Making her Mortal: Mary, Queen of Scots and the scholarship of David Hay Fleming (1849-1931)

In today’s blog, Dr Catriona M.M. Macdonald (University of Glasgow) explores the response of historian David Hay Fleming’s to nineteenth-century ‘Mariolatry’ and approaches to historicising the life and reputation of Mary, Queen of Scots in the fin de siecle period.

In September 1894 Thomas Graves Law, secretary of the Scottish History Society and Keeper of the Signet Library in Edinburgh wrote to David Hay Fleming commending him on his recent Bookman articles on Mary Queen of Scots, ‘that very improper but unfortunate lady’, and he encouraged him to ‘republish [the work] in a more desirable form’.(1) Three days later, Law wrote to Hay Fleming again, emphasizing that: ‘The Mariolatry of the present day is becoming exasperating and before long she will be raised to the altars of the Roman Church as a model of virtue to be revered and imitated.’(2)

David H. Fleming.

Hay Fleming – a historian of the Reformation from St Andrews – shared Law’s skeptical judgment of Mary Stuart and the contemporary Catholic Church for that matter. Law, one should note, had been a Catholic priest, but left the communion of the church in 1878. Hay Fleming, meanwhile, was a member of the original secession church – a devout Presbyterian – and a resolute defender of Reformation principles, leaders and institutions. Having already published two volumes for the Scottish History Society – editions of the registers of the ministers, elders and deacons of St Andrews (3) – it is not surprising that Hay Fleming appears to have taken Law’s advice, and after three years of exhaustive scholarship, in 1897 published in book form an account of the life of Mary Stuart, up to the point of her flight to England.(4) It cemented his reputation as a ‘go to’ expert should a London literary journal require a scholarly review of any volume relating to Mary – and there were many!

Hay Fleming believed that Mary returned to Scotland in 1561, seeking to ‘trample down’ the Reformation; that she had a ‘criminal connection with the hated foreigner [David Rizzio]’ (5); was deeply involved in Darnley’s murder; established an amoral alliance with Bothwell and had placed in jeopardy the legacy of John Knox. Still, he admired aspects of her character: in 1900 he published two documents in the Bookman – one from the British Museum (relating to the siege of Borthwick Castle), the other (written by Mary from her prison at Wingfield, fifteen months after crossing the Border) from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery – that furnished ‘fresh proof of [Mary’s] indomitable courage [and] … her hopeful disposition.’ (6)

David Hay Fleming
National Galleries Scotland (PGP 801.6)

When Hay Fleming’s Mary Queen of Scots appeared in 1897 his manifesto was fully developed: he would avoid ‘fictitious facts’ that had been passed uncritically down the years and ‘ascertain truth’; he would ‘state – fairly, briefly, and clearly – all the more interesting events in Mary’s life… without attempting to suggest or sustain any theory’. (7) What Hay Fleming offers is a narrative of 170 pages supplemented by a staggering 302 pages of notes and references, 23 further pages of hitherto unpublished documents, and a 28 page itinerary, showing Mary’s movements on a day-to-day basis up to the point she crossed the Border in 1568. It is a remarkable text for its structure if nothing else: in that structure, Hay Fleming’s intent is clear and uncompromising. Mary would be detached from legend and would acquire mortal status by reducing her life to a series of facts – some of which, being contested, reduced her further and left few solid foundations on which to make meaning out of her life, or enhance her iconic status. 

Just a glimpse at Hay Fleming’s ‘itinerary’ shows how effective this method could be.

David Hay Fleming, Mary Queen of Scots from her Birth to her Flight into England, p. 517. Copy available in Open Library: 

This is Hay Fleming’s tabulated account of Mary’s whereabouts in early January 1562. The four columns on the right-hand side show where he acquired his evidence: column one is from the Register of the Privy Seal, the second column comes from the Register of the Great Seal, the third column comes from the Register of the Privy Council, and the final column is evidence acquired from letters. Elsewhere, these are ‘spliced’ with Birrel’s Diary, the Diurnal of Occurrents, the Foreign Calendar of Elizabeth I, Keith’s History, Stevenson’s Selections and Wright’s Elizabeth. It is one of the most obvious attempts at having the last word that anyone might witness in Scottish history, though (of course), Hay Fleming did not have the last word.

Andrew Lang (1844-1912) Photo:

One of Hay Fleming’s great literary adversaries (but a most forgiving friend) was Andrew Lang, a noted classicist and anthropologist, although perhaps most famous now for his colour-coded fairy stories. (8) Together, their works on Mary in the fin de siècle years illustrate how histories have fractured Mary’s reputation and her story over generations. Everyone knew who Lang had in mind when he reflected in 1901:

History is apt to be, and some think that it should be, a mere series of dry uncoloured statements. Such an event occurred, such a word was uttered, such a deed was done, at this date or the other. We give references to our authorities, to men who heard of the events or even saw them when they happened.

Such an approach, according to Lang, came at a cost, and for him it was not a price worth paying:

… we, the writer and the readers, see nothing: we only offer or accept bald and imperfect information. If we try to write history on another method, we become ‘picturesque’: we are composing a novel, not striving painfully to attain the truth. Yet, when we know not the details;- the aspect of dwellings now ruinous; the hue and cut of garments long wasted into dust; the passing frown, or smile, or tone of the actors and the speakers in these dramas of life long ago; the clutch of Bothwell at his dagger’s hilt, when men spoke to him in the street; the flush of Darnley’s fair face as Mary and he quarreled at Stirling before his murder – then we know not the real history, the real truth.

Lang, Mystery of Mary Stuart  (9)

Lang’s debt to Romance, his embrace of the merits of material culture evidence and his skeptical approach to the merits of the Scottish Reformation were well known, just as Hay Fleming’s sectarian bias and search for a more ‘scientific’ approach were writ large in his approach to the story of Mary. Neither one had the last word, neither one identified a definitive methodological approach. Yet through such differences was the story of Mary told and retold three hundred years following her death. Understanding how historiographical tensions emerged at key moments of cultural development ought to be a principal influence on how we research Mary today. It is with this in mind that these historiographical dualling partners, armed with their contradictory versions of ‘truth’, alongside a later twentieth-century pairing in Gordon Donaldson and Antonia Fraser, will be the focus of new work from Catriona Macdonald for this project.

(1) St Andrews University, Special Collections, MS38977/1/L/8, Thomas G. Law to David Hay Fleming, 18 September 1894.

(2) St Andrews University, Special Collections, MS38977/1/L/8, Law to Hay Fleming, 21 September 1894.

(3) David Hay Fleming, Register of the Minister, Elders and Deacons of the Christian Congregation of St Andrews Comprising the Proceedings of the Kirk Session and of the Court of Fife Fothrik and Strathearn, 1559-1600, Parts I & II (Scottish History Society Series 1, Volumes 4 & 7, Edinburgh, 1889 & 1890).

(4) David Hay Fleming, Mary Queen of Scots from her Birth to her Flight into England: a brief biography: with Critical Notes, a few Documents hitherto unpublished, and an Itinerary (London, 1897).  

(5) Bookman, September 1894, p. 176; December 1894, p. 79.

(6) Bookman, April 1900, p. 11. 

(7) Hay Fleming, Mary Queen of Scots from her Birth to her Flight into England, pp. v.-vi.

(8) Andrew Lang published widely on Mary Queen of Scots: monographs, reviews, and articles in popular and scholarly journals. These include Andrew Lang, Mystery of Mary Stuart (London, 1901), Portraits and Jewels of Mary Stuart (Glasgow, 1906).

(9) Lang, Mystery of Mary Stuart , pp. 1-2.

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