In death as in life, Mary always aroused the strongest feelings. To her apologists, she was an innocent victim. She was mishandled and traduced: a political pawn in the hands of those perfidious Scottish Lords and ambitious French and English politicians who found her inconvenient and in their way. To her critics, she was fatally flawed. She was far too much affected by her emotions. She ruled from the heart and not the head. She was a femme fatale: a manipulative siren, who flaunted her sexuality in dancing and banqueting and did not care who knew it.
Her enemies largely won the argument. Mary has come down to us in history not as a shrewd and charismatic young ruler who relished power and, for a time, managed to hold together a fatally unstable country, but rather as someone who cared more about her luxuries and pets. She knew how to play to the gallery. One of the accounts of her execution dismissed her as "transcending the skills of the most accomplished actress". But a sense of theatre was essential to the exercise of power in the sixteenth century, and there was far more to Mary than so cynical a judgement implies.
This book tries to get to the truth about her, or as close to the truth as is possible: to see her as a whole woman whose choices added up and whose decisions made sense, and not merely as a bundle of stereotypes or as a convenient and tenuously linked series of myths. The rationale relates closely to the method: to write Mary's life and tell her story using the original documents rather than relying on the familiar printed collections or edited abstracts, themselves often compiled to perpetuate rather than to engage with the legends. It may come as a surprise to learn that such documents survive in voluminous quantities, preserved in archives and research libraries as far apart as Edinburgh, Paris, London, the stately homes of England, and Washington DC and Los Angeles. Some of them have not been read by a historian since 1840. Many have not been freshly examined since the 1890s, and among these are unrecognized handwritten transcripts of two of the famous Casket Letters.
The aim is to tell Mary's story, where possible letting her speak for herself in her own words, but also to consider why the stories of others about the very same events are often so strikingly different. Only when this is done can the myriad of facts be properly sifted, the sequence of events explained, and a searchlight cast on a turbulent life.