So I was on Netflix the other night and it suggested that I watch Reign, the CW show about Mary Queen of Scots. And I thought, “Ok. Let’s give it a try. How bad can it be?” The answer is, it can be pretty darn bad.
The Historical Queen Mary of Scotland
Marie Stuart (which is the French spelling of her name) was born in December of 1542, the only surviving child of King James V of Scotland and his French wife Mary of Guise. The Scots and the French had for centuries maintained a traditional political alliance based on mutual hostility to England. Starting in the 14th century, it had been very convenient for France to be allied with Scotland, because whenever the English invaded France during the Hundred Years’ War, the French could count on the Scots invading England. For that reason, the two countries maintained what the Scots termed ‘the Auld Alliance’.
Marie’s father died of a fever less than a week after Marie was born, and as his only legitimate child, she then became queen. Henry VIII of England, seeing an opportunity to break the Auld Alliance, proposed that Marie wed his son Edward when she turned six. The Scottish regent initially accepted the offer, but by July of 1543, the deal had broken down and the Scots renewed the Auld Alliance. In response, Henry’s forces invaded Scotland, hoping to seize the young queen. This invasion, which was nicknamed the ‘Rough Wooing’, failed, but made clear to the Scots that it was quite risky for them to keep Mary where the English might grab her.
Eventually, after moving Marie further northward for several years, in 1548, the Scots accepted a French proposal, quite literally. King Henry II suggested that Marie should wed his three year old son, Francis. As a result, Marie was sent to live at the French royal court; it was typical of such arranged royal marriages that the young bride would be raised along her future husband, and the French royal court would be a much safer place for her. She was accompanied by her two illegitimate half-brothers and four Scottish ladies-in-waiting, the ‘Four Marys’ (since all four of them were named Mary).
In April of 1558, when she was 16, Marie signed a treaty making the French king her heir if she died without heirs. Less than a month later, she married Francis. In November of 1558, when Mary I of England died and was succeeded by Elizabeth I, Marie became the heir to the English throne, since she and Elizabeth were cousins. In July of 1559, when Henry II died, Francis became King Francis II and Marie became his queen. Unfortunately for her, however, Francis died less than 18 months later from some sort of ailment centered on his ear. His 10 year old brother became King Charles IX, and Henry II’s widow, Catherine de Medici, became regent. Catherine disliked Marie and since there was nothing to keep her in France and she had a kingdom in Scotland, she soon returned back to Scotland.
Marie’s Scottish subjects greeted her with some suspicion. She had been raised in France and spoke French as her main language, speaking English only with a heavy French accent. She also chose to spell her first and last name in the French fashion (which is why I’ve chosen to use that spelling here, as well as to keep her separate from the various other Marys of the period). More seriously, having been raised in Catholic France, Marie was a devout Catholic, whereas Scotland was by 1560 torn between Catholics and Protestants. Her reign in Scotland proved to be extremely turbulent. But I’m going to break off her story here and turn instead to Reign.
Are You Mary Queen of Scots?
Reign opens in 1557, with Mary Stuart (Adelaide Kane) 15 years old and living at a French convent. She and the young nuns play soccer until it’s time to have lunch outdoors. One of the nuns begins bleeding out of her mouth and ears and drops dead in her porridge; it’s revealed that she was Mary’s food taster, and so clearly there is a plot afoot to poison Mary. The Mother Superior decides that it’s time to send Mary back to the French royal court because the convent is unsafe.
None of that actually happened. Mary was raised at the French court. However, the idea that a young Catholic noblewoman could have been raised in a convent is entirely reasonable, and the opening gives the series a chance to show her return to court as a way to introduce the cast and the setting to the audience, so I suppose we can forgive this particular historical liberty.
However, once Mary leaves the convent, the show also substantially leaves the realm of history and quickly finds itself in the realm not of France but of the contemporary teen romance. The pilot offers Mary three potential boyfriends, Prince Francis (Toby Regbo); Sebastian, Francis’ illegitimate half-brother (Torrance Coombs), and Colin (Ashley Charles), a Scottish boy she evidently knew from back home who has come to France to serve her because he’s obviously into her even though he’s technically the boyfriend of one of her ladies in waiting. Suffice to say, of the three, only Francis actually existed.
Mary also learns that the Franco-Scottish alliance is not a guaranteed thing, for reasons that aren’t actually explained (at least not in the episodes I managed to get through). The political arrangements in the series are very simple. The English are bad, and because they’re bad, they want to assassinate Mary. They’re Protestant, whatever that means, while the French and apparently the Scots are Catholic, which means they occasionally carry a rosary. The Auld Alliance, France’s powerful position in 16th century Europe, and the historic reasons that the French want Mary aren’t relevant, because what matters is that the uncertainty about the alliance means that Mary and Francis can be on-again, off-again as the network’s need to generate suspense requires. And when they’re off again, Mary can be interested in Sebastian, who even gets a cute nickname, Bash, or courted by whatever nobleman happens to be visiting the French court in that particular episode.
Oh, and Francis’ mother, Catherine (Megan Follows) hates Mary, which is accurate, but the series has Nostradamus predict that Mary will be the death of Francis, so Catherine naturally wants to stop the marriage. In the pilot, Catherine either bribes or pressures Colin into attempting to drug Mary so he can rape her and thus render her not a virgin and therefore not a fit wife for the king. Unfortunately it all goes wrong because a mysterious girl who hides somewhere in the palace and wears a bag over her head warns Mary not to drink the wine and so she avoids being raped. Colin gets arrested and has his head chopped off, only it turns out that the executioners accidentally executed the wrong guy and Bag Girl helps Colin escape, which causes Catherine no end of worry.
As the series goes on, it occasionally brushes up against actual events. Mary’s status as a potential heir to the English throne is introduced, although she refuses to claim the throne because that would be political, I guess. At the end of the season, King Henry dies as a result of a jousting injury, which happened (but not while jousting his own son) and Francis becomes king.
But the series wouldn’t be complete without Mary’s cadre of high school frenemies ladies in waiting, who are all lovely young Scottish women without the faintest trace of Scottishness among them (but in all fairness, both the Scots and the French are played as Americans, so at least the series is consistent). Their names are Amy, Greer, Kenna, and Lola, which the scriptwriters presumably got out of a recent high school year book. At least Greer gets a Scottish loconym, ‘of Kinross’.
In other words, the series is interested in historical accuracy about as much as 300 2: Rise of an Empire is. The faintest outline of the historical Mary Stuart can be seen through the rather tawdry clothing they’ve put on her.
Speaking of clothing…
Look at All the Prom Dresses!
The costuming in this series is ghastly, about as historically accurate as the typical high school play. The young women in the series all generally wear 21st century fashions (except for Bag Girl, unless there’s a hot new trend in burlap that I’m not aware of). While many of the dresses are moderately full-length, that’s about as close as they get to period clothing. They are variously off-the-shoulder, sleeveless, low-cut, short skirted, gauzy, glittery, lacey, feathery, and so on. More or less, the young women at the French court dress like they’re going to a 21st century prom. And they wear high heels. Catherine de Medici gets a more mature, reserved, and slightly more accurate take on those fashions, as befits a queen of France. (Tyranny of Style offer a short, but intelligent discussion of the show’s fashions.)
The men spend most of their time running around in fitted leather or velvet pants with dark-colored, often unlaced doublets, with the occasional slashed-and-puffed sleeve here and there. In the first regular episode, Simon, the evil English ambassador, wears an 18th century frock coat because apparently after this he’s going to the Caribbean to hunt Johnny Depp and the rest of the crew of the Black Pearl. The men generally artfully muss their hair, except for King Henry, who has opted for the shaved-head and beard scruff that was so popular a few days ago.
The French court is based in what appears to be an early 20th century estate somewhere, with lots of furniture and drapery and rugs and nothing that looks particularly 16th century.
In the pilot, the court gathers to marry off some unnamed somebody-or-others, which gives the cast a chance to do some dancing. The adults briefly do a little vaguely medievalish-looking dancing, and then Mary and the girls decide to take over and run into the center of the room and start twirling around to symbolize that they’re free spirits. Apparently the rest of the women of the court are also free spirits in waiting, because they run onto the floor, the band obligingly breaks into some vaguely Celtic folk-rock and everyone joins hands and does a circle dance. In 16th century Europe, the technical term for this is a branle, and for about two seconds the show accidentally gets something almost historically accurate. But then confetti begins raining down on the dancers and they’re saved from having to pretend to be 16th century.
The Real Problem with Reign
The real problem with the series is the characters are consistently written as 21st century millennials, rather than as anyone who might have lived in the 16th century. They spend lots of time emoting and very little time acting like actual nobles who’ve been taught their whole lives that their marriages are a matter of politics and not personal desire. Despite the plot detail that turns on Mary’s virginity, the rest of Mary’s cohort seem eager to lose theirs, with one of the girls doing the nasty with King Henry in the main stairwell and another slutting it up with Francis. At one point Colin sneaks into Mary’s bathroom, where she’s bathing (in a beautiful 19th century claw-foot tub), and no one seems particularly perturbed that he was able to get in there.
The show does at least have the good sense to recognize that 16th century princes were expected to have have sexual conquests before and during marriage, but in Francis’ case, he’s treated as a jerk for doing it. So rather than trying to understand the 16th century, the show simply embraces the sexual ethos of contemporary upper-class New Yorkers.
Francis, in between bouts of being interested in Mary, moans that “Every man, even a king, should have some kind of skill…One that I didn’t inherit.” So he’s decided to take up sword-smithing, in the palace attic. That sound you’re hearing is my forehead hitting the table.
Perhaps the most telling moment in the series comes immediately after that, when Francis comments that his parents are so afraid of anything happening to him that they’re afraid to let him live, unlike his bastard half-brother Sebastian. The line is clearly intended as a critique of modern helicopter parents. In contrast, Mary is a free spirit because she knows how to milk a goat and likes the feeling of mud between her toes.
Rather than seriously exploring how 16th century teen royals might actually have felt about their lives, the series is content to project modern teen sentiments back on the 16th century as a way to encourage viewer identification with the main characters. Our heroine is plucky, free-spirited, unpretentious, determined to stand up for herself despite having not real support, and wants to experience real love, just like the intended audience. The good characters aren’t interested in social class, while Catherine is clearly bad because she cares about things like that.
Now, I suppose you might be thinking, “Well, duh! It’s not like the CW is seriously going to attempt an accurate period drama.” Ok. Fair point. But here’s the thing about being a historian watching these sorts of things: I can’t help but think about how much better the series could have been if they had made more of an effort to be accurate. The 16th century is one of the most fascinating periods in all of history. The political and religious conflicts and the intellectual currents of the period produced an enormously complex set of events that dramatically changed Western culture. And there’s no reason a good scriptwriter couldn’t use that setting to tell stories that modern teens would find compelling while still being a little more true to the period than this series is. The problem isn’t that Reign is targeting a millennial audience; the problem is the Reign is lazily written. It has no ambitions beyond being a 16th century Gossip Girl, and modern audiences tend to accept it because they’ve been trained to accept bland mediocrity as the best they can get.
Remember, Shakespeare’s plays were 16th century popular entertainment, not the high-brow fare we think of them as today. Titus Andronicus is a trashy revenge drama that would be right at home on the CW. Sure, it’s unfair to compare modern network tv to Shakespeare, but when you think of the comparison, it’s clear that Reign isn’t even trying to be good. It’s just trying to be watched. The first clue is casting a brunette in the role of a woman who was famous for her red hair.
Oh, and Another Thing
There are pagans living in the woods right outside the royal palace, practicing human sacrifice, because why not?
Want to Know More?
There are a lot of not very good biographies of Mary Stuart. John Guy’s biography on Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuartis probably definitive for scholarly works. But if you’re not up for 600+ pages, try Rosalind K. Marshall’s much shorter Mary Queen of Scots: Truth or Lies(Kindle edition), which focuses on answering the key questions about this famous but somewhat misunderstood woman.
I don’t know of any books on Francis II; his short reign hasn’t attracted a lot of English-language scholarship, so far as I know. But you could read Catherine de’Medici by R.J. Knecht. Her time in power in France began before Francis was king and continued long after he had died.