Modern period pieces are in a pickle: Many of history’s most famous stories involve some degree of religious conflict, but those divisions are basically incomprehensible to contemporary audiences. We’ll go along with it, sure, but the filmmakers usually have to do a lot of work to get us invested in the outcome. Otherwise, it’s like watching a fight between people whose favorite color is green and people whose favorite color is purple. Who cares?
The Favourite gets around this by focusing on the personal aspects of the power struggle between the Tories and the Whigs, and also by being incredibly cynical about both sides’ motivations: It’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong, only who’s up and who’s down. This is not an approach available to the new Mary Queen of Scots, which wants to be an uplifting story of female leadership in a male-dominated world, and thus needs us to care very deeply about the disputes between the Catholic Mary, her Protestant lords, and the Protestant Elizabeth I. It does this by pulling a trick that period pieces have been doing since time immemorial: By turning the titular royal into, in the words of my colleague Emily Yoshida, a “woke underdog princess.”
In this, the filmmakers are following a well-established tradition in historical fiction. Numerous movies about the Alamo position that battle as a glorious last stand for freedom, without mentioning the freedom the real Texians were fighting for was the freedom to own slaves. Even Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall includes a scene where Thomas Cromwell muses about the benefits of a universal basic income. But Mary Queen of Scots takes the cake — rarely has a period piece put so many progressive 21st-century political views into the heads of characters who lived 500 years ago. How do the movie’s wokest elements line up with the historical record? Let’s find out.
The movie’s depiction of 16th-century courtly life is stocked with nonwhite actors, including Gemma Chan as one of Elizabeth I’s ladies-in-waiting, and Adrian Lester as a diplomat.
This one is not quite the same as the others, but it’s attracted some attention, so we might as well talk about it. Here it’s less an attempt at realism than a deliberate creative choice: Director Josie Rourke hails from the world of British theater, which has a long tradition of this kind of color-blind casting. “I was not going to direct an all-white period drama,” Rourke explained to the L.A. Times. “It’s just not a thing I was going to do.”
Though both Chan and Lester are playing characters who were white in real life, we need not take the next step of assuming that there were zero people of color in historical Britain. Classicist Mary Beard spent seemingly all of 2017 getting into arguments with people who were upset by a BBC cartoon showing a black man in Roman times, noting that such a sight would be “unsurprising in [an] urban context.” Even in medieval Scotland, which was more provincial, the court of Mary’s grandfather James IV of Scotland was known to feature numerous people of African descent, some as servants or musicians, others possibly as guests. (Though people of color remained a curiosity: Accounting records show the king’s household paying a nurse 28 shillings for bringing the monarch a black baby, thought to be the child of a court musician, that he wanted to look at.)
One of Mary’s first acts upon returning to Scotland is to emphasize religious toleration.
Period pieces love to make historical figures support religious tolerance. And why not? Everyone likes to think of themselves as supporting religious tolerance. But though Mary did attempt to put Protestant minister John Knox on trial for treason, sympathetic observers of her reign conclude that she was remarkably tolerant compared to the standards of her time. Historian Rachael Jezierski has written that Mary’s rule “was marked by tolerance and moderation.” Though Mary was a Catholic, her arrival in Scotland came shortly after the Scottish Reformation had put Calvinists in power, and Jezierski characterizes her as “a queen who placed the welfare of her realm above the pettiness of religious divisions; a committed Catholic who hoped her subjects would return to the old church; yet, one that refused to ostracize those with divergent beliefs.”
However, she wasn’t just doing this out of the kindness of her heart. As religious blogger Ryan P. Hunter notes, having grown up in France, Mary lacked an independent power base that would have allowed her to challenge Protestant hegemony in Scotland. She was lenient and tolerant because being aggressive and confrontational was “never really an option.”
Mary’s rule is opposed by Protestant preacher John Knox, who hates her because she’s a woman.
Knox didn’t just hate Mary because she was a woman; he also hated her because he believed in a limited monarchy. (In an alternate universe, he’s the one getting the woke biopic.) But make no mistake, he really did hate women, too! In 1558, Knox wrote an entire book called, The First Blast of the Trumpet: Against the Monstrous Regiment [meaning Rule] of Women, in which he described women having authority over men as an unholy violation of the natural order, and to put it mildly, he did not change his mind once Mary ascended to the throne.
Mary falls in love with Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley after he sneaks into her room late at night and performs some champion cunnilingus.
I can find no evidence that this happened. However, evidence suggests that Darnley was always down to get freaky: MaryQueenOfScots.net reports that he was “involved in every sort of sexual excess.” What the movie doesn’t include is that he was a cousin of Mary’s, and considered his claim to the thrones of Scotland and England to be equal if not better than her own. (Also, according to a Scottish forensics student, he looked a bit like Tom Hiddleston.)
Darnley turns out to prefer the company of men, as does the Queen’s close confidant David Rizzio. They sleep together, and while Mary is furious at Darnley, she forgives Rizzio.
This is a little more complicated. Darnley was apparently undiscriminating in his choice of sexual partners, and is thought to have contracted syphilis during his youth in England. And given what we know of Darnley, rumors swirled that he had a sexual relationship with Rizzio: According to Alison Weir’s Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley, contemporary sources report that Rizzio was granted access to the lord’s “table, his chamber and his most secret thoughts,” and they allegedly were known to “lie in one bed together.” However, John Guy’s Queen of Scots notes that the source for many of these stories was English ambassador Thomas Randolph, a “hostile witness” who was doing whatever he could to make Darnley look bad.
The movie’s portrait of Rizzio as Mary’s harmless gay best friend is a popular reading in contemporary historical fiction, as it makes a mockery of the claim that he was the queen’s lover, which most historians agree was a false pretext used to justify his murder. But there’s plenty of space in between those two interpretations. Political power in medieval times was closely tied up in the person of the monarch, and for Rizzio, becoming a close confidant of Mary’s would have been its own reward. Whatever the truth of Rizzio and Darnley’s relationship, it seems unlikely that the Catholic Mary would take him sleeping with her husband so lightly, as men having sex with men was considered a heretical offense in the 16th century. (Though, I can see why a movie that’s marketing itself to a gay audience would take this approach.)
After sleeping with Darnley, Rizzio implies that he is nonbinary. Mary accepts Rizzio for who he is.
While medieval Britain did contain people who might today identify as trans, this one appears to be a creative liberty.