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'Mary Queen of Scots': Women in Tudor Britain

As I am currently on the Constructing Empires Constellation Course, I was particularly excited to see two historical movies, Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite, to see how historical female monarchs asserted their power.

The former film depicts the complex history of Mary's life, from her return to Scotland in 1561 to her beheading in 1587. From beginning to end, the two leading women are shown in similar scenarios to show their similar position as monarchs.

Mary Queen of Scots, Film Poster, 2019 (Image: IMDb)

Elizabeth is presented as being obsessed with image. More than once she is shown looking through glass windows, and when glancing at the portrait of her cousin, it is held up against mirrors in which she compares herself to hers. Whilst Elizabeth remarks on her beauty and feels insecure, Mary is presented as an individual who only wants to unite and share rule with her family member. One scene that will not leave me is whilst Elizabeth has the pox, she covers herself in a veil. When running to Lord Dudley, who is amongst other men, her maids are found screaming at the other men to turn away so they may not look at the Queen. Whilst she shows her face free of makeup to her councillors, when she meets Mary for the first time she is heavily made up, showing her insecurity.

What is interesting is that Mary's ladies-in-waiting seem to have a closer connection to her than Elizabeth’s. She seems to want to stand alone. Although Mary's ladies-in-waiting are presented as more loyal, in the end Elizabeth's council is more loyal to her, causing Mary’s downfall.

Elizabeth's relation to motherhood is contested throughout the film. Whilst attempts are made by Lord Dudley, she refuses. Although, in some scenes, she seems to have motherly feelings. A poignant scene shows Elizabeth making an artwork with flowers, whilst Mary gives birth to her son James. The comparative scene shows both women sitting with their legs spread apart – Mary after giving birth, and Elizabeth with the flowers she has made between her legs. Being seen is still a prevalent theme when Elizabeth and Mary meet. In a small hut, the two monarchs must walk through lots of draped cloth whilst they communicate to actually see each other.

The film addresses aspects of history that I previously was unaware of: Mary’s husband Henry's infidelity with a male musician, and the death of this musician, as he is framed as cuckolding Henry, to hide the latter's own 'sodomy'. Watching the trailer, I was excited to see how female power was presented. One image of Elizabeth walking through a crowd of one hundred men, splitting apart as she approached, was particularly powerful. Although I was expecting this to be a movie with feminist undertones, I was too naive about the Tudor Period. Elizabeth's justification for not having children was because as a monarch she was 'a man'. Even Mary calls her husband a 'wife', implying that a sovereign, even when being a woman, plays the role of a man. Both women are presented as being more focused on power than their relationships: Mary disposing of Henry after he gives her an heir, claiming that 'One minute does not make a man'. Whilst the power that the monarchs exert is an important part of the film, it is overshadowed by motherly and dynastic concerns, as well as patriarchal views. All the men that enter Mary's life try to overpower her.

Sound is used as a particularly effective tool in the movie. Drums are used throughout to denote battle, and one scene where John Knox, a protestant cleric (David Tennant) preaches hatred against Mary, children hit their hands against the preaching block to create tension. Although violins and drums are used throughout the film for atmosphere, when the two ‘sisters’ meet, there is silence.

Costumes and the overall imagery were a sight to behold, from the stunning Scottish Highlands to the architecture of the house. The stark bareness of the church with the simple cross to decorate it reminded me clearly of the differences between the Protestant and Catholic faiths. Even when outside, the cross is still there on a piece of cloth to show their motivations.

My idea of Queen Mary started with history lessons at school. Mary was presented simply as a threat to Elizabeth. Throughout Mary's life, she suffered countless betrayals, hatred from her countrymen as well as from England, as well as torrid relationships. It made me grateful to live in a society where monarchs do not contest over who owns what land, and also to not have motherhood enforced on me, at least not at an early stage in life. Leaving the cinema, I felt more sympathy for the titular character than I expected. Her final scene shows her as accepting her fate, sacrificing herself so that her son may reign over England. What must be acknowledged, however, is the criticism the film has faced for its lack of historical accuracy and focus on sex. Shane Watson of The Telegraph called it 'history porn for the Instagram generation,' although I would disagree with this as this is not how the film was marketed. The film struck me more visually and audibly than with the actual words said. If you want to see what it takes to be a female monarch, or learn more than what you are usually told about Tudor History, watch this movie.

Mat Collishaw, The Mask of Youth, 2018, Queen's House, Greenwich (Image:

If you are interested further in exploring Queen Elizabeth, it is worth visiting the Queen's House in Greenwich. The Armada Portrait, recently acquired by the gallery, is on display there. On the opposite wall, Mat Collishaw has been inspired by this portrait and what the monarch would have actually looked like. Using the death mask of Elizabeth and with the help of animatronics experts, he has created a recreation of Queen Elizabeth's face, with pox scars. The face blinks, her eyes moving around the room, giving a glare as formidable as Margot Robbie.

Anna Thompson (modern day redhead, but not a monarch)

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