Mary Queen of Scots and literary propaganda

Friday 7 August 2020

In this the fourth of our mini-series of blogs by students who have studied Mary Queen of Scots with Dr Amy Blakeway in 2019/20, we learn from Katie about the literary propaganda campaign against Mary Queen of Scots.

Ane detectioun of the duinges of Marie Quene of Scottes (Buch DA787.A3B8)

Ane Detectioun of the duinges of Marie Quene of Scottes provides insight into the attempts to besmirch the reputation of Mary Stewart to the English. Ane Detectioun is a clear example of the cumulative damage of texts in the literary propaganda campaign against Mary Queen of Scots, all of which reveal history, but also, “as political polemic, they seek to mould it”.[1] The text upon which this book is based was conceived by George Buchanan in Latin as De Maria Scotorum Regina, to be presented by Moray to an English commission in 1568 to persuade Queen Elizabeth of their justified actions in deposing Mary from her throne.[2] Ane Detectioun reveals how the arguments made by the Scottish Lords were later compiled and distributed amongst the English in 1571 to serve a different purpose: to manipulate English public opinion against Mary Stewart.

An extract of text from the 1571 print demonstrates the arguments that were used to establish Mary as a murdering adulteress were used first by the Scottish Lords. In this passage Mary is characterised as tyrannical; this was the line the Lords used in order to justify deposing her. Recalling, “the indignation of the people had overcome the threatening of penalties” Buchanan reminds his reader of Mary’s attempts to intimidate her subjects.[3] This presents the people of Scotland as realising the criminality of their Queen despite attempts to intimidate them into submission. This is a key aspect of Buchanan’s argument through three works, the other two being Rerum Scoticarum Historia and De Iure Regni apud Scotos. These writings consolidate each other and reinforce the case for the deposition of Mary Stewart. Both Historia and De Iure justify the deposition through political theory and historical examples that show the precedent in Scotland for overthrowing tyrants.[4] In Ane Detectioun Buchanan explains the same ideas through a vernacular, thus exposing them to a wider audience. The words, “overcome the threatening” are intended to infer the tyranny that would qualify such action. This characterisation constitutes ‘evidence’ of her being untrustworthy and criminal. Furthermore, the initial distrust and suspicion over her behaviour in this extract clearly comes from “every man”.[5] The text, therefore, attempts to clarify that the deposition was driven by common people rather than the Lords for personal political advantage.

Ane detectioun of the duinges of Marie Quene of Scottes (Buch DA787.A3B8)

This extract emphasises Mary’s untrustworthiness. She is described as pretending to grieve her murdered husband, by behaving in “a disguised manner of mourning”.[6] This described pretence reminds the reader of Mary’s probable guilt in Darnley’s death and this is compounded by the repetition of words such as “feign”, “counterfeit” and “disguise”, which urge the reader to mistrust her.[7] This painting of Mary Stewart as an untrustworthy tyrant served the Lords in trying to justify their deposition of an anointed monarch to Elizabeth and to cast doubt over her assertions of her innocence in her correspondence with Elizabeth. Furthermore, this presentation also served William Cecil in 1571, as it would surely dissuade the English people from raising arms in support of Mary or seeing her as a trustworthy alternative to Elizabeth. Not only is her guilt further reinforced by her alleged failure to conform to the usual forty days of mourning, but instead behaving brazenly after only twelve days, strongly suggesting her lack of remorse.

The characterisation of Mary throughout this extract is compounded by two facts: first that she is Catholic, and second that she is a woman. These two facts had cultural connotations for the Protestant audience both when presented to Elizabeth’s court, and later when printed amongst the English public. By describing a proclamation of Mary’s as being “agreeable to the manner of the Inquisition”, readers of this pamphlet were presented with a worryingly familiar comparison, as a result, her behaviour became representative of the larger Catholic threat – and worryingly believable.[8] This is typical of anti-Marian propaganda, with accounts of the “life and behaviour of Charles Cardinal of Lorraine… and the house of Guise” clearly incriminating Mary and associating her with the crimes or devious “behaviour” of her Catholic family.[9] In Knox’s History of the Reformation, also written after the deposition, he refers to Marie de Guise as a “wanton widow”, which is unsurprisingly akin to Buchanan’s characterisation of Guise’s daughter.[10]

Mary’s violent disposition is reinforced in her vengeful treatment of a subject wrongly accused of spreading the truth of her crimes. Not only does she order him to be “slain”, but she punishes his tenants and strips his family of their lawful goods. This shows her as unjust and tyrannical, and the described reaction to the corpse of her subject shows her relishing the violence as well as being sexually voracious: “she beheld with greedy eyes… the goodliest corpse of any gentleman that ever lived”.[11] For the contemporary reader, this would be an intensely unnatural reaction especially for a woman. Therefore, she appears ruthless and thus fulfils Knox’s warning against women in power and becomes “monstrous”.[12]

Ane detectioun of the duinges of Marie Quene of Scottes (Buch DA787.A3B8)

The capitalisation and focus on Mary Stewart’s gender within this book’s character-assassination is also apparent elsewhere in Ane Detectioun, with classical allusions to the murderous figure of Medea. In an added oration to this printing, the editor instructs the reader to draw attention to her ‘own’ self-incriminating correspondence: “Call to minde that part of hir letters to Bothwell where she maketh hir self Medea”.[13]

Indeed, this quote is an example where the structure of Ane Detectioun adopts and translates the forensic descriptions of Mary Stewart’s crimes as described by Buchanan, and places them alongside other documents such as the infamous Casket Letters, whose authenticity is widely met with scepticism by historians such as Guy and Wormald.[14] However, as the letters had been claimed by the Lords to show Mary’s own words and perspective, which are highlighted through a different font, the trial by reading appears more fair, as a contemporary pamphlet encourages the reader to believe: “eche may plainely perceive” Mary’s guilt.[15] Therefore, she appears to have of her own volition compared herself to the classical murderess in these letters; interestingly, the editor is assuming his audience would have a level of education to have an awareness of the allusion.[16]

The printing and circulation of this book, therefore, indicates an altered policy from the English towards Mary as a result of the discovery of the Ridolfi plot. Buchanan’s outline of Mary’s alleged crimes alongside other documents were catalogued by Cecil and remained in his keeping for three years as his “unpublished trump card” against Mary.[17] The compounding of all of the documents including the translated De Maria shows the intent to maximise the negative perception of Mary Stewart who was now a prisoner in England and the focus for rebellion against Elizabeth.

Ane detectioun of the duinges of Marie Quene of Scottes (Buch DA787.A3B8)

Clearly getting this message spread widely was important, and the small size of this volume made it the perfect mechanism – portable and cheap. The translation of the book into a ‘pseudo-Scots’ and the absence of the printer’s name or location demonstrates the intention of making it appear to have been produced in Scotland. Such tricks were typical of these propaganda texts, as demonstrated by the Historie de Marie Royne d’Ecosse (1571) which claimed to have been printed in Edinburgh, though academic consensus agrees that it was printed in England. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, despite the alteration of attitude towards Mary, Elizabeth and her government were still cautious about being accused of blatant character assassination, or of explicitly disrespecting an anointed monarch. Therefore, the misleading work distances them from its conception. Secondly, the allegations against Mary would have been more believable to an English audience if seen to have been written from the Scottish perspective. Indeed, the allegations against her were conceived by the Scottish Lords in 1568, upon Elizabeth’s request that Moray provide evidence of Mary’s misconduct and crimes to justify the rebellion against a monarch. Through Ane Detectioun, historians can perceive the rhetorical narrative devices used to justify the deposition of Mary Queen of Scots, and how this was then edited and distributed to defame her to the English.

Katie Hughes
MO4807 Student, 2019/20


[1] Cathy Shrank., ‘”This fatall Medea”, “this Clytemnestra”: Reading and the Detection of Mary Queen of Scots’ in Huntington Library Quarterly, 17 (September 2010) p. 523.

[2] Tricia A. McElroy., ‘Performance, Print and Politics in George Buchanan’s Ane Detectioun of the duinges of Marie Quene of Scottes’ in R. Mason and C. Erskine (ed.) George Buchanan: Political thought in early modern Europe and the Atlantic World (London, 2012) p. 49.

[3] George Buchanan., Ane Detectioun of the duinges of Marie Quene of Scottes (1571) Eiij.

[4] Caroline Erskine and Roger A. Mason., ‘George Buchanan: Influence, Legacy, Reputation’ in George Buchanan: Political thought in early modern Europe and the Atlantic World (2012).

[5] Buchanan.. Ane Detectioun (1571) p. Ej.

[6] Ibid., p. EIj.

[7] Ibid., Eij.

[8] Buchanan., (1571), EIj.

[9] Louis Regnier., A legendarie, conteining an ample discourse of the life and behaviour of Charles Cardinal of Lorraine… (1577).

[10] John Knox., History of the Reformation of Religion in Scotland, William Gavin (ed.)., (Glasgow, 1831), p. 186.

[11] Buchanan., (1571) p. Ej.

[12] John Knox., The first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women, (1558).

[13] Buchanan., (1571) p. G2r.

[14] John Guy., My Heart is My Own: the life of Mary Queen of Scots (London 2004)., Jenny Wormald., Mary Queen of Scots: A Study in Failure (London, 1991).

[15] John Day., The Copie of a Letter, written by one in London to his friend, concerning the credit of the late published Detection (London, 1572) p. Aii.

[16] Cathy Shrank., ‘” This fatall Medea”, “this Clytemnestra”’ (September 2010) p. 527.

[17] Tricia A. McElroy., ‘Performance, Print and Politics in George Buchanan’s Ane Detectioun of the duinges of Marie Quene of Scottes’ (London, 2012) p. 50.

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