Sunday, 30 August 2009

The Tumult of Amboise

Last year's annual holiday was a cycle tour of the Western Isles. This year's was considerably more relaxed: a pedal down the hot flat landscape of the Loire, France's longest river, between Orleans and Angers.

The dazzling Chateau Chinon:

As usual when visiting France, there are things for us to learn. The castles along the Loire are white: those here used to be harled and whitewashed the same dazzling colour, but time and ruination has rendered most Scottish castles gaunt and bare. Additionally, some old churches in France remain gaudily painted inside, as old churches here would have been had they been maintained rather than destroyed or left to decay. The Middle Ages were a much more colourful time than the modern imagination, using the evidence of ruinous remains, gives credit for.

Inside Notre Dame de Grande, Potiers:

What I also did not know was that the Loire was the centre of power in France for a long time. It was not until the end of the 16th century that the king moved his court to Paris; until then, the court was a moveable feast up and down various Loire fortresses and palaces, especially Blois and Amboise. And it was at Amboise, in 1560, that Scottish and French history intersected.

Mary, daughter of James V of Scotland and Marie de Guise of France, became queen of Scotland on James' death in 1542, aged just six days old. A 1543 treaty between a pro-English party and the representatives of England promised Mary in marriage to the son of Henry VIII of England: their son would become by right the king of both England and Scotland. Mary's mother, Marie de Guise, led a pro-French party which would not countenance this, and she eventually prevailed. An English army invaded Scotland between 1544-51 during a period known as the 'Rough Wooing'; burning and pillaging in an attempt to make the Scots change their mind. Marie de Guise concluded a countertreaty with the French king that her daughter would instead marry his son instead of the English heir. In 1548, Mary was sent to the court of the King of France for safekeeping, and a French army landed in Scotland and helped kick the English out.

Portrait of Mary in Chateau Beauregard:

Mary was a favourite in the French court on the Loire, and grew up French in manners and outlook. She was tall, athletic, charming, skilled in many courtly accomplishments. She was also a de Guise, which proved a problem for the French Protestants. The de Guises were Catholic, and persecuted Protestants. When the French king died, Mary was already married to Francois, the heir to the French throne. She now became queen of France as well as Scotland, and her first born son would rule France and Scotland by right. Her family, the de Guises, lost no opportunity to embed themselves at the centre of French politics.

A plot was hatched by Protestants to kidnap Mary's young husband, to remove him from the influence of the de Guises. The de Guises got wind of this, and moved their court from stately Blois to the more heavily defended chateau of Amboise. In early March, 1560, less than a year after Francois took the throne, the plotters were surprised in woods around Amboise. What followed was pre-meditated horror. Over a thousand men were hung from the walls of the chateau and, when space around the chateau ran out, they were hung from trees in the village below. The executions took several days. The effect of this sight and smell on the young Queen Mary can be imagined.


It no doubt also had a spurring effect in Scotland, where the pro-English party led by Protestants like John Knox had finally prevailed. They forced a reforming Parliament which met in July of 1560 and concluded, on 24 August, with the banning of the celebration of Mass and the promotion of a Presbyterian form of worship.

Francois died in December 1560 of an ear abcess, his short reign unfulfilled with an heir. Catherine de Medici's second son Charles then became king, and she did everything in her considerable power to advance his cause. The de Guise influence in France collapsed. Mary was no longer wanted. Thus the scene was set for the unhappy return in August 1561 of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots to her newly Protestant native land.

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