The upcoming film, Mary Queen of Scots, will shed light on an intriguing era in Scottish history. However, the film – which will see Saoirse Ronan play the enigmatic 16th-century figure – has drawn harsh criticism for its historical inaccuracies.
Central to the criticism is the film’s depiction of a meeting between the Mary and Queen Elizabeth I of England (portrayed by Margot Robbie) – an event that never happened.
In my opinion, a film highlighting Scottish history can only be a positive thing. Opening up our past and engaging global audiences can only help the country, similar to the international attention that Outlander has drawn. Once again, however, this appears to be an example of Hollywood adding flavour to a film depicting historical events by needlessly introducing fictional storylines or plot devices.
My country’s history does not require embellishment. It is vibrant and captivating and no author or filmmaker can possibly hope to enhance it.
Mary Queen of Scots
Mary, Queen of Scots, also known as Mary Stuart, was born on the 8th December 1542. As the only surviving legitimate child of King James V, Mary acceded to the throne when she was only six days old and spent most of her childhood in France.
For a brief period, Mary was Queen Consort of France, after the death of her husband, King Francis II in 1559. Mary returned to Scotland in 1561, arriving in Leith on the 19th August and four years later she married Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.
This union was blessed with a son, James, who would go on to become James VI & I of Scotland and England.
Dr Paranque’s criticism of the film is justified. A meeting between the two queens never happened and so to depict such a meeting greatly distorts the relationship between the two and misleads viewers.
Additionally, the film suggests that the two queens maintained a positive relationship for quite some time before it began to deteriorate; ultimately ending in Elizabeth I signing her cousin’s death warrant.
Paranque, who specialises in Elizabethan history, said that that friendship depicted in the trailer is misleading, adding that Mary and Elizabeth were rivals from the beginning.
Mary is said to have view Elizabeth as her inferior, which led the latter of the two to grow highly suspicious of her cousin.
Politics and Religion
The 16th century was a tumultuous time in Britain and Ireland. Religious division regularly boiled over into violence and Elizabeth’s rule was deemed illegitimate by Catholics both in England and abroad.
The same religious issues plagued Mary upon her return to Scotland. As a Catholic, many of her subjects viewed her with suspicion and so too did Elizabeth. Scotland was fragmented, with Catholic and Protestant factions both vying for control of the kingdom. Mary’s illegitimate half-brother, the Earl of Moray was a high-profile leader of Protestants in Scotland.
Mary also had to contend with popular public figures. John Knox is known to have criticised Mary publicly, condemning her for attending Mass and for dressing too fancifully.
She would later charge Knox with treason, but he was acquitted of the charges and released.
Scotland and England were in polarised positions. Scotland, with a large Protestant population and a Catholic queen, and England with a Protestant queen ruling a large Catholic demographic.
Many viewed Mary as the rightful queen of England due to her blood ties to the English crown. As the legitimate granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister, Margaret Tudor, she was held in high regard among English Catholics.
In legal terms, however, Elizabeth was the rightful heir to her father’s throne. Henry VIII acknowledged Elizabeth as his heir in his final will and testament. This question of legitimacy lingers over Elizabeth throughout her reign and undoubtedly affected the relationship with Mary.
On one hand, she held legal right, on the other, a large portion of her subjects viewed her cousin as the rightful heir.
A Stuart or a de Guise?
Soairse Ronan’s portrayal of Mary, specifically her accent, has raised eyebrows as well. In previous films, such as Elizabeth – The Golden Age, Mary sported a Scottish accent. However, in the miniseries, Elizabeth I, she speaks with a French accent.
So in what tongue would Mary have spoken?
Dr Parangue claims that due to her upbringing in France, Mary would likely have spoken in a French accent. She told the BBC: “She was raised in France and she was a de Guise sometimes more than she was a Stuart, I have to say.
“An historical fiction does not have to be 100% accurate, however, I think when we know things that happened we have to keep it because otherwise where do we draw the line?
“Why not have Mary kill Elizabeth? Why not change history? It is not an historical movie any more, it is just fiction.”
Mary did spend much of her formative years in France, so it is very possible she spoke in a French-sounding accent. On the other hand, however, there are accounts of Mary speaking in a Scottish accent.
English ambassadors who met Mary are said to have described her accent as Scottish.
Scottish History Sold Cheap
Adding flavour to Scottish history isn’t new. For many years, Scots have loathed depictions of historical events in theatre. Why add fictional storylines to something that needs no embellishment? It is disrespectful, misleading and alters history to suit the needs of Hollywood executives hell-bent on making a quick buck out of other people’s history and heritage.
Braveheart is a prime example of this culture of embellishment. A film that, if done right, could have showcased an incredible period in Scottish history. Great battles, heartbreak and a struggle for self-determination; it has all the key components of a blockbuster film.
Instead, Hollywood executives chose to defile the tale with ridiculous story arks which saw William Wallace – a minor Scottish noble and freedom fighter – have a love affair with a French princess.
Arguably one of the most pivotal battles in Scottish history, the Battle of Stirling Bridge, is depicted as a pitched battle and not the savage stramash that it likely was. Later on in the film at the Battle of Falkirk, Scots and Irish are shown to just stop in the middle of a battlefield and have a jolly old chat with each other.
A shameless attempt by Hollywood to lump the Scots and Irish into the same cultural basket. We both love a drink and hate the English, so why fight each other..?
Finally, 13th century Scots would not have worn kilts. Another fatal flaw of the 1998 film but probably great for kiltmakers on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.
Outlander is another example, albeit less-cringe worthy in certain areas. The show, which has a global audience and following has helped highlight a crucial period in Scotland’s history.
This story fails in several areas, however. The show depicts the struggle underway in the Scottish Highlands as more of an us-versus-them issue. Noble Scots highlanders fighting the oppressive rule of a tyrannical English regime.
What it fails to highlight though are the complexities of this time period. The religious division, the differences between northern and southern Scots – many of the latter fought as part of Loyalist forces throughout the ’45 – and also the claims and counterclaims of monarchs.
Ultimately, exciting stories sell cinema tickets. For film studios, historical accuracy plays second fiddle to the financial benefits of tapping in on historical events. It’s not the first time, and it certainly won’t be the last that Scottish history is bought and sold for Hollywood gold.