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Paul Anderton North Staffs History Group, Vol 20 #8 – April 2020

Stories of Britain in Tudor times are, with good justification, always in demand. It is no surprise to find Trevor Fisher bewitched by one of the four women central to most of the theatrical dramas, TV series and printed fictions which use Tudor England as their backdrop. Anne Boleyn, Mary Tudor and her half sister Elizabeth were agents in real life action of immense historical significance, long recognized and long subject to frequenter-assessment. Mary Stuart’s role is no less subject to debate although she was, by comparison, a peripheral figure as a power player.

Nevertheless, there is a rich and extensive secondary literature on Mary’s career published by historians who to a varied extent were steeped in the documentary evidence held in Scotland, France, England, Spain and Italy. This is the pool from which Fisher draws his narrative. His objective is to bring to the surface those activities in which Mary was engaged, directly or indirectly, during her time in Staffordshire. On these grounds he claims this is a “local history with national and international dimensions”.

The sub title says it all. The focus in the first instance is on the inter-relationship, if any, between the Ridolfi plot, the Earls rebellion and a possible marriage of Mary to the Duke of Norfolk in 1569-70. In the second place, the Throckmorton conspiracy is considered, and thirdly the Babington plot is scrutinized. As it happens these were the principal incidents in Mary’s life during a long captivity in England after her arrival in 1568. Fisher’s argument is that Mary’s several short stays at Tutbury castle, Chartley Manor and Tixall were determined by their remoteness as secure place in which to hold the exiled Queen in times of greatest danger of her being released by Elizabeth’s enemies.

Each had special attractions for her jailers, appropriate to the circumstance of the time. Tutbury was fortified and easily defended against armed attack, and in possession of her guardian, the Earl of Shrewsbury. Access to Chartley was totally controllable and hence allowed maximum opportunity to see and supervise her correspondence. It was not a family home frequently inhabited.

Quite enough of Mary’s biography is rehearsed to set her residence in Staffordshire in context. Her political situation as the potential heir to England’s throne until Eliabeth produced a child, and her status as a possible restorer of England to the Roman church are made very evident. Historians have always had difficulties with the plots to seize and kill Elizabeth. Inevitably, the paper trail on which historical narratives depend on are at their weakest in such cases. Spies, clandestine correspondence, codes, double agents, unminuted meetings and the motivations of participants are dealt with effectively in this short book.

Fisher steers a clear course through the tangled thickets to draw his own conclusions about who did just what, when and for what reasons. He has plenty of material to draw on, and meticulously references his sources.  It is clear that this close study of five episodes in the life of Mary Stuart will be a great help to readers who wish to have an easily grasped explanation of how each act in the drama unfolded. Students of Tudor history should welcome the decisiveness of judgement. If there are debates to be had about some of the conclusions no doubt  academics will raise the issues.

There is much detail in all of these episodes which is problematic, not to say speculative. Fisher makes a great point about keeping the story of the Earls rebellion separate from the proposal that Mary should marry the Duke of Norfolk. It all hinges on whether the Earls of Northumberland and Westmorland  and Lord Dacre deliberately aimed at releasing Mary from Tutbury castle.”It was a risky strategy and  conventional historians largely dismiss it as a non issue along with the rebellion as a whole” ((p43) Fisher thinks it “likely that the prospects were investigated and played a part in rebel planning. No attempt to reach Tutbury was made though the rebels might have done so if Mary had not been moved south of the Trent to Coventry”. Two of the reactions provoked by this narrowly focused study concern the claim that this is a ‘local history’, and secondly the use made of secondary sources. Any effect Mary’s brief stay at Tutbury had on the town or the county is not discussed. Staffordshire had a reputation for being Catholic inclined. Gilbert Gifford from a local Catholic family but educated abroad was a minor figure in the cast of plotters. Nothing arising from the Old faith among the county’s gentry is mentioned. It is evident that there is a historiographical study here which could be further developed. References to ‘conventional historians’ and to Antonia Frazer’s biography ‘creating a muddle’ (p36) suggest possibilities for demonstrating a crucial feature of history writing. “History does not consist of a a body of received opinion handed down by authority from the historiographical heights of Mount Sinai” to quote Lord Blake.(foreword to the Paladin History of England 1985)

Rather it is a discourse engaging numerous participants in successive generations each superimposing a layer of conclusions on an existing mound of knowledge. Here be such a layer.

Reproduced by permission.