Mary Queen of Scots and Darnley’s death

I’ve been reading John Bossy’s Under the Molehill, about the identification of a mole in Mary Queen of Scots household who leaked information about  various plots to Walsingham’s office during her detention in England.

In the book, Bossy repeats a titillating story about Mary’s behaviour after she knew Darnley was dead.

When Mary knew her husband was dead she sent for a number of ‘light ladies and women’ to come to Holyrood House and participate, stark naked, in a a ball, and in the course of which they cut off their pubic hair, which was subsequently served in puddings to the gentlemen present who were sick.

This story is supposed to have come via Robert Beale, a diplomat who led negotiations between Walsingham’s office and Mary Queen of Scots. Beale claimed that he had had the story from Archibald Douglas, one of the conspirators for Darnley’s assassination at Kirk o’Field.

And it’s certainly a titillating story. But possibly not true, or possibly not exactly what happened.

The second part of the story, about the women’s pubic hair does not ring true. It just sounds unlikely and more like something made up.

The first part of the story about the nude ball, again sounds unlikely. For a start Edinburgh in the middle of February is no place for nude shenanigans. However, we know from the work of William Dunbar and others that court entertainments during the reign of James IV sixty years earlier were part burlesque, part something not unlike Commedia dell’Arte.

Unlike English theatre of the time Commedia dell’Arte featured female actresses who were often scantily dressed, and were often characterised as courtesans or prostitute. Notably Ben Jonson referred to a Commedia actress as a ‘tumbling whore’.

Now I know of no work on court entertainments during either Mary or James V, but Commedia dell’Arte was as popular in France as in northern Italy, and crucially Mary had spent a large part of her life at the French court, and there’s evidence to suggest that Commedia performances took place in the French court, perhaps due in part to the influence of Catherine de’Medici.

So it wouldn’t be surprising if there were Commedia style court entertainments featuring scantily clad actresses at HolyRood.

The story of the ‘nude ball’ could be a twisting of the actual event to further blacken Mary as a loose and frivolous woman given her alleged affairs with both David Rizzio and Bothwell.

And strangely this blackening still goes on. Forty or so years ago, when I was a student at St Andrews, I heard it claimed that Mary had an abnormally large clitoris, and was. by implication, oversexed.

This is almost certainly not true. The person who told me this may have believed it to be true but there is no evidence that this was the case. And certainly a Google search (incognito mode, doors locked, blinds drawn, definitely NSFW) does not turn up any evidence, or a possible source for the story. I tend to think that this myth is a reflection of the need of the justify Mary’s deposition by characterising her as an oversexed sexually loose incompetent, rather than the fact that she was a young woman who loved life and was seriously out of her depth in the febrile atmosphere of Reformation politics in sixteenth century Scotland …

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About dgm

IT professional, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical and medieval historian ...
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