Thoughts on Stefan Zweig’s Mary Queen of Scots

I wondered what persuaded the once illustrious author and Austrian Jew, Stefan Zweig, to embark on a biography of Mary Queen of Scots – Mary Stuart whose short reign left such an impression on the world, not for her legacy to Scotland but for the drama of her tragic life. Did he think he could reveal psychological insights into the character of the woman or women involved in the narrative of her life and death which no-one else had detected? Certainly he took liberties ladling on theatrical prose in his speculation about her most intimate thoughts.

Did Zweig’s unfamiliarity with Scotland contribute anything to the story of Mary Stuart or reveal basic misunderstanding of his subject with reference to Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles, when until the 1707 Union with England, Scottish monarchs were king or queen of Scots – of the people not the nation – for, in theory, the monarch ruled with agreement of the people and could be removed at their disapproval.

Mary Stuart became Queen when only 6 days old, on the death of her father James V. She became the teenage Queen of France and as a young widow, Queen of the Scots and claimant to the throne of England, arguably more legitimately than Elizabeth Tudor. It is Mary Stuart’s bittersweet existence Zweig wished to bring to life. Where his sources came from is uncertain although he researched in the British Library. .

Zweig’s fled from Austria to England in 1934 after the Nazis prohibited and destroyed his books. His own life didn’t lack drama or adventure and his flight from Austria was only the start of his constant dodging to escape the hand of death which ultimately was self-inflicted. He was a prolific and extremely successful writer during the 1920s and 1930s, although less so in Britain, which may have swayed his choice of subject matter. His novel The Post Office Girl was my introduction to his work and his popularity is again on the up but despite leaving his mark on European literature he continues to attract as many critics as supporters. I wanted to like Zweig’s work, if not the man. I cannot. He exasperates me. And I am always suspicious of man and wife suicides.

To me his writing is unconvincing so I am not in that band of adoring admirers. While his style is often cool and mannered, by contrast, his life of Mary Queen of Scots is packed with over-the-top dramatic flourishes guaranteed to have your eyes rolling heavenward. He piles speculation upon speculation when considering Mary’s innermost emotions. His sympathies, as a man of a sensitive nature, can fall unexpectedly upon Mary while in the next paragraph he is condemning her failures as a monarch and individual.

At times he implies the awkward relationship between Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor of England was something of an aristocratic cat fight. He draws comparisons between the two women, criticising and praising both and he exhibits great sympathy for Mary in the passage relating her execution – but it would be a bigoted and exceptionally hard-hearted writer who would not.

Zweig’s biography concentrates on that relationship between the queens of the Scots and England and the execution of Mary Stuart. He rightly asserts that patriotism had little to do with the time, it being a later sentiment, and that draws a distinction between Elizabeth Tudor’s concerns for the expansion of her realm to Mary Stuart’s preoccupation with herself to the exclusion of interest in broadening the development of Scotland. The woman who had been Queen of France as a teenager was always going to struggle with the very different culture of her native Scotland. States are created not by natural borders or the self-determination of populations but from marriages and wars. It might have been that Scotland, what Zweig calls, ‘this austere and tragical country’ and France could have merged had she not been widowed so young and the history of the British Isles would have been very different.

On the whole Zweig is more sympathetic towards Elizabeth Tudor, praising her strength of leadership and focus for the enrichment of England while castigating Mary Stuart’s indifference to Scotland during her sovereignty.

At the same time, Zweig acknowledges Elizabeth Tudor’s determined scheming to prevent Mary Stuart from marrying anyone likely to threaten her power in England – as the bastard child of Henry VIII, protestant Elizabeth was seen by many as the interloper to the English crown while catholic Mary Stuart had the strongest legitimate claim, through her grandmother and sister of Henry VIII, so Elizabeth was justified in regarding Mary as a potential threat to her position. In particular, Elizabeth feared Mary and Scotland linking up with catholic Spain or France, England’s enemies, to deprive her of the throne of England.

The threat as envisaged in London may have assumed greater proportions than was ever the case because of the extent of duplicity operating within the English court. Zweig, himself, is too easily persuaded that Mary’s allegation that the documents used to justify her execution in England, the disputed casket letters, were forgeries as far-fetched despite evidence that Elizabeth and her circle were constantly plotting and scheming against Mary to bring about her downfall. His assertion that the literary French style of writing found in the casket letters could only have come from the pen of Mary Stuart is patently ridiculous. That none of her enemies were capable of recreating such flowery prose is unbelievable; the Scottish aristocracy were not clod hoppers, not all of them, and traditionally Scotland sent its lairds’ sons to the continent for their education. But Zweig scoffs at the idea of forgery then writes of them as ‘rough hewn’ for Mary’s work, explaining that away as down to her psychological state. It’s a point of view but hardly convincing.

Throughout the book, Zweig veers from viewpoint to viewpoint. He notes how rarely Mary Stuart wrote poetry but insists the incriminating verses were undoubtedly hers. Bothwell’s ill-treatment of her is given as the trigger. He has it that Mary Stuart was passive under his brutal control, then he alludes to a strong-willed woman – one unlikely to passively accept such behaviour from someone her social inferior. Zweig makes much of the nature of the verses for exposing her innermost feelings for Bothwell. In the wrong hands they would be dynamite; blackening both her own and his character. Which is precisely what they did.

On the one hand, Zweig insists Mary was in on the plot to murder Darnley, through the evidence of the casket papers, and her having fallen under the spell of the domineering Bothwell. On the other hand he tells us that it was Mary who insisted that Bothwell divorce his wife and marry her. Zweig’s views of Mary see-saw from projecting her as weak and a puppet of Bothwell and as a headstrong woman who expects others to do her bidding.

When Mary flees to England, following the assassination of Darnley, to escape the subsequent wrath of the Scottish gentry and some of the people, Zweig labels her ‘this tiresome woman’ for failing to go through the normal channels of obtaining Elizabeth’s approval and permission to receive her at court (as if her flight could have waited and as if she could have trusted a letter to the English monarch given the extent of treachery surrounding her).

Zweig makes a convincing case of Mary being something of a victim of her passions, mainly through what he asserts was her total infatuation with Bothwell. He condemns Bothwell’s influence which leads to her instability and inability to make rational decisions. Then, in his usual fashion, he describes her determination and obstinacy throughout her imprisonment when she might have been freed had she been of weaker character.

A feature of the biography is Zweig’s comparison between the two queens. For him, Elizabeth was the stronger of the two, though in reality it may have been that the English queen had an inner circle of trustworthy court of advisers, including the malevolent Cecil of the ‘cold, steel-blue eyes’, whereas Mary Stuart was surrounded in the main by treachery and courtiers bought off by English money.

The main contention and divisions between the English and Scottish queens was not personal but territorial and dynastic and, of course, religious; the struggle for dominance between catholicism and protestantism. It was never going to be acceptable for the catholic Mary to turn up at the English court, even if they did not suspect she would try to slip onto the throne behind Elizabeth’s back. Yet for Zweig it was Darnley’s murder which was the barrier to Mary Stuart’s acceptance in London. Tudor England was itself not without its fair share of judicious killings. Elizabeth’s own father, Henry VIII was not averse to chopping off the occasional wife’s head. Elizabeth’s rejection of Mary’s pleas for help surely had nothing to do with disgust at any involvement she had in the plot against Darnley but simply keeping the catholic claimant to the English throne away from the seat of power. And Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots was charged with treason, similar to another Scot, in another time, William Wallace. Both leaders of independent countries bogusly charged with treason in a separate nation.

Zweig is correct when he notes that Elizabeth had no legitimate right to hold Mary a prisoner. The two countries were not at war and Mary was the sovereign of a foreign power. He acknowledges there had to be fabrication of a cause to detain her, therefore, ‘in ticklish circumstances, fabricate pretexts and procedures, make something out of nothing.’

He goes on to describe efforts by the English court when Mary first arrived in England to reassure her of her safety in order to prevent her travelling abroad. Once it became clear these reassurances were merely deceptions to detain her, it was too late. Mary’s mail was intercepted; paid spies fed back information on her to Elizabeth and Cecil which they used to weave a web of deceit to trap the hapless queen.

Zweig is not without praise for Mary. He tells how English envoys were won over by her sweet character and how she was, in reality, no real threat to Elizabeth. He remarks that Elizabeth had no jurisdiction over Mary Stuart but that the English court worked with Scottish lairds to create a package of lies which would bring about her death. When the drama was ready to run the casket letters were revealed, implicating Mary in murder. Duplicitous as ever, Elizabeth Tudor commanded that the letters be made public. She then demanded Mary abdicate. Zweig’s weak woman, ruled by her passions, as he would have it, refused. She rebuffed an offer to buy her freedom by renouncing her natural claim to the English throne (although she did not pursue this claim, except in the contrived plot to ensnare her). In Zweig’s view she found her captivity, ‘pressed too heavily upon her tired spirit’ and so ‘yearned for death.’ But if he is right then a simple renunciation of her claim to Elizabeth would have secured the release she long demanded, to go to safety in France, instead of staying to face inevitable execution.

Mary Stuart was a nuisance to England. So much so it passed a law to justify her execution, and that of her fellow catholics, following the involved web of entrapment and trial. The English court, as Machiavellian as any, was much admired by Zweig, despite its determined and ruthless attempts to subjugate its neighbouring state and its monarch. While he complains about the levels of duplicity involved, Zweig also somewhat justifies the part played by England. He fails to comprehend precisely what was so important to Scots that they wanted to preserve independence from England for, as he puts it, the people were so akin, their modes of life so similar, ‘their shores washed by the waters of the selfsame oceans.’ For an Austrian who fled from his country under attack from its stronger neighbour, Germany, this is extraordinary. And in an earlier passage of the book he has described various major differences between Scotland and England – not least the catholic monarchy of the Stuarts in ‘ this last outpost of Europe…tragical land, perpetually rent in sunder by antagonistic passions, dark and romantic as a saga, a poverty-stricken land…unremitting warfare crushed every effort to make it prosperous. The few towns, which hardly deserved the name…wretched hovels…eternally plundered and destroyed by fire…impossible to acquire wealth or to bring the semblance of wellbeing to a settled burgherdom…gloomy, domineering castles…boundless heaths, mysterious forests…no broad highways swerving as channels for intercourse and commerce.’ And so he goes on.

It has escaped Zweig’s researches that Scotland had, centuries before Mary Stuart became its queen, a thriving trade with its east coast and the Baltic states and Low Countries. That Scotland’s harbours and ports were far from idle but prosperous and active centres of commerce. By contrast Zweig paints a picture of bustling English ports, with ships sailing forth to far-off harbours, ‘bringing back gold and spices’. Of Scotland he can only imagine ‘sheep-herding, fishing, hunting’ in the north and wrecked industries from constant English attack in the south of the country. He complains that Scotland’s laws, wealth and culture ‘lay a hundred years in arrear of England and the rest of Europe.’ From this he concludes the Scots and English were ‘so closely akin’!.

Scotland’s tribulations came about, Zweig recognises, from her vulnerability to attacks by her larger and stronger southern neighbour. He cites the Battle, or massacre as he puts it, of Pinkie in September 1547 when 10,000 Scots died defending their country against English attack over Scotland’s refusal to send the child Mary into the doubtful care of the English court. In Zweig’s view, Mary alone was the only thing of value left in Scotland that England might want and he acknowledges those in Scotland who suspected the child might meet with a sudden and violent end in England were not without just cause. In the end this is what did happen but with a great deal of intervening drama before the final act was played out.

The Babington Conspiracy and the incriminating casket documents were the 16th century’s equivalent of the Labour government’s dodgy dossier in the run-up to  war with Iraq.

It is at this stage in his biography that Zweig exhibits greatest sympathy for Mary Stuart. Throughout the book he expresses compassion and understanding for her plight then rails against the ‘vile’ woman who seduced men by the force of her engaging personality so bringing about her own downfall. Of Elizabeth Tudor, he condemns her vacillating over issues, emotionally cold but guilt-ridden, strong, yet apparently pushed into tormenting and eventually executing Mary by proxy, through Cecil and Walsingham. He portrays these strong women as manipulated by the men in their circles without any proper evidence of such. Certainly Mary Stuart acted foolishly throughout much of her life but she remained resolute in her rejection of Elizabeth Tudor’s efforts to demean her and her country’s standing. As for Elizabeth Tudor, she effected the plot to eliminate Mary Stuart while giving the impression she was not to blame for her death. Neither woman displayed weakness: one was irresponsible and misguided and the other cold and calculating.

The descriptions of the torture and executions of the Babington ‘plotters’ (including two young boys who handed bread to the accused) leaves little to the imagination. Zweig does remind us that the real conspirators were the English establishment and at this point he, fortunately, holds back from his over-the-top rhetoric and allows straight forward narrative to carry the reader through the tragic course of events. A ‘farce’ is how he describes the trial of Mary Stuart. The English court was cognisant of setting a precedent for the assassination of one monarch by another but went to great lengths to try to prove this was an established procedure. Mary Stuart was permitted no defence lawyers, no witnesses (Elizabeth Tudor and her accomplices having killed them or paid them off before the trial was set up). The incriminating correspondence between Mary and Babington was not brought before the court, only the English cipher’s interpretation of what had been written.

Naturally, and Zweig refers to this, the judgement on Mary Queen of Scots, had been decided before the show trial took place, hence the conspiracy and executions. She was found guilty of being a traitor, pretender to the English throne and plotting to kill Elizabeth Tudor.

Zweig’s vacillating English monarch was thrown into a state of frenzy, according to the author, but this is unbelievable and Zweig, again guilty of regarding women as incapable of such egregious behaviour fails to comprehend that it was a measure of guilt that was affecting Elizabeth, not so much over the death of Mary Stuart but the reception this would have across Europe for her execution of a fellow monarch.

According to Elizabeth Tudor, she hated having to go along with the death sentence but she declined to offer clemency. Elizabeth made a great show of trying to extricate herself from any responsibility for the Queen of Scots’ death. Zweig’s explanation that she was bi-polar points to his gullibility and partiality in favour of England. He is not using the term in the current mental health sense but that she was indecisive. This is still patently wrong and if anyone is being bi-polar, it is Zweig himself.

Mary Stuart’s son, James VI and I took no interest in the fate of his mother, for he had an agreement with Elizabeth that he would take the throne on her death. And he was being paid a pension by England. As for the Scottish people they were of a different view and angered that another nation’s monarch could execute their queen which was the only reason James reluctantly and belatedly wrote to London. But this was not quite the action demanded by the Scottish parliament which was all for raising an army against England. James’ entire motivation was his desire to preserve his reputation at home. He did the least he could, never asking clemency for his mother nor accusing Elizabeth Tudor of regicide.

Mary Stuart, herself, asked little of Elizabeth Tudor. She did request she be buried along with other royals in France; she was still the Queen Dowager of France. Instead she was buried in the corner of some English graveyard until her son took over the English throne and moved her body to Westminster Abbey to lie alongside her executor, Elizabeth Tudor.

Throughout the years of imprisonment, plot and trial, Zweig tells how Mary Stuart acted calmly and with dignity. Following the death sentence she requested that her chaplain was given permission to visit her and that here execution be delayed by one day to prepare herself for her death, both were denied. Zweig’s compassion for Mary Stuart on the morning of her execution is clear when he reveals the ‘petty spite’ inflicted upon her; she was separated from her personal staff and surrounded by those who conspired against her and her enemies. Reluctantly, and at the last moment, it was agreed she be allowed six servants to accompany her to the block to join the two hundred soldiers and nobles gathered to watch the sentence carried out.

Her death is well documented; the first blow hitting her head – ‘A hollow groan escaped from the mouth of the victim’ followed by two more blows before the head was severed from the body and lifted to the crowd with a cry of ‘God save the Queen.’ But which one? We are not told. And how Mary’s Skye terrier, hiding beneath her skirts ran out bloodied, to lie down between the decapitated head and shoulders.

Zweig relates how in London Elizabeth Tudor raged that she had known nothing of Mary’s execution. The great pretence stemming from her unwillingness to carry responsibility instead she blamed ‘unfaithful servants’ one of whom was paid to carry the can and jailed for a short time before being quietly released with a purse full of money.

Zweig’s account of Mary Stuart is melodramatic and does not help understand the woman and her time. It is not clear exactly where Zweig stands in relation to any of the main players in this drama. He fluctuates in his opinions as much as the women he describes. He puts thoughts into the minds of Mary and Elizabeth which are from a twentieth century continental novelist in his attempt to colour his picture of the time and place but succeeds in creating a polychromatic biography lacking insightful and measured assessment .

Stefan Zweig, Marie Stuart (1935)

2 Comments to “Thoughts on Stefan Zweig’s Mary Queen of Scots”

  1. How we interpret what we read is inevitably predetermined by our own positions and with this type of biography there will be readers who take opposite views, as we have. I agree that Zweig’s own mental state was hugely influential in the contradictory views he shares with the reader but I can’t agree his writing is not way over the top. All depends on what you normally read, I expect!

    Certainly an easy read but not sure he contributed much to the debate over MQS’s assassination.

  2. How funny – I read Mary Stuart and came to the opposite conclusion, that he was too harsh on Elizabeth and too soft on Mary! I think his ‘fluctuations’ in attitude towards these women come from their own fluctuations in behaviour – Elizabeth offering genuine advice to Mary one minute then going through the elaborate dissembling and pretence over her execution the next, and Mary making both good astute decisions and really appalling ones.
    I didn’t find his style over-the-top, either, although I can see how it could appear that way. I do think Zweig was more interested in presenting a good ripsnorting yarn than a measured and balanced biography.

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