How the Queen of England changed my (reading) life

Not the current one, though, I meant the first Elizabeth. And along with her, Mary Queen of Scots.

For some strange reason, I still remember the moments leading up to my purchase of Elizabeth & Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. It was from the since-closed bookstore/café Libreria along Tomas Morato and I was choosing between that book and another on Henry VIII’s six wives. I had my father choose between the two, since he was paying for it (oh, those were the good old days) and I suppose he didn’t think that the marital tangles of Henry VIII was appropriate material for a teenage girl. Hence, I ended up going home with Jane Dunn’s book.

To borrow from Harry Potter: “Neither can live while the other survives”

And that decision would impact my reading list for years to come. The stories of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots are remarkable and fascinating enough on their own. However, told together, their stories take on a different dimension, as the fate of both Queens are irrevocably intertwined but their interests entirely conflicting.

As their stories unfolded, it was amazing to see how each Queen’s character and disposition was shaped by the circumstances of their early lives. Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII and the infamously beheaded Anne Boleyn, was declared a bastard by her own father (a cloud that hung over her reign for most of her life), excluded from the succession to the throne, subsequently reinstated in the succession, then barred again by her own brother and detained and gruelingly questioned under the suspicion of treason and threat of her servants’ and her own beheading. All this before she turned fifteen. If that doesn’t toughen a girl up, I don’t know what will. Meanwhile, Mary was the undisputed Queen of Scotland at six DAYS old, arranged to be married to the dauphin and sent to France at the age of five, doted on and fussed over as an honorary Child of France and Queen of France and Scotland by fifteen.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

There are a myriad of other contrasts between these two regnant Queens (in religion, in the company they kept, their views on marriage, etc.), but the fact remains that they could not escape each other, that, everyday, the other is reminded, often unpleasantly, by the existence of the other. With Mary having the strongest legitimate claim to Elizabeth’s throne, the two of them struggled to find a balance of appeasing each other and at the same time forwarding and protecting their conflicting interests. And as if that wasn’t enough tension, the nobles around them were busy jostling for favor, shifting their loyalties to where they stand to gain the most.

And it is this heady and fascinating recipe of intrigue, betrayal, treason and murder that has started me on a years-long journey of European historical royal biographies. Elizabeth & Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens has opened up a world of larger-than-life characters: headstrong kings and queens, unruly heirs to the throne, mistresses both revered (Madame du Pompadour) and reviled (the Countess du Barry), countless dukes, earls, counts and their wives all falling all over themselves to court royal favor and advance their interests. If I had a dollar for every time my jaw dropped at every weird court ritual (Mary Antoinette having to give birth in full view of France’s highest ranking nobles), lavish palace (Versailles), betrayal (of Marie Antoinette’s son), genius plot (the Babington plot) and beheading (there were a LOT), I’d be able to buy that Hermès Jigé Elan.

Even without that the clutch, though, the opportunity to journey back through time, into the incredible lives and minds of the men and women who used to rule the world is reward enough. And I have Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots to thank for that. Long live the Queen, indeed.

Cover photo from kobobooks.com