Next up in our blog series on ‘Teaching Mary’ is Ashley Thompson (University of Glasgow History graduate and Glasgow Women’s Library volunteer). In today’s blog Ashley reflects on her experience of learning about Mary, Queen of Scots in her Scottish primary and secondary schools, and the results of her recent survey about popular perceptions of the 16th century Queen in 21st century Scotland.
‘Absolute icon’. ‘A pretty good queen’. ‘Tragic’. Or, my personal favourite, ‘some lassie, eh?’. These are just some of the responses I received from a short survey that I created and distributed via social media at the beginning of March 2021 to ask people what they thought about Mary, Queen of Scots. Perhaps unsurprisingly, responses to the survey ranged from dismissive to sympathetic to adoring.
Mary is a popular historical and cultural figure in Scotland, and as children we are taught about her in school – she is a core character in the Scottish primary education curriculum. I vividly remember the project that I did on her in primary school, and being taught about her journey to France with all her maids (also named Mary), about Darnley and Rizzio, and, of course, her beheading. We even went on a school trip to Falkland Palace, Mary’s favourite country residence (I would highly recommend a visit). I remember that I got picked out from everyone and got to dress up like Mary (apparently I looked like I would fit the costume best), complete with elaborate ruff. Everyone else had to walk past me and bow or curtsey, which made my day. I decided in that moment that I really liked Mary, Queen of Scots.
So I went to do some research of my own. Material on Mary is not hard to come by and I wanted to learn more. What followed was a shock. She did what? Married who? Fled to where? The older I got, and the more I read, the more I started to think that Mary must not have been very good at thinking ahead. Or at judging character. However, I quickly realised that talking about Mary in a critical way was not well received. When I was in secondary school, I admitted to a friend that I admired Elizabeth I as a historical figure more than Mary; she immediate accused me of being unpatriotic. Several other friends were also not keen on me expressing my views on Mary, and became disgruntled with my critiques of their favourite queen. This made me very unwilling to talk to people about this period of history – which was my favourite – or about history in general, as I was worried how people might react to my opinions. As I got older, and more confident, I started to care less about what people thought and I wanted to know more about why people had those reactions. My friends in secondary school hadn’t read as much about Mary as I had independently, and they weren’t learning about her at school (the Stuarts weren’t part of our secondary curriculum). So why were people so loyal to her?
The ongoing Mary, Queen of Scots project at the University of Glasgow has resurrected these questions, and in March 2021, I decided to investigate a bit more what people in Scotland think of Mary and why they think it. As a first port of call, I sent out a survey via social media asking a few relatively simple questions (‘What do you think of Mary, Queen of Scots?’ and ‘What do you remember learning about her?’). A wide variety of people responded (34 in total) and their answers to my questions are fascinating.
First off, there were the ambivalent answers that you usually get in a survey – 12 out of 34 people were dismissive, and mostly said that they ‘don’t have much of an opinion’ about Mary. Many of the answers were vague, perhaps indicating a lack of confidence in recalling details about her life. Admittedly, I was surprised that so many respondents did not have much of a strong opinion; perhaps my group of friends at secondary school was particularly opinionated. Or full of teenage hormones. On the opposite end, 4 people were overwhelmingly positive about her, with one saying they ‘love her’ and another saying ‘some lassie, eh?’. Someone else said, ‘Icon…An example of a real queen, someone to say “yasss, i wanna be youuuu” about.’ Although not many responded in a directly positive way about Mary, those that did were very enthusiastic, but were also vague on details about her life. I have a feeling that if the respondent quoted above knew about Mary’s experiences in more detail, they might not be quite as desirous to be like her!
Most people alluded to learning a bit about her at school, but the general consensus was that people had not learned much about her. However, over half (14 out of 34) referred to Mary’s connection to Elizbeth I, even those who had said they didn’t really know anything about Mary. Nearly the same amount of people mentioned Mary being imprisoned (either at Loch Leven or by Elizabeth I), and, unsurprisingly, the thing that most respondents referred to was Mary being beheaded (19 out of 34). These answers show that despite a general lack of knowledge, there are aspects of her life that are commonly known and are heavily focussed on.
The themes of tragedy and struggle in her life are clear in many of the answers. The parts of her life that people focused on (imprisonment and beheading) indicate that the sensationalist aspects of Mary’s life which are taught are the parts of her experience that people remember most. In addition, Elizabeth I is framed as a sort of antagonist to Mary, shown through the many negative mentions of Elizabeth. One respondent went as far as saying, ‘Elizabeth 1 hated her [Mary]’. As a historian of gender, I find these takes on Mary’s life interesting but also frustrating. Obviously the dramatic moments in her life are going to gain more attention, particularly in popular culture, but the general lack of knowledge about her life and experiences shows that these moments are looked at in isolation, which does Mary a disservice. Her life was made up of far more than these dramatic episodes and I believe it’s important to recognise that. By pitting two women against each other after the fact, we simplify what was a very complex relationship and fail to see the achievements and failures of each person objectively. In doing so, we continue to reinforce an approach to history, and perhaps wider culture, which sets women up as rivals against each other.
Many historical women are framed this way, where the ‘dramatic’ moments of their lives are focussed on. Eleanor of Aquitaine is remembered more for her dramatic divorce from her first husband (King Louis VII of France) and supporting her sons in rebellion against their father (King Henry II of England) than for her generous charitable efforts and ability to rule well. Katherine of Aragon is always pitied as the abandoned wife of King Henry VIII, but her success at winning a war whilst ruling England as regent is not as well known. I think that perhaps we should reconsider the way that the lives of historical women are contextualised and taught, so that we can encourage a more rounded understanding of their experiences
and reframe how we think and act towards women in today’s society. History is inherently biased, with every narrative telling a specific viewpoint. By questioning and reflecting on the historical narratives that we are told, we can critically analyse both the events of the past and the viewpoints that surround us today.
Conducting this survey and writing this blog have shown me that there is a wide range of opinions on Mary out there, most of which are centred around a few big events that happened in her life. It was really interesting (and a lot of fun!) to see how different people respond to an important Scottish cultural figure, and, most importantly, I feel like there’s more support out there for critiquing Mary than I thought. Revisiting my childhood passion for this period of history and continuing to challenge the narratives I was given at the time has been really interesting, particularly as part of a project which is itself about challenging narratives around Mary’s life.