Accentuate the Positive: Mary Queen of Scots

It’s received wisdom that Mary Queen of Scots must’ve had a French accent:

It will almost certainly have considerable ­appeal as a rattling good yarn but its relationship with history will almost certainly be purely ­accidental. It is no coincidence that the producers have the young Mary speaking in English ­received pronunciation; the real Mary spoke French with a ­pronounced French accent to her death.
Professor Tom Devine, about Reign

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.
A Historian Goes to the Movies, about Reign

French architectural styles at home, the desirability of French education for Scots abroad, military and economic ties, all combined to produce the feeling that even if a French upbringing for their monarch was only to be countenanced because of the extreme dangers created by the Rough Wooing, it was not unnatural in the way that an English upbringing would have been. A French accent in Scotland was a good deal less unacceptable than a Scottish one in England.
– Jenny Wormald, Mary Queen of Scots: A Study in Failure

Why would you want to have this Scottish warrior queen who loves her country? She fled Scotland so how much did she really love it? She was French, she felt really French. I have only come across letters from Mary in French. It feels like there is this strange nationalistic feeling behind this film, with a Scottish warrior being bullied by an English queen. That is not what happened.
Dr. Estelle Paranque, about the upcoming Mary Queen of Scots

No one is trying to deny that Ronan’s Scottish accent is good. She’s great. But… Mary Stuart was raised in France. She was more French than Scottish when she arrived there as an adult to rule. But she would have arrived having a French accent. In most movies featuring Mary Stuart, she is portrayed as having a Scottish accent for the sake of not confusing the audience.
The Lazy Historian, about the upcoming Mary Queen of Scots

Mary was 5 years old when she left Scotland for France. She spent the following 13 years at the French court where she eventually married the Dauphin and was briefly Queen Consort of France. French was her language of choice all her life — most of her personal letters are in French, and the poetry she wrote is in French. Yes, of course, she spoke and read English fluently and also spoke and read Scots fluently (this is not just the dialect, but a language variety spoken in the lowland area of Scotland, distinct from the Gaelic language spoken in the highland areas). But it’s pretty damn likely Mary would have spoken English or Scots with a French accent. Not the other way around!
Frock Flicks, about the upcoming Mary Queen of Scots

It seems logical. Mary’s mother, Mary of Guise, was French, and Mary herself spent the years 5 to 18 in France where she ended up betrothed to the Dauphin, so obviously she had a French accent.


I am, of course, not a national treasure like Prof. Devine, nor am I a published historian like Dr Wormald, or indeed a Lecturer in Early Modern History like Dr Paranque. I’m just a history enthusiast with far too many books, and access to the internet. Nonetheless, I must enquire as to why this appears to be the settled conclusion, given the only contemporary sources that mention anything of Mary’s voice say something rather different.

Dr. Paranque took to Twitter to explain her conclusion:

Ok.. we can’t be 100% sure though I’d personally bet on it as her mother tongue was French (her mother being Marie de Guise and who would have spoken to her in French from her birth) and then Mary was raised at the French court… so probably the accent would have been French.

It’s good she said “we can’t be 100% sure,” but unfortunately, a lot of history journalism tends to remove such nuances:

Mary, Queen of Scots film ‘problematic’ says historian
Dr Paranque said there were three main problems with the film trailer.
She said the women never met, they were not friends and the Scottish warrior queen depicted in the film would not have had a Scots accent.
“She was raised in France and she was a de Guise sometimes more than she was a Stuart, I have to say,” Dr Paranque said.
She said: “An historical fiction does not have to be 100% accurate, however, I think when we know things that happened we have to keep it because otherwise where do we draw the line?
“Why not have Mary kill Elizabeth? Why not change history? It is not an historical movie any more, it is just fiction.”

The one contemporary source I have found regarding Mary’s accent – again, given Dr Paranque will likely have more sources readily available, I defer to her knowledge should this not be the only source – is a report from Irish lawyer Nicholas White, who had an interview with Mary on 26th February 1569:

… “she hath withal an alluring grace, a prety Scottishe accente, and a searching wit, clouded with mydness.”
– Agnes & Elizabeth Strickland, Lives of the Queens of Scotland and English Princesses: Connected with the Regal Succession of Great Britain (1850-1889)

White’s statement was cited by numerous historians in books about Mary and the Tudors: from H. Colburn (Letters of Mary , Queen of Scots: And Documents Connected with Her Personal History, Volume 2, 1842) and Phineas Camp Headley (The Life of Mary Queen of Scots, 1853) to John Daniel Leader (Mary Queen of Scots in Captivity: A Narrative of Events from January 1569, to December, 1584, Whilst George Earl of Shrewsbury was the Guardian of the Scottish Queen, 1880) to Mary Patricia Willcocks (Mary, Queen of Scots, 1939), Nancy Brysson Morrison (Mary, Queen of Scots, 1960), Margaret Sqain (The Needlework of Mary Queen of Scots, 1973), Retha M. Warnicke (Mary Queen of Scots, 2006), Antonia Fraser (Mary Queen of Scots, 2010), all the way to Roy Calley (On the Trail of Mary, Queen of Scots: A visitor’s guide to the castles, palaces and houses associated with the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, 2017) and Jill Armitage (Four Queens and a Countess: Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, Mary I, Lady Jane Grey and Bess of Hardwick: The Struggle for the Crown, 2017). Most relevantly, John Guy’s My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots – the book on which this film is based – includes White’s description, as well as stating French and Lowland Scots to be her “native tongues.”

The late Antonia Fraser’s biography goes into greater detail:

What was more, Mary was able to express her pleasure to her subjects in their own language, for she had not lost her Scots despite the thirteen years spent in France. On her arrival in France as a child, she had indeed been able to speak nothing else, but she soon, by all accounts, learnt to speak French as well as a Frenchwoman, and it was in the language which she habitually wrote and presumably thought in. Nevertheless the presence of Scots attendants such as Lady Fleming, her nurse Jean Sinclair or even the Maires must have enabled Mary to practise her Scots: for in August 1560, when she gave Throckmorton an interview, he particularly stated that Mary spoke to him in Scots, and later the papal envoy related how the queen ‘began to answer him in Scots‘, which she preferred to use to Latin. Although Mary’s Scots letters show that she never became fluent in the written language, Knox’s history confirms the fact that she was able to converse freely and colloquially in Scots from the time of her first arrival in the country.
– Antonia Fraser, Mary Queen of Scots (1993)

Fraser even discusses the subject in her own memoirs:

Working on Mary Queen of Scots, there were the small discoveries which enlivened the hours. Unconsciously, I had simply assumed that Queen Mary spoke English with a heavy French accent when she came into captivity at the age of twenty-five. It was part of my mental picture of her. During my study of the subject, I came across a letter by one of her early jailers; referring to her early efforts to speak English, he described very clearly her ‘pretty Scots accent‘. Of course! It was logical. When she arrived in France as a child, she originally spoke only Scots, according to Brantôme. Subsequently French became her natural language, but when she returned to Scotland, Queen Mary was still able to converse fluently in Scots – when she met John Knox for example. The two languages, Scots and English, were distinct, but not nearly so far apart as French and English, and many people at the two Courts of Scotland and England were able to switch from one to the other.
This issue of her (non-existent) heavy French accent plagued me thereafter, rather like the equally mythical story of Marie Antoinette and the cake. For all my efforts to right the record, I was left in a state of impotent fury when the French film star Isabelle Huppert played Mary Stuart in Schiller’s eponymous play at the National Theatre in an accent which was virtually impenetrable. One line, which sounded like ‘Ello, leetle cloud, say ello to Frrrance for me’, did get through. It was said by the actress sitting forlornly on the stage, which was supposed to represent Fotheringhay Park, and waving her hand upwards in the direction of the roof.
– Antonia Fraser, My History: A Memoir of Growing Up (2015)

In addition, the annotations for Inventaires de la Royne Descosse Douairiere de France state that the contemporary French historian Pierre de Bourdeille Brantôme corroborates White’s mention of Mary’s Scottish accent. Brantôme recorded meeting Mary in Scotland some time after her widowing to Francis II in 1560:

But he agrees with White in praising her Scottish accent: ‘sa langue naturelle, qui de soi est fort rurale, barbare, mal sonnante et seante, ella la parloit de si bonne grace, et la faconnoit de telle sorte, qu’elle la faoisoit trouver tres belle et tres agreable en elle, mais non en autres’
Inventaires de la Royne Descosse Douairiere de France: Catalogues of the Jewels, Dresses, Furniture, Books, and Paintings of Mary Queen of Scots: 1556-1569. plxvii

A rough translation can be found here (confirmed by my erudite Francophone friend Patrice Louinet):

“Even her native tongue, which in itself is very rustic, barbarous, ill-sounding, and uncouth, she spoke so gracefully, toning it in such a way, that she made it seem beautiful and agreeable in her, though never so in others.”
– Pierre de Bourdeille Brantôme, The Book of the Ladies Illustrious Dames: The Reign and Amours of the Bourbon Régime

One could argue that since Brantôme’s memoirs were published in 1565 and White’s interview was taken in 1569, when Mary was in her mid-to-late 20s, that she had simply adopted a Scottish accent after moving back home. Nonetheless, there was a significant Scots presence at the French court even when she was a bairn: aside from the well-established Garde Écossaise, Mary Beaton, Mary Seton, Mary Fleming, & Mary Livingston were all present as little Ladies-in-Waiting, as was her nurse Jean Sinclair, and Janet Stewart, Lady Fleming, who was appointed governess of all the Marys.

Lady Fleming’s accent was described, again, by Brantôme:

According to Brantôme’s wittily malicious report, Lady Fleming scandalized the court by exclaiming aloud in French, which she spoke with a broad Scottish accent: “I have done all that I can, and god be thanked, I am with child by the king, for which I count myself both honoured and happy.”
– Antonia Fraser, Mary Queen of Scots (1993)

That’s six other Scots who Mary would have spent her childhood with in the French court, including two adults, one who was her governess, and who was known to have a broad Scottish accent. After all, there are other examples of Scots speaking French in France with a pronounced Scottish accent throughout history:

He had then so nearly forgotten his native language as to prefer expressing himself in French, even to me, and had yet retained so much of the Scotch accent, that it was sometimes difficult for his children to comprehend him.
-R. Philips, Letters from Switzerland and France: Written During a Residence of Between Two and Three Years in Different Parts of Those Countries (1821)

Blaike wrote both English and French phonetically. It should be remembered that he spoke with a strong Scotch accent, and wrote so to speak in the same manner. Thus, if in difficulty, the reader should pronounce the written word with a Scotch accent.
– Francis Birrell, Introduction, Diary of a Scotch Gardener (Thomas Blaikie (1751-1838)) at the French Court at the End of the Eighteenth Century (1931)

It’s possible Mary could have grown up with a French accent, of course – but it is by no means a certainty, as Dr Paranque herself says, and I’d say the evidence in favour of a Scots accent is at least as strong as evidence for a French accent, with a mixed Scottish/French accent being a fairly likely option too. Q.E.D.

As for Paranque’s other remarks, well, Mary didn’t exactly have a choice in leaving Scotland, what with her being 5 years old when she was sent south. Likewise, many of Scotland’s greatest heroes – indeed, the icons of many nations – had cause to flee their homelands at some point or another. I don’t doubt Mary felt French either, but that doesn’t preclude her Scottishness by any means. If Dr. Paranque has only come across letters from Mary in French, then I would heartily recommend she peruse this letter to William Keith, or this letter to Sir William Ceil, or this letter to her cousin Elizabeth of England, or any of the other letters Mary wrote in Scots or Scottish English.

As for her points on nationalism: well, I hardly think that it’s “strange nationalistic feeling” for people to think a woman born in Scotland, raised by a Scottish governess, accompanied by 4 Scottish ladies-in-waiting, tended by a Scottish nurse, and who is recorded as speaking with a Scottish accent by a contemporary source… might have spoken with a Scottish accent. Certainly, I don’t think it’s any stranger than a French scholar arguing that this same woman, whose mother was French, and who spent her formative years in France, spoke with a French accent. (Not to mention the film producers aren’t Scottish, so what would they gain from a “strange nationalistic feeling”?)

Much as I adore fellow Scot Michelle Gomez, her Mary Queen of Scots probably didn’t do much for Scotland the Brand…

There are undoubtedly issues with Mary Queen of Scots: as far as history knows, Mary never met Elizabeth face-to-face. This is, presumably, a dramatic device used for the purposes of characterisation & narrative (as it was in the 1971 film with Vanessa Redgrave & Glenda Jackson), and I understand historians having problems with a fictional meeting that is not supported in history. I can also understand the apparent re-imagining of the pair’s early years as a “friendship,” so as to make their rivalry more tragic and ironic. I’m a Scot. I’ve seen Braveheart. Believe me, I get it. But we must always be aware that, sometimes, we might have the wrong end of the stick too.

History may be set in stone, but our understanding of it is not: with new discoveries, everything we thought we knew could be turned upside down without us realising it. It wasn’t that long ago that everyone “knew” the Piltdown Man was a thing; that Neanderthals were incapable of speech due to the lack of a hyoid bone; that classical statues were always that pristine white; that Troy was mythological; that Christopher Columbus was the first historical European to reach the Americas. But even worse are those things everyone “knew” which, it turns out, weren’t the case at all – like folk of the Middle Ages believing the earth was flat, the Salem witches were burned at the stake, and that Mussolini got the trains to run on time.

In any case, much like Braveheart, Macbeth, and the upcoming Outlaw King, Mary Queen of Scots will be a window into Scottish history, and those elements which none know for sure – like Mary’s accent – reflect the choices of the filmmakers. People will interpret every decision through a political lens, as surely as Early Man was perceived as an EU Referendum allegory, and The Lord of the Rings film trilogy for the War on Terror. It’s inevitable that the sad story of Mary will be cast in the light of the modern constitutional debate in Scotland. Rather than try to reject it and say “it’s just a movie,” I’d rather embrace it. What we think about art reflects what we think about ourselves.

4 thoughts on “Accentuate the Positive: Mary Queen of Scots

  1. mogabee says:

    I know of a family from Gloucestershire who have four children, born in Scotland but who speak with a distinct English accent due to being surrounded by English voices. So yes, it is more than possible!
    Very interesting article.

  2. Kangaroo says:

    Having taken my son to football training at the age of 13 I was talking to another father when his son came over and talked in a South African accent. I thought he must have come straight off the boat. Turns out no, he was born here, in Sydney, but only mixed with fellow South Africans.

    So yes quite probable that Mary had a Scottish accent, perhaps with a French lilt thrown in for good measure.

  3. […] an art than a science diminishes it whatsoever. So, much like the notion that Mary, Queen of Scots spoke with a French accent, I feel my inner history nerd steepling his fingers and arching his eyebrows at the notion that […]

  4. Lydia Kielbasiewicz says:

    John Barrowman widely known to talk with a Scottish accent at home with his family but American accent when in public. Accent can be fluid .

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