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Maps and Mary, Queen of Scots


Whether looking for the best means to travel from A to B or going in search of treasure you can’t do without a map. And I don’t mean some GPS enabled app, that just doesn’t have the same scope. I mean a large paper sheet that refuses to close down even when you want it to and has a satisfying radius that sets your position on the planet better than glaring at Google Earth. Maps are the key to an ‘otherworld’, they lead to somewhere else, facilitate journeying beyond familiar places to places where one may be inspired and astounded. Maps are really quite remarkable.

Over the last few months I’ve been trying to determine the most likely route Mary Queen of Scots followed after landing from a fishing boat on a beach near Workington during the evening of 16th May 1568. But the truth is proving elusive, not least because after her death she became something more than human, she became a figure of romance, a legend. Every Tom, Dick or Harry with an eye to a profit has claimed she came to call.


There is no question where she slept that very first night because the evidence is indisputable. Imagine the furore when the Queen of the neighbouring country unexpectedly comes a-calling? Unfortunately the Curwens who resided at Workington Hall were taking the waters in Bath but a servant recognised Mary because he was French and ‘knew her in better times’.  That evening letters were being dispatched to the four corners of the land (and beyond, Mary wrote a letter to France begging assistance). Just before dawn next day Richard Lowther, deputy keeper of Carlisle Castle, arrived with a company of men (between 200 to 800 depending on who composed the letter) to escort the unexpected visitor back to Carlisle Castle. The argument being this was for her own safety.

Lowther was right to worry about Mary’s situation. The Earl of Northumberland wanted Mary under his control, and with Lord Wharton, military governor of the region out of reach in London poor Richard had to make all the decisions. He obviously knew who he could trust and called on a wealthy merchant called Henry Fletcher. Now while most records agree that Fletcher was Mary’s host during her second night in England he owned several large houses in the region. The earliest written record I can find claims Mary stayed at Clea Hall but that didn’t seem to make sense because it’s so far off the beaten track…at least nowadays. Perhaps that’s why most modern tomes agree Mary stayed that critical night at Cockermouth Hall, another of Henry’s homes.

Then, while debating my next step, I happened to bump into John Higham, a retired history teacher who’s written several books on local history. When I told him of my dilemma he pointed me towards the Saxon map of Cumberland which was published in 1579. It came as a surprise to discover that the main road to Carlisle, in fact the only road which would accommodate a large party of men and women on horseback, skirted the hills and passed through the villages of Ireby and Dalston, a very different route from today. And this made it apparent that Clea Hall is in a much better position, especially if you want to ride in ceremonial triumph into Carlisle next day and not look too frazzled. The grounds of Clea Hall also offered space for the few hundred soldiers who needed a place to lay their heads, something far less feasible in Cockermouth town centre, especially with the Earl of Northumberland’s men breathing down your back (but that’s another story).

So my journey hasn’t ended. I have an inkling the records are wrong, but I do know for certain that Mary made the wrong choice in coming to England. But then, had she remained, as was most likely, under house arrest in Scotland, she would have faded into history rather than blazed.



Looking NW from a farm lane near Crosscanonby across farmland and the Solway Firth to the Galloway Hills.

  © Copyright ally McGurk and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence


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Downe with the daggle-tayles

This quote is from a document written in the sixteenth century. Words spoken, according to an eyewitness, by Queen Mary Tudor as she watched groups of armed men storm through the streets of London during the Wyatt Rebellion. It was January 1554, Mary had ruled England less than six months and the country was in a state of turmoil.


Finding your feet in a new job is always difficult but imagine how this devoutly Catholic spinster felt. At thirty-seven years of age she inherited the throne against all odds. Her younger brother’s last act was to disinherit her. Henry VIII apparently expected neither of his daughters to reign because Jane Seymour provided him with a healthy male heir. So, at the start of her reign, Mary had to make her position secure and every one of her faithful advisors agreed the answer was to produce an heir, the sooner the better. The pressure was on to find a husband. Unfortunately the man she picked for the job was Spanish. Not a popular choice with her subjects who decided to rebel. 

"Forasmuch as it is now spred abrode and certainly pronounced by the lords chancelour and other of the counsell, of the Quenes determinate pleasure to marry w. a stranger: etc we therefore write unto you, because you be our neighbors, because you be our frandes, and because you be Englishmen, that you will joyne with us, as we will with you unto death in this behalfe, protecting unto you before God, that no earthly cause could move us unto this enterpise, but this alone we seke no harm to the quene, ….

For herein lieth the helth and welth of us al. ….

Lo now even at hand, Spaniardes by nowe already arived at Dover, at one passage to the numbre of an hundreth passing upwards to London, in companies of ten, foure and VI (sic) with harnes, harquebusses and morrians with match light, the formest company whereof be already at Rochester. We shall require you therefore to repaire to such places as the bearers hereof shal pronounce unto you, there to assemble and determine what may be best for ye advauncement of libertie and to bring with you such ayde as you may."

Public proclamation, posted on 25th January 1554

This contemporary document reads like a Tudor broadsheet, whipping up fears for a Spanish Invasion. No wonder ordinary Englishmen, most of them staunch Protestants, felt motivated to march on London. Time’s were hard enough without inviting the Spanish to run the country. For me this is an excellent example of how a ‘first-hand source’ (a piece of written or visual evidence produced at the time) can bring events vividly to life.   


Mary’s adherence to the ‘old’ religion was to be her downfall. Years of starving herself (during specific religious festivals) probably weakened her immune system – royal correspondence refers to her constant illnesses, and she died childless, in November 1558. During the four and a half years she ruled England she pursued one specific aim, to reinstate the Catholic Church. For her devotion the Pope made her a Saint. English people judged her, at the very least, misguided.


My view of Mary I’s reign has always been coloured by her cruelty; after the Wyatt Rebellion one observer told how hundreds of bodies hung from gibbets throughout the country. Latterly she was merciless in the name of religion, earning her the title ‘Bloody Mary’ but I wonder how much of her attitude was based on fear due to the circumstances surrounding those first precarious weeks on the throne?


I love exploring history but it is in reading texts of first-hand sources I get a true sense of period. ‘Down with daggle-tails’ packs the kind of punch only a bystander can deliver. And what is a daggle-tail? According to Webster’s dictionary it means a slovenly woman or someone whose clothes are trailing in dirt or mud.


Here is part of another eye-witness account of Wyatt’s dismal march to London.

Owing to the rain the roads were a mass of mire, dung and great water-filled pits. It took the rebels ten hours to cover ten miles. Their guns, on improvised wooden carriages moved heavily, hauled by mules and dispirited men pulling on ropes, but in spite of every difficulty they crossed at 11pm, leaving Kingston behind them they came to the flat marshy lands of Brentford, rain continued heavily and men began to desert, including many "whitecoats". At Turham Green the naval gun carriages broke down and the guns rolled off into the mud. The rebels were brought to a halt and valuable time was lost trying to retrieve them.

What a picture it conjures of a makeshift army making their way towards the city.  And it becomes easy to see why Mary herself described them as ‘daggle-tails’.

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