The First Printing of Two Attacks on Mary, Queen of Scots

STUART, MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS (1542-1587). Buchanan, George (1506-1582)

De Maria Scotorum Regina, totaque eius contra Regem coniuratione, fÏdo cum Bothuelio adulterio, nefaria in maritum crudelitate & rabie, horrendo insuper & deterrimo eiusdem parricidio: plena, & tragica planè historia.

N.p. but London: John Day, no date but 1571


Octavo: 14 x 8.5 cm (2), 144, (4) pp. Collation: A-Q4


Bound in full red morocco, gilt, by Riviere, with slight wear. A fresh copy with light soiling to the title and blank verso of final leaf. The early signature: Jo. Battely” on the title page.

FIRST EDITION of this famous denunciation of Mary, Queen of Scots, by the eminent scholar who had at one time been her tutor and ardent admirer. Buchanan's loyalty ended with the murder of Mary's cousin and husband Lord Darnley, and her hasty marriage to the Earl of Bothwell; he testified at her trial in London, where the notorious "casket letters" were produced as implicating Mary in Darnley's murder. This text was written in 1568, and circulated for a time in manuscript; the place and date of the printed version were long disputed, but the book is now accepted as having been produced by John Day in 1571. The section "Actio contra Mariam Scotorum Reginam," which occupies pp. 31-100, is attributed to Thomas Wilson, Marian exile, militant Protestant, and (from 1578) privy councilor and secretary of state. This edition includes the first printing of three of the “casket letters.”

“There was nothing incidental in the semi-publicity given to the misdoings of Mary in the third and by far most celebrated of the unauthorized pamphlets published between 1569 and 1572. This was the work by George Buchanan commonly known as ‘A Detection of the Doings of Mary Queen of Scots.” Contrary to the impression given by most of Mary’s subsequent biographers, this work, admittedly the fountainhead of all later attacks on the Scottish Queen’s character and conduct, was completely a product, in its published form, of English activities to discredit Mary without violating Elizabeth’s official attitude of benevolent neutrality toward her reluctant guest.

“Buchanan apparently wrote the ‘Detection’ originally in Latin as a covering letter to accompany the notorious ‘Casket Letters’ that were presented in evidence against Mary at the conferences at York and Westminster. In this original form, the ‘Detection’ simply chronicled, from the Protestant point of view, the events in Scotland leading up to the murder of Darnley and the marriage of Mary to Bothwell. It was designed to leave little doubt in the reader’s mind that Mary was privy to all these events, including an earlier abortive effort to do away with Darnley by poison. The document was not published at the time, however, and having served the purpose of discrediting Mary at the conferences, the manuscript remained in London, apparently unused, for three years.

“Then in 1571, after the arrest of Norfolk for his part in the plot to release, marry, and enthrone the Queen of Scots, some of Elizabeth’s councilors suddenly began to take a new and active interest on the document. Some time before November 1 of that year the original Latin version of the ‘Detection’ was printed in London by John Day without any indication of place or date of origin. Appended to it was a Latin essay entitled ‘Actio contra Mariam’, that is, an ‘Action’ in the legal sense of an indictment, and three of the more incriminating ‘Casket Letters’. The ‘Action’, which added much rhetorical abuse but no new evidence to the case against Mary, was allowed to pass as Buchanan’s work, but it had actually been written, with Cecil’s knowledge, by Thomas Wilson, the scholar-diplomat who subsequently became secretary of state in Elizabeth’s Privy Council.

“By making it appear that Buchanan’s attack emanated from Scotland, and that the celebrated Scottish humanist was himself responsible for the virulent ‘Action’ as well as the ‘Detection,’ the English were able to blast Mary’s character without violating their official attitude of protection and defense. They could always blame Mary’s Scottish subjects –and they usually did. No one seems to have been completely fooled by the device, but no one seems to have been able to do much to stop it….

“That the Norfolk marriage was proposal was the immediate provocation for this elaborate scheme to discredit Mary in the eyes of the world was perhaps most clearly recognized by Alexander Hay, a Scottish counselor, in a letter to John Know reporting the publication of the ‘Detection’ in England. ‘In appearance,’ he wrote, the English ‘leave nothing unset out, tending to her infamy, and to make the Duke of Norfolke odious, who has a great benevolence to the people.’ This point and purpose of the Buchanan publication was not left to be inferred by readers, however. The pamphlet made explicit that the Queen portrayed by Buchanan was the Queen whom Norfolk tried to put in Elizabeth’s place.” (James Phillips, “Images of a Queen: Mary Stuart in Sixteenth Century Literature”)

STC 3978; Scott, Mary Queen of Scots, 75; CBEL I, 2442