How historically accurate is Josie Rourke’s 2018 film “Mary Queen of Scots” starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie?

Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie in ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ (2018)

I have at last seen ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ in the cinema! As a piece of entertainment I thoroughly enjoyed it. The highlights are the spectacular acting of Saoirse Ronan as Mary and Margot Robbie as Elizabeth whose performances are outstanding. Josie Rourke’s objective has been to provide compelling cinema not a slavish adherence to history. Nevertheless, there is considerable interest in the extent to which the film is accurate as a historical record. My objective is to point out areas which stick loosely to the facts, as we know them, and those that do not.

A problem for any film-maker is to encapsulate the essence of a complex story into a manageable time frame. Invariably, this involves dispensing with some elements, but, in this case, there is a danger that it leaves many of the minor characters very much underdeveloped. Only Cecil, Lord James Stewart (Moray) and perhaps John Knox are clearly drawn, and perhaps only David Tennant’s Knox provides a plausible depiction of the historic character. I had difficulty identifying some of the other lesser characters in the early parts of the film and was particularly confused about Maitland and Bothwell, although their identity later becomes apparent. Almost all the scenes depicted contain elements which to a greater or lesser extent deviate from the known facts, and in some cases their sequence is mis-ordered. Many of the outdoor shots are depicted in spectacular highland scenery although, in reality the action took place in southern Scotland. Holyrood is shown as a medieval castle when it is (and was) really a Renaissance palace.

The “real” Holyrood Palace. In the film it is depicted as a medieval castle.

The film starts with Mary arriving on a beach in Scotland, apparently shipwrecked, after her return as a widow from France. In fact she landed with her French galley at the port of Leith. No mention is made of the negotiations that had taken place with Lord James Stewart in France to allow her to return and to hold Catholic services in private, in return for her agreeing to uphold the Scottish Reformation. Once in Scotland she greets Moray as someone she has not seen since her childhood. Although the story touches on her principal objective of being nominated as Elizabeth’s heir, it skates over the early negotiations to provide her with an acceptable husband. It completely ignores Mary’s visit with Moray (Lord James) to the Highlands (the one time when she actually went there) to put down Huntly’s Catholic uprising. It mentions (correctly) that Elizabeth is offering Lord Robert Dudley as Mary’s spouse, but that he is a reluctant suitor. Yet it does not link this with the English decision to let the bisexual Darnley loose in Scotland in the expectation of causing mischief. It shows Darnley arriving together with his father, the Earl of Lennox, at the Scottish Court to promote his suit. It may not matter too much that Lennox actually arrived a few months before his son. Although Darnley’s suit prospers, there is no reference to his sudden illness (thought to have been caused by syphilis). The film implies that he is unable to enjoy a heterosexual relationship with Mary, when there is ample evidence that he did. We are not shown Mary’s and Darnley’s wedding ceremony, but the film focuses (surprisingly) on Moray’s rebellion against the couple. Nevertheless, no reference if made to Bothwell’s important role in galvanising Mary’s forces to tackle Moray. We are then shown a set piece battle with a herd of highland cattle inexplicably blocking Moray’s route across a bridge. In reality, the two opposing armies in the ‘chaseabout raid’ never met. It is not made clear that Moray is forced to escape to England and only returns after Riccio’s murder. Although this gruesome murder is covered in bloodthirsty detail and  the film correctly shows Darnley signing the bond as one of the conspirators, the description of the actual murder is completely inaccurate. There is no intimate dinner party at Holyrood, which was its real location, and it is organised by Lennox (who in reality was not present), while Ruthven (who did organise it) is not mentioned. There is no mention of Bothwell’s part in helping Mary to escape with Darnley from Holyrood to Dunbar, followed by their return in triumph to Edinburgh. It is not explained that Darnley has revealed the names of his fellow conspirators, forcing them into exile. The script covers the birth of Prince James (fairly inaccurately) but makes no mention of Mary’s later illness while at Jedburgh and her discussion with Maitland on how she might obtain a divorce. The meeting of the senior Lords at Craigmillar, in which a decision was taken to assassinate Darnley without Mary’s knowledge, is not mentioned. There is no reference to Prince James’s lavish christening at Stirling and the 5-month-old baby is suddenly depicted as a 3 or 4-year-old boy. There is no mention of Darnley creeping off to Glasgow to recuperate from another bout of his syphilis or of Mary’s visit there to persuade him to return. There is no valid explanation of why he went to stayed at Kirk o’ Field, or how and why the explosion there occurred. The film shows (correctly) that Darnley survived the explosion, but then shows him being garroted, when he was in fact suffocated. Bothwell’s part in all of this is left obscure.  (It is very difficult to assess Bothwell’s character from the film and he lacks the flamboyant persona that might be expected. He seems to be air-brushed out of many key parts of the story.) The film carefully avoids the conundrum of how to explain why Bothwell’s trial is arranged as a whitewash and why the other Lords persuaded Mary to marry him. His abduction of Mary to Dunbar is left unmentioned, although there is a rather implausible scene of them consummating their relationship once they had arrived there. There is no explanation of why the Scottish Lords turned against Mary and Bothwell once committed to marriage, or of the negotiations in front of opposing armies at Carberry Hill, although it might be thought that these would have made good cinema. Surprisingly, Mary’s imprisonment at Lochleven and her escape is also completely ignored. We do not see the battle of Langside but witness Mary’s mad dash into England, and a moving meeting between Mary and Elizabeth, which never, of course, took place.

This is a story hung round the framework of historic events. It makes good and rather raunchy drama, but bears little resemblance to reality. It is probably sufficiently far-fetched not to confuse the next generation of students, who will relish the rivalry between the ‘sister queens’ as is intended, because it makes good cinema but flawed history.

L-R: William Maitland (Ian Hart), Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), Mary Queen of Scots (Saoirse Ronan) and the Earl of Moray (James McArdle)
L-R: Bess of Hardwick (Gemma Chan), Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) and William Cecil (Guy Pierce)