Mary, Queen of Scots was Fraser's first book, launching a career which includes an almost equal number of biographies and mystery novels, and she writes more like a novelist than a historian. I mean that as a complement - I've read two of her other biographies and her style is clear and compelling, no matter how dry the details of royal ancestry may be. Here, she vividly portrays Mary Stuart as both a headstrong young woman and a political pawn. Like her cousin Elizabeth, Mary was a symbol of her faith in a time of religious upheaval but maintained a 'live and let live' attitude towards others' beliefs. Mary, however, did not have the luxury of ruling a fairly powerful state or the education and brilliance of the English Queen. Mary was bright and well read, if perhaps not well-taught in the art of statecraft, but Elizabeth was an extraordinary intellect who benefited from a comprehensive education.
Mary also married three times, once as a child and twice due to poor judgment. Crowned Queen of Scotland as a newborn, Mary was betrothed to the French Dauphin and sent to France at age 5 to be raised in the French court. Her fiance, Francis, was a weak, unpleasant boy, probably unequal to the task of ruling one country, let alone two. Two years after they married and after a year as Consort of France, Mary was Queen Dowager and soon returned to her own kingdom.
The Scotland Mary returned to rule in 1561 was not the same country she left. The Protestant Reformation had taken hold in Edinburgh, and the mostly Protestant nobility did not want a Catholic (and to a lesser extent a woman) ruling their country. Mary's attitude was more modern - she considered faith a private matter and was willing to let Scotland remain predominantly Protestant but tolerant of Catholics like herself. As I read these passages, I couldn't understand how she was seen as a threat to the Protestant majority. Maybe her years in France and the expectation that Francis would be the de facto ruler of Scotland left her unable to effectively communicate her temperate views, or maybe John Knox was just too powerful of a personality. Regardless, Mary come across as more of a victim than a perpetrator of interfaith political battles.
Elizabeth I understood the pitfalls of marriage, especially for a queen, and managed to steer clear. Mary, though, impulsively fell in love with and married her pretty-boy cousin, Henry, Lord Darnley. Henry was petty, vain, and promiscuous. The couple essentially separated when Mary was pregnant with the future James VI/I, after he was involved in the murder of her private secretary, David Rizzio. Henry, who showed even less talent for conspiracy than Mary, betrayed the Protestant nobles behind the plot but the marriage was essentially over from that point. Mary and her counsellors explored the possibility of divorce, but Henry was murdered while escaping from a castle which was blown up by political enemies. One of those men, Lord Bothwell, then abducted and raped Mary, and then forced her to marry him. Shortly afterwards, she was forced to abdicate her thrown and tried to escape to England. There she became the tragic figure of history, the Queen locked in a tower until she was deemed too much of a threat to Queen Elizabeth's power and was tried for treason and convicted on the basis of intentionally misinterpreted and mistranslated letters.