Queen Marie of Lorraine and Nigel Tranter’s James V novels

Historical novels are curious things. According to Britannica, a historical novel “has as its setting a period of history” and “attempts to convey the spirit, manners, and social conditions of a past age with realistic detail and fidelity (which is in some case only apparent fidelity) to historical fact”. Tellingly, the first novel of its kind, Waverley (1814), was written by a Scotsman, Sir Walter Scott. Still according to Britannica, many historical novels “are written to mediocre standards. One type of historical novel is the purely escapist costume romance, which, making no pretense to historicity, uses a setting in the past to lend credence to improbable characters and adventures”. Mixtures of fictional and historical facts, personages, language and material, these works of variable quality can sometimes be totally devoid of historical truth but nevertheless appear to be historical. Considering this hardly engaging assessment, I wonder if historical novels could contribute to a better knowledge of History all the same or, on the contrary, only spread historical misinformation, stereotypes, fake historical facts, erroneous representations of events or figures of the past and twisted chronologies, if any. However, historical fiction always had a powerful impact on the human imagination by its creation of convincing and long-lasting representations of historical characters. Can examining historical novels become a good way of teaching historical facts, single out and explain wrong but widespread beliefs and therefore re-establish historicity? Remember the long-lasting conviction that a medieval knight in full armour had to be put on his horse by means of a wooden crane!

In the following, I’ll put two historical novels to the test, James, by the Grace of God (1985) and Rough Wooing (1986), the second and third book of The James V Trilogy by Nigel Tranter. On the cover of the 1995 edition figures the painted portrait of the king of Scots (c. 1579) that hangs today in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, suggesting that there is a connexion between the novel and the actual life of King James V. An attentive reader will find in these novels many traces of Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie’s Historie and Cronicles of Scotland, and of other sixteenth and seventeenth century historiographies of the Reformation of the Church of Scotland. Among the principal characters of the first novel of Tranter’s trilogy, The Riven Realm (1984), are Queen Margaret Tudor, James Stewart “Prince of Scotland and Duke of Rothesay, infant son of King [i.e. James IV]”, Master James Beaton “Archbishop of Glasgow and Chancellor of the Realm”, James Hamilton, Earl of Arran “Lord High Admiral, cousin of the King” and John Stewart, Duke of Albany “Cousin of the King and French citizen”. At the end of the second book, James, by the Grace of God, two French princesses make a brief appearance, the first being Marie of Bourbon and the second Madeleine, King Francis of France’s eldest daughter. The principal characters of the third book, Rough Wooing, are James the Fifth, King of Scots, “Master David Beaton, Abbot of Arbroath, Bishop of Mirepoix, Lord Privy Seal”, Sir David Lindsay of the Mount, Lord Lyon King of Arms, Margaret Tudor “now wife of the Lord Methven, sister of Henry the Eight of England”, “Marie de Guise, duchess de Longueville, second wife of James the Fifth”, “Charles de Guise, Cardinal of Lorraine, brother of Marie”, “Marquis d’Elbeouf [sic], another brother”, “Duc de Guise, Eldest brother”, “James Hamilton, Earl of Arran, Great Scots noble, Lord High Admiral”, Sir James Hamilton of Finnart, Illegitimate brother of Arran, known as the Bastard of Arran, “Mary, Queen of Scots, only legitimate surviving child of King James” and the masters George Wishart and John Knox. All these people existed, these three novels therefore suggest a certain amount of historical truth.

The first remark I’ll make is the misogynistic tone of Nigel Tranter’s novels, probably adopted from sixteenth century Scottish chronicles and historiography. King James V’s first fiancée, Marie de Bourbon-Vendôme, writes Tranter, is “far from physically attractive and to a man of James’s all-consuming interest in women, scarcely conceivable as a wife” (Book II, p. 347). It is her father “Duc Charles de Vendôme (…) an amiable elderly man of far from daunting character” (Book II, p. 346), who greets the king of Scots on his arrival in the French town of Dieppe. What makes Marie of Bourbon particularly unfit for James V, writes Tranter, is her grotesque look: “she had stooped shoulders almost constituting a hunched back, short legs and short neck. She was not ugly of feature but her squarish face had a masculine cast to it, very like her father’s – and unfortunately an incipient moustache to go with it, which shaving could not wholly hide” (Book II, p. 347). Marie’s younger sister can’t make an impression on the King, either. The fear of apparent masculinity in powerful or princely women, present in many Scottish sixteenth century sources and unfolding in the histories of the Reformation of the Church of Scotland, has made its way unscathed and unchallenged into this 20th century historical novel. Besides being too masculine, this naïve and pushy Marie falls immediately in love with “the good-looking and romantic prince from afar who had, she assumed, come all this way just to wed her” (Book II, p. 347). King James V, “not unkind by nature” writes Tranter, “was much troubled, insisting that his closest aides should if possible never leave him alone with the lady” (Book II, p. 348). Gosh, this French princess seems really scary! While lady Janet Lindsay “esteemed the Frenchwoman so pleasant a character” (Book II, p. 348), James V is rescued by a certain “Henry, Duc de Guise”, described as “stiffly handsome” and “haughty” (Book II, p. 348). Here we find one of the many mix-ups and historical errors of the author: in 1536-1537, when King James V is in France, the “Duc de Guise” is not Henry but Claude of Lorraine, first duke of Guise and Marie of Lorraine’s father.

On his arrival at Fontainebleau, King James V enquiring about the Queen of France, “Eleanor of Portugal, the Emperor Charles’s sister, there was a pause before de Guise indicated that the lady was not spoken of and lived in retirement” (Book II, p. 352). Queen Eleanor is also absent at King James V’s wedding with princess Madeleine in the cathedral of Notre-Dame (Book II, p. 359). This absurd representation of Eleanor of Austria, twofold Queen and esteemed stepmother to the royal princes Francis, recently deceased and Henri, his younger brother, is a reminder of the dangers of anachronistic and perfunctory historical writing. Anyhow, elderly women do not fit the beauty ideal of Nigel Tranter. The dowager Queen of Scots, Margaret, is not very likeable, either; the author describes her as a “stocky, short woman of thick waist and middle years, sallow of complexion and unbeautiful, but with a very distinct presence and an inborn authority which by no means required her over-aggressive speech and manner to be effective” (Book II, p. 10). The mother of the King of Scots had “been creating a new scandal, falling out with and actually leaving her third husband” (Book II, p. 365), writes Nigel Tranter; David Beaton calls her “that dangerous woman” (Book III, p. 14). But back to James V and his French sojourn. In Paris, where he is welcomed by Charles de Guise, the King of Scots meets Marie, his future second wife, “a lady who waited at the forefront of the glittering throng behind the Cardinal, a tall, graceful creature, not beautiful but with an arresting appearance, dark, full-figured, with a long, swanlike neck and a glowing eye and very direct glance” (Book II, p. 353-54). Quickly seizing the opportunity of a royal match, Charles introduces his sister, the widowed duchess of Longueville. Expectedly, princess Madeleine of France is “the loveliest creature” the King of Scots and David Lindsay, Lord Lyon King of Arms “had ever set eyes upon. Slender, fair, great-eyed, with perfectly chiselled features, pale but with a flush to her cheeks, she was dressed simply in white silk and pearls” (Book II, p. 354). Wearing white, Madeleine not only resembles a fairy tale princess and personifies the pure virgin, she already seems to wear her wedding gown. When the King of Scots rushes forward to kiss her hand, “Marie de Guise was as forgotten as was Marie de Bourbon” (Book II, p. 355). On January first, 1537, James V’ and Madeleine’s wedding day, “although Marie de Guise was well to the fore, in her own carriage, there was no sign of Marie de Bourbon who had quietly disappeared from court” (Book II, p. 359).

In the third novel, Rough Wooing (1986), James V’s second wife Marie de Lorraine appears as a principal character but with a double French identity: “Marie de Guise, duchess de Longueville”. The description of Marie follows the narrative of the only catholic Scottish historiographer of the time, John Leslie. In a conversation between David Beaton and David Lindsay of the Mount, Lord Lyon King, Beaton considers her as “handsome, lusty, able, and she liked him well, clearly”, before adding: “He should have wed her. She is a widow and has proved herself fertile. (…) And she would, I swear, make an excellent Queen of Scotland – better than the fragile, beauteous Madeleine ever could” (Book III, p. 17). The King, he says, would surely find her “bed-worthy”, even if “he is not in love with her, only admired her person and spirit” (p. 17). Not being a king’s daughter, continues David Beaton, a proxy wedding in France will do for Marie de Guise, a “second-choice as queen” (Book III, p. 52). Her improvised arrival at the Scottish coast near Balcomie is also less than glamorous, and the first meeting with the King “scarcely according to plan or suitably regal or dignified” (Book III, p. 65). To David Lindsay, after having clambered up a ladder to reach the top of the galleon that had carried Marie to Scotland, she “extracted a hand from her wrappings to hold out to him, achieving a certain dignity about it” (Book III, p. 62). Marie talks to him in English, “although heavily accented”. Three of her brothers accompany her, writes Tranter. In fact, Charles de Guise, fourteen years in June 1538 and not yet a cardinal, never went to Scotland, nor did René, the youngest of the Guise brothers born in 1534, who Nigel Tranter irritatingly calls “Elbeouf” instead of “Elboeuf”, nor her eldest brother Francis, who is not yet duke of Guise. Climbing down the ship without any help, Queen “Marie made no dramatic gestures as to kissing the soil of her new country, but briefly expressed her thankfulness to be safely on land” (Book III, p. 64). Impressed, David Lindsay so decides that she is “a calm, competent and effective woman and that Scotland was probably very fortunate in her new queen” (ibid.). According to Nigel Tranter, Marie is an “independent-minded and reliable woman, prepared to pursue her own courses” (Book III, p. 75).

Being “second-choice” as queen, Marie of Lorraine gets a scaled down outdoor reception at Saint-Andrews, mainly because of the bad and stormy weather. The Queens’ entry into the town is a reworking of Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie’s account in his Historie and Cronicles of Scotland, but the wedding an invention of Tranter. His description of “the great organ [that] crashed out in thundering pride” (Book III, p. 72) in Saint-Andrews’ cathedral is an amusing anachronistic intruder. Another unhistorical detail is Queen Marie’s gown: she “had chosen silver and blue, her national colours [that would be those of Champagne], for her splendid gown rather than any unsuitable virginal white [yep, she’s a virgin no more], and with her superb figure and assured carriage, gleaming diamonds and duchess’s coronet, looked every inch a queen” (Book III, p. 73). Queen Marie is led towards the waiting King by Lord Maxwell and her eldest brother who, remember, was never in Scotland. Here, the author intervenes to share his thoughts: “it was not really a wedding, that having already taken place by proxy in Paris. But it was the celebration of a wedding, and at the same time the effective union of two persons and the creation of a queen” (Book III, p. 73). While Tranter is right in the first part of his sentence, he is wrong in the second: with her marriage to James V by proxy in May 1538, Marie had already become Queen consort. The third chapter of Book III closes with the wedding ceremonies in Saint-Andrews and a remark about Marie: “She was an excellent horsewoman and proficient at archery, falconry and other outdoor activities, and in the evenings her dancing, singing and lute playing were much admired. James and his realm were to be congratulated. Whether Marie was, perhaps remained not so certain” (Book III, p. 77).

While James V considers his wife “over-interested in matters of rule and governance”, Cardinal Beaton thinks she “would make a better monarch than James” (Book III, p. 82). When the King of Scots’ health keeps declining and his Queen doesn’t get pregnant, David Beaton wonders: “The Queen? Does she not satisfy him? She would seem bed-worthy, to me!” (Book III, 93). Queen Marie’s coronation in Holyrood Abbey in February 1540 is not mentioned, but she is found pregnant (III, p. 99), finally some good news: “in May that year, 1540, Queen Marie was delivered of the son her husband and his subjects, or most of them, had been longing for, a new James Stewart, Duke of Rothesay” (Book III, p. 113). Chapter 7 starts with the newly pregnant Queen’s concerns about her husbands’ health; Nigel Tranter still calls her “Marie de Guise” (Book III, p. 299, 303, 307). The birth of the second prince, Arthur Duke of Albany (Book III, p. 146) in the spring of 1541, is followed by the death of the dowager Queen Margaret that “came as a relief to almost everyone, for she had always been a difficult and aggressive woman and a disruptive influence in the kingdom” (III, p. 146). After the sudden death of these two princes, Queen Marie gives birth to a daugher in December 1542 which her royal husband does not take well (Book III, p. 183). The first part ends with the King of Scots’ death.

Part Two of Rough Wooing starts with an important question: “who was to rule Scotland during the infant monarch’s long minority, who was to be Regent?” (Book III, p. 190). “The Queen-Mother was the obvious choice”, writes Nigel Tranter, “but there was overmuch objection to that. She was too much of a newcomer to the country” (Book III, p. 191). The author continues: “there was a prejudice against a woman, especially with a female monarch also” (Book III, p. 191). Queen Margaret having been “a disaster”, he writes, “Marie herself was not keen” on the job, either (p. 191). In January 1543 and the election of James Hamilton, second Earl of Arran as governor of Scotland and tutor to the young Queen, the Lord Lyon King of Arms raises the question of his duty: “Your prime duty is to the Queen, surely” (Book III, p. 208), answers the Cardinal. It so happens that the Queen is a baby of barely one year of age. Put aside the presence of the Guise brothers in Scotland, Nigel Tranter’s narrative did mostly follow Scottish historiography and made no major mistakes. This is about to change, and not for the better.

The Scottish « coronation chair » and the « people’s monarchy »

Despite the absence of contemporary sources or historiography, Nigel Tranter imagines a glorious royal ceremony in September 1543: “The coronation (…) of Mary Queen of Scots (…) was a great occasion, as well it might be, unique as it was. Never before had a queen-regnant been crowned in Scotland, the unfortunate Maid of Norway not having got that far” (Book III, p. 214). The date of this event being the anniversary of the battle of Flodden (September 9, 1513), writes Tranter, the day the Queen’s grand-father King James IV died, “it was also the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, and so chosen” (Book III, p. 214). Yet, the Nativity of the Virgin is celebrated on September 8 and definitively a happier choice. According to Tranter, “the great coronation chair, or throne, was placed up before the altar, with a lesser one nearby for the Queen-Mother” (Book III, p. 214-215). There is no historical evidence for a Scottish coronation chair or a throne, set aside the Coronation Stone at Scone; maybe the dowager Queen sat in a chair where she might have held her daughter in her arms. Nigel Tranter’s description of the little Queen’s anointment is also quite bewildering: “Beaton consecrated a chrismatory of oil, and with this came to anoint the child on the brow, similarly to baptism” (Book III, p. 216). The ceremony ends with the Cardinal and all present shouting “God save the Queen” (III, p. 217). After the coronation ceremony, continues Tranter, David Lindsay stages his pageantry: “These consisted of a series of tableaux depicting suitable incidents in the lives and reigns of Mary’s predecessors. (…) He had chosen his episodes carefully, that they might be both dramatic and significant, indicative of Scotland’s enduring people’s monarchy as distinct from the feudal dominance of other kings, including the English (…)” (Book III, p. 218). Ok … Nigel Tranter’s novel is a work of fiction, not an historical essay, but does this mean that it should contain absurdities such as “people’s monarchy”? To make things worse, this “people’s monarchy” is then opposed to the “feudal dominance of other kings”. If Scottish kings don’t do feudal dominance, how do they impose their authority? This is what Nigel Tranter comes up with: “their [i.e. the Scottish kings’] true and cherished style and title was Ard Righ, or High Kings of Scots, high intimating the foremost of others (…) and of the Scots, not of Scotland, underlining the same message, the father of the people not just their lord, in fact the supreme clan-chief (…)” (Book III, p. 218-219). Probably influenced by sixteenth century protestant ideology, a parallel is drawn between God, father and protector of all humans and the king as his worldly counterpart and father and protector of his people. It comes as no surprise that there was a tableau in David Lindsay of the Mounts’ pageantry that presented, writes Tranter, “Bruce, the hero-king, (…) watching the signing of the famous Declaration of Independence at Arbroath in 1320 (…)” (Book III, p. 219). The young Queen’s father, James V, is presented as “instituting the Court of Session, which was to ensure the continued operation of MacBeth’s laws of equity for all citizens” (Book III, p. 219). However, in King James V’s personal reign as well as in sixteenth century Scotland as a whole, there were no such things as “equity” or “citizens”, much less so in King Macbeth’s times.

The disappeared Auld Alliance and the « mutual citizenship »

The second important flaw in Nigel Tranter’s historical novel is the near-omission of the Auld Alliance, the treaty of military assistance between the kings of Scotland and France and regularly renewed since the end of the thirteenth century. Chapter 11 starts with the beginning of the so-called Rough Wooing, the king of England’s fury and madness against Scotland and the Earl of Lennox “suggesting that he might wed Marie de Guise herself” (Book III, p. 223). In December 1543, writes Tranter, James Hamilton, Earl of Arran presided “from the throne” (Book III, p. 224) the Parliament sitting where “the English match was officially negatived, with the overall decision that no marriage proposals should be entertained until the child Queen was at least ten years old” (Book III, p. 225). This description is pure historical misinformation because this Parliament decided to renew the Auld Alliance between the realms of Scotland and France, thus infuriating king Henry VIII who had previously signed with the Governor of Scotland the treaty of Greenwich, promising the Queen of Scots to prince Edward his son and heir. Tranter mentions one particular decision of the Parliament of December 1543 though: Scotland “must always have a native ruler” (Book III, p. 225). Out of context, this seems to be the affirmation of a self-conscious nation but in fact, it excludes from the regency of Scotland any person of status who wasn’t born on Scottish soil such as descendants of Scots’ nobles born in France but also, more importantly, the one individual directly concerned by this decree: the dowager Queen and mother of the Queen of Scots, Marie of Lorraine.

Nigel Tranter then describes the Lord Lyon King’s trip to England, the Netherlands and France where he meets again with king Francis, a “shrunken, cadaverous and querulous elderly-seeming man” and his second son, “the present dauphin Henry, a weakling whom he looked upon as all but imbecile” (Book III, p. 237). We are supposed to be in 1543-1544, but Nigel Tranter nevertheless goes on: “Charles de Guise, Marie’s brother, Cardinal of Lorraine, was now ruling France – and his friend, Davie Beaton, was ruling Scotland” (Book III, p. 237). Now Charles de Guise, “that shrewd and able if ruthless cleric” (p. 238) never ruled France, not even in 1559-1560, nor did cardinal Beaton ever rule Scotland but it’s always fun to discredit churchmen, especially catholic ones. On his arrival in France, in a conversation with the Cardinal of Lorraine, writes Tranter, the Lord Lyon King puts forward “the conception of the young Queen’s grandfather James the Fourth” who “had devised the ambitious theory of mutual citizenship” (Book III, p. 238). Again, there are no “citizens” in sixteenth century Europe, and if King Louis XII of France indeed had granted all Scots living permanently in France naturalization in 1513, it only meant that these men were exempt of taxes and allowed to pass on the family domain and heritage to their children, born in France. However, according to Nigel Tranter, King Francis just nodded at the proposal and so, realises David Lindsay, “from now on all his fellow-Scots were citizens of France also, with all that might entail” (Book III, p. 239). This is a real fake because the mutual accordance of a status of “native” dates from April 1558, a treaty signed by Queen Regent Marie of Lorraine and King Henri II of France, protector of Scotland and tutor to Mary Queen of Scots, then living at the French Court.

« Divided land indeed » and the « Joint Governor », or The « two Regents »

Back in Scotland, David Lindsay of the Mount discovers that the Earl of Angus plans to use the Queen-Mother, still called “Marie de Guise” by Tranter, “to unseat the Regent”; “now there was a faction using her name to undermine the Regent’s authority” (Book III, p. 254). In Lindsay’s view, the dowager Queen now becomes a “pawn in your subtle games”, as he puts it in a conversation with cardinal Beaton, who considers her “still too new to Scotland to be readily accepted by most, and a woman as Regent would not be popular” (Book III, p. 263). Afterwards, Nigel Tranter lightly skips fourteen years, incidentally forgetting that David Beaton is assassinated in May 1546, many years before the event he is about to tell the Lord Lyon King about: “The Duke Francis is moving to besiege Calais – had you heard?” (Book III, p. 263). Historically, the siege of Calais in January 1558 is situated in the regency of the duke’s eldest sister, Queen Marie of Lorraine. Chapter 13 closes with the Stirling “parliament” session of June 1544 where Marie, “two years old, a lively and attractive child, reddish-haired like her father”, is being set down by her mother “beside the throne, and Lindsay, in his state tabard, seated her thereon amidst loud acclaim. She sat quite happily in a corner of it, with the man standing at her side and her mother in a chair nearby” (Book III, p. 276). There is something ridiculous in picturing the scene of the baby Queen propped up in a big chair that never existed. This gathering, writes Tranter, “did not go so far as to proclaim Marie de Guise Regent, but it was implied that that would follow”; “Scotland, ever a dangerously divided realm, to its own continuing hurt, was now divided land indeed” (Book III, p. 276).

In chapter 15 of Rough Wooing, Tranter recalls the expedition led by “the Sieur Lorges de Montgomerie, a dandified individual [naturally, he is French!] who nevertheless quickly proved himself to be nobody’s fool and a competent leader”, and to add: “The Cardinal of Lorraine had not failed his sister” (Book III, p. 299). In another conversation between cardinal Beaton and David Lindsay, the former says: “this Montgomerie has come to invade, not defend” (Book III, p. 300). Threatened by an English Invasion, Beaton wishes that Scotland had “strong kings, to keep the lords in place, since it is the lords who have the manpower – and we get babes!” (Book III, p. 301). To keep the Queen and her mother safe, the Cardinal assigns David Lindsay the task to convey both to Dunkeld, where they spend the summer. There, the Lord Lyon King gets “to know and the more appreciate the company of Marie de Guise, who not only improved with the knowing but proved to be a most excellent companion, with no least hint of standing on her dignity nor of superior attitudes. She was shrewd and informed, and very much concerned with matters of state (…)” (Book III, p. 307). After the Earl of Hertford’s devastating invasion of Scotland’s south, David Beaton visits the two Queens in Dunkeld, now being convinced of one thing: “There was only one person who had the status to replace Arran and whom Angus and his supporters could scarcely object to lawfully, and that was Marie de Guise herself. There would be objections, of course, against a woman, and a foreign woman at that, wielding the supreme authority. (…) Perhaps it would be wise not to use the term Regent at all, at first? Governor, perhaps – Joint Governor” (Book III, p. 310). The contemporary title of the Earl of Arran being “Governor of Scotland”, it is in fact Queen Marie of Lorraine who is appointed Regent of Scotland by her daughter, but only in April 1554 and not in 1544. In the meantime, continues Tranter, “Arran not only accepted their partnership but more and more came to value it, indeed to rely on Marie’s judgement and guidance. (…) Marie quite quickly became the effective Regent and Arran little more than a figurehead” (Book III, p. 312). Better still, writes Nigel Tranter, the Queen-Mother, “a staunch Catholic”, was “a Governor who was above the everlasting feuding, back-stabbing and oppression, even if it was a woman” (p. 312.). Chapter 16 closes with the burning of George Wishart (March 1, 1546) and the murder, in his castle of Saint-Andrews, of Cardinal Beaton (May 29, 1546). The following chapter depicts the Queen dowager’s rise to power in 1546, eight years prior to her actual nomination as Queen regent; no marriage talks concerning the Queen of Scots would be held, writes Tranter, until “the Queen’s Grace was at least ten years old” (Book III, p. 321). Again, this is historically incorrect.

The Emperor, the King of Danes and the « more or less standing army » of Scotland

The story now enters the year 1547. Chapter 18 narrates the death of Henry VIII “Hammer of the Scots” (Book III, p. 328), the ascent to power of King Henri II of France, “still more under the influence of the de Guises than had been his father” and of his wife Catherine de Medici “a perfervid Catholic and therefore profoundly anti-English”, and the arrival of “one d’Oisell, a de Guise nominee” (Book III, p. 329). Henri Cleutin, sieur d’Oisel is in fact the French kings’ ambassador to Scotland. Tranter adds: “They brought with them the formal proposal that the new Dauphin, Henry’s four-year-old son Francis, should be betrothed to the young Queen of Scots” (p. 329). Just a reminder: the betrothal of the two young heirs of France and Scotland had been decided in December 1543. In the summer of 1547, the English under the duke of Somerset (aka Edward Seymour, previously earl of Hertford) return to Scotland: “Marie de Guise was anxious to get her daughter out of danger’s way. She herself, as Co-Regent now, could not just go and hide away with the child behind the Highland Line”; “If the worst came to the worst, the little Queen might have to be sent to France” (Book III, p. 331). The Queen dowager now finds herself in the middle of the war with England. After the defeat of the Scottish troupes at Pinkie Cleugh [10 September, 1547], she sighs: “If only d’Esse [i.e. André de Montalembert, sieur d’Essé] or de Thermes [i.e. Paul de La Barthe, sieur de Thermes] had been there, in charge …” (Book III, p. 337), before she declares to David Lindsay: “We must take all measures that we can. To save the kingdom. Since my lord of Arran is shut up in Edinburgh Castle, I must act the Governor. (…) D’Esse has a French ship waiting (…) to take [my daughter] to France. I pray God that it may not be necessary, but …” (Book III, p. 338-39). Queen Marie adds: “My brothers will send more help, men and moneys. And I shall write to the Emperor and his aunt, for their assistance. Also to the King of Denmark, who is my friend. We shall triumph in the end, never fear” (Book III, p. 339). Contrary to Tranter claim, the soldiers, mercenaries and money are coming from France and King Henri II, who would not have been too impressed to see imperial troops from his arch-enemy, Emperor Charles V of Habsburg, disembark in Scotland. Likewise, King Christian III of Denmark established Lutheranism in his realm in 1536, had made war against the Emperor in the 1540’s and certainly wasn’t Queen Marie’s friend.

After the disaster of the battle of Pinkie Cleugh in September 1547, the dowager Queen succeeds in establishing consent between the quarrelling Scottish lords: “The most urgent demand, of practically all there, was that Arran should be removed from the regency. (…) The problem was how to eject him, decently and lawfully, or anyhow indeed unless he agreed to resign. He was, whether they liked it or not, next heir to the throne” (Book III, p. 341). In this delicate situation, Queen Marie puts forward a tempting offer: “Is it your will that Her Grace, my daughter, should be declared formally betrothed to the new Dauphin Henry [actually the dauphin Francis]? (…) If it is, then I think that I may promise large French assistance in our present need, of men, ships, cannon and gold” (Book III, p. 342). Nigel Tranter here follows again the writings of sixteenth century protestant historiographers, probably Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie, before adding an event from the year 1557 mixed with fictional material: “Marie (…) passed on to the need for raising a more or less standing army from the clans behind the Highland Line (…)” (Book III, p. 343). It is uncertain what Tranter means by a “more or less standing army”, but one thing is plain: there is no such thing as a standing army in the sixteenth century. After these discussions, writes Tranter, David Lindsay suggests to the Queen a solution to the Arran-removal-problem: “A better title. A higher one, yet without the responsibility of office. (…) A French dukedom, conferred on Arran, as heir-presumptive to the Scots throne? Make him the only duke in Scotland” (Book III, p. 344). This is an intriguing deal, as “duke” is obviously a less desirable title than “Governor of Scotland”. It nevertheless supposes that James Hamilton, earl of Arran prefers a French dukedom over his present occupation as ruler of Scotland. But things get worse. Queen Marie thinks it a very good idea: “Parbleu – here is a notion, yes! (…) A duke. My brothers would do that for me, I swear. Make Arran a duke of France” (Book III, p. 344). Sorry to disappoint here, but only a French king can make a French duke, Marie’s brothers won’t be able to help her, and with regard to the French exclamation “parbleu” [meaning “par Dieu”, by God], evidence of this word’s use only dates from 1643.

 « Scots grain » for the King of Danes

The last but one chapter of Rough Wooing treats of the year 1548 and mixes military events with the entirely fictional story of a certain Clinton who attacks and subdues the city of Saint-Johnstoun (Perth), where “his crews proceeded to sack all, paying particular attention to the many friaries, monasteries and nunneries for which the place was famed, systematically raping the nuns, as the declared whores of Satan, in the cause of reform likewise” (Book III, p. 346-47). Also, pursues Tranter, Clinton rounds up all the “young females of lofty birth” the town contained, “to take back in his ships to Broughty and Dundee, to use as hostages and bargaining-counters in his curious kind of war, since half of the members of the Scots Privy Council had daughters there” (Book III, p. 347). Scandalized, the dowager Queen insists that “something had to be done about these captured girls”, all the more so since “Clinton was demanding repudiation of the French betrothal and the handing over of Queen Mary to him, in exchange for these young hostages” (Book III, p. 347). At this point, Nigel Tranter has definitively abandoned all historical plausibility to enter the vast domains of heroic fantasy and comic book history. To save the captured girls, the dowager Queen suggests the help of the king of Denmark, her “friend”, and to convince the doubtful David Lindsay, she explains: “Offer Christian Scots grain, at cheap price, and free trade with Scots ports, something he has long sought, and I believe that he will send his ships for it” (Book III, p. 348). Remember, Christian III is a protestant ruler and at war with the catholic forces of Europe. Will he be tempted by the “Scots grain, at cheap price”? Follows the encounter between the Lord Lyon King of Arms and a bizarre character named Macbeth MacAlpine that takes place in Denmark, where the Queen dowager had sent the former, and a meeting with the King of Danes “obviously having a phenomenal capacity for schnaps or akvavit, a very fiery liquor (…)” (Book III, p. 355). Whereas akvavit has indeed been produced in Scandinavia since the sixteenth century, the German word schnaps (meaning “swig”) dates from the eighteenth century. Anyway, after “three days seeing the sights and meeting the prominent of Copenhagen, and evenings spent discussing religious reform and the niceties of Martin Luther’s doctrines” (Book III, p. 356), David Lindsay returns to Scotland to find the little Queen stricken with illness and a letter from the duke of Somerset, who proposes “the beneficial union of the two kingdoms in perfect equality, and the elimination [sic!] of the names and identities of both England and Scotland, the joint realm to be called Britain for ever after” (Book III, p. 357). In 1548, this offer would truly have been an “extraordinary proposal and affirmation” (p. 357)! In the meantime, the Danish fleet arrives at Leith where its admiral tells the confused Lyon King that having fulfilled his task of driving off the English, “now he wanted his oats” (Book III, p. 358). Having been left behind in Dundee by their ravisher, the captured Scottish girls are send back to Perth where they had come from: “it was all verging on the comic, in its own way” (Book III, p. 359). Having reached the siege of Haddington (1548), which he hardly mentions, Tranter remembers little Marie Stewart: “Reluctant as her mother was to give the permission, it was decided by the council that she should be sent to France for safety. Once she was there, especially if she were betrothed to the Dauphin, surely the English would desist from this everlasting pressure to obtain her?” (Book III, p. 360). Six weeks later, the Queen of Scots is shipped away from Dumbarton to France. In June, writes Tranter, “the long awaited French and Empire aid arrived at Leith, escorted by a Netherlands fleet which had got all safely past the English blockade in the Norse [sic] Sea” (Book III, p. 361). Considering that king Henri II of France and the Emperor Charles V are at constant war in these years, what a remarkable (and therefore imaginary) union! Chapter 19 closes with an intriguing interrogation by David Lindsay: “Somehow, surely, the Scots people had failed their sovereign. Or was it only the nobility?” (Book III, p. 362).

« The niceties of Martin Luther’s doctrines » and Scotland, the rock

Tranter then deals with the “Scots (…) ever a notably argumentative and cross-grained folk” and their tackling of the “niceties of faith and dogma” (Book III, p. 364). We are in the summer of 1550, writes the author, at the time of the Provincial Council of the Scottish Church which, in fact, took place in January 1552. When it is mentioned in the assembly that the Holy Bible is only read in Latin, which “is understood by few in this realm, common and noble alike”, writes Tranter, the Duke of Châtelherault cries: “‘Good! Good! Excellent!’ (…) James Hamilton had always complained that he could not make head nor tail of Latinity, and had advocated reform in this respect for long” (Book III, p. 368). According to the author, the also attending James Stewart, illegitimate son of James V and prior of St. Andrews, is a “half-brother of Queen Mary, there present” (Book III, P. 369). However, his half-sister being in France since 1548, this “Queen Mary” must have been the dowager Queen of Scots. Tranter then summarizes the content of the so-called archbishop Hamilton’s Catechisme, published in 1552, maybe one of the greatest merits of this novel. Once all recommendations accepted by the assembly, or at least no contrary motion put forward, writes Tranter, “History had been made, however oddly” (Book III, p. 374). However, the dowager Queen’s reaction to this is more than astounding: “So it is victory for the reformers (…). The Church bows before the storm – and will never be the same again” (Book III, p. 374). John Hamilton being the (naturally catholic) archbishop of St. Andrews, he indeed intended to reform the Scottish Church, but certainly not by endorsing the (protestant) reform of religion. The dowager Queens’ objection that “Holy Church (…) will hereafter be the weaker” (Book III, p. 375) seems the more absurd because she knows that corruption, ignorance and lack of education are the real issues of the religious conflict in Scotland. She then adds: “It is not the people but the nobles who have the power, with their hosts of armed men. (….) In England, who gained the advantage of their so-called Reformation? The people? Or King Henry and his lords? I much fear that we may see here what happened in England, one day” (Book III, p. 375). Chapter 20 ends with David Lindsay kissing the “Regent’s” hand, saying: “‘My services (…) are Your Grace’s always. As is my admiration’“(Book III, p. 376). The last chapter of Book III tells the encounter between an aging David Lindsay and James Beaton, the Cardinal’s nephew and abbot of Arbroath. In 1550-1551, when the Queen dowager had left Scotland for her long visit in France, James Beaton is in his thirties. The novel closes with David Lindsay of the Mount’s reflections on Scotland’s identity: “Perhaps it is all because we are a small people in numbers, although contrary of will. But so are the Danes. Perhaps because of our past, the oldest kingdom in Christendom, with our kings stretching back beyond recorded time. (…) I look at this fair land (…) and I see the rocks rising, here, there, everywhere, the rock. (…) It is the rock which makes us what we are, I think” (Book III, p. 382-83). This passage, spoken by a sixteenth century character, probably expresses the author’s own views as well.

This attentive reading and commenting of Nigel Tranter’s James V Trilogy has shown that historic novels can be an interesting and amusing History learning material, if only one takes the pain of constantly checking the dates and facts which, for some readers, might be a too strenuous and taxing affair.


Nigel Tranter, The Riven Realm, 1984.

Nigel Tranter, James, by the Grace of God, 1985.

Nigel Tranter, Rough Wooing, 1986.

Nigel Tranter, The James V Trilogy. London, Hodder and Stoughton (Coronet Books), 1995.

Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie, The Historie and Cronicles of Scotland, A. E. J. G. Mackay (ed.), Edinburgh, William Blackwood, vol. 1 and 2, 1899 and 1911.

The History of Scotland, from the death of King James I. in the year M.CCCC.XXXVI, to the year M.D.LXI, by John Lesley, Bishop of Ross, Thomas Thomson (ed.), Edinburgh, Bannatyne Club, 1830.

The Historie of Scotland wrytten first in Latin by the Most Reverend and Worthy Jhone Leslie Bishop of Rosse and Translated in Scottish by Father James Dalrymple (…), E. G. Cody and W. Murison (eds.), Edinburgh and London, Blackwood and Sons, 2 vol., 1888 and 1895.

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