Mary, Queen of Scots, the 16th century monarch who has been considered both a woman of “uncertain reputation” and a Catholic martyr, played a crucial role in Catholicism’s history, a British scholar told an audience at Fordham University as part of the inaugural St. Robert Southwell, S.J., Lecture on Oct. 22.
“Mary knew that her future, beyond the grave, depended upon her personal identification with an uncompromising Catholicism,” said Patrick Collinson, Ph.D., Regius Emeritus Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge. “She prepared for her own posterity as a martyr in the famous portrait, which became an icon of the developing Counter-Reformation: Mary’s unusual height accentuated, wearing a black velvet dress, a great gold rosary hanging from her belt—an object of devotion across Catholic Europe.”
Mary Stuart, who lived from 1542 to 1587, is most famous for her conflict with her Protestant cousin, Elizabeth I, for control of England, which would ultimately lead to Stuart’s execution and her veneration as a Catholic martyr. Her tragic life has made her one of the best-known Scottish monarchs.
Collinson discussed Stuart’s life with a standing-room-only crowd at Flom Auditorium in the William D. Walsh Family Library on the Rose Hill campus. A devout Catholic, Mary Stuart acceded to the Scottish throne when she was less than a year old and spent the last 19 years of her life in prison before being beheaded in 1587 at the age of 44 in the Great Hall of Fotheringhay Castle.
“Making a good death was an artform in the 16th century,” Collinson told the gathering, “and there was something about the way she presented herself, even the way she dressed, when she got up to the scaffold that made her a self-fascinating figure to others.”
Stuart’s reputation was often questioned, Collinson said. In fact, she was suspected by many to have plotted the death of her first husband and sentenced to death for treason after having allegedly sanctioned the attempted assassination of Elizabeth I.
Stuart always denied both accusations, and Collinson said that her Catholicism was of a rather conventional nature given the times—“neither militant or heroic.”
“In her English captivity, she regularly attended Protestant prayer book services,” he said. “To draw a contemporary analogy, we might say Stuart was a good Muslim, but not a radical Islamist.”
So why was Mary Stuart revered by some in the Catholic community?
“They needed her,” Collinson said of the Catholics who were living through the Counter-Reformation at the time. “Though Stuart in her religious person never changed, the world changed around her.”
After her execution, there were those who claimed to have experienced miracles after visiting Stuart’s tomb. Yet the monarch was never canonized by the Catholic Church.
“In England, there was a long tradition of canonizing deposed and murdered kings,” Collinson said. “But those days were over and knowing what we know about Stuart’s past, that may be understandable.”
The St. Robert Southwell, S.J. lecture series at Fordham University is devoted to the history and theology of the Christian church in the early modern period. It focuses on the scholarship of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation in Europe and the Americas from 1500 to 1750.