Friday, October 25, 2013

MY RANT ON REIGN: A Critique

I was determined not to rant over the television youth-oriented drama Reign I do not have a television and even if I had, I would not have viewed it after seeing the trailer because I am on a lowered dosage of blood pressure meds and have no desire to increase it. I  assure you that whatever the hype purports Reign to be,  it is not about the historical character Marie Stuart,Queen of Scots. But, on the other hand, the screenwriters who put this thing together make more money than I do, even if they likely could not accurately name the queen's four Scottish attendants called the Four Maries if they had do....well, may they could hit the first names with a lucky guess.  That is the first clue as to whether teenage viewers are getting any history mixed in  with the sex and soap, because they are not, and that is what is different between Reign and The Tudors. But why should I address the issue when I have books to write and USA Today and the Los Angeles Times did such a good job of bashing it?

Then I discovered  the synopsis the filmmakers provided to Wikipedia and  laughed myself silly until it struck me just how many teenagers and young adult viewers are going to reach maturity believing that Marie Stuart was a twit and that her sickly acne scared stuttering and likely impotent fiance Francois was a hunk, or that she somehow reigned in France. So here comes my personal critique. For starters, think of the characters of Francis (Francois) and Mary (whose name was never Mary : It was Marie).  and compare them to the wedding portraits of the 15 year old Queen of Scots and the 14 year old dauphin (which is the correct term, not 'the crown prince'). Do you recognize these two adolescent royals as characters in Reign?

Nope?

I didn't think so.

And thus, my rant begins:.
Wedding portrait of Francoisde Valois and Marie Stuart from separate Clouet miniatures.

I am usurping the text from the synopsis sent to Wikipedia by the producers of the silly prime-time soap opera and responding based on the nearly one hundred sources I investigated before I began writing my debut historical novel The First Marie and the Queen of Scots in 2011.  Their stuff is in italics and underlined.  Mine is not. Here goes:

'France, 1557. Mary Stuart, the 15-year-old headstrong Scottish heiress to the throne of the Kingdom of France, leaves the convent where she has been staying since age nine to begin her tumultuous rise to power'.

OK, GUYS.  For starters, ask yourself just how was she the heiress to the throne of France?  Her father was the king of Scotland, which is on the island of Britain across what then was called The Narrow Sea. It is not a part of France although Marie Stuart's uncles would have been happy to see it annexed as long as they were given its control.  Her mother was Marie of Guise, a Lorrainer. Lorraine had been an independent duchy until France claimed suzerainty over it and its citizens, a development that occurred during Marie of Guise's lifetime.  The French succession was governed by the Salic law. That meant that girls couldn't inherit the throne.  Look up the word 'heiress' in the Wikipedia free dictionary so we do not get too technical, and you will find that an heiress is 'a woman who stands to inherit.'  Inherit means ' to receive property or a title, etc., by legal succession or bequest after the previous owner's death. Even if she had a sex change, Marie Stuart was not in the French line of succession, and was not an 'heiress to the throne of the Kingdom of France.'

And while you're at it, look up the word reign.  Reign means rule. In France, even if she had been the only child of King Henri Valois and Queen Catherine Medici, she could never reign because she was female.  Scotland and England did not follow the Salic Law. Women could inherit the throne.  That's what got the Scottish reformer Knox so upset that he wrote of pamphlet called 'The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.' Eventually she did reign in Scotland because she was already Queen of Scots, having inherited the crown from her father King James V. All she needed to do to reign there was to go there. But that is a couple of viewing seasons down the line.  

Next question: was she headstrong?  She was a teenage female so the answer is obvious, but she also was in the control of her  powerful uncles the Duke of Guise (another Francois) and Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine.  And she did  NOT  live in a convent since age  nine. She lived in the royal nursery at Saint Germain-en-Laye until she was eleven when she was proclaimed an adult and given her own apartments. Francois was getting his, so her uncles insisted that she have hers. And there was more to it than pride.  As an adult she could appoint her mother Marie of Guise as Regent of Scotland instead of her mother's enemy the Earl of Arran, and that is why her mother and uncles let her have her own digs.  She did pay some lengthy visits to her aunt Renee de Guise, who was  abbess at Saint Pierre les Dames in Rheims.   Rheims was a Guise stronghold largely controlled by her uncle Charles,  Cardinal of Lorraine and Archbishop of Rheims. His sister Renee's position at Saint Pierre was part of the ambitious dynastic plan of the House of Guise. Don't take my word for it. There is a superb research papers on the topic.(Baker, Joanne. Female Monasticism and Family Strategy: The Guises and Saint Pierre de Reims , Sixteenth Century Journal (1975) 1091-1108). The abbey was in the center city, and as a Benedictine house, it was cloistered. The nuns did not go running around outdoors and they did not dress in white.  Benedictine habits were black.  Also, the abbess Renee was a notable beauty. Before she was abbess, Henry VIII  sent Holbein to France to paint her portrait when he was between wives. Her uncles hid her away and Holbein painted Anne of Cleves instead.  As for her life as abbess, Renee did pretty much as she pleased. In spite of the rules of cloister, there were many lay sisters at the abbey who could tend to its wine press and vineyards in Champagne and do business in the town. The winery was the abbey cash cow and Renee was an astute businesswoman. When the church hierarchy called the Tridentines told her she needed to cement over the windows that looked out over the street in order to comply with the Rules of Cloister, she hung new drapes. And she got away with it because the church got part of the revenues from the wine sales.

As for a tumultuous rise to power, unless that means that the Queen of Scots got married to a boy with a bad back, acne, allergic  rhinitis and very likely cryptorchidism, there was no such  rise, tumultuous or otherwise. Look up cryptorchidism -  It seems that the real Francois suffered from undescended testicles.
Does this give anyone a clue about how bad this production really is?

And onto the next part of the synopsis:

With the assistance of her four loyal handmaidens, Greer, Kenna, Lola and Aylee, Mary has been sent to secure Scotland’s strategic alliance by formalizing her arranged engagement to the French king's dashing son, Prince Francis. But the match isn’t signed and sealed, for it depends more on politics, religion and secret agendas than affairs of the heart.

There is more wrong with the above sentence than just its wording.   It is an artful mix of truths, half-truths and bald faced lies. Marie left Scotland at the age of five with four little girls as companions.They were not hand-maidens but junior ladies in waiting, daughters of aristocrats, and they were called the Four Maries. Care to speculate as to why? Anything about the names Marie Flemyng, Mary Livingston, Marie Beaton and Marie Seaton give it away?  So, who are Greer, Kenna, Lola and Aylee? --perhaps they were  a second rate burlesque act at le Moulin Rouge because they were  not members of the Scottish suite at Saint Germane. The producers and screenwriters  may have found the true names too confusing, and that is understandable: So did Marie's mother, so before they sailed to France, Marie's friends were renamed. Sort of like in the Highlander, when it came to Marie,  there could only be but one, and the queen won. Marie Flemyng became La Flamina, Livingston was called Lusty, and the two others became Beaton and  Seton. Were those names not quite 21st century enough to work for the producers of Reign?   I would have thought they would have salivated  over the Lusty idea.

As for the French king's dashing son Prince Francis, as hinted above, the dauphin Francois had a stooped shoulder, ache and a chronically runny nose, was undersized and suffered from a medical condition called cryptorchidism—in crude terms, his balls had not dropped.  Also, there was nothing new about the concept of an alliance between France and Scotland, that’s why it was called the “auld alliance. It had been around for centuries. How it worked was thus:  French kings got themselves in trouble and Scottish soldiers bailed them. What was new in 1558 was the efforts of Marie's uncles to exploit their niece's position to enhance the power of the House of Guise. The plan culminated  in three secret pre-marital agreements in which Marie secretly bequeathed Scotland to France if she died childless, which without her husband's  balls dropping was a good bet for the French. The Queen was a pawn, not a power player.

And as for the fact that the marriage was politically motivated, did I miss something or was this a negotiated marriage contracted between an anointed Queen and the heir apparent of the King of France? Aw, golly gee!  What was unique about the idea of dynastic marriage?  Ever hear of Charles and Diana when the poor man had loved Camella since she was 19?  Or Francois's parents Henri II and Catherine de Medici, for that matter. Take a look at Catherine and the royal mistress Diane de Poitiers, Duchess of Valentinous. One of the women was beautiful, sophisticated and charming, and it wasn't the one with the crown.  The one with the crown was twenty years younger and smart. She waited.

Next:   Prince Francis is intrigued by the fiery Mary, but like most young men, he resists the idea of settling down into marriage, especially when he has a history with a lady of the court and his own point of view on the wisdom of an alliance with Scotland.
and then:Though he is all too aware that Francis is the heir to the throne and Mary’s intended husband, Bash soon develops his own feelings for Mary.


Find me one fiery fact about our ' fiery Mary', and I’ll set fire to a copy of the blog. The research indicates that in some respects she was a bit of a prude. She made the Four Marie's take chastity vows.  She also  suffered from depression and pains in her side when she did not get her way, but the two documented examples of her losing her temper occurred 1) when she was ten or eleven and rebelled against her stiff-lipped governess so she wrote poison pen letters  to her mother and got her canned.; and 2)  later when she was the consort and her uncles and Francois waited ten day before telling her that her mother had died. Then she threw a tantrum.  Yes, she was capable of showing her temper, but I do not think that is the kind of fire that the producers meant.  And if Francois had a history 'with a lady of the court'  it must have involved the grass court where he played mixed doubles with his aunt the Duchess of Berry and  his sisters.  His own point of view as to the Scottish alliance probably focused on the fact that his marriage would get him a grant of the Scottish crown matrimonial, and all he had to do to collect was to make a quick trip while Marie did a queen gig for the benefit of Parliament and they both sailed home to France.  Scotland was a nice place to visit (weather depending) but you wouldn't want to live there.  Marie certainly didn't.

Further complicating things is Bash, Francis’ handsome, rogue half-brother, who has a history of his own. All I can say about Bash is that I have read fifty seven books, dozens of journal articles and a couple of Ph.D. theses in researching my book about Marie Stuart’s life in France, The First Marie and the Queen of Scots, and nowhere is there a ‘Bash, who seems to have no history at all. The only bastard of Henri II’s that gets mentioned is Harry Valois, who was the son of Marie’s governess, Lady Janet Flemyng, who was La Flamina's mother. He was not even born until 1551. His claims to fame include expertise in composing lyric verse and butchering Huguenots.  He died in a duel in 1586 and no one called him Bash, although he probably bashed a few protestant skulls .  If anyone during her life in France developed 'his own feelings for Mary' it would have been James Hamilton, 3rd Earl of Arran who was mad, or the poet Chatelard who after Marie's return to Scotland got himself disemboweled for behaving like a lovesick fool.

Meanwhile, Francis’ mother, Queen Catherine, is aware of Mary’s inflammatory effect on her son and his half-brother, just as she is aware of the extramarital dalliances of her husband, King Henry, not only with his mistress, but with other ladies of the Court. 

Like everyone else of note in Europe, Catherine was aware that Diane de Poitiers was  Henri’s mistress, and had been since he was thirteen and she was thirty-two, long before Catherine came from Italy. The two women often made common cause when it seemed in Henri’s best interest. They worked together and  got Marie of Guise involved in getting Lady Janet Flemyng deported. It would have been difficult for Catherine and Diane not to have noticed the belly bump. Generally, Henri and Diane were like an old married couple. Catherine was the outsider.

Queen Catherine turns to her trusted adviser, the seer Nostradamus, who terrifies the Queen by telling her that  marriage to Mary will cost Francis his life


The only comment I have about Nostradamus is yes, he was on scene. It is true that he predicted that Catherine would outlive her children. although one did survive her - the infamous Queen Margot. (If you're looking for an excellent historical movie, try Isabelle Adjani in Queen Margot. Sex, talent and a touch of historical accuracy do mix).   I do not recall the adult Catherine de' Medici being terrified of anyone or anything, although her childhood had been plenty scary and I know of no recorded Nostradamus prediction concerning the Queen of Scots. And heck, he didn't die because he married the Queen of Scots. He died for going hunting in the winter without minding his mother and bundling up.

Catherine is determined to save her son, no matter how many others have to pay with their lives.


What behavior would  you expect from someone who brought a poison cabinet from Italy in her trousseau? However, the evidence is that the only people she killed were  inmates of asylums who were the subjects of her medical experiments and several thousand Huguenot's at Amboise and later during the Saint Bartholomew' s Day Massacre. In the later two events her partners were Marie Stuart's Guise uncles the Duke of Guise and the Cardinal of Lorraine.  She might have wanted to kill her condescending daughter-in-law but there is no evidence that she ever tried.  For one thing, King Henri doted on Marie, and Catherine doted on Henri.

Also, Mary soon realizes that unseen foes within the castle are conspiring to sabotage her marriage to Francis and even threaten her life.


There was an event when she was eight years old when a Scottish dissident tried to get the cook at Saint Germain to poison Marie Stuart's  frittered pears. Perhaps the screenwriters stumbled upon it and got confused.  And if the Scots delegates to the marriage negotiation knew the kind of deal that Marie’s uncles had cut with the king regarding Scotland, they might have poured a little arsenic in her claret.  But what’s this about ‘foes within the castle?’ This is not a fairy tale. The Valois court was movable and stayed in palaces and chateaux along the Loire and in Paris. The castles with the keeps and moats were several television seasons earlier  with  The Tudors.  I thought the screenwriters of that series were negligent when they mixed up Mary and Margaret Tudor and came up with an anorexic but seductive Gabrielle Anwar, but at least they got a fair bit of the history right, unless it bothers you that they had Margaret Tudor dying on the floor at a time when the real Margaret Tudor was Queen Consort of Scotland and expecting the birth of King James V, which is how Margaret Tudor got to be Marie Stuart's Gram.

So much for my nit-picking with the script.  There are problems beyond the screenwriting, but I will mention only a couple.

To begin with, Marie (not Mary) Stuart was almost six foot tall at the time of her wedding at Notre Dame, had hair that was probably glossy chestnut with red gold highlights or auburn,  did not own a sleeveless dress other than perhaps a nightgown, and had never worn anything made of Spandex or Lycra. She was a serious student and a reasonably competent poetess.  Historian John Guy describes her as having a ‘wicked sense of humor.’ Hence, if there is a Heaven with a window looking down upon our world, the Queen of Scots is laughing.  So is the LA Times  reviewer.  The USA Today reviewer was as brutal as  the scar-faced Duke Henri de Guise on Saint Bartholomew's Day.

If  the scriptwriters get stuck with a second season, perhaps they could hire Philippa Gregory as a consultant. Maybe they should just pay the $2.99 to Amazon Kindle and read the first two hundred pages of my book The First Marie and the Queen of Scots. That would spare them having to acquire a taste for research, which is obviously not yet on their list of interests.The tragedy in all of this is that Marie Stuart's life is great drama.  So why not sex it up a bit like they did with The Tudors, see if they can find a Henry Cavill double sitting in a pub somewhere and cast him as La Balafre, (The Scar), the Duke of Guise, and at least get Adelaide Kane to dye her hair auburn and put her in dresses with sleeves. Better yet, get Dakota Fanning's younger sister to dye her hair auburn. Then if there is, Heaven forbid, a third season, get Dakota Fanning to play the 24 year old queen. How hard is that?

Do I think television viewers want historical accuracy?...I do not. But when the truth is better than the fiction, why muck it up?  Why pretend that it is history when it is not. Is it important that we are serving a large dose of very  bad history to a generation of young people?  If we care about artistic integrity, it is.

1 comment:

  1. I have taken the liberty to post this on the Marie Queen of Scots facebook page, as it is so perfect that it needs no embellishment from me. It is so well written and posted, I marvel at the volume of your work Linda. You are a wonderful role model for all of us. Keep writing!

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