Marie of Guise was born on November 20, 1515 in the castle of Bar-le-Duc in northeast France. Her father was Claude, Duke of Guise and her mother was Antoinette of Bourbon. The Guises were one of the most powerful families in France being very astute in politics and military concerns. They were to dominate Scottish and French affairs for fifty years. Marie was able to learn all the fundamentals of politics from her family.
Marie was an only child for four years but then many brothers and sisters came along. When she was eleven, she was sent to live with her grandmother, Philippa of Guelders at her home in Pont-à-Mousson where she was educated. She may have been destined for a convent but her uncle Antony, Duke of Lorraine, while visiting his mother, met Marie when she was about fourteen and decided she should not be shut away. Marie was remarkably tall and attractive, had auburn hair, a regal manner, confidence, dignity, maturity, and intelligence and was affable to all classes of people. She easily inspired loyalty. She would be an asset to the family by making a brilliant marriage, maybe even to one of the sons of King Francis I of France. Duke Antony took her to his palace in Nancy for finishing and when she was sixteen, she was presented at court where she lived for the next three years. King Francis liked her and she became friends with his daughters Madeleine and Marguerite. She was admired for her appearance, wit, prudence, high spirits and wisdom.
During the coronation of Queen Eleanor, second wife of King Francis I of France, Marie had met Louis, Duke of Longueville and they had been attracted to each other. It was decided in the spring of 1534 they would marry. Her father provided a modest dowry of eighty thousand livres. Longueville had extensive estates in Normandy and the valley of the Loire. The wedding took place on August 4, 1534 in the chapel of the royal palace of the Louvre with the King and his family in attendance. The marriage was successful. They lived at court and during the summer they toured around their estates. According to family chronicles, wherever Marie traveled she asked for the names of widows and orphans and elderly people in poverty so she could help them. She visited convents and almshouses, helped children get an education and paid for young girls dowries. Her first son, Francis, was born on October 30, 1535.
In the winter of 1536-37 Marie was back at court to witness the marriage of her friend the Princess Madeleine to King James V of Scotland. The celebrations lasted for weeks. Marie returned to her castle of Châteaudun and she was pregnant again. By June of 1537, her husband had died, probably of smallpox, leaving her a widow at 21. Her son Louis was born on August 4, 1537 but he was to die four months later. Shortly before on July 7, 1537, Queen Madeleine of Scotland had died in the arms of King James V at Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh.
King James sent word to King Francis his daughter had died and he was seeking a second wife. Francis had no intention of sending another daughter to the cold climate of Scotland and suggested the recently widowed Duchess of Longueville as a possible wife, informing Marie of his plans. She was distressed by the news. Her husband had been dead for two months and she had a young son she would be forced to leave behind to rule his Longueville estates. After being persuaded by her family, in October it was agreed she would marry the Scottish King.
About the same time, King Henry VIII of England’s third wife, Jane Seymour had died after giving birth to a son, the future King Edward VI. Henry was looking for a new wife and heard how attractive and tall the Duchess of Longueville was. When Marie heard of King Henry’s interest in her as a new wife and her height, she exclaimed “I may be big in person, but my neck is small”, probably in reference to Anne Boleyn’s comment on her own small neck before her execution.
With Marie intervening in the negotiations of her marriage contract herself, she got favorable terms and the agreement was signed in March 1538. A proxy wedding took place at Châteaudun in May. She sailed for Scotland on June 10 and arrived safely. A marriage ceremony in person took place a few days later at St. Andrews. Celebrations ensued. Marie’s influence on James’ court was obvious early on. She was a formidable person in her own right and had many ideas. She influenced how women dressed by wearing French fashion. Marie was able to charm her mother in law, Margaret Tudor, the dowager Queen of Scotland. She coped with and accepted the fact that James had many mistresses and even took care of his illegitimate children. She administered many restoration and remodeling projects on castles. Linlithgow and Falkland Palaces were her personal favorites and she had them remodeled in the French mode.
Marie did not become pregnant until Sept 1539 and preparations for a coronation began. The crowning took place on February 22, 1540. A son was born on May 22 and named James. By March of the following year she was pregnant again. During this time her husband was exhibiting signs of paranoia and depression. Marie had a second son Robert born on April 12. On April 21st, Prince James died and shortly thereafter, Prince Robert died too.
Both parents were distraught. The children were buried in Holyrood Abbey next to Queen Madeleine. By May of the following year, Marie was pregnant again. In the fall, James learned that King Henry VIII of England was making preparations to attack Scotland and James decided he was not going to allow the attack to go unanswered. On November 24, 1542, James chose to make a huge attack at Solway Moss before choosing the optimal time and place. The results were disastrous for the Scots. The defeat was a huge blow to the King, humiliating him personally and greatly damaging to his forces. He went to Linlithgow to see Marie in her confinement and then travelled to Falkland Palace and retired to his bed with a fever. On December 8, Marie gave birth to a daughter, named Mary. James was to die in the early morning of December 15, possibly of a nervous breakdown. Marie was a widow once again.
The death of James V and the birth of Marie’s daughter set in motion events placing Scotland in the middle of a conflict between France and England. Both countries wanted to take physical custody of the small princess in an effort to dominate Scottish affairs. But Marie saw it as her duty to safeguard her daughter’s birthright and to maintain the Scottish alliance with France. James V had no will so the regency of the young princess was to be played out between David Beaton, Cardinal-Archbishop of St. Andrews who was pro-French and the pro-English James Hamilton, Earl of Arran. Arran was named regent and although Marie was in no position to question the appointment, she didn’t trust Arran. He named Beaton as chancellor, two weeks later imprisoning him. He seized all the royal castles except Stirling which was Marie’s by right and began to encourage ties with Henry VIII of England.
Henry wanted to dominate Scotland and put forth a marriage of his son Edward to the Scottish Queen. Marie shrewdly agreed to the marriage and the Treaty of Greenwich was negotiated. Marie got the support she needed from Beaton, who had escaped from prison and from Matthew Stuart, Earl of Lennox who was representing King Francis I. Arran agreed to share his position as regent and Queen Mary was removed to Stirling Castle. Marie was to head the council and Mary Queen of Scots was crowned on September 9, 1543. Marie had gambled and won. She was now in control of the government and awaited the annulment of the Treaty of Greenwich. When this did happen, it infuriated King Henry VIII. It was the beginning of a campaign called “The Rough Wooing” which was led by Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, King Henry’s brother-in-law. The fighting between England and Scotland lasted from December 1542 to March of 1550. After years of sieges and battles, with power waxing and waning, the English abandoned the fight and a peace treaty was signed. In the meantime, a contract had been negotiated with the French with the young Queen of Scots betrothed to the Dauphin, Francis, son of King Henri II. The six year old Queen left Scotland for France in August of 1548 to be raised by her future in-laws.
After the peace with the English, Marie felt secure enough to travel to France to visit her daughter. She mourned the death of her elder son Francis. She then traveled to England and visited King Edward VI. In December of 1552, Marie returned to Scotland and by May of 1553, her power had increased to the point where she could challenge the Earl of Arran. She finally achieved the regency in her own name on April 12, 1554 and was to remain in power until 1560. Her daughter, Mary Queen of Scots was married to the Dauphin Francis on April 24, 1558.
During her years as regent Marie promoted French interests, alienating many Scots and those who were in the pay of the English. There was fighting off and on with the English and with the Scottish Protestants led by the “Lords of the Congregation”. Throughout the fighting, Marie would appear before the troops, urging them on and often putting herself in danger. During a round of negotiations to end the conflict in May of 1560, Marie became ill. She suffered from congestive heart failure and was having symptoms of dropsy. Realizing she was dying, she called the “Lords” to ask forgiveness if she ever offended them. Some of them left in tears. The illness became very serious and her mind began to wander. On June 8 she made her will and she finally died on June 11. Her body was taken to France and she was buried in the church at the Convent of Saint-Pierre in Reims.
Further reading: “Mary of Guise: Queen of Scots” by Rosalind K. Marshall, “The True Life of Mary Queen of Scots” by John Guy, “The Brood of False Lorraine: The History of the Ducs de Guise (1496-1588), Volume 1” by H. Noel Williams, “Princelie Majestie: The Court of James V of Scotland, 1528-1542” by Andrea Thomas, “Scottish Queens, 1034-1714” by Rosalind K. Marshall, entry on Marie de Guise in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Rosalind K. Marshall