We may think that Parliament can be a little fractious these days, but we are pale shadows of our Tudor forebears. In 1586 Job Throckmorton, the MP for Warwick, launched a ferocious attack on the Catholic Mary Stewart, calling her “the daughter of sedition, the mother of rebellion, the nurse of impiety [and] the handmaid of iniquity”. She was “such a creature whom no Christian eye can behold with patience, whose villainy hath stained the earth and infected the air, the breath of whose malice towards the Church of God and the Lord’s anointed, our dread sovereign, hath in a loathsome kind of savour fumed up to the heavens.” Putting an end to Mary, he said, would be “one of the fairest riddances that ever the Church of God had”.
I’ve only seen the three-minute trailer for the latest Mary, Queen of Scots biopic, directed by Josie Rourke, but I hope the film will contain some parliamentary scenes. They would capture the drama of an island in turmoil because of the conflict between two extraordinary women. Though “conflict” isn’t quite the word. More a matter of pride and petulance. What I don’t want to see is those two women meeting on screen, since that never happened, but, alas, the trailer indicates that, as per usual, historical accuracy will be abandoned and we’ll have the obligatory showdown.
The temptation is hard to resist, I know. It happens in Schiller’s Maria Stuart, in Donizetti’s opera, and twice in the 1971 film Mary, Queen of Scots, starring Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave. In a Martha Graham dance piece the two queens are to be found playing a game of tennis. But why? Isn’t there drama enough without making things up?
I was cheered, though, to see Elizabeth reading one of Mary’s annoying letters in the trailer. This astonishing correspondence sums up their relationship. Lots of missives between Elizabeth and Mary have come down to us and they offer glimpses of the souring of relations through the period of Mary’s enforced sojourn in England. In February 1569, Mary was full of gratitude “for the honourable respect and courteous entertainment that I have received since my arrival”. But before long she was grumbling about the “unloving treatment” she had received: “I require succour; or else I shall be compelled to seek for it where God shall direct me.”
Elizabeth was not the sort of monarch one inflicted an “or else” ultimatum upon and she grew increasingly irritated by Mary’s tantrums. In a letter from February 1570, she was clearly offended by the “heap of confused, troubled thoughts” stemming from Mary’s pen. It was far wiser, Elizabeth suggested, “to believe and trust rather to me in all your difficulties” rather than “either bruits of the brainless vulgar or the viperous backbiters of the sowers of discord”.
By February 1572, after receiving a long letter from Mary “with multitude of sharp and injurious words”, Elizabeth advised Mary “that it is not the manner to obtain good things with evil speeches”.
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