Book Review: The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots by Kate Williams

*A note of caution — this review discusses trauma-informed historical analysis of sexual assault and violence*

The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots: Elizabeth I and her Greatest Rival

Mary Stuart is my all time favorite historical figure so The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots caught my eye immediately. I am truly fascinated by her, and the circumstances surrounding her short reign and lengthy imprisonment. When I came across Kate Williams’ book while browsing online, I bought it without hesitation. I hadn’t read anything by Kate Williams prior to this, and was eager to see how she portrayed my favorite queen and the ill-fated bond of queenship between her and Elizabeth I.

Book Review: The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots by Kate Williams

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A Book About Both Queens

At first, the title confused me a bit — was it a book primarily about Mary or Elizabeth? What I found was that Williams magnificently wove these women together, in a way that most historical accounts avoid. They were rivals, yes, but also victims of circumstance. Perhaps, in another life, they may have been friends, if politics and misogynist advisors had not actively stoked distrust between them. Although, knowing what I know about both women’s personalities, I have my doubts that they would have truly gotten along.

Williams describes the upbringings of both queens in relative detail. She included details often overlooked by historians, such as Elizabeth’s relationship with her final step-mother, Katherine Parr, in the years following Henry VIII’s death.

The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots: Elizabeth I and her Greatest Rival by Kate Williams

Williams also captures the sparkling glamour in Mary’s life, particularly of Mary’s first wedding to Francis II at Notre Dame in 1558. In fact, the book opens with this event, creating quite the contrast with the diminishment the Scottish queen faced in later years.

A Feminist, Trauma-Informed History

As Williams crafts a balanced narrative about two women with power in an era where women were hardly educated, she also provides a refreshing, trauma-informed analysis to both queens.

Williams’ discussion of Mary’s abduction by Bothwell (chapters 20-21) was what stood out to me most while reading the book. Looking back, I realized that Williams allowed the same sort of analysis for Elizabeth, particularly in light of her childhood traumas: namely, the execution of her mother and, later, the grooming she experienced at the hands of Katherine Parr’s husband, Thomas Seymour.

The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots: Elizabeth I and her Greatest Rival by Kate Williams

A Dark but Refreshing Analysis of Mary’s Relationship with Bothwell

While Mary’s second marriage to Lord Darnley may be viewed as a lapse in judgment, Mary’s third marriage to Lord Bothwell was undoubtedly her greatest mistake. In my own reading, I’ve seen this decision to marry Bothwell dismissed as feminine fancy, as if Mary were swept off her feet by her so-called protector.

This line of thinking has never sat well with me. It just doesn’t align, in my opinion. As compared to Elizabeth, Mary perhaps bowed to the contemporary view of women. However, I do not think she was so flightless as to fall for Bothwell.

Ever the victim of circumstance, Mary was ambushed by Bothwell on her return to Edinburgh from Linlithgow. He took hold of her horse and she did not put up a fight. Without a feminist, trauma-informed analysis, historians have found it easy to say that this inaction meant Mary, at best, found Bothwell agreeable, and, at worst, complicit in a fake abduction to push ahead a marriage.

But does not putting up a fight truly mean she was complicit? No. Consider the situation, along with the prevailing tropes of queenship of the time, and Mary’s actions — or lack thereof — are perfectly understandable. Though she was known for her height, Bothwell was a trained soldier. That he, first, had been a friend to her and, second, had the gaul to lay hands on a monarch believed to be anointed by God undoubtedly would have put Mary in fear for her life.

Those who say she could have escaped — and should have done so — reflect a misunderstanding of the effect of trauma on the mind. Mary was excessively proud, obsessed with her status as a queen. She had been tormented and attacked by a former friend, and this may have been witnessed by her servants — most things were at the time. She was deeply distressed, may have been too physically injured to move, and was consumed by fear. . . .

Mary, who had encouraged Bothwell, given him presents and let him remain at Holyrood, and given him so much that she knew the world would blame her for. And, like most [sexual assault] victims, she no doubt castigated herself when there was no reason to do so. Historians who claim Mary did not flee the castle and so wanted the rape, enjoyed it, or had even colluded with Bothwell all along, ignore the fundamentally sexist nature of sixteenth century society: a woman who was raped was to blame for it.

The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots: Elizabeth I and her Greatest Rival, Kate Williams, pg. 195

Concluding Thoughts on The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots

In all, Williams’ analysis of two iconic queens is a must-read. Whether you favor one queen over the other, as I favor Mary, this book is a fascinating read. It is broken up into easily digestible chapters, cleanly organized by topic and time. This is no small feat when analyzing the upbringing of two women that took place in three countries. I confess, it took me some time to get through the book, but only because I kept having to stop after a chapter or two to really think through everything I had just read.

The ambiguity of the title — does Mary betray or is Mary betrayed? — is not answered definitively, but, instead, left up to the reader. Perhaps, it is both. Neither queen is illustrated as inherently bad or evil. Mary is not portrayed as a love-sick woman lacking intelligence or common sense. Elizabeth is not overly aggressive or vindictive, as the women are sometimes seen.

Mary’s story may well have been Elizabeth’s, had certain factors not favored Elizabeth’s reign (including the political power of England versus Scotland). Williams’ biggest success is in her illustration of both women as human, flawed, but attempting to survive amongst a patriarchal system designed to disenfranchise them.


The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots: Elizabeth I and her Greatest Rival by Kate Williams is available on Amazon as an e-book, audiobook, hardcover, or paperback.

The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots: Elizabeth I and her Greatest Rival by Kate Williams

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The Betrayal of Mary Queen of Scots: Mary Stuart is my all time favorite historical figure. When I came across this book while browsing Amazon, I bought it without hesitation. I hadn't read anything by Kate Williams prior to this, and was eager to see how she portrayed my favorite queen. The book did not disappoint. Read my full review of The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots: Elizabeth I and Her Greatest Rival by Kate Williams here!