Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Off with her head!

You may be wondering what on earth I'd been doing with my time since finishing The Wind's Twelve Quarters oh so long ago. Well, folks, I've been reading a super gigantic biography of everyone's favorite Catholic martyr, Mary Queen of Scots, by Antonia Fraser. I also interspersed it with some magazine reading, since I have to do my best to keep up with all my subscriptions, and sometimes the tiny print in my 1971 mass market paperback would be too much for my tired eyes.

As you may know, I love royalty, and Mary Queen of Scots is great because she fits right into the Elizabethan period, which happens to be the part of English history that I know the best. Mary is also particularly wonderful because she was really tall for the period (actually even pretty tall for nowadays) at 5 foot 11. I just love tall ladies. Her story is also very salacious and ends with a dramatic execution. So the outline goes something like this:

Mary's father, James V, dies just a few days after she is born. She is his only child and becomes the queen of Scotland. The nobles tussle over who she should marry for awhile, eventually sending her to France to be married to Henry II's son, Francis, the heir to the French throne. She grows up there and marries Francis when she is a teenager, but he is in poor health and dies after about a year. They had no children and many historians question that they ever even had sex. Mary is shipped back to Scotland (a place she hasn't been since she was 5 and her mother has since died). She's got all kinds of problems because she is Catholic and her subjects are Protestant. Henry the VIII dies in England and they run through the short rule of Edward, the bloody rule of Mary, and then stick in the Protestant rule of Elizabeth for most of Mary's life. Mary desperately wants to meet Elizabeth, partly because Mary is really the next heir to the British throne if Elizabeth dies with no children. Elizabeth doesn't really seem to like Mary for this and many other reasons (especially the Catholic stuff).

Mary marries this cute young guy that she loves, but no one else likes him and he ends up being kind of a playboy and a gambler. They have a son (the future James VI of Scotland and James I of England). The Scottish nobles plot to kill him (probably without Mary's consent) and do, then the main conspirator kidnaps Mary when she is moving from one castle to another (possibly with her consent), "ravishes" her, and forces her to marry him. Pretty much no one likes this. Mary gets a bad reputation with her people and the nobles, and ends up fleeing to England at the age of 25 for Elizabeth's help (which she promised to give). Instead, Elizabeth puts Mary in jail for the next 17 years before executing her on a trumped up treason charge.

And I know this has gone on for way longer than anyone is probably interested in, but let me give you a taste of the execution from Fraser's book: "The time had come for Jane Kennedy to bind the queen's eyes with the white cloth embroidered in gold which Mary had herself chosen for the purpose the night before. Jane Kennedy first kissed the cloth and then wrapped it gently round her mistress's eyes, and over her head so that her hair was covered as by a white turban and only the neck left completely bare... The queen without even now the faintest sign of fear, knelt down once more on the cushion in front of the block. She recited aloud in Latin the Psalm 'In you Lord is my trust, let me never be confounded' and then feeling for the block, she laid her head down upon it, placing her chin carefully with both her hands, so that if one of the executioners had not moved them back they two would have lain in the direct line of the axe. The queen stretched out her arms and legs and cried 'Into your hands O Lord I commend my spirit' three or four times. When the queen was laying there quite motionless, [the executioner's] assistant put his hand on her body to steady it for the blow. Even so, the first blow, as it fell, missed the neck and cut into the back of the head. The queen's lips moved, and her servants thought they heard the whispered words: 'Sweet Jesus." The second blow severed the neck, all but the smallest sinew and this was severed by using the axe as a saw."

Very exciting, folks. It makes me really want to see the movie from the 1970s with Vanessa Redgrave. Plus Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth? Awesome.


Krouchdog said...

That execution description is great. I love reading stuff that reminds me that things like that actually happened. Saying that Mary was executed in sixteen blah blah blah doesn't seem real to me, but a guy sawing through the last sinew that is holding her head on tends to make history "come alive".

carrie said...

when they run of of material for the OC, they could use this :)