Mary of Guise, Scotland’s French Queen (1540 to 1542)

Marie of Guise-Lorraine. © British Museum, London.

François Clouet, Mary of Lorraine, « La mere de la Royne descos de la meson de guise » © British Museum, London, Gg 1.420

September 18, 2014. For the first time in History, a referendum gives the Scottish people the possibility to chose if Scotland should be independent or not. For centuries, Scotland was an independent kingdom, but no one ever dreamt of asking the Scots by whom they wished to be ruled. Their kings – and more so their queens – often descended from powerful families born in foreign countries: in England, in Denmark or in France. One of these foreign rulers was Queen Mary of Guise.

Mary of Guise-Lorraine was born the first child of what would become one of the most powerful families in 16th century France, the Guise. Her life was later marked by profound changes in European society and religion. In today’s France, a few historians still know of her existence, but there is almost no knowledge about her in the general public. Several reasons might be evoked for her disappearance from French History books.

Lorraine, Bourbon and Guise

Being a 16th century noblewoman, Mary of Guise was all her life guided and ordered around by her most ambitious family. It all started with her father, Claude of Guise, a younger son of the Lorraine family, who served the French king Francis I. His military bravery made him first French, then duke of Guise and later governor of Champagne and Burgundy. Claude fought in Italy and Germany and was one of king Francis’ I closest allies. After duke Claude’s death in 1550, Mary’s brother Francis of Guise became head of the family and, together with his younger brother Charles, cardinal of Lorraine, continued to influence the life and decisions of his sister.

Mary’s mother Antoinette inspired French historian Gabriel Pimodan. In her biography published in 1889, Pimodan calls her « Antoinette de Bourbon, the mother of the Guises ». Her importance to French History was therefore mothering numerous and later very powerful (male) Guise descendants. Unlike her mother, Mary of Guise didn’t have twelve children – in fact, she ended up with only one, and a girl on top of that. Accordingly, she is known as the « mother of Mary Stuart ». Mary of Guise doesn’t seem to deserve a French biography; she only had the one daugther, all her sons died young. Both Guise women were much more than « mother of ». Antoinette was a long-living and influent dutchess, and her eldest daughter Mary no less than dutchess herself. Mary of Guise became Queen of Scotland in February 1540, and later Queen regent of Scotland, in the absence of her daughter Mary Queen of Scots. Powerful women always had – and still have – a bad reputation in France, like Diana of Poitiers, the influent mistress of king Henry II. Ruling without a man at their side, or a « weak » man, has always been a very bad idea for a powerful woman. Mary of Guise-Lorraine, in the eyes of her 16th century French contemporaries, was living in a remote and « barbarian » country. Her personal qualities and her struggle to maintain her daughter’s rights as Queen of Scotland, with her husband deceased and Mary Stuart gone to France, was recognized then, and remembered after her death in june 1560. Today, she is all butforgotten.

The Guise family, too close to the throne of France

Mary was a Guise, the first child of a highly ambitious family. Like all Guises, she was born and raised a Catholic. But unlike her mother Antoinette and her younger brothers, Mary had always been more tolerant and openminded. She did not live to see her powerful male family members murdered one by one. Her eldest brother Francis duke of Guise was stabbed to death by a Protestant in 1563. Several years later, his son Henry, the new duke of Guise, was assassinated by men of the French king Henry III at the château of Blois in 1588. At the end of the 16th century, the once glorious name of Guise was doomed.

Bar, Lorraine, France : It’s complicated

Another reason why Mary of Guise did not have much attention in France might be that she was foreign born. The small duchy of Bar, her birthplace, and the much greater duchy of Lorraine had been independent realms for centuries. Her father Claude of Guise had been naturalised French by king Francis I in the 1520’s, but still, Guise family members were sometimes regarded as strangers in metropolitan France. Lorraine, ruled by Claude’s elder brother duke Anthony, was still linked to the German emperor Charles V, the hated ennemy of France. In the following centuries, the Lorraine region became the center of a long fight between France and Germany; even today, Lorraine is sometimes regarded as « not entirely French ».

Only mother of Mary Stuart ?

Mary of Guise is mother to the very famous Mary Queen of Scots. Her daughter being a VIP in European history, Mary only appears as « mother of Mary Stuart », like her own mother Antoinette is « mother of the Guises ». In 1550, when Mary came back to France from Scotland to see her daughter, her son from her first Longueville marriage and her Guise family, she could have chose to stay in one of her French possessions. But she left for Scotland the next year. Did she only obey the French king Henry II and her two brothers Francis, duke of Guise and Charles, cardinal of Lorraine, who all ordered her to defend Scotland against England and the Scottish Protestants? Did she go back to watch over her daughter’s rights as Queen of Scots? Or wasn’t it her own strong will to fulfill her destiny as Queen regent of Scotland, to ride out in the battlefield against the English army like Joan of Arc had done a century before, to fight for what she thought was right, like Joan, another woman from Lorraine ? Did she not speak in person and as Queen regent of Scotland to the French, Scottish and German soldiers fighting the invading English army ? How could she have forgotten that the English army had burned and destroyed the abbey of Holyrood near Edinburgh and the tombs of her husband James V and her two baby sons, back in 1544 ?

At the end of her life, Scottish Queen regent Mary of Guise fought the army of Queen Elizabeth I of England, another powerful and « unromantic » fermale ruler, and yet another Renaissance woman who had decided she didn’t need a man to rule her realm, nor her life.

Read more about Mary of Guise on marieguiselorraine2015.com.