl of Moray, Elizabeth. And we’ve all read endless accounts about Elizabeth, Cecil, Lethington, Morton, Randolph et al. But I think this book, while clearly (and understandably) taking some poetic license for the sake of a fictional narrative, captured well the essence of the times – the politicking, the scheming and manipulation, the sometimes heartless plays for power and control. The stakes were high, and these people played to win. I liked the way that the book emphasised the reign of Mary often through the eyes of Lethington – sometimes through his direct involvement, and sometimes through what he heard from others – either amicable or not towards Mary. And his relationship with Mary Fleming built nicely. Romantic, yes, but who’s to say it wasn’t really like that? I’d like to think that Maitland of Lethington was an honourable man steering his course through difficult times.

While many of us come to a novel about Mary Queen of Scots with preconceptions – we already know how the story ends – it is refreshing to read a book such as this which offers an open, narrative approach concentrating on the politics and the underlying conflicts of the time. There’s a sense of inevatibility anyway about the reign of Mary – could anyone have managed to weld such unruly elements together in that time and that place and with those enemies? I’m not sure that anybody else at the time could have managed a whole lot better – perhaps just a whole lot less scandalously. Mary may not seem particularly likeable from where we stand today; but we need to approach a life written about her (even a novel) in the spirit and the times of where she stood, and in her context. And for those who berate the author’s portrayal of Bothwell; I think it pays to remember that this book was first published in 1998; historical scholarship, as always, moves on; and if history as a whole now looks at a revisionist version of some events, the author cannot be held responsible for taking a reasonable stance given what was accepted at the time of writing.

I apologise if this review seems apologetic; it is not meant to be. I really want to try and restore some balance to the outlook on this book; I think it deserves to be read and enjoyed – it is well worth getting hold of and diving into. And if you can find them, the novels of Elizabeth Byrd about Mary Queen of Scots are also well worth reading. A thoroughly enjoyable read; a well written, well paced book which flows convincingly through the tragic years, touching and reflecting off the lives of those who impacted on Mary as she moved towards her sad end. A book that is hard to put down. Highly recommended.

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