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Mary Queen of Scots: How historically accurate is it?

Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan star as two rival queens, although the drama has drawn criticism for a scene in which the two meet

Clarisse Loughrey
Tuesday 15 January 2019 08:10 GMT
Mary Queen of Scots trailer

The latest film to line-up in hopes of awards season glory is Josie Rourke's directorial debut Mary Queen of Scots, will explore the turbulent relationship between Mary Stuart and her cousin, Elizabeth I of England.

Queen of France at 16 and widowed at 18, Mary defied pressures to remarry and instead returned to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne, which put in her in direct conflict with Elizabeth as many Catholics believed Mary had a claim to the throne of England.

And, when Mary fled to England seeking Elizabeth's help when she was ejected from the Scottish throne, Elizabeth treated her cousin with caution and suspicion. Mary soon became a direct threat to Elizabeth's sovereignty, and their tussle for power reached a breaking point.

Saoirse Ronan stars as Mary, across Margot Robbie as Elizabeth; the film also features Joe Alwyn, Gemma Chan, James McArdle, David Tennant, and Guy Pearce.

The film has already attracted interest for its depiction of the period and how the two queens interacted and, although it's been celebrated for its passionate portrait of two formidable women in history, it's also attracted criticism for several major historical inaccuracies. The biggest three have been outlined below.

A meeting between the two queens

The most controversial decision of the film sees the two queens meet face-to-face, in a tense stand-off in which Mary declares: "should you murder me, remember you murder your sister... and you murder your queen."

However, although both Mary and Elizabeth wrote lengthy letters to each other throughout their lives, they never met. Neither were they quite as friendly as the film suggests, since Elizabeth seemed largely jealous of Mary, particularly since she had married and had an heir, while Elizabeth had rebuffed both.

When Mary abdicated the Scottish throne and fled to England, after the nobility turned on her due to an unpopular marriage, she sought refuge from Elizabeth. The queen sent representatives to deal with Mary, who was swiftly imprisoned until the signing of her death warrant 19 years later.

Dr Estelle Paranque, an expert on Queen Elizabeth I, told The Telegraph: "It shows a friendship at first, but there was not a friendship, Elizabeth tried to be kind to her at first but Mary never saw Elizabeth as an equal. She saw her as a rival from the start. That's really problematic as you're selling something that is untrue."

“When in the film she says she considers Elizabeth as her inferior - she would never have said that to her face. And then Elizabeth is seen crying? She would never have done that, she would have flipped.”

The film is far from the first misleading depiction of the two queens meeting, as the scene was included in Friedrich Schiller’s 1800 play, Mary Stuart.

Mary's accent

Ronan's depiction of Mary includes the use of a Scottish accent. She is the Queen of Scotland after all, so it makes sense for an audience unfamiliar with her story, but Mary was actually raised in France and only came to Scotland as an adult.

Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart in a scene from 'Mary Queen of Scots' (Liam Daniel/Focus Features via AP)

She left Scotland at the age of five, spending the next 13 years at the French court, where she married the Dauphin and became the Queen Consort of France, after her husband was crowned Francis II, until his death due to an abscess in the brain. Even in her later years, Mary continued to write many of her personal letters in French.

The film's taglines

Vulture noted a discrepancy in the film's two character posters: the tagline attached to a poster of Mary reads "born to fight", while the tagline attached to the poster of Elizabeth reads "born to power".

Considering the histories of these two women, it should really be the other way around: Elizabeth was declared illegitimate after the execution of her mother, Anne Boleyn, and was under the constant threat of execution after her sister Mary took the throne, as a Protestant threat to her Catholic throne. Mary, meanwhile, became the queen of Scotland when she was less than a week old. `

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