Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, is clearly the heroine of this popularly written new biography by Carol Schaefer, whose father has discovered that her family is mirabile dictu "direct descendants of four Scottish kings" (p. 193). To its credit, the book is not entirely maudlin, and as "a read," it reads exceptionally well. If the topic interests you, take it on a decent-length flight, and it will be good company. Against movies such as Elizabeth, furthermore, it is far closer to reality, and for that alone one might find virtue in it. I never could figure out why the creators of Elizabeth had to botch the piece, when the actual account of Mary's murder would have been far more dramatic.
What is unique about the book?
First, while clearly favoring Mary's corner in the historical conflict, Schaefer's tale is nevertheless a balanced presentation and recognizes that for reasons thus far unknown Mary largely blew what could have been an ideal situation by marrying Lord Darnley and then botching his demise, when he might well enough parted this life on his own in short order. Indeed, from the purely political point of view Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor represent dramatic contrasts of how one went from error to error, while the other from strength to strength. How Mary could have taken such an ideal position in the geopolitics of her day and run it into the ground through one mistake after another is quite amazing. Schaefer herself never really accounts for these, nor can anyone honestly, but at least she appreciates them as mistakes--which may well be the fairest take on them, rather than as either sins or external deceptions. I think this is its greatest positive contribution.
More peculiarly, Schaefer becomes fascinated with the role of the "occult" especially in Mary's life, but also in her times and, for example, in the world of Elizabeth I. I have two problems with this. The first is technical: although there are footnotes, they are sporadic, even random. Some quotes are footnoted, some are not. Given the extent to which Schaefer seems to think the world of the occult played a role in Mary's thinking, she needs a lot more careful documentation to legitimate her case to scholars of religion. My second problem partially derives from this, but is also more general: namely, Schaefer appears to be rather oblivious to the history of science. Specifically, she does not seem to realize that there was a "scientific revolution" in the seventeenth century. One does not have to accept any specific explanatory thesis (e.g., Robert Merton's) to realize that by the end of the 1600s the world was conceived in terms dramatically different from those of previous aeons. The result is a na´ve conflation between late twentieth-century occultism and sixteenth-century efforts at science. Yes, of course, Elizabeth I and James I/VI and Mary all had court astrologers. But there were no astronomers to be had. It is simply muddle-headed to write as if any of these monarchs had a choice between astrology and astronomy and chose astrology.
Furthermore, Schaefer pushes the occultist explanations far beyond where they need to be. For example, in accounting for Elizabeth's enormous reluctance to countenance Mary's execution, Schaefer refers to Elizabeth's "great interest in the occult," specifically "the Doctrine of Correspondence, the teaching that everything created is connected by a powerful psychic force," hence if Mary were juridically murdered, "the web which enfolded all might well bring death back on her" (p. 174). Whether Elizabeth did or did not believe in the Doctrine of Correspondence, no appeal to it is necessary to understand Elizabeth's reluctance. Elizabeth was an incredibly practical and far-sighted politician. What she realized was that Mary's murder was a firm wedge in the divine right of kings, and that once the "technology of wedging," so to speak, is implemented, there is no controlling where it may end. One might well say that when Elizabeth signed Mary's death warrant she gave implicit consent to that of Charles Stuart a hundred years later, as her successor King of England. Elizabeth's never-ending font of political practicality told her that to kill Mary Stuart was to sound the death knell of the Divine Right of Kings.
Schaefer fully moves from the sublime to the ridiculous, however, when she argues that "[t]he tremendous outpouring of grief for Princess Diana may have also been tapping into the unexpressed and ancient grief for Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, still lingering in our collective dream life" (p. 192). Dream on, Carol, dream on.