No Reign: Mary, Queen of Scots on Screen

By Jessica Storoschuk

Mary, Queen of Scots has remained a popular historical figure in the centuries since her death and remains so to this day. She has appeared in countless television shows and feature films, both as a protagonist and as a secondary character. Despite leading Scotland in a politically turbulent period (both internally and externally), Mary Stuart is largely seen on both the large and small screen as an emotional and heedless figure, with the focus in films such as the 1971 and 2018 Mary, Queen of Scots on her romantic relationships and relatively scant attention paid to her reign save for one television show, Reign, that is typically dismissed offhandedly.

Mary Stuart became Queen of the Scots at only six days old; she scarcely knew a life where she was not queen. She moved to France in her childhood and married the future king, Francis II, at the age of fifteen. After his death, Mary returned to Scotland in 1561 and ruled Scotland as queen regnant. However, she quickly fell in love with the English Catholic Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, and married him in 1565. While ambassadors at the Scottish court remarked that she appeared to be bewitched by Darnley, she also would have understood that she needed to marry in order to provide an heir and stability for the House of Stuart. Whilst it was a rocky marriage that quickly soured as Darnley demanded the Crown Matrimonial from Mary, it did produce the child that would be the heir of both the House of Stuart and the House of Tudor.

Vanessa Redgraves’ portrayal of Mary in the 1971 Mary, Queen of Scots largely focuses on her romantic relationships. Upon her return to Scotland after being widowed in France, she focuses on feasting and merrymaking until meeting the handsome Lord Darnley. After their marriage starts to disintegrate, Mary then falls in love with the 4th Earl of Bothwell and together they plan her husband’s death so that they can then marry. Their short-lived marriage is presented as romantic and adoring, rather than the questionably brutal “courtship” historians have more recently recognised. There is little time given to Mary’s complex political situation in Scotland as well the religious turmoil that she managed to balance under a policy of religious tolerance. 

Movie Poster for the 1971 film Mary, Queen of Scots, starring Vanessa Redgrave.

In the 2018 film of the same name, Mary’s emotions take centre stage over the political side of her reign as well. She is so overtaken by passion after engaging in sexual acts with Darnley that she has fallen in love with him and, when her cousin, Elizabeth I, forbids the match, Mary flies into a rage and declares she will do the opposite. Despite the emotional, religious, and political consequences which came with the marriage, it did result in an all-important heir to both royal houses. This recent film does show Mary riding into battle with Darnley and her troops, but it is not a main focus. It also features a brief look into Mary’s antagonistic relationship with preacher John Knox, but again, it is not a focus and her religious policies are not given space at any other point in the film.

Ironically, the CW drama Reign (2013-2017) is one of the only adaptations of Mary’s life to tackle the political side of her reign in any depth. The show is largely dismissed- the costuming is not accurate and the plotlines often involve the supernatural or invented relationships for Mary and her friends. The fourth and final season of Reign follows Mary and her court in Scotland and, while Darnley and Bothwell do feature, viewers see Mary attempting to navigate the political treachery surrounding the Scottish court, as well as managing Scotland’s foreign relations with both England and France. It is interesting to note that the overly-dramatised teen drama is the only narrative that covers the political side of Mary’s reign in any depth. Popularised television shows are often dismissed for their historical inaccuracies; however, they can also sometimes highlight aspects of history that more accepted retellings ignore.

TV Series Reign‘s Season 4 Promotional Poster.

Mary Stuart’s personal life and public reign are both incredibly dramatic, but in feature film, her romantic relationships have first billing above all else. Mary returned from France to a fractured kingdom and worked to maintain political and religious peace throughout her reign; Reign is the only drama to give her “working life” significant weight. In the media, Mary’s cousin, the Tudor Queen Elizabeth I, is often shown as a highly political and shrewd ruler, but Mary largely remains a romantic figure without a nuanced reign on screen.

Both the Tudor and Stuart dynasties largely receive this “romantic” treatment on the screen, but those who marry are often only seen through the lens of a romantic partner. The last Stuart monarch, Queen Anne, is also reduced to potential romantic relationships in the 2018 film, The Favourite. Unfortunately, women in positions of power are still defined on the screen by those that they (may) love rather than their actual political careers.

Further Readings

Fraser, Antonia. Mary Queen of Scots. New York: Delta, 2001.

Guy, J. A. Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

Strong, Johanna. “Film Review: Mary Queen of Scots.” Team Queens, January 4, 2022. https://teamqueens.org/2022/01/04/film-review-mary-queen-of-scots/.

Williams, Kate. The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots: Elizabeth I and Her Greatest Rival. New York: Pegasus Books, 2018.

Jessica’s work can be found at the below links:

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