My Five Best Books on Mary, Queen of Scots, and Her People

The best books on Mary, Queen of Scots and her people

Marie Macpherson Author Of The First Blast of the Trumpet (The Knox Trilogy) By Marie Macpherson

Who am I?

Growing up in the Honest Toun of Musselburgh near Edinburgh, I was surrounded by bloody battlefields, haunted castles, ruined abbeys and palaces. In particular, Scotland during the turbulent 16th century Reformation and the tragic reign of Mary, Queen of Scots fired my imagination. I was curious to know more about the lives, loves, and destinies of these fascinating historical characters. I wanted to delve deeper, go beyond dates and events–what happened when–to explore why and how people acted. I’m passionate about writing historical fiction as it involves researching the tiniest details about everyday life–clothes, food, methods of travel, language, beliefs–to bring people from the past to life for the reader.

I wrote…

The First Blast of the Trumpet (The Knox Trilogy)

By Marie Macpherson

Book cover of The First Blast of the Trumpet (The Knox Trilogy)

What is my book about?

Set in 16th century Scotland during the turbulent time of the Reformation, the Knox Trilogy reveals the man behind the myth of the pulpit-thumping reformer, John Knox. The First Blast follows his story from his birth in Haddington, his growing disillusionment as a Roman Catholic priest, and his conversion to Protestantism. 

Meanwhile his godmother, Prioress Elisabeth Hepburn, a reluctant nun, is hellbent on steering him from his wayward path. It opens on the eve of the Battle of Flodden and ends in 1548 with Knox toiling in a galley ferrying precious cargo–the five-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots on her way to meet her betrothed in France.

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The Books I Picked & Why

Crown of Thistles: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary Queen of Scots

By Linda Porter

Book cover of Crown of Thistles: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary Queen of Scots

Why this book?

Reams have been written about the tragic life of Mary, Queen of Scots, from the magisterial biographies by Antonia Fraser and John Guy to those focusing on her relationship with her sister queen, Elizabeth Tudor. Crown of Thistles by historian Linda Porter plugs a gap in Mary’s history by exploring the background to the prolonged rivalry and dynastic complications between the Stewarts of Scotland and the Tudors of England. 

Dr. Porter’s book was an invaluable resource which I mined for lots of fascinating nuggets and incisive comments not found elsewhere.

This is an excellent, highly readable introduction for anyone wishing to know more about the violent history of the ancestors who shaped Mary’s destiny.

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Blood Feud: Mary Queen of Scots and the Earl of Moray

By Steven Veerapen

Book cover of Blood Feud: Mary Queen of Scots and the Earl of Moray

Why this book?

Returning from France to claim her throne, the Catholic queen steeled herself for a battle with John Knox, the fiery leader of a Reformed Scotland. However, as this exhilarating book reveals, Knox was not her most dangerous foe but her half-brother, James Stewart. 

In many accounts, the cunning, ambitious, and jealous Earl of Moray remains a shadowy figure, a Machiavellian eminence grise behind his sister’s throne but Veerapen’s scholarly historical analysis highlights the intense rivalry between the siblings that precipitated bloody assassinations and execution. 

Dr. Steven Veerapen is a historian of Stewarts and Tudors as well as a prolific author of mysteries set in the 16th and early 17th centuries. Here he writes a gripping narrative about the base-born brother who coveted his sister’s crown.

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Mary of Guise (Scots’ Lives)

By Rosalind Marshall

Book cover of Mary of Guise (Scots' Lives)

Why this book?

The more I learnt about Mary of Guise, mother of Mary Queen of Scots, the more I admired this inspiring woman whose life is overshadowed by that of her more famous daughter. The French widow who spurned Henry VIII’s advances in favour of James V proved to be a wise, sharp-witted politician ruling as regent for Mary. Despite suffering great personal sorrow–the loss of two husbands and four sons–she held her daughter’s throne against opposition from the Scots lords until her premature death in 1560.

I often wonder how Mary’s life would have turned out had she been brought up by her shrewd and politically astute de Guise mother.

This is more a sketch than a full-length portrait but, like all Dr. Marshall’s studies, offers a wealth of information and telling details.

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The Sword Bearer: John Knox and the European Reformation

By Stewart Lamont

Book cover of The Sword Bearer: John Knox and the European Reformation

Why this book?

My upbringing taught me to believe that John Knox was the Antichrist but that only piqued my curiosity to know more about the Thundering Scot. What fired his driving ambition? Why did the ordained priest reject the Roman Catholic Church? How did he become leader of the Scottish Reformation? Was the twice married preacher who wrote The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women really such a rampant misogynist? How did his public persona differ from the private family man? Rev Lamont answers these questions and more in an exciting non-fiction account that reads more like an adventure thriller than a history.

While Jane Dawson’s comprehensive biography tackles the theological issues, this short book looks beyond the caricature of the pulpit-thumping Calvinist to reveal a complex, contradictory character.

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Darnley: A Life of Henry Suart Lord Darnley, Consort of Mary Queen of Scots

By Caroline Bingham

Book cover of Darnley: A Life of Henry Suart Lord Darnley, Consort of Mary Queen of Scots

Why this book?

The murder of Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, has baffled historians and authors for centuries, yet the queen’s consort is often a minor figure in the greater tragedy/romance of Mary. While writing my own book, I was eager to know more about the ill-fated lang lad other than the results of his self-centred scheming conspiracies–David Rizzio’s assassination, his own murder at Kirk o Field, and ultimately Mary’s downfall. And so it was refreshing to read this excellent biography which gives Darnley centre stage. By recreating his childhood and family background, particularly around his ambitious mother, Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, Caroline Bingham offers a fascinating portrait of this flawed character who stole the queen’s heart and then broke it. 

At times her account made me feel sorry for this gullible pawn in the Game of Queens.

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Marie Macpherson

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Random Pseudo-Intellectual Chat

The Scottish Reformation has been suggested as bloodless; the outcome of a society’s collective step towards Aufklärung. The old Catholic religion, corrupt and decaying simply disappeared, to be replaced by the ‘true’ Church, the rational will of the Scottish people opting for sola fide, the foundation of the Kirk simply another step on the path to ‘progress’, initiating the Scottish Enlightenment, with some Whiggish historians even suggesting that in it marked an end to persecution in Scotland. This interpretation of the outcome of the Scottish Reformation has been challenged over the years, but it has remained of some influence. The complex origin of the Reformation in Scotland, and its full consequences, are not topics which can be disentangled within the limited confines of this article. However, I do intend to argue that any notion of a bloodless reformation can be dispelled, especially when one considers the use of the anti-witchcraft laws…

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The Goldsmith, the Footman, the Queen, and the Earl of Bothwell

Objects and the archive

Jacob Kroger (d. 1594) was a German goldsmith who worked for Anna of Denmark in Scotland and stole her jewels.

Jacob Kroger was a citizen of Lüneburg, ruled by Anna of Denmark’s brother-in-law, Henry Julius, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg.[1] He completed his apprenticeship as a goldsmith in 1575 instructed by the master goldsmiths Tönnies Dierssen and Steffen Olrikes.[2] Dierssen, whose hallmark was an antelope, made objects such as highly decorative spoons and cups. Kroger’s Lüneburg contemporaries Luleff Meier and Dirich Utermarke made a mirror frame decorated with the theme of Nebuchadnezzar from the Book of Daniel.

Jacob Kroger came to Scotland with Anna of Denmark and her husband James VI in 1590. He was a member of her household and was accommodated with her at Holyroodhouse or Dunfermline Palace, where he would eat his meals at the head of a table with other Danish servants, including her tailors, the…

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Marie de Guise Carved Roundels

The Dunrobin Attic Sale, 20 April 2021, lot 381. ©

An Important set of carved oak armorial panels, from The Queen Regent’s House, Blythe’s Close, Edinburgh. Three probably 16/17th century, the fourth 18th century
Carved in low relief and showing (clockwise from top right), the arms of the King of France, the arms of the Duke of Hamilton and the arms of the King of Scotland impaling those of Mary of Guise and the arms of the City of Edinburgh.

The first panel shows the arms of the King of France and the monogram HR (Henricus Rex) is likely to refer to King Henry II 1547-1559. This armorial has a paper label pasted to the reverse which reads “From the roof of a staircase in the Queen Regent’s House, Blythe’s Close, left hand side”

The second panel shows the arms of the Duke of Hamilton and are accompanied by the monogram JH, they are likely to be the arms of James Hamilton (1606-1649) and from 1643 1st Duke of Hamilton and Earl of Cambridge. This armorial has a label pasted to the reverse which reads “From the roof of a room in the Queen Regent’s house, Blythe Close, Edinburgh, left hand side of the close, The Arms of Hamilton”

The third panel shows the impaled arms of the King of Scotland, specifically King James V (1512-1542) and Mary Guise Duchesse of Longville and the daughter of Claude Duke of Guise by Antionette Bourbon. They were married 1538 at Notre Dame. Their daughter Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587) would have displayed the same arms but after her death they would have ceased to be used, so the arms were in use for the period 1538-1587. This armorial has a paper label pasted to the reverse inscribed “From the roof of a room in the Queen Regent’s House, Blythe’s Close, it was not in its original condition when last taken down, being fixed (to) a plaster ceiling, the Queen Regents arms, g.d with those of Scotland”

The fourth roundel showing the Arms of The City of Edinburgh is clearly in different style to the remainder and was probably never intended to part of the set. The date of the patent is 1732 and they were registered at the Lyon Court in 1774. There is no image of these arms in the register and for this reason slight variations are found in early depictions. They have been viewed by a number of officers who consider them to be unusual and likely to be of the earliest date.

Queen Regent’s House was situated at the top of the Mound in Edinburgh, just below the castle and was built immediately after the burning of Holyrood Palace and the city by the English in 1544. James Grant writing in his 19th Century book Old and New Edinburgh, described how the widowed queen, whose husband died in 1542, “would naturally seek a more secure habitation within the walls of the city, and close to the Castle guns.” Following the death of James V, the couple’s infant daughter became Mary Queen of Scots with her mother Mary of Guise ruling Scotland as Queen Regent on the child’s behalf from 1554 to 1560.
Mary was the second wife of James V and it is thought that she probably lived in Queen Regent’s House from 1542 to 1554. From 1557 the house was occupied by Alexander Acheson of Gosford, a merchant and local landowner, and his wife Helen Reid. Their coats of arms were added to the door.

Accounts of the later years of the building detailed large handsome fireplaces, clustered pillars, high ceilings, fine stucco and elaborate recesses. A carved oak door is in the collections of the National Museum of Scotland. Robert Chambers, in his 1802 book Traditions of Edinburgh, said: “It was interesting to wander through the dusky mazes of this ancient building, and reflect that they had been occupied three centuries ago by a sovereign princess, and of the most illustrious lineage.

Grant wrote: “Since then it shared the fate of all the patrician dwellings in old Edinburgh, and became the squalid abode of a host of families in the most humble ranks of life.” The house and the close was demolished in 1845-46 to provide a site for the Assembly Hall and New College.

Relics of a Franco-Scotland: Three 16th century armorial roundels for sale at Bonhams

Marie de Guise-Lorraine 1515-2025

It’s a pretty grand discovery. At the end of March, browsing my Twitter account, I stumbled upon BonhamsDunrobin Attic Sale in Edinburgh on Tuesday 20 April 2021. I started a quick research on Dunrobin Castle, family seat of the 25th Earl of Sutherland, “the Highlands’ premier ducal palace” and “one of Scotland’s grandest and most historic castles”, says Charlie Thomas, Director of House Sales at Bonhams. Skimming through the auctioneers’ website, amidst paintings and portraits, marble sculptures, dinner services and furniture, there appeared lot 381 and I read, holding my breath: “An important set of carved oak armorial panels, from the Queen Regent’s House, Blythe’s Close, Edinburgh”.

The Dunrobin Attic Sale, 20 April 2021, lot 381. ©

This “Queen Regent” is Marie of Lorraine, Queen consort of James V, King of Scots (1512-1542), dowager queen and later Queen Regent of Scotland (1554-1560)…

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Lauderdale Aisle, St Mary’s Kirk, Haddington

courtesy Clan Maitland

Lauderdale Aisle, Haddington near Edinburgh

Patrick, the 17th Earl recalls “In the mid 1950s, Fr. Patten, restorer of the Anglican Shrine at Walsingham, said to me “One day you must restore the Shrine of Our Lady of Haddington”. Until then, I had little notion of the relevant history. The Lauderdale Aisle had been overlooked in the details of the Maitland/Lauderdale inheritance, and my recent predecessors had therefore cared little about it.

Detailed research convinced me of the importance of the Aisle. Our Lady of Haddington was a major focus of mediæval devotion in the British Isles, with a Shrine at Whitekirk, which was in the old county of Haddingtonshire. However, English invasions left the Shrine desecrated, and Whitekirk in ruins. Subsequently, the Forrest family endowed “an Altarage of the Blessed Virgin and the Three Kings of Cologne” in the “Northwest corner” of the recently dedicated Church of St. Mary in Haddington, and this was presumably a revival of Whitekirk’s Shrine. St. Mary’s subsequently suffered severe damage during the Siege of Haddington, and details of the precise position and appearance of the Shrine were lost. Initially, I thought that it was situated in the North Transept, but it was most likely located where the current bookshop stands. The only clue to its likely appearance was a mediæval carved panel of the Adoration of the Magi, now in the crypt of St. Nicholas East Church, Aberdeen. This depicted the Kings literally running in haste to bring their gifts to the Christ-Child, and clad in toga-like plaid kilts. Here, then, was a model costume for the Three Kings. Moreover, I learned of a seal of the erstwhile Priory of Haddington, deposited in the British Museum, with the inscription ‘House of Our Lady at Haddington’. Thus, equipped with two images, and stimulated by the surge of interest in restoring St. Mary’s, I commissioned a wood carver from Oberammergau, then living in Norfolk, to carve figures of the Magi and of Christ in his Mother’s arms. The result is a wonderfully tranquil portrayal of Christ’s Mother, visible to all in the Lauderdale Aisle.

Once the Aisle had been converted back to its original use as the private chapel of the Lauderdales, it was consecrated for public worship by the Bishop of Edinburgh, the late Primus Alastair Haggart, during one of the early Pilgrimages in the 1970s. An ecumenical service – never before seen in Scotland – followed. The Primus presided; Dr. Roy Sanderson, then a former Moderator, also participated and offered prayers; then the Polish Orthodox priest in Edinburgh offered a prayer; and the Abbot of Nunraw blessed the figures which had been newly instated.

Since then the Aisle has been visited by many hundreds of people, and is the focus of an annual ecumenical pilgrimage . Intercessions are requested by people from all around the world. Many people write back to thank us for the prayers that have been offered, and tell us that their prayers have been answered. The Aisle continues to maintain its reputation for holding special healing qualities.

Patrick, Earl of Lauderdale

The Aisle is the former sacristy of the great 15th century parish church, with a splendid monument of the early-17th century, in marble, with alabaster effigies. St Mary’s is one of the ‘three sisters’ Scottish Collegiate churches, set in capitals and former capitals of Scotland, including Edinburgh and Linlithgow.

St Mary’s Haddington was known as the ‘Lamp of Lothian’ due to its beauty and spiritual significance. The church was badly damaged during the Siege of Haddington (1548-9) when the English barricaded the town against the joint forces of Scots and French.

St Mary’s is the longest parish church in Scotland, and is of cathedral scale. The Lauderdale Aisle – an Episcopal Chapel within a Church of Scotland Building with strong Catholic and Orthodox influences – was the inspiration for the annual international ecumenical pilgrimage on the second Saturday in May.

Today St Mary’s Church maintains a tradition of ecumenicalism. The Aisle is the burial place of the Earls and of the Duke of Lauderdale.

In addition to spaces in the burial vault for the interment of the coffins of the Earls and Countesses of Lauderdale, there are niches in the vault for the interment of ashes. Any clansfolk who would like their ashes to be interred in the vault of the Aisle should contact the Chief.  

Recent history of the Aisle – Classification as an ancient monument

The Minister of Public Buildings and Works determined in 1964 that the Aisle with its outstanding 17th century alabaster monument, one of the finest of its period in Scotland and the United Kingdom, should be classified as an ancient monument, and that the Minister was of the opinion that the preservation of the monument was a matter of public interest by reason of the historical, traditional and archaeological interest attaching thereto. The Minister undertook the maintenance of the fabric of the Aisle, whilst the Earl of Lauderdale undertook day to day operation of the aisle and to provide free access.  Historic Scotland has taken over the responsibilities of the Minister of Public Buildings and Works.               

The Lauderdale Aisle on the north side of the church of St Mary, Haddington is a burial aisle which incorporates a memorial dedicated to Sir John Maitland, 1st Baron Maitland, Chancellor of Scotland, who died in 1595 and to his son, John Maitland, 1st Earl of Lauderdale, who died in 1645 and their wives. Around 1590, the Lord Chancellor, John,1st Lord Maitland who  had the friendship of King James VI  was allowed to use this vestry as his mortuary aisle. The present monument was probably ordered by the 1st Earl in the 1640’s. The entrance to the aisle is through a 13th century Romanesque doorway, but the present structure seems to date from the 16th century. It is not clear what structure lay beyond the doorway, though it is thought that it was the former vestry. 

         Before the Reformation, Maitlands were interred in the floor of the church.   Following the Siege of Haddington (1548 – 1550) which left the choir and transepts derelict, Sir John Maitland (shown above) began to restore the Aisle, and around this time a family crypt on the west side of the Aisle was built to accommodate burials, because the Kirk began to discourage interments in the church.

         The memorial may have been planned by the 1st Earl, who died in 1645, but it was probably erected by the 2nd Earl, and only Duke of Lauderdale, after the Restoration. Its design is attributed to Nicholas Stone (died 1647), and is similar to the memorials to the first Earl of Dunbar at Dunbar, and to Viscount Stormont at Scone Palace. These memorials were made in London by Italian craftsmen but erected by local labour. Close to the Aisle was the “Altarage of the Blessed Virgin and the Three Kings” which was derelict after the siege of Haddington, and had disappeared by 1590.

         On May 6th 1978 the ancient Altarage was restored in the private chapel by the XVIIth Earl of Lauderdale with the intention that the chapel should be used for ecumenical worship and use by Christians of all Trinitarian traditions.

         The Collegiate Church of St Mary the Virgin is a Church of Scotland parish church in Haddington, East Lothian, Scotland. Building work on the church was started in 1380, and further building and rebuilding has taken place up to the present day.

Review of The Last Blast of the Trumpet by Lisa Redmond, The Madwoman in the Attic

The Last Blast of the Trumpet is the final book in Marie Macpherson’s trilogy about John Knox and the turbulent years of the reformation in Scotland. The book opens with Knox’s triumphant return to Scotland and the groundswell of support this brought his way in opposition to the Regent Mary of Guise who is in increasingly frail health. While it seems that victory may be his, Knox cannot rest easy as the young Queen returns to Scotland and the Scottish Lords begin to fall under her spell. Macpherson tells the story from both sides, creating such strong and convincing characters that they leap from the page. Despite the enormous differences between the two sides both are drawn with sympathy and both feel they are on the right of history. This is where the author has shown great skill; conveying the inner thoughts, motivations and beliefs of Knox, and his followers and Mary and her court without judging them. A complex and dangerous period of history is brought vividly to life in this accomplished and triumphant tale. Perfect for fans Hilary Mantel, Carol McGrath and Ken Follett.