"THERE can be no doubt of her failure as a ruler." So wrote the late, great Scottish historian, Jenny Wormald, of Mary Queen of Scots nearly 30 years ago. In the years since, many have disagreed with her, and Mary’s enduring popularity on stage, screen, print and online forums indicates a seemingly undimmed public fascination with the queen, her reign, and her disastrous, ultimately tragic downfall. Why does this ill-fated woman exert such a hold?

Writers and readers alike appear to identify with the struggles of a woman who returns to a rebellious kingdom while still in her teens. But many politicians, and historians, have used Mary’s life and death to further their own causes: today for some, she is a symbol of English oppression – as in the past others portrayed her as Catholic martyr, or dangerously Catholic adulteress, depending on their religious persuasion, or affinity to England.

Whether empathising or politicising, people engage with the idea of Mary, rather than the lady herself. It is because she has always been what we prefer to think of her, that she remains so current. The idea of Mary attunes itself to our changing times.

This year, 2017, the Mary-related production line has already churned out at least one major play, the critically acclaimed Glory On Earth, which showed at Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre earlier in the summer. The Edinburgh Fringe, meanwhile, staged a brilliant dark comedy, Marie, and a concert with newly composed music inspired by her life. Netflix has just aired its fourth series of Reign, a cringe-making teen soap opera loosely based on Mary’s liaisons in France and Scotland, and the tumultuous times after she returns to take up her Scottish throne. If I say it was first screened in the timeslot after the Vampire Diaries, you will get my point.

Meanwhile, this weekend's Mary Queen Of Scots Festival in Kinross (September 2-3) is dedicated wholly to Mary, with jousting, music and dance. No doubt there will be an outburst of popular publishing to accompany the forthcoming Hollywood blockbuster, which is due for release next year, but first off the literary blocks is the republication of Wormald’s incisive study that brought her extensive work in Scottish history to bear upon a new understanding of Mary Queen of Scots as monarch.

She didn’t like what she found. As the subtitle of her book, A Study In Failure, suggests, Wormald’s Mary is a drama queen, unwilling and unfit to rule, a woman born to huge privilege who dissipates it in her lust for the English crown and unsuitable men. And in the course of doing so, makes Scotland, her birthright, a poor third on her list of priorities after England and France. She was an aberration in a generally successful line of Stewart Scottish monarchs, in particular in comparison to her son, the talented James VI (the future James I of England).

Mary, Wormald wrote, was "ludicrous", a queen who was "reluctant to rule" and failed to exercise control. She put "marriage before monarchy", demanding respect due to her as queen, but without understanding that "there was something fundamental due from her" in return. Mary was a woman of "little wit and no judgement". She was even a bad Catholic, failing to rescue the Catholic church in Scotland from a recent and fragile Protestant Reformation. But foremost, Wormald damns her "ineptitude": "the central fact of sovereignty, the ability to rule, was the critical area in which Mary failed".

As a historian, I can see where Wormald was coming from on all this. She did, however, take a pretty hard line. The softie in me would provide excuses for Mary’s behaviour, balancing the undeniable mistakes with an appreciation of the better choices she made in the early years of her personal rule. And Mary certainly also felt strongly about Scotland. In captivity, she wrote endlessly asking for support in her restoration. But Wormald was correct in saying that Mary prioritised her efforts to secure Elizabeth I’s recognition of her right to the English crown, when arguably she could have been concentrating on running Scotland. Above all, Wormald was trying to look clearly and unemotionally at the case, and I much respect that singular focus.

Wormald’s pithy language both captivated and alienated readers. In subsequent interviews, as new films and plays appeared over the next 20 years, Wormald’s condemnation remained as strong. Mary’s "baleful legacy" was a favourite phrase. On hearing of yet another Marian drama, Wormald responded: "I can't understand why anyone would want to make a film about such an overrated woman … She didn't have much of a head to begin with."

For Wormald, it was particularly galling that Mary "rejected Scotland, the one country which was hers to rule", a country that "was a great success by 16th-century standards … It had overcome its remoteness by punching above its weight in Europe".

Reaction to the original publication of Wormald’s book was predictably divided between outrage and praise. Wormald managed to stimulate the ire of romanticists, Scottish nationalists and feminists. Some in the academic world took issue too: the respected historian Prof Michael Lynch was her sternest critic, though on many points theirs is a disagreement in interpretation of events. Wormald's book, he said, would "entertain, provoke, even outrage", but "on most of its central arguments A Study In Failure fails to convince". Ouch. However, even he acknowledged the book’s readability, the "sparkling wine" of its elegant writing.

Elsewhere, the criticism flowed. Amazon customer reviews for the previous publication of Wormald’s book in paperback concluded that it was "full of nonsense"; it was "biased and mean" (a repeated phrase); it dripped with "fabricated information" and was "the worst piece of literature I have ever read!". The personal affront felt by such readers, caused by Wormald’s unflinching approach, is symptomatic of the wider romanticisation of Mary. One critic complained about Mary’s portrayal, noting that "even when she gave to the poor, she did so with a caring heart". Parallels were drawn with another ill-fated princess, Diana, Princess of Wales.

This sentimentality I think stems principally from an over-identification, an empathisation of modern readers with what they imagine was Mary’s experience. What they would feel in the 21st century projected back onto the life of a woman born to reign, and raised as a queen, over 400 years ago. This is an immense challenge but writers persist in thinking it possible. A review of Reign by Flavorwire described it as "fantastical princess wish-fulfilment", and I would emphasise the fantasy of the series.

David Greig, the director of the more convincing Glory On Earth, the play about Mary’s encounters with the fiercely Presbyterian John Knox, described it as "a single act of empathetic imagination to take us back to the reality of this woman and this place and this time". Interviewed by the Scotsman, its playwright, Linda McLean, said: "It really shocked me, that [Mary] was so young" when she returned to reign in Scotland, with the journalist concluding that "every generation of theatre-makers finds in the story of Mary reflections of their own concerns". Malleable Mary indeed, being shaped around our modern sensibilities.

It is simply absurd however to think that we can possibly really know Mary’s "reality", when we have not been conditioned from birth with the sort of deference and exceptionalism with which Mary was treated. She lived in a very different patriarchal society, conditioned by it in her acceptance of its constraints, and the religious doctrines by which she lived. Her oft-noted youth should be put in the context of dramatically lower average life expectancy, with much earlier ages at marriage, and understandings of adulthood. Mary would not have expected sympathy for it, and she would not have felt particularly young to be finally taking up the reins of something she was raised to do. While Mary’s letters certainly asked her readers for sympathy, that does not necessarily mean she deserved it.

Other readers have been more receptive to Wormald’s interpretation. "No melodrama – at last!", an "evaluation of Mary as a professional monarch, rather than a soap-opera heroine". This is "a book that focuses on what Mary Queen of Scots actually did as a queen. It measures her against the same stick used to measure other rulers of the same age … She was no martyred saint, yet she was no she-demon in velvet skirts. She was charming and lovely, however she was also inadequate."

Wormald herself remained perplexed about Mary’s hold on the public and entertainment industry’s imagination: "I'm fascinated there should be three films about this tedious creature," she wrote. "I can't really particularly explain her fascination except that the Scots seem to quite like terrific failures provided they are romantic, like Bonnie Prince Charlie." Mary was "a grade-A bore. In the 17th century nobody really much cared about her".

However, once the damning Casket Letters were published, alleged to be written by Mary to the Earl of Bothwell by Mary and implicating her in adultery and the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley, "here was a drama: sex, murder, you name it".

To answer Wormald's questions, then, Mary's enduring appeal appears to lie partly in the drama of her life, the did/didn’t involvement in Darnley’s murder, and the writing of the Casket Letters. And a Scottish fascination with failure, particularly romantic failure.

Where Mary trod, Bonnie Prince Charlie was to follow. Sunday Herald literary editor Rosemary Goring has written that she suspects "the attraction of Mary and the Young Pretender goes deeper than we’d like to think. Their turbulent, in many ways pitiful lives create a magnetic spell that seems unbreakable. Scots, it would appear, love heroic failure". That "because their lives should have been gilded, but were painful and pathetic, they were no doubt a comfort to those whose own existence was hard. Glorious defeat offered consolation – and maybe for some it still does".

Well, there is always political mileage to be made of someone’s disaster. In 2008, one Scottish National Party MSP called for Mary’s remains to be removed from their Westminster tomb, and repatriated to Scotland. I wrote to the honourable member suggesting, to the contrary, that Mary would have been thrilled with her marble monument in the principal cathedral of the kingdom of England, for whose throne she had so long angled. She would have thought it her birthright. However, the MSP found it impossible to accept that Mary would have found her final resting place, alongside fellow English monarchs, most appropriate. Another campaigner had the bright idea of repatriating the remains of her third husband, the earl of Bothwell, from Denmark, where until relatively recently they were on show to the public, with the idea, possibly, of some ghoulish reunion between the long dead couple.

Mary certainly was not treated well by the English. Understandably she railed repeatedly against her lengthy captivity. It was an unjust incarceration, she said, declaring her innocence of any implication in adultery and murder. She might have expected better handling by her cousin Elizabeth I, another female monarch in a male-dominated world. But what she seems to have completely misunderstood, or ignored as inconvenient, is the hugely difficult position that she created for England’s Protestant queen as a Catholic monarch whom many Catholics recognised as the legitimate heir to the English throne.

From the moment Mary stepped across the Border, she threatened Elizabeth’s position. Inevitably she became the focus of Catholic hopes for a restoration of Catholicism in England, and the figurehead therefore for plots to overthrow Elizabeth. Mary’s fate was not the English oppression of a Scottish queen. It was the fate of a woman whose disastrous political decisions in 1567 and 1568 left her in the unfortunate position of begging for help from another queen, whose own life she now compromised. For the next 19 years, Elizabeth was under pressure from her ministers to remove that threat, and indeed resisted them until Mary’s own injudicious scheming gave them the evidence they needed to kill her.

To find the reasons behind Mary’s downfall, beyond her own mistakes, we have to look closer to home: Scotland’s brand of Knoxian intolerance, the self-serving infighting of its political elites, the people who used religious belief to further political ends, and those who conspired with the "auld enemy" England, taking its tainted money to secure their own advancement. If we want to find parallels between Mary’s experiences and ours today, it is in the political arena, and not her youth, or gender, that they lie.

Mary Queen Of Scots: A Study in Failure by Jenny Wormald, updated with a foreword, afterword and bibliography by Anna Groundwater is available now from John Donald (£14.99, paperback) www.birlinn.co.uk


Dr Anna Groundwater is a cultural and social historian of early modern Scotland and Britain. She lectures at the University of Edinburgh and is a fellow of the royal Historical Society and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Follow her on Twitter @agroundw

Mary Queen of Scots: a brief history

By Sunday Herald staff writer

Born in 1542, Mary became Queen of Scotland aged six days old, when her father, King James V, died. In 1548, aged six, she was sent to France to become bride of the young French prince, Francis, in order to secure a Catholic alliance against England. They married in 1558; when he died two years later she returned to Scotland, then in the throes of the Reformation. In 1565 she married Henry, Lord Darnley who, in February 1567, died in mysterious circumstances when the Edinburgh house he was lodging in was blown up.

Mary very soon afterwards married James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, who had been acquitted of Darnley’s murder. Soon afterwards she was imprisoned in Leven Castle and forced to abdicate in favour of her infant son, James VI.

In May 1568 Mary escaped from Leven Castle, and attempted to restore her rights as queen at the Battle of Langside, but was defeated and fled to England, where she spent 19 years imprisoned in various castles. Found guilty of plotting against Elizabeth I, her cousin, she was beheaded in 1587 at Fotheringhay Castle. She was 44. After Elizabeth's death in 1603, her son became James I of England and VI of Scotland.