Elizabeth and Mary: leadership lost and won
by Barbara Kyle
Should we act from the head or from the heart? In Jane Austen’s terms: from sense or sensibility? Two queens epitomize this primal divide. Elizabeth I of England acted with careful deliberation, keeping her ambitious nobles in line and her kingdom safe from foreign attack during a peaceful reign of over forty years. Her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, followed her passions throughout her seven-year reign, making impetuous decisions that fomented a civil war in which she gambled her kingdom on the battlefield, and lost.
For over four hundred years, their story has enthralled the world.
Mary fled to England to escape the Protestant lords who had deposed her, and begged Elizabeth for an army to fight them. But Elizabeth needed Protestant Scotland as a bulwark against possible invasion by Catholic France or Spain, so she kept Mary under house arrest – a captivity, though comfortable, that lasted nineteen years. While captive, Mary plotted ceaselessly to overthrow Elizabeth and take her crown, and when the last plot almost succeeded, Elizabeth executed her.
The head vs. heart divide marked these two queens’ very different attitudes about leadership. It stemmed partly from their upbringing. Mary, sent to France at five to join the French king’s family in preparation for marriage to his heir, Francis, grew up in the most glittering court in Europe, petted and loved by the French royal family. She married Francis when both were in their teens, and when his father died a year later he became king. Queen of France at sixteen, Mary had little to do but please and pamper herself.
Elizabeth’s childhood, in contrast, was one of uncertainty and fear. Her father, Henry VIII, beheaded her mother, Anne Boleyn, when Elizabeth was three. Then he disinherited Elizabeth. When she was twenty-one her half-sister Mary took the throne and sent Elizabeth to the Tower, where she expected to be executed. But Mary died four years later and Elizabeth became queen. In those perilous years she had learned to watch and wait, and never to act rashly.
It was a lesson Mary, Queen of Scots never learned. When her French royal husband died she returned to Scotland at eighteen to take up her birthright as its queen, and there she fell in love with an English nobleman, Lord Darnley. Despite the disapproval of her councillors, she impulsively married him.
This splintered her nobles into factions, creating a simmering civil war. Mary bore a son, James, but her marriage quickly soured. She turned to a tough military man, the Earl of Bothwell, and there was gossip they were lovers. One cold February night the house Darnley was sleeping in was blown up, killing him. Bothwell was accused of Darnley’s murder and stood trial, but was acquitted. Three months later, Mary took Bothwell as her third husband. Her people suspected her of colluding with him to murder Darnley, and turned against her.
Elizabeth, famously, never married. She knew that if she did her husband would be considered king, eclipsing her power and creating warring factions. Her decision to remain single brought her considerable personal anguish. She was heard to say, when Mary’s son was born, that she envied Mary the baby, “while I am barren stock.” But she knew her decision was wise. Elizabeth loved her people, and often said that they were her family. They loved her in return.
Mary is to be pitied, kept captive for nineteen years, then beheaded at Elizabeth’s order. But it was her disastrous, impetuous leadership decisions that led to her downfall. If peace, prosperity, and international respect are the fruits of successful leadership, the cautious Elizabeth remains one of England’s greatest leaders.
About the contributor: BARBARA KYLE is the author of five Tudor-era novels including The Queen’s Gamble, an HNR Editor’s Choice. Her latest release, Blood Between Queens, features Elizabeth and Mary. Visit www.BarbaraKyle.com.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 64, May 2013