An Interview with Kathryn Lasky about Mary, Queen of Scots: Queen Without a Country

  • Grades: 6–8

Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D. & Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D.: You've mentioned how disappointed you were to see portraits of princesses who were supposed to be beautiful but instead looked severe and forbidding. Mary Queen of Scots, on the other hand, became your ideal of what a beautiful perfect princess should look like. What other qualities did Mary possess that you admired?

Kathryn Lasky:
Well, I think I really did love her athletic abilities. They always mentioned this in all the research I did. But I think I found, in general, her passion for life just irresistible. She was so much more impulsive than her cousin Elizabeth I. Of course this impulsiveness was her undoing — many times in her life. But you had to admire someone who, in that era, lived so much in the moment, particularly when you realize how completely controlled royal children's lives were.

RFA & EST: Mary's mother warns her daughter that she is often too impulsive and must guard against that shortcoming. As you researched Mary's life, did you discover other flaws that worked against her?

KL: I think she was probably a little too trusting. She wanted to think the best of people. Her second husband, Lord Darnley, was a real lout and I think she was the last one to believe it. And look at her relationship with Elizabeth I who imprisoned her even though Mary had ample warning that Elizabeth was nearly as calculating as she was. I think that she really believed that blood was thicker than water — a very naive assumption in those times.

RFA & EST: You have written three Royal Diaries: Elizabeth I: Red Rose of the House of Tudor, Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles, and Mary, Queen of Scots: Queen Without a Country. If you could have one of these royals as a friend, which would you choose and why?

KL: This is hard. I'd rather spend an evening talking with Elizabeth — but just one evening. She is rather daunting. Marie Antoinette appeals to my maternal instincts. She seemed so irreversibly immature. So I cannot think of her as a friend exactly. But I think Mary Queen of Scots would have made the best friend. I think we would have had a blast together. I might have learned more from Elizabeth but I would definitely have had more fun with Mary.

RFA & EST: Is Mary's future husband, Francis de Valois II, a character to be pitied?

KL: Oh, I think so. He was almost an invalid so he was always having to stay in when the others were out doing fun things. And I think his relationship with his mother was not a very happy one. He must have looked with some envy at Mary's relationship with her mother when Mary de Guise came to visit. It must have seemed so warm and spontaneous.

RFA & EST: The side effects of using lead-based cosmetics seem incredible. How prevalent was the use of these cosmetics and did many women die from them?

KL: Very prevalent, and because I don't think they did autopsies back then or had the science to really determine subtler causes of death, there is no real way of knowing. Like many poisons, the effects were cumulative over time, and I am sure that certain individuals reacted differently, but certainly in my research there were many references to women suffering from the symptoms of these lead-based cosmetics which included paralysis of facial muscles, eye problems, and certain kinds of dementia.

RFA & EST: Readers might be surprised to learn that Mary was beheaded in 1587. What caused her tragic fall from power?

KL: Oh gosh, volumes have been written on that. To answer this shortly but very inadequately, I think that the ministers of Elizabeth I were far more frightened of Mary than Elizabeth was. They really had to talk Elizabeth into executing her. But all of England quaked at the thought of a Catholic Queen from nearby Scotland who might have designs on the English throne, because, after all, she was a great niece on her father's side to Henry VII. Remember, the last Catholic monarch they had had in England was Henry VIII's daughter Mary — Bloody Mary as she was called for executing non-Catholics.

RFA & EST: What effects did living during the Renaissance period of history have on Mary Queen of Scots?

KL: I think, first and foremost, that with the Renaissance came the notion that women could be educated more than before. I am not saying that the Renaissance in any way was a feminist movement — hardly. But the arts flourished, and in more social settings as opposed to being confined to the church. This is my own private opinion and I bet a lot of people disagree with it, but you asked. The fact is that there were new standards of beauty, thought, and art. Old boundaries were broken down. For example, court dancing began to flourish. Well, it's hard to do that alone and without a partner. So include the women. And it is true that Catherine de Medici brought ballet (and many other refinements) to the court and insisted that all her children take ballet. Mary lived, in a sense, at the very heart of the Renaissance, not simply in terms of time but place. Between the Medicis and the Bourbons there was a constant stream of the finest artists and painters and sculptors and poets at the palaces. It began with the grandfather of Henry II who hired Leonardo da Vinci as a kind of artist in residence. How could you not be influenced?

RFA & EST: What is one question you'd like to ask young people after they've finished reading Mary's diary?

KL: How do you live in a country that is not your own, in a family that is not your own, with the expectations that you will grow up to be a Queen, and to already know who your husband is to be before you are eight years old — how do you live with all that and still emerge so normal in many respects? Mary Queen of Scots is the most "normal" girl who became a queen that I have ever written about.

Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.

  • Subjects:
    European History, Monarchy and Royalty, Women's History and Experience, Leadership and Responsibility
top