Have you heard of Marie de Guise? If you haven’t, you may be familiar with her daughter a certain Miss Mary, Queen of Scots. (For the sake of clarity, although both women alternated between spelling their names Mary and Marie, we’ll call the Mom Marie and the daughter Mary). Now, a lot went wrong in Mary’s life as we’ve looked at already, and a lot of that had to do with the decisions Marie made for her. But it’s a hindsight is 20/20 thing because if you rotate things even a little bit, Marie’s actions could have meant that we’d have a United Scotland-France megacountry where everybody’s Catholic, leaving Elizabeth I an afterthought. But you can’t plan for who’s going to die of what and when, meaning that Marie set up a chess game that Mary wasn’t able to finish. Basically, both women were born to be pawns to their respective male relatives, and that meant they had to fight for everything they ever achieved. And fate conspired that Marie was a lot more successful in that than her daughter would be.
Don’t get me wrong: Marie de Guise was one ferocious, clever, and incredibly interesting person. And she got away with as much as she did because the men around her couldn’t stop underestimating her due to her gender. And knowing that, she just went on to crush them all even more. So let’s dig into this fascinating woman’s extraordinary life story!!
So, picture it: it’s 1515, it’s the small French town of Bar-le-Duc. Two aristocrats are expecting their first bébé but the mother’s delivery is going faster than expected. So they aren’t able to have the child in the fancy home they’d planned, winding up delivering Bébé Marie in a random peasant’s house because Marie always liked to make an entrance. She was their first kid, so of course they were like, “One girl, OK that’s fine, as long as we have a bunch of sons afterward for inheritance reasons,” and set her aside for future pawn-related marriage uses. They did, in fact, go on to have ten more kids — eight boys and Two more girls. Marie was sent off to be raised in a convent with her grandmother Philippa, who apparently was a nun (?). Marie wasn’t being trained to be a nun, of course, because her main purpose in life was to be a pawn in marriage negotiations to improve her family’s status. But hanging out with lots of women and away from royal court likely ensured she grew up with a good head on her shoulders.
When she was fourteen aka marryin’ age, two of her uncles came to visit Philippa at the convent and to take a peek at how Marie was doing. To their surprise and excitement, Marie had grown up to be both Very Tall and Very Glamorous. Sort of a Cinderella scenario, where even in her convent girl outfits and probably like scrubbing floors or something, her beauty and magnetism was undeniable. And so the uncles were like, “Zut alors! We must send our Tall and Glamorous niece to the royal court, because surely she will snag herself a Very Rich And Powerful Husband!!” And so, because she was fourteen and a girl, she was shipped off to hang out with the French royal family and their courtiers. They had noticed that she was gorgeous and regal and had great posture, but didn’t yet realize that SHE WAS AMAZING.
Marie strolled into French royal court and everyone was like, “Mais oui!! We toujours love this very tall and glamorous woman!” Two people who really loved her were the King’s daughters, Marguerite and Madeleine, and the three girls became instant BFFs. Marie’s uncles were twirling their mustaches with glee, because the more rich friends Marie got, the better her marriage would be, and the richer her uncles would become. At this time, France and Scotland were sort of dancing around each other as Catholic allies against the newly-Protestant England. This is why Scotland’s King James V showed up four years later to pick either Marguerite or Madeleine to be his new wife.
James stepped into the room and was instantly distracted from the Princesses by their Very Tall And Glamorous Friend, but Marie wasn’t an option, and so he decided to marry the sickly Princess Madeleine (she had tuberculosis). Marie attended their wedding, presumably towering over everyone else and looking AMAZING, but she also had great manners so she also probably tried not to stand out too much. Princess Madeleine fell ill shortly after sailing over to Scotland and died just six months after this marriage. James was once again single and ready to mingle, and as Princess Marguerite was by now paired off with someone else, James was like, “So… is that gorgeous and Tall Glamorous Marie still available??” Too bad for him, Marie’s uncles had already paired her off with someone else, too. BUT JUST YOU WAIT, JAMES #spoilers
The guy the Guise uncles had chosen for her was a man named Louis II d’Orléans. In the pantheon of possible husbands, he was only five years older than Marie, and also seems to have been a pretty OK sort of person. Considering the time and place, and how Marie had zero input in this match, this worked out pretty well for her. The main reason I think he was an OK guy and that Marie liked him was when he died — two years later — she kept his final letter to her and carried it around with her for the rest of her life. If you’re ever in the neighbourhood, you can visit this letter and some other of Marie’s correspondence, at the National Library of Scotland! Guess what: her handwriting is Glamorous. But would you expect anything else?
And so we find our heroine, aged twenty-one, pregnant, a widow, and the mother of a baby son. She’d had her son, Francis, early in their marriage. She gave birth to a second son, named Louis for his dead father, a few months after her husband’s death* (*Louis Jr died in infancy, which is so sad, but also a thing that happened a lot back then to a lot of babies, this is part of why women had like 17 children). So, Marie looked at her little bébé son like, “Time for me to get married again, for financial and security reasons, I guess.” Luckily, she was still TALL and GLAMOROUS, and so every eligible bachelor in France and other countries were falling out of trees to be her next husband. This included — remember the #spoiler from a bit ago — James V, King of Scotland! He was not going to let her go without a fight, again. Also, his options of wife were limited to exclusively French women because of the whole Scotland-France alliance thing, and there weren’t any French princesses left on the market.
Another King was interested in marrying Marie, and that King was KING HENRY VIII FROM ENGLAND!!! Yes, my least-favourite historical serial monogamist had found himself between wives and had heard that Marie was tall. (This particular sequence of events was happening after he’d beheaded Anne Boleyn and also after Jane Seymour had died, but before the Anne of Cleves scenario). So it was KING vs. KING in an epic battle to put a ring on Marie de Guise and, unlike Kelly Taylor on Beverly Hills 90210, she wasn’t able to decline them both and say “I CHOOSE ME” so she knew she’d wind up with one or the other. And there was no fucking way she was going to let it be Henry VIII, as she hated him just about as much as I do. When she heard Henry was like, “I want a tall wife!” she replied, and I QUOTE, “I may be a big woman, but I have a very little neck,” which was a MEGA BURN on Henry for pretty obvious reasons vis-a-vis his having recently beheaded Anne Boleyn.
Marie was such an important woman at this point, due to her wealth and power and Glamourousness, that the French King himself got to decide who she’d marry. And he was like, “I also hate Henry VIII, and apparently James V is Catholic, so I choose James!” And just like that, Marie de Guise was engaged to be married to the King of Scotland. She was… not very happy about this because a) she didn’t want to leave France because b) her bébé son was there (she wasn’t allowed to bring him with her to Scotland) and so was the rest of her family and friends and c) Scotland was cold and damp and full of lairds instead of fancy French people in fancy French outfits. But guess what, she didn’t get a veto in this scenario, so the best she could do was ensure she got the best possible prenup. And basically, her uncles did a great job for her, landing her a deal as good as if she’d literally been a Princess. NOTABLY, there was a clause in the paperwork that if James died before her, she’d get to keep lots of land in Scotland.
And so, our Tall and Glamorous French heroine set sail to Scotland. As you may or may not recall (I had to just double-check on this myself), James’s mother was Henry VIII’s sister Margaret Tudor, who was like “FINALLY a cool and tall and glamorous woman for me to hang out with in this country neither of us want to be living in!! And as a bonus, she also hates my brother Henry VIII, so we will now be BEST FRIENDS” and they hit it off right away, like I can picture them sipping on wine like Cersei Lannister and making fun of all the Scottish people. Note to Scottish people: I love you, you’re great. But neither of these women wanted to be living that at this particular time and place, and also there were A LOT of asshole lairds wandering around being dicks at this time so it wasn’t the BEST place to be a cool woman who was also very smart.
And so, Marie began her new life as Queen of Scots. She and her husband had two sons, named James and Robert, both of whom died on the same day in 1541 when one was eight days old and the other was less than one. So: Marie was now the mother of three dead boys, along with bébé Francis, who she didn’t get to see but who she exchanged letters with all the time. One year later, Marie had her first daughter, who she named Mary after herself — EPIC, LOVE THIS, very Lorelei Gilmour of her. Six days later, James died and so little bébé Mary was now Bébé Mary, Queen of Scots. And neither of their lives would ever be normal or calm ever again.
Right away, the six-day-old baby caught the attention of Henry VIII, who — don’t worry, he didn’t want to marry her himself, he wanted to arrange a marriage between his son Edward and Bébé Mary. But, as he himself was again single (this was after Catherine Howard had been beheaded but before he’d snagged Kathryn Parr), he was like, “What about a two-for-one deal? My son Edward can marry Bébé Mary, and I’ll marry Glamorous Marie, and we can be like, a Renaissance Brady Bunch scenario?” Marie, who was now far far away from her Guise uncles and was now the Dowager Queen of Scots, was finally in a position where she got to make her own fucking decisions about her own fucking life. And so she replied to Henry’s offers like, “LOL, NO MERCI, AU REVOIR, THANK U NEXT” because no way was she going to ever marry Henry VIII or engage her bébé daughter to Son Of Henry VIII.
Henry VIII, famous narcissist and sore loser we all know him to be, was like, “O RLY??” and basically went to war against Scotland to try and force Marie to at least let Bébé Mary get engaged to his son. It became a huge Catholic-Scotland/Protestant-England war, and because it was all about Henry being butthurt about Marie not agreeing to the bébé marriage, it was called The War of the Rough Wooing.
Since Bébé Mary was too little to make Queen-related decisions, a Regent was put in place to run the country for her. The guy chosen was named James Hamilton, and Marie haaaated him. She attempted a coup to get him removed, but was unsuccessful, but you know she — not unlike Henry — didn’t give up easily. She kept herself busy during this time overseeing battles in The War of the Rough Wooing, and did it in true Marie de Guise style — wearing bespoke armour and carrying her own specially painted spear. Because she was a literal GODDESS at this point, basically.
At one point, Marie headed out in her AMAZING OUTFIT to take a peek at a battle because she loved to watch the Scottish/French troops decimating the English troops. Unfortunately for her, her group got too close to the English team and sixteen of her armed guards were killed. RETREAT!! Marie of course survived, and she was so grateful to the guards who protected her that day that she gave a reward of one month’s wages to one particular guy who helped her out a lot. If this were a romance novel, she’d then engage in a sexy affair with this guy, but in real life, Marie was too busy for that sort of thing thank you very much. What was she busy doing? Oh, just arranging the engagement of Bébé Mary to Bébé Prince Francis, the heir to the throne in France (and oldest son of her fellow Goddess, Catherine de’Medici). And so, Marie sadly shipped Bébé Mary off to France to grow up among her Guise family and her Bébé Fiance’s royal family, where she’d grow up to be a pawn with a crazy life but that’s a story for another day.
But Marie continued on in her lady armour to lead armies against Henry VIII’s stupid fucking war until the English troops finally retreated. It had been a long and stupid and frustrating and idiotic war, and Marie was so proud of winning that she wrote — literally — “the English had left nothing behind but the plague.” BURN. YES. And happily, now that the war situation was over, Marie was able to take a trip across the English Channel to visit her two children and the rest of her family in France.
This trip was for both business and pleasure, and Marie used her political skill and personal charm to learn more about what was going on behind the scenes in France. Turns out, some people had planned to poison Bébé Mary Queen of Scots, but their plot had been foiled which is like Good News/Bad News I guess? Bébé Mary was still alive, but it sucked people were actively trying to murder her. Sadly, during Marie’s holiday, her son Francis died of Old Timey Child Disease, meaning that now Bébé Mary was her only surviving child. And though Marie was French and not English, she used a very Stiff Upper Lip Approach to continue the business part of her trip as she headed down to England for a meet-and-greet with the English King. By now, Henry VIII had died and his son Edward was now their Boy King. And despite the whole “waging a war to prevent him from marrying Bébé Mary” thing, Marie and Edward had a very polite and friendly visit. NOTE: Edward’s teenage older sister, Princess Elizabeth, attended this meeting. And while the other English women put on their best French-style fashions, Elizabeth was like “I ONLY WEAR ENGLISH DESIGNERS #SORRYNOTSORRY” which is sort of a clue as to how strong-willed she was as a person.
But Marie was still, of course, also strong-willed and AMAZING. She may not have been the Queen of Scots or even the Regent, but her work ethic, scheming, French connections, and personal magnetism meant that she was quickly becoming the most powerful human in Scotland. Remember how she hated the Regent, Hamilton, and tried to get rid of him earlier? Well, he luckily died and she flat-out named herself the new Regent. She and Bébé Mary were now a Mother-Daughter French-Scottish Royal Duo Of Gorgeousness And Wonderfulness. Marie set out assigning French or French-sympathizing Scottish people into important Scottish government jobs and basically turning Scotland into Mini-France. Her own brothers (remember, she was the oldest of eleven kids) were now adults and had important jobs back in France, so she consulted them as well as her uncles for political advice. It was a Guise World, the Scottish people were just living in it. And guess what: the Scottish people, especially the Protestants, weren’t super into what Marie was up to.
Marie served as regent for four years, during which time her biggest challenge was the increasing amount of Scottish Protestants who hated everything about her. During her time in the role, England’s King Edward had died and was succeeded by his older sister Mary I, like maybe Scotland’s monarch was a tweenage girl who lived in France but at least they hadn’t been cycling through Kings and Queens at the rate that England had been doing. Now, Queen Mary I was a Catholic which you’d think was good news in terms of Scotland and England teaming up BUT NOT SO. Because Queen Mary I was married to the King of Spain, and Spain and France didn’t get along, and this is all very complicated but just trust me on this. Also during the period of Marie’s regency, Mary Queen of Scots was married to her longtime fiance Prince Francis.
Got all that? I know it’s a lot. But buckle up because what happened NEXT is that Queen Mary I died and the new English Queen was the little girl who hadn’t dressed to impress a few years ago — that’s right, Queen Elizabeth I, who made England Protestant again. And this is where we all need to unfurl our excessively complicated Tudor family trees. Basically, Mary Queen of Scots was the granddaughter of Margaret Tudor, who had been Henry VIII’s sister. But Henry VIII had long ago disinherited Margaret and all her heirs for Scottish-Catholic related reasons. So while Mary Queen of Scots was according to some the rightful Queen of England, due to a technicality, Elizabeth got the job.
Marie and the Guise uncles were like, “Oooh, how can we play this to our advantage??” And began figuring out how Mary Queen of Scots could take over England. Then, they hoped, Scotland and France and England could all join together into one big Megacountry full of Catholics who spoke French. And while they were in the middle of this scheme, the French King died, meaning that Mary Queen of Scots’s husband Francis was now the King of France, meaning Mary Queen of Scots was now Mary Queen of Scots And Also France. The Guise uncles were like, “OMG AMAZING” and they got her to start subtly hinting she was the true English Queen by doing stuff like including England’s Coat of Arms in her Coat of Arms, which was like a MEGA BIG DEAL. Elizabeth, who was young and still figuring stuff out but who was also very smart and clever, was like, “Time to shut these Guises DOWN”. And so Elizabeth started secretly supporting the Scottish Protestants who opposed Marie. So it was now MARIE versus ELIZABETH. But the thing is, the Scottish Protestants already hated Marie so actually things were not looking great for our gal.
The Scottish Protestants — including my personal historical nemesis, notorious misogynist John Knox — staged a huge revolt against Marie. Marie was like, “I think the fuck NOT” and threw on her couture armour and grabbed her special spear and led her troops out to meet them. But then another group of rebels also arrived and she may have been Tall, Glamorous, and Amazing, but she was also outnumbered and so she and her team retreated. At this point, some of Marie’s allied switched sides, and then Edinburgh fell to the Protestants. Things were getting worse and worse, so got France to send over more troops to help her out, and her team had a big victory in an area called Fife. Mary, again with the amazing quotes, said literally (I like to think she screamed): “Where is now John Knox’s God? My God is now stronger than his, yea, even in Fife.” But then Elizabeth sent more troops up from England, which tipped things in the Protestant side again.
Elizabeth agreed to meet the Protestant leaders to work out a treaty, which wound up with both sides agreeing to expel the French from Scotland. This is obviously not what Marie wanted, so the battles continued on between her French-supporting Catholic pals and the English-Scottish-Protestant contingent. AND YET, don’t forget, Marie was still the Seina Shimabukuro of her age: even her enemies and haters were like, “Goddamn, this woman is a STAR and I love her.” For real, though: the English ambassador said Marie had the “hart of a man of warre” (sic) and the English bishop said Marie was “a woman with a man’s courage” which are both utterly misogynist back-handed compliments, but in that day and age were kind of the best you could get.
And so the battles kept raging and Marie kept not giving up, negotiating with the Scottish rebels and overseeing battles, etc. But then she fell ill. Her symptoms were pretty horrible, like her stomach and legs swelled up painfully, she lost the ability to speak, and she lost her mental faculties, just like… gruesome awfulness and you know that the physicians were like “LEECHES CURE EVERYTHING” or whatever. She probably had edema, which was then called dropsy; some modern historians have considered the fact that she was poisoned, but her symptoms are pretty much textbook edema. Marie de Guise passed away on June 11, 1560, aged forty-four.
Because Scotland was still in the midst of religious chaos, the body of Marie de Guise had to be secretly carried out in the middle of the night to be shipped to France, where you know she’d want to be buried. Like, she’d fought hard and unrelentingly for Scotland but I don’t think she ever… liked it there. A massive marble tomb was erected, along with a bronze statue of Marie looking Tall and Amazing. Like a lot of that sort of thing, it was all destroyed centuries later in the French Revolution, so we can’t go and visit it today. That all feels like a sort of metaphor for her whole life, in a way? Anyway, her body wound up with her sister Renee, who had become a nun, and she was buried in Reims at the Convent of Ste. Pierre, which is sort of a bookend to the way she was first truly discovered while staying at a different convent with another relative.
Marie’s death basically ended the French-Catholic side of the religious battle going on in Scotland. A document called the Treaty of Edinburgh was signed which did a lot of stuff politically, one part of which was to leave the power of the Scottish government in the hands of the Protestants. James V’s illegitimate son, a Protestant also named James (because this story didn’t have enough Jameses in it already obviously), took over as the head of government in Scotland as long as Mary was in France.
Mary Queen of Scots didn’t return to Scotland for another few years, not until after her husband Francis had died. She’d spent nearly all of her life in France, meaning that she had little understanding of what had been going on in Scotland. To be fair, the Guises hadn’t thought she’d need to have a connection to Scotland. After all, Mary was married to the French King, meaning she would be planning to live out the rest of her life in France. So when her husband died unexpectedly young, without having had any children with Mary, she was left without a plan. The Guises had basically given up on both Scotland and Mary by this point, meaning she didn’t have them supporting her.
Marie de Guise did not intentionally fuck things up for her daughter. If Marie, or Mary’s husband Francis, or if King James V, or if Queen Mary I or King Edward had lived longer, this story would all have wound up differently. Marie de Guise played hard with the cards she was dealt, emerging as one of the most powerful and influential Queens of Renaissance Europe. And also, through her grandson James VI and I, Marie de Guise is an ancestor to every English monarch through to the modern generation.
There have been far more books and movies made about Mary Queen of Scots than about Marie de Guise. That being said, there are a few books you can read to learn more about her Glamorous and Amazing life, such as the novels The Five Year Queen by Janet Walkinshaw and The Lymond Chronicles series by Dorothy Dunnett. The main biography I used as a source for this was Scourge of Henry VIII: The Life of Marie de Guise, which is a super interesting read.
** Edit: Corrected some info re: which wives Henry VIII was between at the time he was Roughly Wooing Marie.
Ann Foster is a writer and historian with a research interest in the intersection of women, history, and pop culture, especially the lives and stories of figures both well-known and half-forgotten. patreon.com/annfosterwriter