Mary was born at Bar-le-Duc, Lorraine, the eldest daughter of Claude of Lorraine, Duke of Guise, head of the House of Guise, and his wife Antoinette de Bourbon, herself the daughter of Francis, Count of Vendome, and Marie de Luxembourg. Among her 11 siblings were Francis, Duke of Guise; Claude, Duke of Aumale; Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine; and Louis I, Cardinal of Guise. Mary was tall and her mother mentioned in a letter that she suffered from bad colds. However, there is a story of Mary of Guise being born in a commoner's home while en route to her "supposed" birthplace. Her name has also been stylized as Mary of Guise, Marie de Guise, and Mary di Guise.
When Mary was five, she was godmother to her younger sister Louise. Not long after, she joined her grandmother Philippa of Guelders in the convent of the Poor Clares at Pont-à-Mousson. Her uncle Antoine, Duke of Lorraine and her aunt Renée of Bourbon visited Philippa there when Mary was about fourteen. Impressed by their niece's qualities and stature, they took her away from the convent and prepared her for life at the French court. In 1531, Mary made her first appearance there at the marriage between Francis I and Eleanor of Austria. She established a friendship with the king's daughters Madeleine (whom she would later succeed as Queen of Scots) and Margaret.
On 4 August 1534, at the age of 18, she became Duchess of Longueville by marrying Louis II d'Orléans, Duke of Longueville (born 1510), at the Château du Louvre. Their union turned out to be happy, but brief. On 30 October 1535, Mary gave birth to her first son, Francis, but on 9 June 1537, Louis died at Rouen and left her a widow at the age of 21. For the rest of her life, Mary kept the last letter from her bon mari et ami (her good husband and friend) Louis, which mentioned his illness and explained his absence at Rouen. It can still be seen at the National Library of Scotland. On 4 August, Mary gave birth to their second son, who was named Louis after his deceased father. Louis died very young, but Francis wrote letters to his mother in Scotland. On 22 March 1545, he sent a piece of string to show how tall he was, and on 2 July 1546 he sent her his portrait.
Later, in 1537, Mary became the focus of marriage negotiations with James V of Scotland, who had lost his first wife, Madeleine of Valois, to tuberculosis, and wanted a second French bride to further the interests of the Franco-Scottish alliance against England. According to a 17th-century writer, James V had noticed the attractions of Mary when he went to France to meet Madeleine and Mary of Bourbon, and she was next in his affections. It is known that Mary had attended the wedding of James and Madeleine.
The recently widowed Henry VIII of England, in attempts to prevent this union, also asked for Mary's hand. Given Henry's marital history—banishing his first wife and beheading the second—Mary refused the offer. In December 1537, Henry VIII told Castillon, the French ambassador in London, that he was big in person and had need of a big wife. Biographer Antonia Fraser writing in 1969 said Mary replied, "I may be a big woman, but I have a very little neck." This was apparently a tribute to the famously macabre jest made by Henry's French-educated second wife, Anne Boleyn, who had joked before her death that the executioner would find killing her easy because she had "a little neck."
King Francis I of France accepted James's proposal over Henry's and conveyed his wishes to Mary's father. Francis had a marriage contract prepared that offered James a dowry as large as if Mary had been a princess. Mary's mother found the contract "marvellously strange", because the king had included Mary's son's inheritance in the dowry. Mary received the news with shock and alarm, as she did not wish to leave family and country, especially as she had just lost her first husband and her younger son. It has been said that her father tried to delay matters, apparently until James, perhaps sensing her reluctance, wrote to her, appealing for her advice and support. However the authenticity of this letter, which was first produced in 1935, has been questioned. David Beaton travelled to France for the marriage negotiations. He wrote to James V from Lyon on 22 October 1537 that Mary was "stark (strong), well-complexioned, and fit to travel." Beaton wrote that the Duke of Guise was "marvellous desirous of the expedition and hasty end of the matter," and had already consulted with his brother, the Duke of Lorraine, and Mary herself, who was with her mother in Champagne waiting for the resolution of the negotiations.
The marriage contract was finalized in January 1538 with a dowry including that of her first marriage. As was customary, if the king died first, the queen dowager would have for her lifetime her jointure houses of Falkland Palace, Stirling Castle, Dingwall Castle, and Threave, with the rentals of the corresponding Earldoms and Lordships. Finally, Mary accepted the offer and made hurried plans for departure. The actual wedding of James V and Mary of Guise was held by proxy on 9 May 1538 in the Sainte Chapelle at the Château de Châteaudun. Some 2,000 lords and barons sent by James V came from Scotland aboard a fleet of ships under Lord Maxwell to attend the proxy wedding. Lord Maxwell himself stood as proxy for King James V. Maxwell and the lords and barons, who had come to France travelled back to Scotland with Mary. Mary sailed from Le Havre on 10 June 1538, landing in Scotland 6 days later at Crail in Fife. She was formally received by the king a few days later amid pageants and plays performed in her honour.
When Mary had left France, at the age of 22 years, in June 1538, she had been forced to leave her 3-year-old son, Francis, behind in France. Since the death of his father, Louis II d'Orléans, Duke of Longueville, young Francis was the new Duke of Longueville. James and Mary were married in person at St Andrews Cathedral on 18 June 1538. James's mother Margaret Tudor wrote to Henry VIII in July, "I trust she will prove a wise Princess. I have been much in her company, and she bears herself very honourably to me, with very good entertaining." The Duke of Guise sent her masons and miners, an armourer, and she had a French painter to decorate her palaces, Pierre Quesnel. She was crowned queen at Holyrood Abbey on 22 February 1540. Preparations for her coronation began in October 1539 when the jeweller John Mosman made a new crown and her silver sceptre was gilded. Payments made for the ceremony include the hanging of tapestries; carrying church furnishings from the Palace chapel into the Abbey; the attendance of eleven chaplains; boards for stages in the Abbey; and messengers sent to summon the ladies of the kingdom. A salute of 30 guns was fired from David's Tower in Edinburgh Castle, and there were fireworks devised by James and made by his royal gunners.
James and Mary had two sons: James, Duke of Rothesay (born 22 May 1540 at St Andrews) and Robert, Duke of Albany (born and baptised on 12 April 1541); however, both died on 21 April 1541, when James was nearly one year old and Robert was eight days old. Mary's mother Antoinette de Bourbon wrote that the couple was still young and should hope for more children. She thought a change of wet-nurse and over-feeding may not have helped. The third and last child of the union was a daughter Mary, who was born on 8 December 1542. King James died six days later, making the infant Mary queen regnant of Scotland.
The government of Scotland was first entrusted to James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Arran, as Regent. Henry VIII of England wished Queen Mary to marry his son, Prince Edward. This led to internal conflicts in Scotland between those who preferred the alliance with France and led to an English invasion, the so-called Rough Wooing. Guise told an English diplomat Ralph Sadler that Regent Arran was a "simple man" and she could easily find out his "whole intent." In April 1543, Arran heard a rumour that Henry VIII now wished to make Mary of Guise his sixth wife. He confronted Mary with this and she prevaricated, learning from him (as she had already guessed) that he told everything to Sadler. Then she sent her confidante Lord Fleming to Sadler to report the conversation. In turn, Sadler relayed to Henry VIII his account of "every man's tale whereby your grace may perceive the perplexed state of affairs in Scotland."
At first Guise stayed unwillingly at Linlithgow Palace, then in July 1543 she moved with the infant Queen to Stirling Castle. When Ralph Sadler spoke to her again in August, Guise assured him the English marriage would go ahead when Mary was ten years old. In the meantime Mary was safe at Stirling, and Guise said she was glad to be at Stirling and, "much she praised there about the house." It soon became clear to Henry VIII that Mary and Edward would not be married, despite Scottish promises and the Treaty of Greenwich, and at the end of 1543 he launched the war now called the Rough Wooing, hoping to turn the situation around. In 1544 she spearheaded an unsuccessful attempt to replace Arran as regent.
After a Scottish defeat at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in September 1547, French military aid weakened English resolve and increased the power base of Mary of Guise, who remained in Scotland. Equipped with a newly painted spear for her royal standard, Mary came to view the progress of the siege of Haddington in July 1548. Her party came in range of the English guns and sixteen of her entourage were killed around her. Following this terrifying incident, Mary gave one of her gunners at Haddington, Andro Straitoun, a reward of a month's wages, £4. By the resolution of the Scottish Parliament at Haddington, the child Queen Mary was sent to France in August 1548 to be raised with her husband-to-be, the dauphin Francis, son of Henry II of France. Guise first planned to sail with her daughter from Dumbarton as far as Whithorn where she would make pilgrimage, but returned instead for a council meeting in Edinburgh.
At this time, the dedication of the Scottish book, The Complaynt of Scotland, recalled Mary of Guise's descent from Godfrey de Bouillon and claimed her courage and virtue exceeded those of the ancient heroines Tomyris, Semiramis and Penthesilea. After negotiating on Christmas Day 1549 at Stirling Castle for more French guns for the siege of Broughty Castle, she showed more prudence in February 1550 by watching the successful assault from across the Tay. The English troops abandoned their occupation of Haddington in September 1549 and Paul de Thermes and Arran walked in. Mary of Guise was triumphant, writing that "the English had left nothing behind but the plague." The peace process began and Scotland was included in the Treaty of Boulogne of 24 March 1550. As part of the treaty, Mary's brother Claude, Marquis de Mayenne, was one of six French hostages sent to England. After their father died on 12 April 1550, Claude was allowed to come to Scotland with a passport from Edward VI dated 11 May. Claude wrote from Edinburgh on 18 May that he would survey the fortifications of the realm. After the Treaty was signed, Mary was able to travel to France to see her family.
Mary left Scotland on 6 September 1550 and arrived at Dieppe in time to participate in a festival with the French court at Rouen with her daughter on 1 October 1550. At Rouen, Mary and the Queen of Scots rode in procession behind soldiers carrying banners depicting Scottish fortresses recently defended and recovered by the French. She brought with her a large retinue of Scottish gentlemen, including the Earls of Huntly, Cassillis, Sutherland, Marischal, and Wigtown, plus Lords Home and Maxwell, and the Bishops of Caithness and Galloway. Historians have analysed the Scottish retinue as a team-building exercise for Mary.
Over the winter she stayed with the French court at Blois, then spent the summer with Henry II visiting Tours, Angers and Nantes. At Amboise in April, Mary was sickened by news of a plot to poison the young queen of Scots. A Scottish would-be poisoner, Robert Stewart, discovered in London was delivered to the French in May. Throughout her time in France, Mary was anxious to gain the best settlement for her daughter's marriage to the dauphin and financial support for herself in Scotland. At Tours in May, a cynical English observer, John Mason, who scanned the Scottish retinue for signs of dissent, reported, "the Dowager of Scotland maketh all this court weary of her, such an importunate beggar is she for herself. The king would fain be rid of her. The trucking is about money matters."
While accompanying her to Dieppe on her return, her son Francis died at Amiens. In October 1551, she met Edward VI in England. Mary landed at Portsmouth and stayed her first night at Southwick Priory. On her way to London she stopped at Warblington, Cowdray, Hampton Court and Fulham Palace. At his meeting with Mary at Whitehall Palace, Edward gave her a diamond ring. The ring, "sett with a fayer table diamount", had belonged to Catherine Parr. The Princess Mary Tudor declined to attend her visit, though the Princess Elizabeth was present, and according to John Aylmer, unlike the other women at Edward's court she did not try to emulate the novel French "frounsed, curled and double-curled" hairstyles of Guise's Scottish retinue.
On her way north to Scotland Ralph Sadler conveyed her through Hertfordshire, and she stopped at Robert Chester's house at Royston Priory and the house of the Dowager Duchess of Suffolk at Grimsthorpe Castle near Stamford. Arran summoned some of the barons of East Lothian to meet her at Berwick, and the gentlemen of Selkirk, Jedburgh and Duns, Peebles and Lauder, Haddington, Dunbar and North Berwick were summoned to meet her at Our Lady Kirk of Steill on 24 November 1551. Six cart loads of breech-loading cannon chambers were brought from the armoury at Leith up to Edinburgh Castle to fire salutes on her return.
In December 1552, Mary of Austria, Queen of Hungary, sister of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, pointed out to Mary that her diplomatic complaints had no force and must come from Arran. Furthermore, she was dissatisfied by Mary's evident friendship with France. Mary's power was increasing. In May 1553, the imperial ambassador in London, Jean Scheyfve, heard she had challenged Arran's regency and proposed James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray, her illegitimate step-son, as a replacement. Mary herself became regent on 12 April 1554. The eleven-year-old Queen Mary sent her congratulations to "la Royne, ma mere" from the Château de Meudon at Easter, where she was staying with her grandmother and her uncle, the Cardinal of Lorraine.
In many affairs, Mary of Guise consulted her brothers in France—the Cardinal of Lorraine, and Francis, Duke of Guise, both of whom held government positions in France—so that Scotland and France worked as allies in dealing with other nations. Henry II's representative in Scotland from 1546 to 1560 was an ambassador resident, Henri Cleutin, who had been effectively in charge of Scotland during her trip to France. During her regency (1554–60), Frenchmen were put in charge of the treasury and the Great Seal, while the French ambassador sometimes attended the Privy Council. Yves de Rubay was Master of Requests and Keeper of the Seals and Bartholomew de Villemore was Comptroller and Receiver-General of Revenue. Although Cleutin seems to have been universally popular, the resentment of the Scottish nobility at these appointments fuelled the coming crisis.
Mary quickly began to deal effectively with Scottish affairs. In July 1554, she travelled to Jedburgh to hold a Justice Ayre for a fortnight, hoping to quell the longstanding feud between the Scott and Kerr border clans. She was escorted by armed horsemen commanded by Cleutin. In the autumn she paid for a ship, troops and a cannon to help the Earl of Sutherland arrest Iye du Mackay, Lord Reay, who had caused mischief in Sutherland. With much less success the Earls of Huntly and Argyll were despatched to pass with fire and sword to Moidart and Lewis. Huntly's failure led to his imprisonment. During another progress in 1556 she visited Inverness, Ross, Elgin, Banff and Aberdeen. These domestic efforts were hampered by the outbreak of international conflict in January 1557. An apparent set-back occurred in October, when Guise went south to Hume Castle and sent an army towards England. Instructed to cross the border and attack Wark Castle, the Scottish lords held their own council at Eckford and returned home.
Mary's regency was threatened, however, by the growing influence of the Scottish Protestants. To an extent, Mary of Guise had tolerated the growing number of Protestant preachers. She needed to win support for her pro-French policies, and they could expect no alternative support from England, when Mary Tudor ruled. The marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots, to the dauphin of France on 24 April 1558 was quickly followed by Mary Tudor's death and the succession to the throne of England by Elizabeth on 17 November 1558. Mary Stuart's claim and rights of succession to the English throne depended in part on the Papal view of Elizabeth's legitimacy. If Henry II of France was to pursue Mary's claim with the Pope, as part of an ambitious plan that Scotland and England would succumb to French domination, he needed Scotland to be a secure Catholic country. Some modern historians such as Pamela E. Ritchie believe that the change to Guise's policy was not dramatic, but both Catholic and Protestant would perceive and react to the tense political situation. As the Scottish Reformation crisis was developing, Henry II died on 10 July 1559, and Mary Stuart became Queen Consort of France. In France, Mary and Francis II began to publicly display the arms of England in their blazon. This too was a motivation for English intervention in Scottish affairs.
In 1557, a group of Scottish lords who became known as the "Lords of the Congregation", drew up a covenant to "maintain, set forth, and establish the most blessed Word of God and his Congregation". This was followed by outbreaks of iconoclasm in 1558/59. At the same time, plans were being drawn up for a Reformed programme of parish worship and preaching, as local communities sought out Protestant ministers. In 1558, the Regent summoned the Protestant preachers to answer for their teaching, but backed down when lairds from the west country threatened to revolt.
The accession of the Protestant Elizabeth in England in 1558 stirred the hopes and fears of Scottish Protestants. Elizabeth came to secretly support the Lords of the Congregation. In January 1559, the anonymous Beggars' Summons threatened friars with eviction in favour of beggars. This was calculated to appeal to the passions of the populace of towns who appeared to have particular complaints against friars. Fearing disorder and now determined by circumstance to show less tolerance, the Regent summoned the reformed preachers to appear before her at Stirling on 10 May. Insurrection followed. The men of Angus assembled in Dundee to accompany the preachers to Stirling, and on 4 May they were joined by John Knox, who had recently arrived from France. Stirred by Knox's sermons in Perth and Dundee, the mob sacked religious houses (including the tomb of James I in Perth). In response, the Regent marched on Perth, but was forced to withdraw and negotiate when another reformed contingent arrived from the west at Cupar Muir.
Among the Regent's ambassadors were the Earl of Argyll and Lord James Stewart, Earl of Moray, both professed Protestants. When the Regent stationed French mercenaries in Perth, both abandoned her and joined the Lords of the Congregation at St Andrews, where they were also joined by John Knox. Even Edinburgh soon fell to them in July, as Mary retreated to Dunbar. The Congregation Lords made a truce with Guise and signed the Articles of Leith at Leith Links on 25 July 1559 which promised religious tolerance, then withdrew to Stirling.
In September, Châtelherault, with the safe return of his son, the Earl of Arran, accepted the leadership of the Lords of the Congregation and established a provisional government. However, Mary of Guise was reinforced by professional French troops. Some of these troops established themselves at Kinghorn in Fife, and after they destroyed the house of William Kirkcaldy of Grange, according to Knox, Mary declared, "Where is now John Knox's God? My God is now stronger than his, yea, even in Fife." In November, the rebels were driven back to Stirling. Fighting continued in Fife. All seemed lost for the Protestant side until an English fleet arrived in the Firth of Forth in January 1560, which caused the French to retreat to Leith.
Negotiations with England then began, from which Knox was excluded; in particular his earlier tract The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, although it had been aimed at Mary Tudor, rendered him unacceptable to the female English monarch. The resulting Treaty of Berwick in February was an agreement between Châtelherault and the English to act jointly to expel the French. As a result, the newly crowned Queen of England, Elizabeth I, sent an English land army into Scotland to join their Scottish allies in besieging the French at Leith.
After an English assault on Leith was repulsed with heavy losses, some of the leaders of the Lords of the Congregation came to Edinburgh Castle on 12 May 1560 and had dinner with Mary and the keeper of the castle, Lord Erskine. They discussed a plan that had been made before the troubles, in which Mary would have travelled to France and met Elizabeth in England, and her brother would have been made Viceroy in Scotland. The Lords again complained about Frenchmen being appointed to Scottish government posts. Negotiations to end the siege of Leith and demolish new fortifications at Dunbar Castle continued. But the next day, the talks ended when permission was refused for the French commanders in Leith to come to the castle to discuss the proposals with Mary.
While continuing to fortify Edinburgh Castle, Mary became seriously ill, and over the course of the next eight days her mind began to wander; some days she could not even speak. On 8 June she made her will. She died of dropsy on 11 June 1560. Her body was wrapped in lead and rested in a coffin on a bier in St Margaret's Chapel in Edinburgh Castle for several months. On 18 March 1561, it was secretly carried from the castle at midnight and shipped to France. Mary, Queen of Scots attended her funeral at Fécamp in July 1561. Mary of Guise was interred at the church in the Convent of Saint-Pierre in Reims, where Mary's sister Renée was abbess. A marble tomb was erected with a bronze statue of Mary, in royal robes, holding a sceptre and the rod of justice in one hand. The tomb was destroyed during the French revolution. Of Mary's five children, only her daughter Mary survived her.
In modern times, there has been speculation that Mary was assassinated (by poisoning), either by order of Queen Elizabeth I of England or possibly by others protecting the Queen's interests without any direct order from the Queen. However, no evidence supports such allegations and there was an autopsy the day after she died. Mary's death was evidently from natural causes, since she herself complained she had become lame from the swelling of her legs in April and diagnosed herself as having dropsy. The swelling was confirmed by her enemy, John Knox, who wrote that in May, "began hir bellie and lothsome leggis to swell." Even in the paranoid political climate of the 16th century, in which many royal deaths were suspected to have been murders, none of Mary's contemporaries saw signs of "foul play" in her death.
The Regent's death made way for the Treaty of Edinburgh, in which France and England agreed they would each withdraw their troops from Scotland. Although the French commissioners were unwilling to treat with the insurgent Lords of the Congregation, they offered the Scots certain concessions from King Francis and Queen Mary, including the right to summon a parliament according to use and custom. The effect of the treaty was to leave power in the hands of the pro-English Protestants.
Apart from her bitter enemy John Knox, the leader of the Scottish reformation, views by historians have generally been favourable. Marshall says that "her biographers, Strickland in the nineteenth century, McKerlie and Marshall in the twentieth, [have] been unanimous in praising her intelligence and fortitude" as have most other scholars. In evaluating her life, historian Rosalind K. Marshall says:
Sacrificing her own comfort, interests, and ultimately her life, Mary of Guise had fought a long, desperate, and, in the end, hopeless struggle to preserve Scotland as a pro-French, Roman Catholic nation for her daughter....Charming, highly intelligent, and hard-working, with a diplomatic manner and an ability to fight on regardless of hostility, disappointment, and ill health, Mary was never merely a pawn of the French king.Mary de Guise appears in volumes 1, 2, 3 and 5 of the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett. Most notably, the events around her visit to her daughter in France in 1550 are portrayed in the second volume, Queens' Play.
In the 1998 film Elizabeth, Mary was played by the French actress Fanny Ardant. Her death was depicted as assassination at the hands of Francis Walsingham.
In The CW's series Reign, Amy Brenneman portrays Marie de Guise.