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20 January 2022

‘As goodly a child as I have seen’

In March 1543, King Henry VIII sent Sir Ralph Sadler as ambassador to Scotland. A protégé of Thomas Cromwell, Sadler had his first audience with the dowager queen, Mary of Guise, within days of arriving. The subject of their interview was the new Queen of Scots, the 4-month-old Mary. Afterwards, Sadler was taken to see the child for himself. In this letter to Henry, written in his own hand, Sadler declared Mary to be ‘as goodlie a childe as I have seene of her age’.

Letter from Sir Ralph Sadler to Henry VIII

Letter from Sir Ralph Sadler to Henry VIII, 23 March 1543: Add MS 32650, f. 74r

For Henry, the infant queen offered a golden opportunity to unite the independent kingdoms of England and Scotland under one monarchy by means of a ‘godly’ marriage to his heir, Prince Edward (Add MS 32649, f. 173r).

Portrait miniature of Henry VIII by an unknown artist

Portrait miniature of Henry VIII by an unknown artist, c. 1540: Stowe MS 956, f. 1v

Mary, Queen of Scots, was born in the depths of winter on 8 December 1542 at Linlithgow Palace, the only surviving child of James V and Mary of Guise. The British Library’s current major exhibition Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens displays an oak panel of the arms of Scotland, carved and hung in Linlithgow Palace during these years, on loan from National Museums Scotland.

Oak panel displaying the royal arms of Scotland

Oak panel displaying the royal arms of Scotland, Linlithgow Palace, mid-16th century: Image © National Museums Scotland

In summer 1542, war had broken out between England and Scotland after Henry VIII failed to persuade his nephew, James V, to repudiate Scotland’s ‘Auld Alliance’ with France and the Pope’s authority. Two weeks before Mary’s birth, an opportune raid into northern England had gone disastrously wrong when the Scottish army surrendered at the Battle of Solway Moss. James returned from the frontier in a disconsolate state. He visited his wife briefly at Linlithgow, dying at Falkland Palace 6 days after the birth of his daughter and heir. 

Drawing of James V and Mary of Guise in a 16th-century armorial of Scottish kings, queens and nobility

Drawing of James V and Mary of Guise in a 16th-century armorial of Scottish kings, queens and nobility: Harley MS 115, f. 16r

Under the circumstances, the English warden of the marches, John Dudley, Viscount Lisle, called off a counter-raid into Scotland, saying it would be dishonourable to ‘make warre or ynvade vppon a dedd bodye or vppon a wydowe, or on a yonge sucling his doughter’ (Add MS 32648, f. 225r). Henry duly negotiated a truce with the Scots.

Mary, Queen of Scots, was described in contemporary reports as ‘delyueryd before hir tyme[,] … a vereye weyke childe and not like to lyve’ (Add MS 32648, f. 199r-v). Within days of her father’s funeral, she was baptized in January 1543, named for her mother Mary of Guise and for the Virgin Mary. Unusually for the time, Mary was ‘nurssed in her [mother’s] owne chambre’, rather than separately (London, The National Archives, SP 1/175, M. f. 17r). This was because Mary of Guise feared for her daughter’s safety in the turbulent first months of her reign, when various Scottish prelates and nobles vied for control of the regency government established in the young queen’s name. In early January 1543, James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Arran, emerged victorious, being appointed governor of Scotland and granted custody of the queen. A great-grandson of James II, Arran was also declared heir presumptive.  On arriving in Scotland in March, Sadler had his first interview with the new regent, a 23-year-old who Sadler thought ill-prepared for the great responsibility he was undertaking.

A few days later, on 22 March 1543, Sadler visited Mary of Guise at Linlithgow, hoping to learn if she favoured the marriage between Edward and her daughter. He ‘founde her most wyllyng and conformable in apparence’, and wrote to Henry the following day describing how she had asserted that her ‘chief suretie’ was to have her daughter ‘delyuered fourthwith’ into the king’s hands (Add MS 32650, f. 72r). ‘It is the woorke and ordinance of god for the coniunction and vnyon of bothe thies Realmes in one’, she said. But she warned Henry to beware of Arran’s motives, telling him through Sadler that the governor was only using marriage negotiations as a delaying tactic to preclude renewed war and to consolidate his own position. Arran would ultimately never consent to the union. Although Sadler listened intently, he told Henry that he did not believe everything Mary of Guise said, including her protestations that Cardinal David Beaton supported the marriage. Beaton’s longstanding hostility to English influence in Scotland was well-known. Mary of Guise then claimed that Arran had said that

'The chylde was not lyke to lyve[.]  but yow shall see … whither he saye trew or not[.]  And therwith she caused me to go with her in to the chamber where the chylde was, and shewed her vnto me and also caused the Nurice [nurse] to vnwrapp her oute of her clowtes that I myght see her naked[.]  I assure your Maieste it is as goodlie a childe as I have seene of her age and as lyke to lyve with the grace of god.'

Detail from letter from Sir Ralph Sadler to Henry VIII

Detail from letter from Sir Ralph Sadler to Henry VIII, 23 March 1543: Add MS 32650, f. 74r

This kind of display was common practice, in case of future marriage negotiations, to show that the infant was without deformity. (In April 1534, Princess Elizabeth had also been presented, both richly dressed and naked, to the French ambassadors Louis de Perreau, sieur de Castillon, and Gilles de la Pommeraye.) Sadler duly took his leave of Mary of Guise in order to report back to his master.

Events would prove that, in supporting marriage between Edward and her daughter, Mary of Guise had been playing for time. In March 1543, Beaton and she engineered the return from exile of Arran’s greatest rival, Matthew Stewart, 4th Earl of Lennox, who also had a strong claim to be recognized as heir presumptive. Together, in late July, they forced Arran to concede custody of Mary, Queen of Scots, to her mother. On 27 July, Lennox escorted both queens to the safety of Stirling Castle, one of Scotland’s greatest strongholds and part of Mary of Guise’s jointure. Mary of Guise retained firm control of her daughter from then onwards, determined to prevent her falling into anyone else’s hands.

Our major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, is on at the British Library in London until 20 February 2022. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day, subject to availability.


Alan Bryson

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