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The turbulent relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots dominated English and Scottish politics for 20 years, and in February 1587, in the face of unrelenting pressure from parliament and her councillors, Elizabeth signed her cousin’s death warrant. Mary was executed a week later, her head severed in three blows.
Now, a new film explores the two queens’ stormy rivalry. Here, John Guy, the author of the 2004 biography upon which new film Mary Queen of Scots is based, takes us behind the scenes and argues that Mary was as much the victim of the pen as of the executioner’s axe.
I’d been doing other work on the same period of history and I knew how little resemblance the original documents in the archives bore to the version of history that has come down to us. I realised that Mary’s story, in her own lifetime and for 400 years afterwards, had been hijacked by her enemies. I wanted to demystify her, to go back to the archives and let her tell her story in her own words.
I wanted to show how far the evidence had been tampered with – even in her lifetime – by William Cecil (Elizabeth I’s chief minister) in collusion with Mary’s Scottish opponents, to create the myths and legends we are so familiar with today.I realised that Mary was as much the victim of the pen as of the executioner’s axe. She famously said her heart was her own, but her story never has been.
It’s thrilling to see my ideas portrayed visually. Sometimes a mere look or a brief exchange between the characters can convey whole paragraphs. I’m no expert on reading screenplays, but what’s particularly striking about [Netflix drama House of Cards creator].
Beau Willimon’s brilliant screenplay is how the camera is doing much of the storytelling, freeing up the dialogue for wonderful punch lines. And the action and dialogue are superbly paced. Beau’s script has been an inspiration throughout.
Elizabeth and Mary were not mortal enemies in the earlier years of their relationship. The trouble was that politics and events – chiefly in the shape of scheming male courtiers and clashes over religion – got in the way.
What the Catholic Mary always wanted after her return to Scotland was a political settlement with her royal cousin, and not to claim her throne during Elizabeth’s lifetime. She wanted the Protestant Elizabeth to recognise her as the lawful successor, should the English queen not marry and have an heir.