Aye Lassie – Episode 1

Written by on 2nd March 2019

Episode 1 – Two Queens

In episode 1 Trish takes you back roughly 500 years to women you’ll all know: Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth 1 of England. Why these women? Because they were queens when monarchs were men, they were highly educated when women could barely read and they played and won what was a man’s game. By looking at these two women, she explores ideas of gender, power and politics in the mid 16th century.

You can find out more by following the Aye Lassie Twitter account.



Elizabeth I of England and Mary, Queen of Scots. DeAgostini/Getty Images & National Galleries Of Scotland


Together: Hello and welcome!

Delaina: I’m Delaina Sepko.

Trish: And I’m Trish Caird.

Delaina: You’re listening to Aye Lassie, which is a 3 part series that introduces you to Scottish women’s history. We think that there are generations of extraordinary Scottish women who in their own ways have helped shape the world we live in now.

Trish: But we noticed that some of our heroines have been misrepresented or almost forgotten. So we’re excited to have the chance to tell you about them.

I’m Trish and I’d like to talk about 2 women.  Not women born today, or yesterday, or even in Scotland but they were remarkable for all that, and they lived in a time when women had few rights, had little access to the Law, had to obey their menfolk – their Father, Husband, Brother and if need be, Son.  They were largely confined to the private spaces of hearth and home, though married women had more freedom, and widows more still. To speak in public was completely against the rules. The 2 women I want to talk about don’t seem to be the kind of woman who would be worthy of attention in a radical woman’s discussion, but I hope you will come to understand why I think that they are.

Both women grew up with many advantages: they were born into rich, well-connected families, were awarded intensive education in languages, art, poetry, and all the necessities of a woman living in a Royal Court. And they learned the primary necessity: how to be a political animal.

Their worlds were very different to ours.  How they dressed, the music they sometimes heard, the books they read, the words they used, what it was to be a man, and especially, what it was to be a woman in 16th century Renaissance Scotland and England. The 2 women I’m talking about, if you’ve not already guessed it, are Queen Elizabeth 1st of England, and Queen Mary of Scotland.

We’ve all heard of these people.  How the Spanish Armada was crushed by a storm sent by God’s to save Queen Elizabeth’s England. How Mary Queen of Scots murdered her husband of less than a year for personal and political reasons.  Allegedly. But do we really believe that a storm was sent by God to save a kingdom situated on the edge of Europe? And who really knows who killed Lord Darnley after he survived a house blown to smithereens while he was lying in a sickbed of syphilis or some other equally heinous disease, only to be discovered later in a nearby orchard, unhurt by the explosion but strangled to death.

The world loves a good derring-do yarn and a Whodunnit is as popular today as it ever has been.  After all, the TV channels are awash with police and espionage tales but these two tales of high adventure and murder suspect have stood the test of time for still films are made and books are written. Through the new stories we’ve make up and pinned onto those written before, we’re presented with 2 dimensional pictures of 3 dimensional lives.

So who were Mary and Elizabeth? Queens. Autocratic. Proud. Rulers of all they surveyed? Or were they more complicated and, at the same time, simple?

[playing Queen Elizabeth 1, an actor reads:]

To be a King and wear a crown is a thing more glorious to them who see it than it is pleasant to them that bear it.

[In the broadcast version of this episode, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” by Sandy Denny plays.]

Trish: At 6 days old on the 15th of December 1542, Mary, daughter of Queen Mary of Guise and King James Steward the V of Scotland, was crowned Queen as her father died from wounds suffered by the defeat of the Scottish army by the English at Solway Moss.

[Trish reads]

It cam wi a lass and it will gang wi a lass.

is apparently how James received the news that he had fathered a daughter rather than a desired son and heir. The quote refers to the rise of the House of Stewart on the marriage of Robert the Bruce’s daughter, Marjorie, to Walter the Steward. Marjorie and Mary, separated by 2 hundred years, yet both carried the weight of a nation’s expectations on their female shoulders as decided by men. Women as pawns in a play in which they had little control or say.Mary was sent from Scotland to France as a child of 5 to live within the French Royal household where she contracted small pox, which left her face scarred. There she learned the social norms of the French Court and was educated in French, Italian, Spanish and Greek. At 16 she secretly bequeathed her Kingdom of Scotland and her claim to the English Crown to French rule should she die without issue to her fiancé Francois, the Dauphin of France and the King’s eldest son. However, a year after the marriage, Francois died from an ear infection and in 1561 Mary, now eighteen, returned alone to rule in Scotland.

Had Francois lived and it had been Mary who had died, history would have marked a different path entirely.  French claims to both the Scottish and English crowns could have resulted in French rule on the island of Britain. Instead Mary, age 18 and after the death of her husband, now King Francois, returned to Scotland in 1561 with the intent to rule to rule Scotland alone and with the ambition to secure her the English Crown should Elizabeth die before her.

Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn and King Henry 8th of England, was born at Greenwich Palace on 7th September 1533.  She was a great disappointment to her parents because of her sex and not the longed-for male heir, an event that meant that her older half-sister Mary remained the heir to Henry’s throne.  After the execution of her Mother and her Father’s marriage to his third wife, Elizabeth was proclaimed illegitimate on the birth of her half brother Edward but her status as Royal remained. However, her Father became increasingly unstable and her place in Court was constantly changing. Her escape was the schoolroom and she was provided with the most progressive educators in Europe, learning, like Mary, numerous languages, writing poetry and unusually, public speaking.  She was probably the most educated women in England and perhaps Europe.

And after an often traumatic childhood involving being embroiled in the political machinations of a fractured English Court, including being imprisoned by the new Queen Mary on suspicion of plotting against her. The claims though were never proven.

[playing Queen Elizabeth 1, an actor reads:]

I do not rejoice so much that God hath made me to be a Queen as to be a Queen over so thankful a people.

Trish: In 1553 and at age 25 Elizabeth Tudor became the first Protestant Queen of England after the death of her half sister Mary. As Queen, Elizabeth personified the inequities of being a ruler twice over. For many of her nobles and common folk, great uncertainty was caused because England had already switched religious alliances between Roman Catholic and Protestant rule. The previous reversal had only occurred a few years before when Elizabeth’s half sister Mary had ascended to the throne. Such further upheaval with the coronation of a young and new ruler was risky enough but friction was further increased because of Elizabeth’s very sex, which stood as another sound reason never for her never to be crowned at all. Men were challenged by the idea that any woman should have the smallest authority over a man. And such a repugnant moral wrong was made worse by the fact that a Queen could or should be an absolute ruler like any other King.

[playing Queen Elizabeth 1, an actor reads:]

There is no marvel in a women learning to speak but there would be in teaching her to hold her tongue.

Trish: As a Queen, she saw herself as capable as any competent King but to be tempted to marry one would require a remarkable King.  She knew at 25, as Mary at 16 had not understood, that to marry was to secede from direct rule and a demotion to Consort would be the price paid for personal desires.

[playing Queen Elizabeth 1, an actor reads:]

Though I am not imperial and though Elizabeth may not deserve it, the Queen of England will easily deserve to have an Emperor’s son to marry.

Trish: However, there would be consequences to such a path as never marrying not least of which was the problem of Mary of Scotland’s claim to right should Elizabeth die childless.

When Queen Mary returned home in 1561, the political conditions were a perfect storm of opportunity for religious fanatics of all stripes. Consequently, both Queens became focal points of the internal strife within both Kingdoms: Mary as Catholic Queen in Protestant Scotland, Elizabeth as Protestant Queen in Catholic England. This turmoil existed throughout Europe as the religious wars between the new Protestant religion clashed against the autocracy of the Roman Catholic Church that had ruled unchallenged for 1500 years. And the instability caused by them were to underpin and define both rulers’ political decisions for their entire lives as both women negotiated the oftentimes contradictory and dangerous realities of their highly class conscious and entirely patriarchal societies.

[playing Mary Queen of Scots, an actor reads:]

I fear the prayers of John Knox more than all the assembled armies of Europe.

Trish: Ensconced within the religious beliefs of a woman’s place in society, men felt diminished by the reality of two women rulers anointed by God.  This was an unnatural position. Not only that women should be in charge, but that men should obey them. In 1558 the Scots reformer John Knox, vehemently describing female rule as blasphemy against God, published First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.

[playing John Knox, an actor reads:]

I am assured that God hath reveled to some in this our age, that it is more than a monstre in nature that a Woman shall reign and have empire above a Man…however abominable, odious and detestable is all such usurped authorite.

To promote a woman to hear rule, superiortie, Dominion of empire above any realm, nation of Citie, is repugnant to Nature…it is the subversion of good order, of all equitie and justice.

…the regiment of women is a thing most odious in the presence of God…she is a traitor essential and rebell against God…they must stiudie to represse her inordinate price and tyrannie to the uttermost of their power.

By the Holy Ghost is manifestly expressed in these words, I suffer not a woman to usurp authority above a man. SO both by god’s law and the interpretation of the Holy Ghost, women are utterly forbidden to occupy the place of God in the offices foresaid, which he has assigned to manage, whom he hath appointed to be his lieutenant on earth. The apostle taketh power from all women to speak in the assembly.

Trish: Not only were women in power an abomination but their very nature defined their unfitness to rule and decide the actions of men.

John Knox wrote:

Womankinde is imprudent and soft [or flexible], imprudent because she cannot consider with wisdom and reason thinges which she hearth and seeth, and softe she is, because she is easily bowed.

Even the clothes women wore were emblematic of moral and physical weakness.

Richard Braithwaite wrote:

Soft clothes introduce soft minds. Delicacy in the habit begets effeminacy in the heart.

Culturally, Elizabeth and Mary were constrained by societal expectations. And while Mary chose to abide closely with such social norms, Elizabeth immediately set out to show herself as more than just a woman.

[playing Queen Elizabeth 1, an actor reads:]

Though the sex to which I belong is considered weak you’ll nevertheless find me a rock that bends to no wind.

Trish: Mary spoke more of feelings and it has been these parts of her rule that have been examined and judged.

[playing Mary Queen of Scots, an actor reads:]

To be kind to all, to like many and love a few, to be needed and wanted by those you love is certainly the nearest we can come to happiness.

Trish: Elizabeth retained a regal distance but courted the common folk.

[playing Queen Elizabeth 1, an actor reads:]

And therefore I come amongst you at this time not as for my recreation or sport but being resolved in the midst and heat of the battle to live or die amongst you all, to lay down for my God and for my Kingdom and for my people, my honour and my blood. Even the dust. I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman but I have the heart of a King and of a King of England too.

Trish: As Elizabeth continued in her strategy of divide and rule – between her Lords and her People and between the factions of her Lords as well – she created space in which she could rule.  Always in fear of invasion from Spanish or French Kings, her first policy toward Scotland was to oppose the French presence there. Both France and Spain were Catholic and if they were successful in deposing Elizabeth, the legitimate claimant to the English crown was as we know Scotland’s Catholic Mary.  Mary already had affiliations with the French court. To have her ascend the throne would once again remove the Protestant threat and and aid Catholic’s aims to return Europe to the catholic faith. But Elizabeth was an astute woman who recognised the dangerous political factions that surrounded her. She kept close eyes and ears in the courts of these powerful and ambitious Royals. But it’s no wonder with all these political riptides that neither woman felt entirely safe within their own kingdoms.

[playing Mary Queen of Scots, an actor reads:]

No one provokes me with impunity.

[In the broadcast version of this episode, “Three Ravens” by Malinky plays.]

Trish: Meanwhile Mary disastrously involved herself in factional politics at home rather than staying above the internal disputes of her nobles and thus being Queen and Ruler of all of Scotland. She married for a 2nd time – against the advice of her advisors – Lord Darnley. Within a year the marriage was a shell as Mary ensured that Darnley was kept distanced from any form of power. Her son, James was born in Stirling Castle and baptised Catholic, increasing the fears of all Protestants in Scotland.

[playing Queen Elizabeth 1, an actor reads:]

There is no marvel in a woman learning to speak but there would be in teaching her to hold her tongue.

Trish: However, it was her 3rd marriage in 1567 to the detested Lord Bothwell that finally caused a constitutional crisis and gave Queen Elizabeth opportunity to question Mary’s choices.

[playing Queen Elizabeth 1, an actor reads:]

How could a worse choice be made for your honour that in such haste to marry such a subject, who besides other and notorious lacks public fame, hath charged with the murder of your late husband, beside the touching of yourself? Also, though in some part we trust that in that behalf falsely.

Trish: Finally, Scotland had had enough and following an uprising, Mary was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle where she gave birth to two stillborn twins and was forced to abdicate in favour of her year old son James.

[playing Mary Queen of Scots, an actor reads:]

No more tears now. I will think about revenge.

Trish: Mary, helped by supporters, escaped Leven Castle but was then defeated at Langside by the Protestant faction in Scotland.  Mary fled to England seeking succour from the only other woman Monarch in Christendom.

[playing Queen Elizabeth 1, an actor reads:]

It is a natural virtue incident to our sex to be pitiful of those that are afflicted.

Trish: Instead, Mary found herself incarcerated for the following nineteen years and used as a political pawn for Elizabeth’s requirements. Mary was a continual thorn in Elizabeth’s reign but Elizabeth was unwilling to dispose of Mary as she would any other dangerous opponent. Mary was, after all, like Elizabeth, another of God’s anointed monarchs. Even though Mary was no longer a Queen by Scotland’s Constitution, she was still in Elizabeth’s mind and religion above man’s Law and was therefore still an anointed Queen.  To put such a person to death was to damn her own soul.

That position stayed the same until in November 1583 Francis Throckmorton was arrested and tortured.  He admitted that there was a plot against Elizabeth and that Mary was implicated in it.  This changed everything. Mary was, even 15 years out of the public eye, still a political rallying call against Elizabeth’s reign. But Elizabeth did not take swift action. For four years she swithered and hesitated to act. Eventually, Mary was deemed guilty of treason for plotting against Elizabeth and despite the political fallout that would inevitably come from her decision, Elizabeth executed Mary in Fotheringhay Castle in 1587.  It took the executioner three attempt to sever the head from the body.

[playing Mary Queen of Scots, an actor reads:]

Look to your consciences and remember the theatre of the world is wider than England.

Trish: The final irony is that, while it could legitimately be argued that Elizabeth took to absolute rule with more finesse and political nous than her rival Mary, it is the Scottish branch of the family that finally took claim to the English crown and it was Mary’s son James that claimed it.  Yet even as his personal fortune rose in that fortuitous event, Scotland lost a monarch living in Scotland at a time when a strong King invested strength and identity in the Scottish nation as a whole.

[playing Queen Elizabeth 1, an actor reads:]

Men fight wars. Women win them.

Trish: But that isn’t why I am so fascinated by these two women who took no formal steps to makes women’s lives more open and autonomous during their lifetimes. Neither of these women were ultimately autonomous themselves. Mary died because of her known ambition for power and a seat on the English throne. But it was accusations by men that siloed her fate. The English Crown was a far richer, more glittering throne than its Scottish counterpart. It was more reminiscent of the French court in which she grew up and it was therefore a prize worth fighting for.

Elizabeth however emphasised by word her weakness as a woman but she ensured that she was viewed as being as politically aware as any King. And that, when necessity demanded it. She acted as ruthless as any of her male relatives.

At least that’s what we have been told in those stories and plays. But Mary like Elizabeth are figures distorted by time and place. We are not people of the 16th century, but we can say that no one is an island and events require many parts to make them appear coherent. Mary was also a prisoner and a focal point for English dissent. She was named as a conspirator by a man who had been placed under extreme torture but she never admitted to the charge. But Elizabeth was also constrained by cultural realities and autonomy not always within her grasp. Mary was too dangerous for Elizabeth to allow to live indefinitely. Too many factions both internal and external would use her again. What we do know is that Mary died by beheading for political means.

These two women lived in the Renaissance, a time that was the cusp between the old ways of life and the new. The word renaissance means rebirth and many social norms and government institutions we recognise today began while other things fell away. Mary and Elizabeth literally helped reshape how we think of ourselves. It may have been an unintended consequence of what was thought to be bigger things, but that they ruled as women – and were taken seriously – sent a message to women. And those women might not even have recognised that the message had been received. Nevertheless, women began to appear in the public realm as poets and playwrights, for example, often quietly and anonymously but with growing confidence. Kings and Queens are no longer God’s anointed ruler on earth and the legacy of the anonymous and often quiet women with increasing number of women writers, poets, actors, doctors, scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs and social engineers. Women are still finding their voice and that’s why Mary and Elizabeth are important figures in women’s histories.

[playing Queen Elizabeth 1, an actor reads:]

As for my own part I care not for death for all men are mortal and though I be a woman yet I have as good a courage answerable to my place as ever my father had. I am your anointed Queen. I will never be by violence constrained to do anything. I thank God I am indeed endowed with such qualities that if I were turned out of the realm in my petticoat, I were able to live in any place in Christendom.

[In the broadcast version of this episode, “Fotheringhay” by Sandy Denny plays.]

Delaina: In episode 2 we’ll pick up out story about 1850 when women campaigned against poor housing conditions, limited health services and no representation in Parliament and we’ll pause in 1928 when women over 21 got the right to vote in public elections.

We’d like to thank everyone who helped us put together episode 1. That includes Lesley Mitchell for reading Elizabeth, Nora McKerrow for reading Mary, Michael Maciocia for reading John Knox, Steve Ogden, Sunny G Radio, Lisa Donati at Gie It Laldy, Briony Cullin and Kirsty Mooney. Thank you very much!

Want to find out more or listen to this show again? Head on over to www.sunnyg.com/ayelassie to play this and other episodes as many times as you like. You can also check out extra materials related to each show. Feel free to get in touch via our Twitter account @ayelassieradio and let us know what you think.


About the authors/hosts

Dr Delaina Sepko is a researcher and archivist. Although she’s not Scottish, she has a great love and respect for the women who have helped make her adopted country a fierce nation. She is drawn to and inspired by the Scottish suffrage campaigners and especially curious how they used music in their activism. When she’s not revelling in Scottish women’s history, she’s running DMF Research and most likely doing something music-related. You can check out her other work via her Twitter account.

Dr Delaina Sepko

Delaina with Samson


Trish Caird is interested in women’s histories and she’s been a member of the Strong Women of Clydeside since 2013. She’s helped flesh out histories of Mary Barbour and other women involved in the Glasgow Rent Strikes as well as the Women’s Peace Crusade campaign. Her work in film, as a history tour guide and as a singer give her a unique perspective when researching and sharing stories about remarkable Scottish women.

Trish Caird




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