Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots are strongly associated together in the minds of all readers of English history. They were cotemporary sovereigns, reigning at the same time over sister kingdoms. They were cousins, and yet, precisely on account of the family relationship which existed between them, they became implacable foes. The rivalry and hostility, sometimes open and sometimes concealed, was always in action, and, after a contest of more than twenty years, Elizabeth triumphed. She made Mary her prisoner, kept her many years a captive, and at last closed the contest by commanding, or at least allowing, her fallen rival to be beheaded.
Thus Elizabeth had it all her own way while the scenes of her life and of Mary's were transpiring, but since that time mankind have generally sympathized most strongly with the conquered one, and condemned the conqueror. There are several reasons for this, and among them is the vast influence exerted by the difference in the personal character of the parties. Mary was beautiful, feminine in spirit, and lovely. Elizabeth was talented, masculine, and plain. Mary was artless, unaffected, and gentle. Elizabeth was heartless, intriguing, and insincere. With Mary, though her ruling principle was ambition, her ruling passion was love. Her love led her to great transgressions and into many sorrows, but mankind pardon the sins and pity the sufferings which are caused by love more readily than those of any other origin. With Elizabeth, ambition was the ruling principle, and the ruling passion too. Love, with her, was only a pastime. Her transgressions were the cool, deliberate, well-considered acts of selfishness and desire of power. During her lifetime her success secured her the applause of the world. The world is always ready to glorify the greatness which rises visibly before it, and to forget sufferings which are meekly and patiently borne in seclusion and solitude. Men praised and honored Elizabeth, therefore, while she lived, and neglected Mary. But since the halo and the fascination of the visible greatness and glory have passed away, they have found a far greater charm in Mary's beauty and misfortune than in her great rival's pride and power.
There is often thus a great difference in the comparative interest we take in persons or scenes, when, on the one hand, they are realities before our eyes, and when, on the other, they are only imaginings which are brought to our minds by pictures or descriptions. The hardships which it was very disagreeable or painful to bear, afford often great amusement or pleasure in the recollection. The old broken gate which a gentleman would not tolerate an hour upon his grounds, is a great beauty in the picture which hangs in his parlor. We shun poverty and distress while they are actually existing; nothing is more disagreeable to us; and we gaze upon prosperity and wealth with never-ceasing pleasure. But when they are gone, and we have only the tale to hear, it is the story of sorrow and suffering which possesses the charm. Thus it happened that when the two queens were living realities, Elizabeth was the center of attraction and the object of universal homage; but when they came to be themes of history, all eyes and hearts began soon to turn instinctively to Mary. It was London, and Westminster, and Kenilworth that possessed the interest while Elizabeth lived, but it is Holyrood and Loch Leven now.
It results from these causes that Mary's story is read far more frequently than Elizabeth's, and this operates still further to the advantage of the former, for we are always prone to take sides with the heroine of the tale we are reading. All these considerations, which have had so much influence on the judgment men form, or, rather, on the feeling to which they incline in this famous contest, have, it must be confessed, very little to do with the true merits of the case And if we make a serious attempt to lay all such consideration aside, and to look into the controversy with cool and rigid impartiality, we shall find it very difficult to arrive at any satisfactory conclusion. There are two questions to be decided. In advancing their conflicting claims to the English crown, was it Elizabeth or Mary that was in the right? If Elizabeth was right, were the measures which she resorted to to secure her own rights, and to counteract Mary's pretensions, politically justifiable? We do not propose to add our own to the hundred decisions which various writers have given to this question, but only to narrate the facts, and leave each reader to come to his own conclusions.
The foundation of the long and dreadful quarrel between these royal cousins was, as has been already remarked, their consanguinity, which made them both competitors for the same throne; and as that throne was, in some respects, the highest and most powerful in the world, it is not surprising that two such ambitious women should be eager and persevering in their contest for it. By turning to the genealogical table on page 68, where a view is presented of the royal family of England in the time of Elizabeth, the reader will see once more what was the precise relationship which the two queens bore to each other and to the succession. By this table it is very evident that Elizabeth was the true inheritor of the crown, provided it were admitted that she was the lawful daughter and heir of King Henry the Eighth, and this depended on the question of the validity of her father's marriage with his first wife, Catharine of Aragon; for, as has been before said, he was married to Anne Boleyn before obtaining any thing like a divorce from Catharine; consequently, the marriage with Elizabeth's mother could not be legally valid, unless that with Catharine had been void from the beginning. The friends of Mary Queen of Scots maintained that it was not thus void, and that, consequently, the marriage with Anne Boleyn was null; that Elizabeth, therefore, the descendant of the marriage, was not, legally and technically, a daughter of Henry the Eighth, and, consequently, not entitled to inherit his crown; and that the crown, of right, ought to descend to the next heir, that is, to Mary Queen of Scots herself.
Queen Elizabeth's friends and partisans maintained, on the other hand, that the marriage of King Henry with Catharine was null and void from the beginning, because Catharine had been before the wife of his brother. The circumstances of this marriage were very curious and peculiar. It was his father's work, and not his own. His father was King Henry the Seventh. Henry the Seventh had several children, and among them were his two oldest sons, Arthur and Henry. When Arthur was about sixteen years old, his father, being very much in want of money, conceived the plan of replenishing his coffers by marrying his son to a rich wife He accordingly contracted a marriage between him and Catharine of Aragon, Catharine's father agreeing to pay him two hundred thousand crowns as her dowry. The juvenile bridegroom enjoyed the honors and pleasures of married life for a few months, and then died.
This event was a great domestic calamity to the king, not because he mourned the loss of his son, but that he could not bear the idea of the loss of the dowry. By the law and usage in such cases, he was bound not only to forego the payment of the other half of the dowry, but he had himself no right to retain the half that he had already received. While his son lived, being a minor, the father might, not improperly, hold the money in his son's name; but when he died this right ceased, and as Arthur left no child, Henry perceived that he should be obliged to pay back the money. To avoid this unpleasant necessity, the king conceived the plan of marrying the youthful widow again to his second boy, Henry, who was about a year younger than Arthur, and he made proposals to this effect to the King of Aragon.
The King of Aragon made no objection to this proposal, except that it was a thing unheard of among Christian nations, or heard of only to be condemned, for a man or even a boy to marry his brother's widow. All laws, human and divine, were clear and absolute against this. Still, if the dispensation of the pope could be obtained, he would make no objection. Catharine might espouse the second boy, and he would allow the one hundred thousand crowns already paid to stand, and would also pay the other hundred thousand. The dispensation was accordingly obtained, and every thing made ready for the marriage.
Very soon after this, however, and before the new marriage was carried into effect, King Henry the Seventh died, and this second boy, now the oldest son, though only about seventeen years of age, ascended the throne as King Henry the Eighth. There was great discussion and debate, soon after his accession, whether the marriage which his father had arranged should proceed. Some argued that no papal dispensation could authorize or justify such a marriage. Others maintained that a papal dispensation could legalize any thing; for it is a doctrine of the Catholic Church that the pope has a certain discretionary power over all laws, human and divine, under the authority given to his great predecessor, the Apostle Peter, by the words of Christ: "Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." Henry seems not to have pained his head at all with the legal question; he wanted to have the young widow for his wife, and he settled the affair on that ground alone. They were married.
Catharine was a faithful and dutiful spouse; but when, at last, Henry fell in love with Anne Boleyn, he made these old difficulties a pretext for discarding her. He endeavored, as has been already related, to induce the papal authorities to annul their dispensation; because they would not do it, he espoused the Protestant cause, and England, as a nation, seceded from the Catholic communion. The ecclesiastical and parliamentary authorities of his own realm then, being made Protestant, annulled the marriage, and thus Anne Boleyn, to whom he had previously been married by a private ceremony, became legally and technically his wife. If this annulling of his first marriage were valid, then Elizabeth was his heir—otherwise not; for if the pope's dispensation was to stand, then Catharine was a wife. Anne Boleyn would in that case, of course, have been only a companion, and Elizabeth, claiming through her, a usurper.
The question, thus, was very complicated. It branched into extensive ramifications, which opened a wide field of debate, and led to endless controversies. It is not probable, however, that Mary Queen of Scots, or her friends, gave themselves much trouble about the legal points at issue. She and they were all Catholics, and it was sufficient for them to know that the Holy Father at Rome had sanctioned the marriage of Catharine, and that that marriage, if allowed to stand, made her the Queen of England. She was at this time in France. She had been sent there at a very early period of her life, to escape the troubles of her native land, and also to be educated. She was a gentle and beautiful child, and as she grew up amid the gay scenes and festivities of Paris, she became a very great favorite, being universally beloved. She married at length, though while she was still quite young, the son of the French king. Her young husband became king himself soon afterward, on account of his father's being killed, in a very remarkable manner, at a tournament; and thus Mary, Queen of Scots before, became also Queen of France now. All these events, passed over thus very summarily here, are narrated in full detail in the History of Mary Queen of Scots pertaining to this series.
While Mary was thus residing in France as the wife of the king, she was surrounded by a very large and influential circle, who were Catholics like herself, and who were also enemies of Elizabeth and of England, and glad to find any pretext for disturbing her reign. These persons brought forward Mary's claim. They persuaded Mary that she was fairly entitled to the English crown. They awakened her youthful ambition, and excited strong desires in her heart to attain to the high elevation of Queen of England. Mary at length assumed the title in some of her official acts, and combined the arms of England with those of Scotland in the escutcheons with which her furniture and her plate were emblazoned.
When Queen Elizabeth learned that Mary was advancing such pretensions to her crown, she was made very uneasy by it. There was, perhaps, no immediate danger, but then there was a very large Catholic party in England, and they would naturally espouse Mary's cause, and they might, at some future time, gather strength so as to make Elizabeth a great deal of trouble. She accordingly sent an embassador over to France to remonstrate against Mary's advancing these pretensions. But she could get no satisfactory reply. Mary would not disavow her claim to Elizabeth's crown, nor would she directly assert it. Elizabeth, then, knowing that all her danger lay in the power and influence of her own Catholic subjects, went to work, very cautiously and warily, but in a very extended and efficient way, to establish the Reformation, and to undermine and destroy all traces of Catholic power. She proceeded in this work with great circumspection, so as not to excite opposition or alarm.
In the mean time, the Protestant cause was making progress in Scotland too, by its own inherent energies, and against the influence of the government. Finally, the Scotch Protestant, organized themselves, and commenced an open rebellion against the regent whom Mary had left in power while she was away. They sent to Elizabeth to come and aid them. Mary and her friends in France sent French troops to assist the government. Elizabeth hesitated very much whether to comply with the request of the rebels. It is very dangerous for a sovereign to countenance rebellion in any way. Then she shrunk, too, from the expense which she foresaw that such an attempt would involve To fit out a fleet, and to levy and equip an army, and to continue the forces thus raised in action during a long and uncertain campaign, would cost a large sum of money, and Elizabeth was constitutionally economical and frugal. But then, on the other hand, as she deliberated upon the affair long and anxiously, both alone and with her council, she thought that, if she should so far succeed as to get the government of Scotland into her power, she could compel Mary to renounce forever all claims to the English crown, by threatening her, if she would not do it, with the loss of her own.
Finally, she decided on making the attempt. Cecil, her wise and prudent counselor, strongly advised it. He said it was far better to carry on the contest with Mary and the French in one of their countries than in her own. She began to make preparations. Mary and the French government, on learning this, were alarmed in their turn. They sent word to Elizabeth that for her to render countenance and aid to rebels in arms against their sovereign, in a sister kingdom, was wholly unjustifiable and they remonstrated most earnestly against it. Besides making this remonstrance, they offered, as an inducement of another kind, that if she would refrain from taking any part in the contest in Scotland, they would restore to her the great town and citadel of Calais, which her sister had been so much grieved to lose. To this Elizabeth replied that, so long as Mary adhered to her pretensions to the English crown, she should be compelled to take energetic measures to protect herself from them; and as to Calais, the possession of a fishing town on a foreign coast was of no moment to her in comparison with the peace and security of her own realm. This answer did not tend to close the breach. Besides the bluntness of the refusal of their offer, the French were irritated and vexed to hear their famous sea-port spoken of so contemptuously.
Elizabeth accordingly fitted out a fleet and an army, and sent them northward. A French fleet, with re-enforcements for Mary's adherents in this contest, set sail from France at about the same time. It was a very important question to be determined which of these two fleets should get first upon the stage of action.
The Frith of Forth, with Leith and Edinburgh in the Distance.
In the mean time, the Protestant party in Scotland, or the rebels, as Queen Mary and her government called them, had had very hard work to maintain their ground. There was a large French force already there, and their co-operation and aid made the government too strong for the insurgents to resist. But, when Elizabeth's English army crossed the frontier, the face of affairs was changed. The French forces retreated in their turn. The English army advanced. The Scotch Protestants came forth from the recesses of the Highlands to which they had retreated, and, drawing closer and closer around the French and the government forces, they hemmed them in more and more narrowly, and at last shut them up in the ancient town of Leith, to which they retreated in search of a temporary shelter, until the French fleet, with re-enforcements, should arrive.
The town of Leith is on the shore of the Firth of Forth, not far from Edinburgh. It is the port or landing-place of Edinburgh, in approaching it from the sea. It is on the southern shore of the firth, and Edinburgh stands on higher land, about two miles south of it. Leith was strongly fortified in those days, and the French army felt very secure there, though yet anxiously awaiting the arrival of the fleet which was to release them. The English army advanced in the mean time, eager to get possession of the city before the expected succors should arrive. The English made an assault upon the walls. The French, with desperate bravery, repelled it. The French made a sortie; that is, they rushed out of a sudden and attacked the English lines. The English concentrated their forces at the point attacked, and drove them back again. These struggles continued, both sides very eager for victory, and both watching all the time for the appearance of a fleet in the offing.
At length, one day, a cloud of white sails appeared rounding the point of land which forms the southern boundary of the firth, and the French were thrown at once into the highest state of exultation and excitement. But this pleasure was soon turned into disappointment and chagrin by finding that it was Elizabeth's' fleet, and not theirs, which was coming into view. This ended the contest. The French fleet never arrived. It was dispersed and destroyed by a storm. The besieged army sent out a flag of truce, proposing to suspend hostilities until the terms of a treaty could be agreed upon. The truce was granted. Commissioners were appointed on each side These commissioners met at Edinburgh, and agreed upon the terms of a permanent peace. The treaty, which is called in history the Treaty of Edinburgh, was solemnly signed by the commissioners appointed to make it, and then transmitted to England and to France to be ratified by the respective queens. Queen Elizabeth's forces and the French forces were then both, as the treaty provided, immediately withdrawn. The dispute, too, between the Protestants and the Catholics in Scotland was also settled, though it is not necessary for our purpose in this narrative to explain particularly in what way.
There was one point, however, in the stipulations of this treaty which is of essential importance in this narrative, and that is, that it was agreed that Mary should relinquish all claims whatever to the English crown so long as Elizabeth lived. This, in fact, was the essential point in the whole transaction. Mary, it is true, was not present to agree to it; but the commissioners agreed to it in her name, and it was stipulated that Mary should solemnly ratify the treaty as soon as it could be sent to her.
But Mary would not ratify it—at least so far as this last article was concerned. She said that she had no intention of doing any thing to molest Elizabeth in her possession of the throne, but that as to herself, whatever rights might legally and justly belong to her, she could not consent to sign them away. The other articles of the treaty had, however, in the mean time, brought the war to a close, and both the French and English armies were withdrawn. Neither party had any inclination to renew the conflict but yet, so far as the great question between Mary and Elizabeth was concerned, the difficulty was as far from being settled as ever. In fact, it was in a worse position than before; for in addition to her other grounds of complaint against Mary, Elizabeth now charged her with dishonorably refusing to be bound by a compact which had been solemnly made in her name, by agents whom she had fully authorized to make it.
It was about this time that Mary's husband, the King of France, died, and, after enduring various trials and troubles in France, Mary concluded to return to her own realm. She sent to Elizabeth to get a safe-conduct—a sort of permission allowing her to pass unmolested through the English seas. Elizabeth refused to grant it unless Mary would first ratify the treaty of Edinburgh. This Mary would not do, but undertook, rather, to get home without the permission. Elizabeth sent ships to intercept her; but Mary's little squadron, when they approached the shore, were hidden by a fog, and so she got safe to land. After this there was quiet between Mary and Elizabeth for many years, but no peace.