Marie de Guise was born on 22 November 1515 in Lorraine, France. She was the eldest daughter of Claude of Lorraine, Duke of Guise, and quite the matrimonial catch. A tall and lithesome woman, she was also intelligent and brave, and proved her worth many times over as both a duchess and the Queen of Scots.
When Marie was 18, she wed Louis II d’Orléans, Duke of Longueville. Although the marriage was (like most among the nobility) arranged for them, the young couple appear to have fallen in love and we happy together. Marie gave birth to her first son, François, on 30 October 1535, and was pregnant with their second child when Louis died at Rouen on 9 June 1537. The 21 year old widow was heartbroken, and she would never relinquish the last letter he husband ever wrote to her. On the her third anniversary, 4 August 1537, Mary gave birth to a second son. The baby was named Louis after the father he would never meet, but regrettably he would only live a few months before he passed away as well. Marie doted on her only surviving child, but she would be forced to remarry and leave him when he was only a toddler on the orders of King Francis I of France.
Marie was too much of a marital prize and too valuable a token for international treaties to remain an unwed widow. King Henry VIII, having recently lost his 3rd wife to complications of childbirth, was one of the many who offered for Marie’s hand in marriage, but there was a rumour that she was too concerned for her “little neck” to agree to an English union. Moreover, Mary was a devout and determined Catholic, and was repulsed by Henry’s break from Rome. King Francis therefore arranged for her to wed King James V of Scotland, France’s long-term ally, and as Queen of Scots she would prove to be a pain in Henry VIII’s royal backside.
Although she could reasonably baulk at a proposal from Henry VIII, Marie could not come up with any excuses to refuse a union with King James that King Francis would accept. From King Francis’s perspective, he was doing Marie a favour; not only was James a king, he was kind, young, French-speaking, and Catholic. Her parents did what they could to delay the marriage, knowing how reluctant Marie was to leave her son, but in the end political reality prevailed. Mary was forced to say goodbye to her three year old little boy and go to Paris to become a queen.
Marie was formally wed to James by proxy on 18 May 1538 at Notre Dame de Paris. James sent a fleet of ships to France to collect his new wife, and their commander, Lord Maxwell, stood in for the groom at the altar. On 10 June 1538 Mary landed in Scotland at Crail in Fife. She was formally received by the king a few days later and feted by the kingdom. The royal pair were married anew at St Andrews for the benefit of their Scots subjects.
As she had been for her first husband, she was an excellent wife to King James. Just as importantly for the time, she was also a fertile spouse. Marie was already heavily pregnant when she was crowned queen at Holyrood Abbey on 22 February 1540, and the queen gave birth to a royal heir, James, Duke of Rothesay on 22 May 1540. The kingdom rejoiced, and she delighted James and the court again when she gave birth to a second son, Robert, a little less than a year later on 12 April 1541.
Heartrendingly, both her one year old son and her newborn baby died just eight days later on 21 April. A high percentage of child mortality was a terrifying fact of life in the 16th century, but Marie would have nonetheless been as devastated and grieved as any modern mother. However, as the queen she could not give in to her pain or allow herself time to mourn her loss. She had an obligation to the state to produce more offspring. She and James conceived quickly once more, and her third child – and only daughter – was born on 8 December 1542.
King James V died just six days later, leaving Marie’s newborn the throne, and the baby was subsequently crowned Mary, Queen of Scots.
Now it was down to Marie of Guise to protect her infant daughter from what Marie viewed as a travesty – marriage between the Scots queen and Henry VIII’s little boy, the future Edward VI. James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Arran, was regent and he wasn’t the sharpest knife in the kitchen. He was letting England and the English diplomat Ralph Sadler run rings around him, and it was Marie who had to prevaricate and distract the Protestant foes to the kingdom’s south. She promised Sadler that she was just waiting for Mary to get a little older and assured him that OF COURSE she wasn’t planning a union between Mary and the Dauphin Francis II of France.
Marie was not only lying through her teeth about that, she was also hinting to Henry VIII that she was possibly willing to accept his proposals of marriage. She hemmed and hawed and delayed things until finally Henry realised that neither Queen Mary nor Dowager Queen Marie would willingly be wed to the House of Tudor. Never short of ego, Henry flew into a rage and decided to force the marriage between Mary of Scots and Prince Edward. His bombardment and assault on Scotland would be called the Rough Wooing.
Unsurprisingly, the Rough Wooing just made Scotland more determined to join itself to France. The little queen was kept safe within Scottish fortresses for several years before the French were able to rescue her and smuggle her off to Paris in 1548 to be raised with her future husband. Marie stayed behind in Scotland, and did her best to defend the beleaguered realm. Marie was able to outlast the English (with the help of French guns) and when the Anglo forces finally retreated back across the border she wrote smugly that “the English had left nothing behind but the plague.”
Marie was able to leave Scotland and reunite with her daughter Mary on 1 October 1550 at Rouen, and afterwards she spent all of her energy trying to gain the best marriage settlement between France and Scotland. She was zealous for her daughter’s future, only ceasing her work for Mary when her son François fell ill. Marie personally nursed her son, but in spite of her efforts the fifteen year old duke died at Amiens in the spring of 1551.
Mary was now Marie’s only living child, and the Dowager Queen redoubled her efforts for Scotland and her daughter. Marie was so effective in this cause that she became Regent of Scotland on 12 April 1554. The Scots nobility would occasionally balk at Marie and her French councilors, but she nevertheless held the country together until her daughter was a de facto adult and married Francis II on 24 April 1558.
Just a few months after Queen Mary’s nuptials, Elizabeth I became queen of England and the semi-stable relationship between Marie of Guise and the Scots Protestants fell apart. The Protestants began to look to England for succor and religious strength, while Marie began to prepare Scotland to be the landing place of a French invasion that would put Mary of Scots on the throne of England. Mary and Francis became the King and Queen Consort of France on 10 July 1559, and they incorporated the arms of England as part of their blazon. This was a clear declaration of intent to get the English crown on Mary’s Catholic head.
The Scots Protestants, aided by some of the nobility who had also embraced the Reformation, revolted against Mary. Marie of Guise summoned reinforcements from France and set about smashing the rebels. Elizabeth I sent English forces to bolster the rebellion. Chaos and civil war ensued. The Franco-Scot alliance was triumphing over the Anglo-Scot insurrectionists by May of 1550, but Marie of Guise role in the conflict would soon end. She fell ill of what was reported to be dropsy and died on 11 June 1560.
After Marie of Guise’s death, Protestantism would triumph in the Scottish lowlands. Elizabeth I would eventually behead Mary, Queen of Scots, but it was Mary’s son – James VI, King of Scots, – who would reign after Elizabeth as James I of England. Therefore, the grandson of Marie of Guise would rule the United Kingdom, and her descendant still sits on the throne today.