Mary, Queen of Scots: Queen Without a Country Discussion Guide
- Grades: 6–8
About this book
To the Discussion Leader
Kathryn Lasky has written several books in the Royal Diaries series including Elizabeth I: Red Rose of the House of Tudor and Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles. Lasky recalls the first time she ever encountered Mary, Queen of Scots. "I saw a picture of her in a book in my school library when I was in the sixth grade. There was something incredibly arresting about her appearance — tall, narrow face, tilted eyes, and from beneath her headpiece the hint of fiery red hair. She was beautiful. She was my ideal of a perfect princess."
Betrothed at age five, young Mary spends much of her life living in France but yearning for her home in Scotland and her beloved mother. Her future husband, Francis, the Dauphin of France, describes Mary and himself as no more than "...pieces on a gigantic chessboard called Europe." In her diary, Mary does take readers behind the heavy castle doors to experience the political machinations and power struggles, but she emerges as much more than a pawn. Her life is filled with painting, poetry, and ballet as the Renaissance influences are felt throughout Europe. Historical figures from Nostradamus to King Henry II to poet Pierre de Ronsard play roles in Mary's life and diary. Her diary chronicles a girl's developing sense of responsibility and confidence.
On writing Mary, Queen of Scots: Queen Without a Country, Kathryn Lasky says, "There were so many questions, of course, that the history books could not answer. For instance, How did it feel to be separated from your mother at four years of age? How did it feel to be betrothed by the age of five? To be raised by another family so far from your homeland? To imagine the answers to these questions is what makes writing the Royal Diaries so exciting." Young readers will share in that excitement.
On Christmas Eve, 1553, eleven-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots, writes in her journal, "These days of Christmas are hard for me. I cannot help but miss my mother more than ever. We begin to fast mid-afternoon — I grow so hungry, but it is not just my stomach that hungers. It is my heart as well." Mary, queen since she was ten months old, has been living away from her homeland for six years. Promised in marriage to Francis, eldest son of King Henry of France, as part of an agreement between the two countries, Mary is living in the royal palace and learning the ways of the French court. Even though Mary misses her mother, she has the love and attention of her uncles and the companionship of her closest friends, the four Marys.
King Henry is married to Catherine de Medici of Italy. Queen Catherine is demanding and unpleasant and quite different from Diane de Poitiers, the King's beautiful mistress, who is kind to all the children and makes every day an exciting adventure. Queen Catherine is concerned about her children's future and seeks the advice of a seer, Nostradamus. When Mary learns what Nostradamus has said about her ("I perceive blood."), she decides to ask him herself what it all means. Learning that she will have "a life without repose" only strengthens Mary's resolve to be a strong and fearless queen.
The entire royal family and all their court travel to Chambord where Mary enjoys riding, hawking, and ice-skating, and must endure lessons in ballet. An elegant ball is held, but to Mary it's "an utter disaster." She becomes deathly ill and takes several days to regain her health. There is also an accident on the ice and Mary Beaton almost drowns. She, too, recovers, and the court moves on to Paris.
Although life seems pleasant, Mary is always in conflict with Queen Catherine, and there seems to be a shadow hovering in her heart. In preparation for her First Communion, Mary has been counseled by Father Mamerot to be kind to Queen Catherine, and Diane has tried to make Mary understand why the Queen has such an unpleasant disposition. Mary writes, "I must find it in my heart to try harder with this difficult woman." But it is hard, especially when the Queen embarrasses and humiliates Francis at a royal banquet.
A new music teacher, Signore Marcellini, arrives at the court. Mary is pleased to learn composition from him, but is disturbed by his manner and constant presence. One of the Marys, Mary Fleming, suddenly becomes silent and distant, a mystery to all, until Midsummer Night when they discover the true character of Signore Marcellini. Later, a clever trap snares the music teacher, and they learn that not only has he been "forcing his attention on Mary Fleming," he has also been acting as a spy for Queen Catherine.
The night before her First Communion Mary fasts to "seek a purity of heart." During her vigil, she realizes she has been selfish and must make her peace with Queen Catherine. She begs the Queen to stand beside her at her communion ceremony. Her heart lightened, Mary writes, "I was at last ready for Communion, and ready to rule, for in this end of selfishness was my true beginning as a sovereign. I was truly Mary, Queen of Scots."
Thinking About the Book
- Why is Mary Queen of Scots referred to as a "Queen without a country?"
- If you were Mary Queen of Scots, how would you feel about marrying Francis, the Dauphin of France?
- Mary writes that her lucky number is four. Why is that? Do you have a lucky number? Explain what makes this number special.
- What makes Mary so ill while attending the ball at Chambord on February 10, 1554? What is the standard remedy for such an illness? How does Mary react to this treatment? What does Nostradamus prescribe to heal Mary?
- What dark burial practices of the French make Mary shiver? How does she vow to be buried?
- Which of the four Marys did you think was the most interesting and why?
- Explain the story of the purple powder. Why was such a trap set? Who was caught?
- Two words that describe Mary Queen of Scots are athletic and impulsive. Share with your discussion group some examples from her diary that show her athletic ability and her impulsiveness.
- When does Mary realize she has grown up and is ready for her First Communion ceremony?
- Does Mary ever marry Francis?
- How did Mary die?
- On February 12, 1554, Francis asks Mary this question. "Did it ever strike you, Mary, that we are not so much children and sons and daughters of parents as we are pieces on a gigantic chessboard called Europe? You are given to me to help checkmate England." Now that you have finished Mary's diary, discuss with your group what Francis meant and whether he was correct.
- Mary often writes about how much she misses home in Scotland. She brings bagpipers from Scotland so that she can hear the sounds of home. She carries the handkerchief her mother sent her containing dried petals of heather, thistle and other plants so she can smell the fragrance of home. Pretend you have been sent away from home to live in another country. Write a diary entry that explains what two things you would want that remind you of your home.
- On March 18, 1554, Mary mentions four castles she'd rather spend spring in instead of the "smelly old city" of Paris. Two of the castles, Anet and Chambord, are pictured in the Historical Notes in this Royal Diary. Find out what the other two, Fontainbleau and Chenonceau, looked like. Which do you think is the most elegant. Why?
- In her diary entry for March 24, 1554, Mary writes about the four humors — blood, black bile, phlegm, and yellow bile. Do some research to see what you can find out about the four humors. What does an excess of one of these mean? If your humors were out of balance, could they be placed back in balance once more? How?
- Identify each of the following people in Mary's diary. What role does each play in Mary's life?
*Diane de Poitiers
*Madame de Parois
*Queen Catherine de Medici
- In Mary's diary she often mentions food. On December 25, 1553 she mentions a favorite dessert called a Christmas log or bzche de No'l. With the help of some adults, you can make the Christmas log. Share this special dessert with members of your class or discussion group.
- On Candlemas Day, February 2, Mary and her friends chant a rhyme about the weather. In the United States, we call this day Groundhog Day. What superstition is associated with Groundhog Day? Look up some other weather sayings. Do you think any of these are true? Which ones? Why?
- Mary Queen of Scots sought to dethrone Elizabeth I and become Queen of England. Instead she was imprisoned and then beheaded. The Royal Diaries series includes Elizabeth I: Red Rose of the House of Tudor. Compare Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots.
Discussion Guide written 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.