Mary, how does your martyrdom grow?

Another Tudor tome

Tudor history and Tudor historical fiction are all the rage right now. This new book attempts to expand the passion to Stuart history and explain Mary Queen of Scots’ role in the dynasty. But does the world need another tome about Mary?

Crown Of Thistles - The Fatal Inheritance Of Mary Queen Of Scots by Linda Porter (Macmillan)

- Reviewed by Jonathan Wright

Attempting to improve Anglo-Scottish relations during the medieval period could be a perilous occupation. Take Andrew Harclay. In March 1323 he was hanged, drawn and quartered at Carlisle. His severed head was sent to the Yorkshire town of Knaresborough, temporary billet of Edward II, and from there to London. It would be displayed on London Bridge for five years. The remainder of Harclay's corpse was also pressed into service as a none-too-subtle warning of the consequences of treason. The citizenries of Carlisle, Bristol, Dover and Newcastle would all have their chance to gaze upon a quarter of Harclay's slain body.

This was an ignominious end for someone who had only recently been hailed as a hero by the English. Harclay was the man who had fended off Robert Bruce's assault on Carlisle Castle back in 1315 and, less than a year before his execution, he had won a famous victory at the Battle of Boroughbridge. What, then, was his terrible crime? Nothing more sinister than growing tired of the endless, often futile, fighting between the realms. He went to the Scots in search of a peace treaty but did so without his king's permission. This was deemed to be treacherous and Harclay paid an awful price.

Incidents such as this permeate the story of how England and Scotland squabbled for long centuries, and of how so many souls were caught in the crossfire. Invading armies went this way and that, towns were routinely occupied, and some of Britain's bloodiest battles cost tens of thousands of lives.

There are many wonderful popular history books to be written about all of this but, so far, too few have arrived on our shelves. The same cannot be said of Mary Queen of Scots: a figure who, let us be frank, has had far too many biographers. The title of Linda Porter's book may therefore provoke misgivings: not again, you may mumble. Fear not, however. The clue is in the subtitle: ‘fatal inheritance.’

Porter certainly revisits the sad tale of Mary Stuart but the bulk of her book takes us farther back in time. Not as far as the ill-fated Harclay, but well into the 15th century. The book is elegantly written, decently researched and, crucially, it will alert a new readership to a neglected subject.

The stars of the show are Henry VII, England's first Tudor monarch, and James IV of Scotland. Both men ruled with some precariousness ("gaining the throne was one thing. Keeping it was quite another") but Porter makes a convincing case that they were more talented than is often supposed. They were also great rivals: attempting to make their relatively minor proto-nations count for something in the world of European high politics and more than happy to intervene in each other's affairs.

Sometimes this required skulduggery (James's support for the pretender Perkin Warbeck, for example) but sometimes there were happier results. One of the finest sections of Porter's book concerns Margaret Tudor, Henry's daughter, who became James's teenage bride. Margaret is a fascinating figure. She came with an impressive dowry (worth around £6 million in today's money), which was very welcome in a cash-strapped Scotland, though James immediately spent the equivalent of £1m on the wedding celebrations….

Full review in The Herald Scotland:

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