Strength and Surrender in Mary Queen of Scots’ Casket Sonnets

Strength and Surrender in Mary Queen of Scots’ Casket Sonnets

Danni Glover (Ulster University, Coleraine) examines the evidence used in the trial of Mary Queen of Scots as “a lightning rod for the anti-Catholic, anti-feminist sentiment of the era.”

On June 20th 1567, servants of James Douglas 4th Earl of Morton uncovered a silver casket from the residence of James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell. The casket contained eight letters, two marriage contracts, and twelve poems (in fact one long poem of twelve sonnet-stanzas, but usually read as twelve individual sonnets) all supposedly written for Bothwell by Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, who was forced to abdicate a month later. The contents of the casket became a key piece of evidence in the Scottish monarch’s trial for her suspected involvement in the murder of her husband Lord Darnley. Mary’s detractors alleged that the documents proved that she had agreed to marry Bothwell before his divorce, and that she was implicated in his murder.

These charges were brought against her by a hostile English government that opposed her Catholicism as a threat to Elizabethan rule, as well as by rebels in her own country. The original French text and Scots translations of the sonnets were published in 1571 by George Buchanan;[1] to the chagrin of book historians this text is the only surviving contemporary source of the sonnets as the condition and location of the originals is unknown.

The sonnets are of particular interest to book and literary historians, particularly those who are concerned with matters of authenticity and literary forgeries. Several eminent Marian scholars have maintained that at least some of the contents were not in fact written by Mary herself but manufactured by those who sought to oust her. Whether the sonnets are authentic or not is far beyond the scope of investigation afforded to me by a blog post. Much of the discussion hinges upon whether the sonnets are “turgid verses… remarkably unlike Mary’s known poetic efforts,”[2] or “a genuinely revolutionary inversion of woman’s useful discursive position as the object of poetic discourse,”;[3] whether they are a weak imitation of a talented writer or whether they are a subversively introspective erotic exploration never intended for the eyes of anyone but a lover.

Whether the sonnets were authentic or not their contents were held to account as Mary’s country, religion, and gender were all put on trial for her alleged crimes. For the purposes of this analysis, let us assume (as the English court did) that the sonnets were written by Mary, while bearing in mind the limitations of such an assertion.

The most overwhelming theme contained in the sonnets is that of surrender. In the second sonnet, she writes:

In his handis and in his full power

I put my sonne, my honour, and my lyif,

My contry, my subjectis, my soule, al subdewit

To him, and has none uther will (l.1-4)

This sonnet demonstrates a Petrarchan conceit inverted by gender. The tortured lover in this case is a woman, and the distant beloved is a man, but other aspects of the conceit are conventional. The lover expresses her desire through hyperbole and surrender to the often painful will of her beloved. It’s a similar feminine reflection on the form to an earlier publication by Louise Labé entitled Evvres (Lyons, 1555). The poetry of Labé and Stuart both demand a uniquely feminine space to explore feminine eros, subverting the gendered aspects of a complicated continental form. Sarah Dunnigan has described the Petrarchan female “I” as “a different aesthetic […] one which transposes ‘woman’ from object to subject, to render her an agent of desire.”[4] In her rendering of herself as a Petrarchan lover, Mary gives herself the power to be an agent of desire, not a mere object to be desired.

This is an especially empowering sentiment for a woman who is in her second political marriage. This theme of surrender is pertinent to several aspects of Mary’s life. In literature of the Renaissance the act of surrendering is one of erotic desire. There’s also an aspect of surrender in Catholic devotion – Mary refers to Bothwell as “Seigneur” in the poems, a word which means “Lord” both in the sense of feudal ownership and reverence to God), and a gendered aspect; Mary was expected to be submissive to the political rule of her husband even though she had sovereign rule of Scotland.

Mary’s emotional and spiritual surrender of the second sonnet takes a much darker tone in the ninth sonnet, in which she describes what appears to be a rape at the hands of Bothwell:

For him also I powred out many teares,

First quhen he made himselfe possessor of thys body,

Of the quihilk then he had nat the hart. (l.1-3)

The penetration of Mary’s body becomes a symbolic penetration of Scotland itself, invited in a sense by her erotic connection to a man who is not her husband. Mary’s detractors interpreted her rendering of the rape as evidence that she is capable of being possessed, both physically and politically by Bothwell, who was involved in the murder plot of the Queen’s husband. To her enemies, the influence of Bothwell on the Queen was extremely tangible.

If Mary’s surrender to her lover had Catholic undertones, then the forces to which her Catholicism compelled her to surrender (including her desire for Bothwell) must be evaluated as a threat to Elizabeth’s sovereignty, and, by extension, so must her Catholicism itself. These contemporary criticisms of Mary’s ability to rule without interference were reflected in the work of one of her most prolific adversaries, John Knox:

Womankinde is imprudent and soft (or flexible); imprudent, because she can not consider with wisdom and reason thinges which she hearth and seeth; and softe she is, because she is easilie bowed.[5]

Mary’s sonnets become a lightning rod for the anti-Catholic, anti-feminist sentiment of the era. Assuming that the sonnets are genuine, they paint a picture of a woman whose devotion to the man she loved overwhelmed the instincts of fortitude and self-preservation that are demanded of a strong ruler, but there is much palaeographical and stylistic evidence to suggest that they are, at least in part, the product of excessive tampering.

It may also be worth bearing in mind that the sonnets were certainly never intended for public consumption, and the privacy of devotion between two lovers does not necessarily suggest an equivalent public dynamic. These sonnets prove that an illicit love affair took place, and Bothwell almost certainly had a hand in Darnley’s murder, but the contents of the casket themselves do not incriminate Mary in any act more treasonous than adultery.

The first sonnet concludes with a pledge to martyrdom:

I will for his saik renounce the warld,

I will die to set him forwart. (l.12-13)

Her promise came true. Her martyrdom, underscored because of English insistence that she died for treason, not for religion, became a banner for continental Catholics following her death. Her sonnets demonstrate strength contained in ownership of her own sexuality and poetic expression, and submissiveness contained in her devotion to her lover and her faith. The contents and context of these sonnets are a mystery upon which much of the Marian myth is founded.

[1] George Buchanan (1571) Ane detectioun of the duinges of Marie Quene of Scottes thouchand the murder of hir husband, and hir conspiracie, adulterie, and pretensed mariage with the Erle Bothwell. And ane defence of the trew Lordis, mainteineris of the Kingis graces actioun and authoritie. (London: Printed by John Day) Available online at

[2] Antonia Fraser (1970) Mary Queen of Scots (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson) p. 403

[3] Sarah M. Dunnigan, ‘Scottish Women Writers c.1560-1650’ in Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan eds. A History of Scottish Women’s Writing (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) pp.15-43; p.20

[4] Sarah Dunnigan, ‘Rewriting the Renaissance Language of Love and Desire: The ‘bodily burdein’ in the Poetry of Mary, Queen of Scots” in Gramma 4 (1996) pp.181-96; p.182

[5] John Knox (1558) First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (Geneva) Available online at

Danni Glover is a poet, essayist, and third-year PhD researcher from Glasgow. Her DEL-funded thesis is on the construction of British identities in literary anthologies of the eighteenth century with a particular focus on Bishop Percy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s