The Rape of Queen Mary on “Reign”

It’s killing Mary’s marriage. Poor Queen Mary, known to history as Mary Queen of Scots, has been suffering for many weeks now, as Reign blends historical fact with contemporary fiction. We have witnessed the Queen’s rape and the subsequent fallout in her (first) marriage to France’s King Francis (who was dauphin, in historical fact).

Many Reign fans have protested the storyline, but Mary’s rape is part of the historical record. According to Reign showrunner Laurie McCarthy to Entertainment Weekly,

These are [real] people, the royals, who experienced kidnappings and assassinations and there are many rumors as to whether Mary Queen of Scots was raped in her lifetime and frankly, how many times, so we’ve just kind of plucked events from history.

The rape that altered the real Mary’s life occurred in Scotland in 1567 after the murder of her second husband, and first cousin, Lord Darnley. According to the BBC, Mary’s rapist, Lord Bothwell,

is often depicted as a brutal, ruthless and ambitious man. He is suspected of having murdered Mary’s husband, Darnley. He is also accused of kidnapping Mary, raping her, and forcibly marrying her in order to be King of Scotland. The question remains as to how involved Mary was in his schemes and activities. Before Darnley’s death, Bothwell had become a close and trusted advisor to Mary. This led some to believe that they were, in fact, lovers. One theory suggests Mary and Bothwell acted together to rid themselves of Darnley. They then arranged a way in which Mary could marry him without compromising her honour—the “he made me do it” line of thought.

While some have doubts, we should take the rape charge seriously. Such a claim would have harmed Mary’s reputation by weakening her claim to inviolability as queen and potentially endangering her life and general safety.

Rape would have proven human frailty, rather than the aura of invincibility that 16th-century royals labored to project. So raping Mary would have been a double violation of the social order, physically harming an individual woman as well as puncturing the royals’ veil of omnipotence.

The thought of having to marry one’s rapist in order to rectify the dishonor of the rape is also positively horrifying. Thank goodness Reign doesn’t ask viewers to tolerate such a plot twist. Instead, we have watched young Mary and Francis’ happy married life—particularly notable for individuals not matched for personal suitability—stumble. Mary is left defenseless and alone in her palace rooms during a period of religious upheaval. Protestants furious at Francis’ actions find her, and one of them rapes Mary. She initially hides the truth from everyone but slowly shares it with a tiny cadre of trusted friends and family. Even Mary’s mother-in-law, her frequent sparring partner, surprises with her depth of strength and kindness.

Meanwhile, Francis is portrayed as wonderfully gentle and understanding—much more 21st than 16th-century, one presumes—offering Mary time and space to recover from the trauma. But Mary blames her husband for abandoning her in her hour of need. She can’t bear to have him sleep beside her, because the sound of his breathing triggers flashbacks. So while Francis had hoped to rekindle their previous warmth, Mary pulls away, suggesting they lead separate lives.

These plot details create crackling dramatic tension. However, given Francis’ genuine love for Mary, it is heartbreaking to watch. Mary feels so broken that she craves both physical and emotional isolation, and Francis feels powerless to rectify the wrong done to his beloved wife.

One can only imagine what the real reaction to the historical Queen Mary’s rape might have been. In that era, a woman’s chastity and honor were tantamount to her societal worth. Presumably she would have been offered no such understanding by a family eager for an heir to secure the throne.

Clearly it’s not easy to be the real—or fictional—Queen of Scots, but given Francis’ gentleness, Reign’s Mary has the easier path to walk. The show’s writers will ensure that she is never fully alone.

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3 responses to “The Rape of Queen Mary on “Reign”

  1. Francis did reign as King Francis II for about a year and a half in 1559-1560 before succumbing to meningitis. So I don’t know what “dauphin, In historical fact.” Is supposed to mean.

      1. To be uber-nerdy about it, he is the heir apparent by right of birth. He’s not “appointed” to anything.

        And that still makes the sentence “King Francis (who was dauphin, in historical fact)” confusing. Francis was Dauphin, until his father died, and then he became King Francis II. He then died soon after, leaving the throne to his younger brother Charles.

        The sentence seems to be implying that Francis was never king.

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