I really enjoyed reading this book. Reading it as part of my research for my own book puts a different perspective on it, I’m realising. I focus more on the sections that I myself am writing about rather than the overall work. But Williams writes really clearly and concisely and it’s easy to get pulled into the narrative she’s telling. There are plenty of primary sources discussed throughout, which gives an insider view on what people were thinking and feeling at the time.
The title perhaps is a bit misleading as it suggests that Mary Queen of Scots’s downfall was due entirely to Elizabeth, but that simply wasn’t the case. There were a lot of circumstances that combined to cause Mary’s downfall and execution, not least her own desperation and stupidity. The book does discuss Mary’s mistakes and how she created her own mess.
However, the book as a whole was very cohesive and explored the deep and complicated relationship between the two female monarchs, Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, which lasted across decades although the two never met in person. It is an intriguing and at times convoluted relationship which does require a lot of explanation at points, especially regarding the rebellions which surrounded Mary and impacted Elizabeth greatly. This does get confusing at points, and I did have to go back reread to make sure I understood what was going on.
Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots come across as women in their own right, not just as queens, who had their own wants, hopes, dreams, thoughts, and feelings. Sometimes historical biographies can treat their subjects as objects rather than living people (or dead people now, but who were living and real, to be more precise). Kate Williams didn’t fall into that trap with her retelling of the relationship between the two.
The book is thoroughly well-researched and cited, and I must thank Kate for her excellent research which has pointed me to several other sources which I can use myself. One of the best and most interesting books about the tumultuous relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots you’ll ever read.
The wonderful Claire Miles (aka Hisdoryan) has done a series on royal mistresses, and rates them all according to various criteria like power, beauty, longevity, and scandal. Ratings for Mary Boleyn from Hisdoryan’s blog as below:
One thing Mary Boleyn did not have was power. If it wasn’t for rise of her sister Anne, she would probably have become another footnote in history.
Of course there’s lots written about Anne Boleyn and her striking appearance – but the little that is written about Mary suggests she was the prettier of the two sisters by the standards of the time. However, there is some debate amongst historians about what she actually looked like. Some say she fitted the curvy, blonde-haired, blue-eyed ideals of beauty of the time. Others examine the one surviving portrait of her and say she was a brunette!
Mary and Henry’s relationship lasted for approximately three years. That may not seem like long in the scheme of things, but it was longer that some of Henry’s marriages!
We must also remember that Mary packed giving birth to two children into these three years too. And these children were both possible illegitimate offspring of Henry. She may not have been in Henry’s bed long, but she was certainly busy!
Mary Boleyn probably didn’t know the meaning of the word scandal – unlike her sister…
Overall Mistress Rating **
Poor Mary. Another woman that was a candidate for the footnotes of history – all because she conformed to the womanly ideals of the time in terms of subservience to men, and didn’t go about shouting about her affair and trying to make the most of it.
Three Sisters, Three Queens opens on the eleven-year-old Princess Margaret, who, while spoiled and materialistic, is a product of her environment. What did you think of the choice to open the novel at this stage of Margaret’s life? What did you think of Margaret? Does it matter if we, the reader, like her?
I think it was a conscious choice to show her development through the most traumatic events of her life – the loss of her brother, mother, marriage to the Scots king, and the death of her father and husband.
I don’t really like Margaret in this novel – I knew the bare bones of her story but no more, and this doesn’t make me want to read more.
Margaret is spoiled all the way through and I don’t think her losses really change her as she continues to just go after what she wants.
I don’t think it particularly matters whether we like Margaret or not, as it is about her story and not so much about the character.
Discuss the title of the novel in relation to the characters. Margaret, Katherine, and Mary must navigate their political relationships in addition to their familial relationships. Do you think they would have had stronger bonds with one another without their political responsibility? In what ways did it bring them closer together?
Margaret and Mary are sisters by blood and Katherine by marriage so in a sense Katherine is put on the back foot from the beginning.
Margaret is isolated from the other two in Scotland while Katherine and Mary are in London.
I think they would have had stronger bonds without the politics because Margaret wouldn’t have been sent to Scotland if there wasn’t a need for a political alliance, or Katherine to England, and Flodden wouldn’t have soured relations.
Politics brought them together because Katherine and Margaret both lost their husbands, though in different ways.
All three enjoyed happy marriages – Margaret to James IV, Katherine to Henry VIII (until it turned sour), and Mary to Charles Brandon.