Book Review: Mary, Queen of Scots by Madeleine Bingham

Mary, Queen of Scots. By Madeleine Bingham.  London:  International Profiles, 1969.


Whenever I move to a new town, one of the first things I do is find the library.  And once I am at the library, I wander around and look for books that I am acquainted with – like finding old friends.  I search for my favorite novels – my favorite authors – my favorite subjects.  It’s always interesting and fun to see what is on the shelves.

I recently moved to Lowell, Massachusetts.  The library nearest to me is the Pollard Memorial Library and it is a beauty of a library.  I had no problem getting a library card and I borrowed books that very day.


Pollard Memorial Library

photo © polly macdavid


One of the books I borrowed was a slender biography of Mary, Queen of Scots.  I thought I had read all more recent biographies of the tragic queen or at least listed them on my “to-read” list, but I had never heard of this book or this author.  I Googled her but all that came up was on Goodreads – admittedly, better than nothing.  Goodreads listed 13 books – one of which, Scotland Under Mary Stuart; an Account of Everyday Life, I most definitely want to find & read – and several of the other ones listed sounded quite interesting as well.  She was married to John Bingham, seventh Baron Clanmorris of Newbrook and she mothered the romantic novelist Charlotte Bingham.


Mary, Queen of Scots was published in 1969, the same year as Antonia Fraser’s massive work of scholarship.  Bingham does not cite Fraser in her sources; it is possible that her book was published before Fraser’s.  At any rate, they have the same sources.  Fraser very simply has many more.

mqs bingham


However, for a little book, there is an awful lot of information in it.  What is especially impressive are the pictures – different ones than usually seen in books about Queen Mary and more of them in general.  Also the quality of the prose is superb.  About John Knox, she writes, “Like many plain-spoken characters he made a virtue of discourtesy, and in his eyes the Queen could do no right.” (33)   James Stewart, the illegitimate half-brother of Mary was “of that breed of men who had patience as well as courage, but he was not averse to profiting from the mistakes of others.”  (36)


Bingham’s main criticism of Mary Stuart seems to be her reliance on her “charm”.  She writes, “Charm, a facile cover for intrigue, makes an uneasy partner to intelligence, and it can defeat its own ends.  Mary was no longer in a country whose background she understood, and while the murderous strains in France under the sway of the Guise family may have been no less violent than those in Scotland, they were used for different ends and in a different political context.” (36)


Naturally Bingham is a fan of Elizabeth I as the Queen of Everything-Mary-Is-Not.  Mary is impetuous; Elizabeth sits and thinks about what to do first.  Mary hires and fires and then rehires and refires her advisors; Elizabeth has the same loyal bunch of men surrounding her for almost her entire reign.  Mary gives into her passions; does Elizabeth even have any?  Or is she just a reflection of the passionate love given to her?

elizabeth i

Elizabeth I

Bingham is also convinced that Mary is the author of the Casket Letters.  Maybe she heard that Antonia Fraser was going to argue that Mary was framed – that the letters were forgeries – and she thought she had to get her argument out there first.  This is why she thinks the letters are authentic:  “A woman like Mary, brought up to be admired, adulated, clever, charming, and tricky, would be more, not less, foolhardy in the grip of a primitive force which she had not experience before.  Up to the time of her passion for Bothwell she had been protected from the full folly of her sexual nature.  Whether, as she alleged, Bothwell had raped her, and that her subsequent marriage to him had been to regularize the situation, has little bearing on the fact that she married her husband’s murderer.”  (64)


There is so much wrong with that statement, I hardly know where to begin.  It hardly follows that anyone, regardless of upbringing, would be foolhardy enough to set down those kinds of incriminating words – especially someone who had been brought up to be a head of state and certainly would know something about security and intelligence.  And how does Bingham know about Mary’s sexual life before Bothwell?  Perhaps Darnley had been a decent lover – once in a while, when he wasn’t drunk.  She had been in love with him and she had completely doted on him.  And what’s this crap about “whether, as she alleged, Bothwell had raped her” – it’s bad enough when men don’t believe a woman but it’s even worse when women don’t.  Why would she lie?  She’s a Queen.  It’s embarrassing enough for any woman to come forth with an accusation of rape and at that time, marrying your rapist is what you did – you could have been pregnant with his child.  Mary wouldn’t have wanted a bastard prince or princess.  And Bothwell was never convicted of Darnley’s murder.  Only of a propaganda smear.  Of course, that was enough.


But the main thing wrong with that so-called argument is that it doesn’t address whether or not Mary wrote the letters at all.  Bingham condemns her because married Bothwell.  She offers no compelling evidence of that Mary ever wrote any of the letters – or any part of the letters – at all.  Even if Mary was the silliest woman in history, that doesn’t mean that she wrote those letters.  Such faulty logic is annoying – to say the least.


Still, this is a remarkable little book and I hope someday to have it on my shelf.