Mary of Guise (1515–1560)

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Mary of Guise (1515–1560)

French-born queen of Scotland who fought to retain the throne for her daughter, Mary Stuart, against Scottish nobles and Protestant reformers . Name variations: Mary of Lorraine; Mary of Guise-Lorraine; Marie of Guise; (Fr.) Mary de Guise, duchess of Longueville. Pronunciation: Geez or Geese. Born on November 20 (some sources cite 22), 1515, in Castle Bar-le-Duc, Lorraine, in northern France; died in Edinburgh Castle, Scotland, on June 10 or 11, 1560; buried in Rheims, Champagne, France; daughter of Claude I, duke of Guise, and Antoinette of Bourbon (1494–1583); married Louis II d'Orleans, duke of Longueville, on August 4, 1534; married James V (1512–1542), king of Scotland (r. 1513–1542), on May 9, 1538; children: (first marriage) François III also known as Francis III (b. October 30, 1535), duke of Longueville; Louis (b. August 4, 1537); (second marriage) James Stewart (b. May 22, 1540), 5th duke of Rothesay; Arthur Stewart (b. April 24, 1541), duke of Albany (also referred to in some sources as Robert); Mary Stuart (1542–1587), Queen of Scots.

Educated at Pont-au-Mousson convent; presented at court of Francis I of France (1531); crowned queen of Scots (February 22, 1540); widowed and assumed title queen dowager (December 14, 1542); appointed head of advisory council to Scottish governor (1544); made diplomatic visit to France (1550); appointed regent of Scotland (April 12, 1554).

In May 1538, the coastline of Scotland loomed large before Mary of Guise as she peered from the deck of a ship crossing the North Sea. She was traveling to meet her new husband, James V, king of Scotland. Behind her lay France and everything the 22-year-old widow had known and loved, including her young son; ahead was an alien country of people whose ways she did not know and a language she did not speak. Even her husband, married to her by proxy, was a stranger. Though they had only exchanged a few letters, the newlyweds would now face the challenge of being Scotland's king and queen.

Mary of Guise was born on November 20, 1515, in Bar-le-Duc castle in northern France, the oldest child of Claude, duke of Guise and Antoinette of Bourbon . It was an exciting time in the country of her birth. The cultural flowering known historically as the Renaissance had spread from Italy to northern Europe and taken hold in France, with all its artistic and literary splendor. A new king had ascended the throne that same year. Francis I was a patron of the arts and literature, and his court was to grow into a center for French thinkers and writers. The nobility of the country, including Mary's parents, were to be deeply influenced by his example.

Mary grew up in various of her father's castles but lived primarily at Joinville, left behind by her grandmother, Philippa of Guelders , who had retired to the convent of Pont-au-Mousson on the northern French coast. During her earliest years, Mary was most strongly influenced by her mother, whose only child she was until the birth of a son when Mary was four. Three more sons, as well as five more daughters whose names are unknown, would follow in a span of some seventeen years, and from her mother Mary learned to care for her brothers and sisters, and all she would need to know about running a noble household.

Sometime near the beginning of her teens, Mary was sent to the convent of her grandmother to be educated. One effect of the Renaissance was to encourage many noble families to view the education of their daughters in reading, writing, and reasoning to be as important as the education of their sons. If a woman were to raise wise and thoughtful children capable of ruling, it was believed, she herself would need moral and philosophical education. Mary probably became well grounded in Christian philosophy while at Pont-au-Mousson.

In 1529, Mary was close to her 14th birthday when her uncle and aunt—Anthony, duke of Lorraine, and Renée of Montpensier —arrived at the convent to take her with them to their court at Nancy. It was a common practice among the nobility for children to be sent to the households of friends or family where they could learn etiquette and strengthen friendships between households. At Nancy, Mary spent the next year learning the finer points of courtly manners while her elders looked toward establishing her in a good marriage.

In March 1531, soon after she turned 15, Mary of Guise was presented by her uncle at the court of Francis I, where she spent the better part of the next three years serving as a waiting-woman to Queen Eleanor of Portugal (1498–1558). During this time, a suitable husband was found in Louis, duke of Longueville, whose lands lay just to the north of the Guise lands. It is likely that Mary and Louis had known each other since childhood, and their marriage solidified friendly relations between the two families.

Mary and Louis married on August 4, 1534, in the chapel of the Louvre Palace. Much of the royal court was in attendance, and the celebration following the ceremony lasted two weeks. The couple took up residence at Louis' ancestral home of Châteaudun, where Mary began the life for which she had been raised. She became a strong patron of the tenants on her husband's land, seeing to both their grievances and their needs. On October 30, 1535, one month shy of her 20th birthday, her first son Francis was born. By December 1536, she was pregnant again. Whatever sense of contentment she may have felt was soon shattered by the death of her husband Louis on June 9, 1537, in Rouen. Her second son Louis was born two months later on August 4, 1537, but the infant died four months later. Determined to avoid remarriage, Mary of Guise set about caring for the Longueville lands until her son Francis was old enough to oversee them.

Antoinette of Bourbon (1494–1583)

Duchess of Guise and Lorraine . Born on December 25, 1494 (some sources cite 1493); died on January 22, 1583; daughter of Marie of Luxemburg (d. 1546) and François also known as Francis of Bourbon, count of Vendôme; married Claude I (1496–1550), duke of Guise-Lorraine, on June 9, 1513 (some sources cite 1510); children: Mary of Guise (1515–1560); Francis, 2nd duke of Guise (1519–1563); Charles (b. 1524), cardinal of Lorraine; Claude (1526–1573), marquis of Mayenne and duke of Aumâle; Louis (d. 1578), 1st cardinal of Guise; René (1536–1566), marquis of Elbeuf; and five other daughters (names unknown).

Renée of Montpensier (fl. 1500s)

Duchess of Lorraine . Name variations: Renee of Montpensier. Flourished in the early 1500s; married Antoine or Anthony, duke of Lorraine (r. 1508–1544); children: Francis I, duke of Lorraine (r. 1544–1545).

But the king of France had other ideas. In the winter of 1536, James V of Scotland had visited the court of Francis I in search of a wife, whom he found in Madeleine of France (1520–1537), one of Francis' and Claude de France 's daughters. The couple had been married on January 1, 1537, in an elaborate ceremony attended by many of the nobility, including Mary and her husband. Madeleine was not a physically strong woman, however, and the weather in Scotland apparently contributed to her death only a few months after the wedding, leaving James in search of another French noblewoman to marry. While he was eager to continue his alliance with Scotland, Francis I did not want to lose any more daughters to the Scottish climate. Pondering other acceptable candidates, the king remembered the recently widowed duchess of Longueville, whose rank and wealth made her the perfect choice. The only obstacle was Mary's vow not to marry again.

James V had met Mary briefly in 1536, during his earlier visit to France. Now he set out to win her over by appealing to her sense of duty and purpose. According to Rosalind Marshall , "He was not simply offering her a ceremonial role in life but asking for her advice and assistance. She was to be his partner in a difficult endeavour."

The endeavor, which was indeed difficult, was to unite Scotland and France against England and its threats to the Catholic Church, which Henry VIII, king of England, had broken with in 1534. Only for reasons so broad and deep would Mary consider remarriage at this point, and she finally agreed to the arrangement. On May 9, 1538, she was married by proxy to James at Châteaudun; Robert, Lord Maxwell, who stood in place of James, then escorted the new queen to Scotland.

Leaving France, Mary also left behind Francis, her two-year-old son, in the care of her mother Antoinette. As heir to his father's lands, it was important that the infant duke of Longueville remain close to his possessions. Mary's ship landed with her entourage close to the city of St. Andrews, where she was met by James. Two days after Trinity Sunday, 1538, their marriage was confirmed at the Cathedral of St. Andrews.

She took hold of her courage, constancy, and resolution during the consolations and desolations, the prosperities and adversities of this mortal life.

—Hilarion de Coste

For the next two years, Mary's time was mostly spent acquainting herself with her new country. In contrast to the custom in France, the new queen discovered that the Scottish nobility did not hold their king in high regard; while they recognized him as king, many of the nobles were closely related to James and remembered when his family had been in their position; some hoped eventually to usurp his crown for themselves or their sons. Slowly, Mary learned which nobles could be counted on to support James and which sought his downfall.

A primary duty of hers, meanwhile, was to provide Scotland with an heir, and more than one if possible. The issue was so important that she was six months' pregnant with the king's first child before she was crowned queen of Scots on February 22, 1540. On May 22, Mary of Guise gave birth to a healthy son baptized a week later as James, duke of Rothesay and prince of Scotland. This time, unlike with her son Francis, the raising of her child was not left to her. Almost from his first week of life, as the next in line to the throne, the young James had his own household, separate from the court.

On April 24, 1541, Mary gave birth to another son, Arthur. But while Scotland celebrated the news of the birth of a second prince, the infant James fell seriously ill, and the newborn Arthur also appeared frail. Only a week after his birth, Arthur died a few hours after the death of his older brother. The king and queen were both devastated.

James V never truly recovered from the loss of the infants. For months after the deaths, his relationship with Mary of Guise was strained; when they were reconciled, it was to join in facing foreign troubles. To the south, Henry VIII was threatening to invade Scotland if James would not join him in alliance. But James perceived Henry's overtures as a menace to Scotland, and saw no other recourse but to fight to keep his country independent. James set off for war, leaving Mary, pregnant for a third time, in the capital of Edinburgh. In November 1542, the Scots suffered an overwhelming defeat at the battle of Solway Moss, and James was crushed by the setback. In his weakened state, he contracted a fever, living only long enough to hear of the birth of a daughter, Mary Stuart , on December 8. He died on December 14.

Mary of Guise, widowed a second time at age 27, was now dowager queen of Scotland. With her week-old daughter as queen, Mary of Guise was thrust to the center of a political and religious struggle to control the regency of her child. Soon two men were vying openly to be named regent. David Beaton, cardinal-archbishop of St. Andrews and formerly a close advisor to the dead king, had strongly supported the French alliance and was uncompromising in his belief of the Catholic Church's supremacy in Scotland. In contrast, James Hamilton, 2nd earl of Arran, second in line to the Scottish throne after the infant queen, was a man suspected of Protestant leanings. Mary of Guise, having spent most of her four years in Scotland sorting out the political intrigues of the court or sequestered in pregnancy, lacked enough support among the Scottish barons to declare herself regent. She decided to back Beaton, since they agreed on Scotland's ties with France and on the preeminence of the Catholic Church.

Throughout 1543, Arran and Beaton each connived to gain the upper hand. Because Beaton wanted links with France, Arran looked for support in England, negotiating a peace treaty

and an agreement for Mary Stuart to marry England's Prince Edward (the future Edward VI) when she reached the age of ten; one demand of the marriage agreement was that the young queen be educated in England. None of this sat well with the Scottish nobles, however, and Arran eventually had to acquiesce to Beaton. Finally, in 1544, a council was formed, with Mary of Guise at its head, to oversee Beaton as regent.

Meanwhile, the rebuff by the Scots left Henry VIII eager to suppress the barons to the north. From 1543 to 1548, Henry first tried to intimidate them into an English alliance, then declared war. Scottish Protestants turned their support to him, in hopes of displacing the Catholic Church in Scotland, while the French aided the main Scottish force with soldiers and money.

For the first four years, it was a traditional war, fought in hopes of an overwhelming defeat that would lead to the loser's capitulation. But after 1547, English tactics changed: instead of engaging in battle after battle, the English fortified the lands they had taken and prepared to outlast the Scottish forces, waiting for them to make the next move. When the move came, it was under the influence of the dowager queen, who organized French troops at siege sites and gave a stirring speech before her armies in preparation for what was to be one of the final battles of the war. A final countermove from the English, with their Scottish support, forced her to remove herself and her daughter to the heavily fortified castle of Stirling. From there, through her contacts at the French court, Mary of Guise managed to arrange a treaty with France that secured the marriage of her daughter to Francis, the dauphin of France (later Francis II), son of King Henry II, who had succeeded his father Francis I in 1547. In July 1548, her daughter sailed for France, leaving the English outmaneuvered, not on the battlefield but through diplomacy.

In 1550, in celebration of this political success and to demonstrate to the Scots what an alliance with France meant, Mary of Guise invited several Scottish nobles to join her on a yearlong diplomatic visit to France. When the city of Rouen held pageants in honor of the victories of the Scottish and French troops, the visitors were suitably impressed. In Paris, King Henry II held lavish entertainments at the royal court, while Mary of Guise had time to be with her relatives, whom she had not seen in more than ten years, and especially with her two surviving children, Francis and Mary Stuart. It was to be the last time she would see the son of her first marriage; he would die in October 1551.

On her return from France, Mary of Guise's political position was strengthened to the degree that she was officially declared regent of Scotland by the Scottish Parliament on April 12,1554. After the assassination of Cardinal Beaton in 1546, Arran had assumed the regency, and, in compensation for relinquishing it, he was awarded the French duchy of Châtelherault by Henry II. Mary of Guise, meanwhile, moved to shore up her own domestic and foreign policies, seeing her regency as a chance to bring stability and prosperity to Scotland.

But a miscalculation of the strength of religious interests was soon to help precipitate her downfall. A Catholic herself, she did not understand the hold that the Protestant reformation by then had on Scotland. Refusing to persecute Protestants, she believed that many of their conversions were political, and that the converts would eventually return to the Catholic Church. It was a view that left her ill-prepared to deal with the most strident of Scottish Protestant reformers, John Knox, who declaimed against Mary of Guise's regency as an abomination to Scotland both religiously and politically. Preaching for her overthrow and the establishment of a national Protestant Church in Scotland, he won a growing number of converts.

Mary of Guise also failed to understand the depth of the Scottish fear of foreign domination. In setting up her government, she drew many of her new state officials directly from France, without realizing the insult this was to the Scottish nobility. Appreciative as they were of French wealth and power, they did not want Scotland to be annexed to France. When they discovered that the 1558 marriage treaty between Mary Stuart and the dauphin included a clause granting the throne of Scotland to the dauphin in the event of Mary Stuart's death, they grew incensed, viewing Mary of Guise as a puppet of the French king.

By 1559, Mary of Guise was engaged in one battle after another against the forces seeking to depose her. The Protestants, led by John Knox, were requesting aid from England, which was willingly given, since Mary Stuart, through her marriage to the dauphin, now made claims to thrones of England and Ireland as well as of Scotland and France. At age 45, Mary of Guise was most likely suffering from acute heart disease when she became extremely ill while trying to lead the struggle against the English from Edinburgh. Taking to her bed, she continued to issue orders for her troops, but she succumbed, on June 11, 1560, to her exhausted and debilitated heart.


Brown, P. Hume. History of Scotland. 2 vols. NY: Octagon Books, 1971.

Coste, Hilarion de. Les elogies et les vies des reynes, des princesses, et des dames illustres …. 2 vols. Paris: S. Cramoisy, 1647.

Jensen, De Lamar. Reformation Europe: Age of Reform and Revolution. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1992.

Lynch, Michael. Scotland: A New History. London: Century, 1991.

Marshall, Rosalind K. Mary of Guise. London: William Collins Sons, 1977.

related media:

Elizabeth (film), starring Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I and Fanny Ardant as Mary of Guise, Polygram, 1999.

Elisa A. Litvin , historian and freelance writer, Farmington Hills, Michigan

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Mary of Guise (1515–1560)

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