The Scottish Queen

Many schools teach the Tudors as part of their history curriculum, therefore, most people have heard of Mary, Queen of Scots who got her head chopped off for supposedly plotting against Queen Elizabeth I. At schools in England, this is more or less all that is taught about the Scottish queen, however, in Scotland she plays a much bigger part in history. Even today, the National Galleries of Scotland continue to celebrate the queen’s life with exhibitions, such as The Life and Legend of Mary, Queen of Scots, which was put online for all to view. Mary’s life was fraught with conspiracy and treason but not necessarily of her own making. In some ways, as the National Galleries of Scotland portray, Mary became a romantic heroine in a heartbreaking story that has inspired artists, poets and writers for centuries.

Mary was born Mary Stuart on 8th December 1542 at Linlithgow Palace, Scotland and was the only legitimate child to survive her father, King James V (1512-42), who died six days after her birth. He allegedly collapsed due to stress after the Battle of Solway Moss on the Anglo-Scottish border. Following her father’s death, Mary became the Queen of Scotland, although the country was ruled by a couple of regents until she became an adult. James Hamilton, Duke of Châtellerault, 2nd Earl of Arran (1519-75) ruled as regent until 1554 when he was replaced by Mary’s mother, Mary of Guise (1515-60).

From her baptism at the Church of St Michael onwards, decisions were being made for the young queen that would shape her future. Not only did the regency control Mary’s life, the King of England, Henry VIII (1491-1547), also interfered. Mary’s paternal grandmother, Margaret Tudor (1489-1541) was Henry’s sister, making Mary his great-niece. Taking advantage of the regency, Henry proposed marriage between Mary and his son Edward (1537-53), hoping that when Edward became king, Scotland and England would be united.

When Mary was only 6 months old, the Treaty of Greenwich was signed, which declared “Prince Edward, eldest son and heir apparent of Henry VIII, now in his sixth year, shall marry Mary Queen of Scotland, now in her first year.” Whilst this would unite the two countries, the treaty also stated they would remain legally separate and, if Edward were to die without an heir, Mary would rightfully take control of Scotland.

Naturally, Henry had ulterior motives, including to break the Scottish alliance with France and abolish Catholicism. Instead, David Cardinal Beaton (1494-1546), who was the last Scottish cardinal before the Reformation, rose to power with a pro-Catholic pro-French agenda. Henry took advantage of the distraction caused by the infant Mary’s coronation on 9th September 1543 to arrest Scottish merchants headed for France. This action caused a lot of anger in Scotland, and by the end of the year, the Treaty of Greenwich was rejected.

Henry was still determined to form a Scottish-English union and began a military campaign in an attempt to force Scotland to accept the treaty. Known as Henry’s “Rough Wooing”, English soldiers invaded parts of Scotland and France, rallying support from Protestant lairds. In May 1546 Cardinal Beaton was murdered by a group of the latter and, despite Henry’s death in 1547, the Scottish suffered a severe defeat at the Battle of Pinkie on the River Esk.

Scotland was fearful for Mary’s safety and she was moved to Inchmahome Priory on an island in the middle of the Lake of Menteith. Meanwhile, Scotland appealed to France for help. King Henry II (1519-59) of France responded with a proposal to unite Scotland and France, which was not too dissimilar from Henry VIII’s treaty. In return for military support, the regency agreed that Mary would marry Henry II’s son, the Dauphin Francis (1544-60). In June 1548, the French arrived in Scotland to help take back parts of the country besieged by the English. The following month, the French marriage treaty was agreed and signed by the Scottish Parliament.

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Mary and Francis in Catherine de’ Medici’s book of hours, 1558

With the marriage treaty agreed, Mary, who was now five years old, was sent to France to live at the French Court. Mary was accompanied by two illegitimate brothers and her governess, Lady Janet Fleming (1502-62), an illegitimate daughter of James IV (1473-1513). Janet was the mother of one of the maids-in-waiting, the “four Marys”, who also accompanied the Queen: Mary Fleming (1542-81), Mary Beaton (1543-98), Mary Livingston (1541-79) and Mary Seton (1542-1615).

Mary had a pleasant childhood in France, where she was also in contact with her maternal grandmother, Antoinette de Bourbon (1494-1583). Mary got on well with the members of the French royal family, particularly her future sister-in-law, Elisabeth of Valois (1545-68). Her relationship with the queen consort, Catherine de’ Medici (1519-89), however, was less favourable.

In 1551, Mary’s governess was replaced by Françoise d’Estamville, Dame de Paroy (d.1557), a favourite of Catherine de’ Medici. Although Mary did not like her new governess, she received a good education. She was taught to speak French, Italian, Latin, Spanish and Greek as well as continuing to speak in the native language of the Scots. Mary learnt to play the lute and virginal and became proficient at writing poetry, needlework, horse riding and falconry.

Eventually, at the age of 16, Mary married the Dauphin on 24th April 1558 at Notre Dame de Paris. Although he was not yet the King of France, the marriage automatically made him the king consort of Scotland. It was also agreed that if Mary died without an heir, Francis would take her place as King of Scotland.

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Elizabeth I – attr. Frans Huys

At this time in England, Mary I (1516-58) had just been succeeded by her protestant sister Elizabeth I (1533-1603). In the eyes of the Catholics, however, Elizabeth was an illegitimate child because she had been born to Henry VIII’s second wife after divorcing his first, which was not allowed in the Catholic church. If the English monarchy had been kept in the Catholic line, Mary, Queen of Scots would have been the rightful heir. The King of France, who was a strong Catholic, went as far as to hail Mary and his son as queen and king of England.

The following year, Mary and her fifteen-year-old husband became the joint rulers of France after the death of Henry II on 10th July 1559 from fatal jousting wounds. Being so young, the French courts were mostly run by the French relatives of both Francis and Mary, however, they were unable to support Scotland in their battles against the English due to the Huguenot uprisings in France. To make matters more difficult, Mary’s mother, who had been ruling as regent, passed away on 11th June 1560.

To end the hostilities in Scotland, representatives of France, Scotland and England signed the Treaty of Edinburgh. This agreed that all three countries would cease fighting at 7pm on 17th June 1560. After this, the French and English were to remove their troops from Scotland, and France was also to recognise Elizabeth I as the Queen of England. Mary, as the Queen of Scotland, should also have signed the agreement, however, she was too overcome with grief after the death of her mother.

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Mary, Queen of Scots: The Farewell to France – Robert Herdman (1867)

Life, unfortunately, was not going to improve for the young queen. In the winter, Francis II developed an ear infection, which led to an abscess on his brain and he passed away on 5th December 1560. As of that point, Mary was no longer the Queen of France and Catherine de’ Medici, who still acted coldly towards the Scottish queen, was made regent for her ten-year-old son, Charles IX (1550-74), who inherited the throne.

No longer part of the French court, Mary returned to Scotland to rule as queen, however, she had been in France since the age of five and knew very little about the workings of the country. Seeing her as weak, the Protestants, led by her illegitimate brother James Stewart, Earl of Moray (1531-70), began to rise up against her. Likewise, the Protestant preacher, John Knox (1514-72), verbally attacked Mary in his sermons.

Unsure what to do, Mary tried and failed to talk to Knox then charged him with treason, however, he was later acquitted. Rather than also accusing her half-brother of treason, she appointed him her chief advisor in an attempt to keep the peace between the Protestants and Catholics. By September 1561, two-thirds of Mary’s privy council were Protestants.

Mary was advised by her councillors to put forward the proposal to the English courts that Mary be made the heir presumptive to the English throne. Queen Elizabeth, husband-less and childless, had refused to name an heir, however, she had reputedly admitted to the Scottish representative, William Maitland of Lethington (1525-73), that Mary had the greatest claim. A meeting was arranged between the English and Scottish queens, however, it was later cancelled because of the civil wars in France, which had caught England’s attention.

Meanwhile, Mary turned her thoughts to finding a new husband and began looking for a suitable match within the royal families of Europe. Her uncle, Charles de Lorraine (1524-74), suggested Archduke Charles of Austria (1540-90) as a potential suitor, however, Mary was horrified by the idea and outraged with her uncle’s interference. Her own attempts to find a husband, however, were also proving fruitless.

Elizabeth I attempted to persuade Mary to marry her favourite statesman, Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester (1532-88). He had once been a suitor for the English queen, however, she had always turned him down. Elizabeth’s suggestion, of course, had an ulterior motive. She believed she had control of Dudley, therefore, she would be able to gain some control in the Scottish court. To tempt Mary further, Elizabeth promised her that if she married Dudley, Elizabeth would “proceed to the inquisition of her right and title to be our next cousin and heir”. This promise, however, came to nothing for, even if Mary had agreed, Dudley strongly rejected the proposal.

Pierre de Bocosel de Chastelard (1540-63), a French poet from Mary’s court, put himself forward as a marriage contender. Unfortunately, he appeared overly besotted with the queen and used peculiar methods of showing it, such as hiding under her bed or bursting into the room while she was changing. The latter occasion caused Mary great distress and some people claimed Chastelard was faking his attraction and attempting to discredit Mary’s reputation. Nonetheless, whatever the truth, Chastleard was tried for treason and executed.

In 1565, Mary met her half-cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (1545-67) for the second time in her life. Their first meeting had been in France when Darnley visited to pay his respects to the recently widowed queen, however, on their second meeting, which took place at Wemyss Castle in Scotland, Mary fell in love. “Her Majesty took well with him, and said that he was the lustiest and best proportioned long man that she had seen,” reported Scottish writer James Melville of Halhill (1535-1617). It is believed Darnley was over 6 foot tall.

Usually, Catholic laws forbade first cousins from marrying, however, Mary and Darnley went ahead with their wedding at Holyrood Palace on 29th July 1565. The match angered the Protestants, including the Earl of Moray, who roused up troops in open rebellion. Mary retaliated by sending her own troops who prevented Moray from gaining sufficient support. Eventually, the Earl retreated and sought asylum in England. Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth was upset that the wedding had gone ahead without her permission. She was also concerned that both Mary and Darnley were claimants of the English throne, therefore, if they were to have children, they would have an even stronger claim.

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The Murder of David Rizzio – Sir William Allan 1833

Unfortunately, Mary’s marriage was not all she dreamt it would be. It soon became clear Darnley was an arrogant, self-centred man. He demanded the Crown Matrimonial, which would make him co-ruler of Scotland, however, Mary refused. This rejection worsened the strain on their already fragile marriage.

Darnley was also a jealous man and did not approve of his wife having dealings with any other men. This made life particularly difficult for Mary who, as Queen, regularly spoke to the men in the Scottish Parliament. The man who caused Darnley the most concern, however, was David Rizzio (1533-66), an Italian courtier who had been appointed the private secretary of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Rizzio’s position meant he spent a lot of time with the Queen and they developed a strong friendship. In his jealousy, Darnley conspired with Protestant Lords who were against Mary’s reign and riled them up by spreading the rumour that Mary was pregnant with Rizzio’s child. On 9th March 1566, while Mary and Rizzio were dining at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, a group of rebels burst into the room led by English ambassador Lord Patrick Ruthven (1520-66) and demanded Rizzio be handed over. Mary refused and tried to protect Rizzio but the rebels overpowered her and stabbed him to death.

Mary was unaware her husband had been involved in the murder and believed both she and Darnley were in danger from the rebels. On 11th March, Mary and Darnley escaped from the Palace and took refuge in Dunbar Castle. Once she was certain she was safe, Mary returned to Edinburgh Castle a week later, by which time some of the former Protestant rebels, such as the Earl of Moray, had been restored to the royal council in an attempt to bridge the rift between the Protestants and Catholics.

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Portrait of James as a boy, after Arnold Bronckorst, 1574

On 19th June 1566, James Charles Stuart (1566-1625), the future king of Scotland and, later, England, was born at Edinburgh Castle. Although James was recognised as Darnley’s son, the murder of Rizzio had led to an irreparable breakdown of their marriage. In November, Mary held a meeting to discuss what should be done about her overbearing husband. Divorce was suggested but eventually ruled out as an option, probably due to religious laws.

Darnley was aware he was no longer wanted by the Scottish courts and feared for his safety. Before Christmas, he fled to his father’s estate in Glasgow for protection, however, spent several weeks suffering from a fever. There were rumours he may have been poisoned. By the end of January 1567, Mary urged Darnley to return to Edinburgh, where he continued to recuperate at the former abbey of Kirk o’ Field.

On 10th February 1567, an explosion destroyed the abbey and Darnley was found dead in the garden, reportedly from asphyxiation. Although there were no visible signs that Darnley had been strangled or smothered, it was believed Darnley had been murdered. The identity of the killer or the names of the people who plotted Darnley’s demise were never discovered, however, Mary and her half-brother, the Earl of Moray, were amongst the suspects.

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James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, c 1535 – 1578

Eventually, the murder was pinned on James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell (1534-78), although there was no tangible evidence. After a seven-hour trial, Bothwell was acquitted after which he sought the support of two dozen bishops, earls and lords to support his aim to become the next husband of the Queen. The agreement was signed in the Ainslie Tavern Bond, which Mary also allegedly signed.

Bothwell, however, had an unconventional way of proposing to the Queen. In April 1567, Mary visited her ten-month-old son in Stirling for a few days before returning to Edinburgh. Unbeknownst to her, this would be the last time she would ever see James. During the journey home, Mary was abducted by Bothwell and his men and taken to Dunbar Castle. It is not certain but there have been suggestions that Bothwell may have raped her. On the other hand, there were rumours that Mary went with Bothwell of her own volition.

The events leading up to Mary and Bothwell’s marriage on 15th May 1567 are hazy, but one obstacle to overcome was Bothwell’s previous marriage to Jean Gordon (1546-1629). Bothwell and Jean had only been married since February 1566, therefore, he was able to have the marriage annulled.

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The Return of Mary Queen of Scots to Edinburgh – James Drummond (1870)

Mary believed the Scottish nobles supported the match, however, because Bothwell was a Protestant, it also caused some antagonism from her allies. Catholics refused to acknowledge the marriage because they did not believe in divorce. They also thought it unsavoury to marry the man who was accused of murdering her previous husband.

The lords and advisors Mary once trusted, began to turn against her, raised their own army, and denounced her as an adulteress and a murderer. On 16th June 1567, the lords had her imprisoned in a castle on an island in Loch Leven. Mary was pregnant with twins at the time but miscarried a week later. On 24th July, Mary was forced to abdicate in favour of her one-year-old son and the Earl of Moray was made regent. Meanwhile, Bothwell had been forced into exile, although he was later imprisoned in Denmark where he went insane and died in 1578.

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Mary, Queen of Scots Escaping from Lochleven Castle – William Craig Shirreff 1805

During her ten months of imprisonment, Mary was looked after by Lady Agnes Leslie, the wife of the castle owner Sir William Douglas (1540-1606). On 2nd May 1568, however, Mary managed to escape with the help of Sir Douglas’ brother George and managed to raise an army of 6000 men. Unfortunately, her army was no match for Moray’s army, who they fought at the Battle of Langside.

Mary fled from place to place, spending the night at Dundrennan Abbey and crossing the Solway Firth into England. There, she stayed in Workington Hall in Cumberland before being taken into custody at Carlisle Castle for her own protection. Mary was hoping Queen Elizabeth I would come to her aid, however, the English queen hesitated, wishing to ascertain whether Mary had played a part in Darnley’s murder. Whilst these inquiries were taking place, Mary was moved to Bolton Castle.

A conference, which Mary refused to attend, was held in York in October 1568, which Moray used as an opportunity to offer incriminating evidence against the former Scottish queen. Moray presented eight letters known as the “casket letters” that, although unsigned, were allegedly written by Mary to Bothwell. The letters, which contained two marriage contracts and some sonnets, are now believed to be forgeries but at the time they were accepted as genuine proof of Mary’s guilt. Elizabeth, however, neither wished to convict or acquit Mary, so Moray returned to the new Protestant government in Scotland and Mary remained in custody.

Elizabeth was still concerned about Mary’s claim to the English throne, so kept her under lock and key at a variety of locations, including Tutbury Castle, Sheffield Castle and Chatsworth House. Despite being imprisoned, Mary was allowed up to sixteen members of domestic staff and was well looked after, however, after some time her health began to deteriorate. Meanwhile, Elizabeth attempted to restore Mary to the Scottish throne on the understanding that the government remain Protestant, however, this was rejected.

In 1571, Elizabeth’s principal secretaries uncovered a plot to assassinate the Queen and replace her with Mary. International banker Roberto di Ridolfo (1531-1612), supported by Elizabeth’s cousin, Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk (1536-72), had begun to rally support from the Spanish when their plans were discovered. Some believe Mary had given the plot her consent, however, she still claimed to be loyal to Elizabeth.

The result of this attempted scheme was the publication of the “casket letters”, which caused some of Mary’s supporters to turn against her. Another plot was developed to marry Mary to the governor of the Low Countries. Although this was endorsed by Pope Gregory XIII (1502-85), it was discovered and prevented by the English government. In February 1585, a Welsh courtier was convicted of plotting to assassinate Elizabeth. Although Mary had nothing to do with this, Elizabeth tightened Mary’s terms of custody and moved her to a manor house at Chartley, Staffordshire.

Another plot, known as the Babington Plot, was uncovered in August 1586. The goal was for the Spanish to invade and assassinate Elizabeth, putting Mary on the throne. Letters from Mary to the plot’s leader, Sir Anthony Babington (1561-86), incriminated her and suggested she had authorised the assassination.

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Mary Queen Of Scots’ Trial & Execution, 1560

Mary was moved to Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire and put on trial for treason. She denied the accusations against her and protested she had not been allowed to defend herself. She warned her accusers, “Look to your consciences and remember that the theatre of the whole world is wider than the kingdom of England.” Nonetheless, she was found guilty.

Elizabeth was hesitant to sentence Mary to death, possibly concerned about potential consequences involving the Catholics and Mary’s son. She even enquired whether there was any humane way of shortening Mary’s life, however, no doctor was willing to do so. Finally, on 1st February 1587, Elizabeth signed the death warrant.

Mary was only told of her impending execution on 7th February, the day before it was scheduled. She spent her remaining hours in prayer and wrote her final will, which expressed her wish to buried in France. The following morning, Mary was led to the scaffold and after uttering her final words, “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum” (Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit), was beheaded.

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Mary, Queen of Scots, 1578

So ended the life of Mary, Queen of Scots. Elizabeth, who had not been told of the execution until afterwards, was angry that it had gone ahead without her permission, despite having signed the death warrant. Some suggest she did not want Mary executed and was stalling for time, however, she refused Mary’s request in her will that she be buried in France. Instead, Mary was buried at Peterborough Cathedral in July 1587, although, her son, once he was King of England, instructed his mother to be reinterred at Westminster Abbey.

Mary’s courage at her execution has painted her as a heroic character in a dramatic tragedy. Whereas some say she was “a pawn in the hands of scheming noblemen,” she has been idolised as a brave, fearless woman who continued to fight for her freedom and her country despite the risks upon her life. She may not have been able to save herself, but she became the matriarch of the English monarchy for the following century. After her son became the King of England in 1603, the crown passed down the Stewart line until 1714: Charles I (1600-49), Charles II (1630-85), James II (1633-1701), Mary II (1662-1694) and her husband William III (1650-1702), and Anne (1665-1714).

Mata Hari the Dancing Spy

How many people in history have become famous for their deaths? Countless. Death has the power to shock the world, whether it be natural, murder, heroic or mysterious. Death also has the power to erase life, and not just physically. The world’s morbid curiosity can become so focused on the end of a life that it forgets everything that came before. A recent article in BBC History magazine (June 2020) that discusses the disappearance of the American aviator Amelia Earhart (1897- unknown) in 1937 urges readers to “pay more attention to why we are collectively so enamoured with Earhart’s tragic moments, rather than the incredible achievements of her life.” The same could be said about a multitude of historical celebrities, for example, the exotic dancer Mata Hari.

Often cropping up in online quizzes is the question, “What was the nationality of the exotic dancer Mata Hari who was executed for being a German spy during WWI?” The answer, as many quiz players will know, is Dutch. How many of the same quiz players can provide more details about the dancer other than she was Dutch and she was executed for being a spy? Has her life been reduced to these few details?

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Mata Hari, 1905

Born on 7th August 1876, in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest child and only daughter of Adam Zelle (1840-1910) and Antje van der Meulen (1842-91). Both her parents were Dutch, which proves false the rumours that Mata Hari was of Javanese ancestry. Her father, a hat shop owner, led a fairly affluent life, earning money through successful oil industry investments. As a result, Margaretha received an exclusive education until the age of 13.

Unfortunately, this lavish lifestyle was not to last; her father went bankrupt in 1889, which led to her parents’ divorce. Margaretha’s mother died suddenly in 1891 and her father remarried two years later to Susanna Catharina ten Hoove (1844 – 1913), after which the family completely fell apart. Margaretha was sent to live with her godfather in Sneek, a city southwest of Leeuwarden, and when she was old enough, began to study to be a kindergarten teacher in Leiden. The headmaster of the school, who was presumably somewhat older than Margaretha, began to openly flirt with her. When her godfather found out, he instantly removed her from the institution. It is unknown whether Margaretha had reciprocated the headmaster’s advances, however, she no longer wished to live with her godfather and fled to The Hague where her uncle resided.

mata-hari-9402348-1-rawYet, Margaretha did not stop running. At 18 years old, Margaretha answered an advert in a newspaper placed by a Dutch Colonial Army Captain who was seeking a wife. Captain Rudolf MacLeod (1856-1928) was a descendant of Clan MacLeod of the Isle of Skye. His father, John, was also a captain and his mother, Dina Louise, was the Baroness Sweerts de Landas, therefore, he was of high social standing and financially secure.

Margaretha sent a photograph of herself, emphasising her raven black hair and olive skin, to MacLeod who was stationed in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). The Dutch Empire had colonised the area in 1800 and MacLeod was the captain of one branch of the Dutch army stationed there.

On 11th July 1895, Margaretha and MacLeod were married and, two years later, settled in the city of Malang on the east side of the island of Java with their newborn son, Norman-John (1897-99). The following year, their daughter Louise Jeanne (1898-1919) was born. Margaretha’s dreams of a happy marriage, however, were shattered when she learnt about her husband’s philandering ways.  It was socially acceptable for Europeans to keep a concubine in the Dutch East Indies at that time, which MacLeod did, as well as visit prostitutes.

Captain Rudolf MacLeod was an alcoholic and prone to violence when drunk. He beat Margaretha for attracting other officers with her beauty; he beat and blamed Margaretha when he did not receive a promotion; he beat her for any petty reason he could find. To escape the abuse, Margaretha temporarily moved in with another Dutch officer where she began to study Indonesian traditions and embrace the local culture.

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Legong dance – Freeind Santosa

What interested Margaretha the most was Indonesian dance, which reflected the diversity of their culture. Indonesia can be split into three eras: Prehistoric, Hindu/Buddhist, and Islam; all of which can be observed in folk dances and court dances. Tribal dances from the Prehistoric Era gradually combined with influences from nearby countries, such as India, China and the Middle East. Later, European culture was thrown into the mix.

Margaretha joined a local dance company where she adopted an artistic name: Mata Hari. As she explained in letters home to her Dutch family, Mata Hari was the Malay word for “sun” (literally “eye of the day”). Here she would have learnt many different dances. The population of Indonesia was made up of different ethnicities, each of whom had their own dances. There is an estimated total of 3000 dances that have their origins in Indonesia.

Mata Hari was only able to escape her husband for a few months when she was persuaded to return. The beatings resumed but Margaretha was able to find moments of solace in her studies of the local culture and dance. Sadly, tragedy was soon to befall the MacLeod family. In 1899, the children fell violently ill from which Norman-John never survived. Many believe this was due to complications with the treatment of syphilis, which the children had contracted from their father. Others claim the children were poisoned by a servant or enemy of MacLeod. Whatever the cause, Norman-John was dead.

The MacLeod’s returned to the Netherlands in 1902 where they officially separated, although their divorce did not become official until 1906. Margaretha was awarded custody of Louise Jeanne and MacLeod was legally required to provide financial support – which he did not. After one of Louise Jeanne’s visits with her father, MacLeod refused to return her to Margaretha. Although Margaretha had every right to take her ex-husband to court, she did not have the resources. Despite MacLeod’s abusive nature, he had never hurt his daughter, so Margaretha conceded defeat. It is unlikely mother and daughter saw each other again. Not much is known about Louise Jeanne’s life other than she passed away aged 21 from complications due to syphilis.

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Performing in 1905

In 1903, Margaretha moved to Paris in search of work. Some say she posed as a model for an artist, but this claim is uncertain. She did, however, find work in a circus as a horse rider and performed under the name of Lady MacLeod. This, naturally, met with disapproval with her ex-husband’s family.

Orientalism” was all the rage in Paris at the turn of the century, which Margaretha was able to use to her advantage. Modern dancers were incorporating Asian and Egyptian cultures into their costumes and dance moves and Margaretha, who had learnt to dance in the Dutch East Indies, fitted right in. Using her Malay name, Mata Hari billed herself as a Hindu artist and choreographed “Temple Dances” using her knowledge of Indonesian culture, religion and symbolism. The dances often involved the removal of clothing, although she self-consciously kept her breasts covered with bead-covered brassieres.

Mata Hari was the contemporary of several established modern dancers, including Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), an American dancer who toured Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. Duncan’s technique incorporated ballet with Ancient Greece. Although her movements were as fluid as a ballerina, her costumed were based on Ancient Greek art. Rather than leotards or corsets, Duncan preferred tunics and performed most of her dances barefoot.

When Mata Hari first learnt of her, Duncan was on her European tour. Popular for her distinctive style, many artists were inspired by Duncan and wished to create works based on her. The French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) was one of many who were intrigued by the movements of Duncan’s body.

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Gabriel Astruc

On the other hand, French journalist and theatre manager, Gabriel Astruc (1864-1938), did not think much of Isadora’s Duncan’s dancing, believing it to be too subtle to attract an audience. He was, however, attracted to Mata Hari’s Oriental-inspired style and became her booking agent in 1904. Around the same time, Astruc was also working with musicians and singers, such as Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982) and Nellie Melba (1861-1931).

Mata Hari debuted her act at the Musée Guimet on 13th March 1905 where she became an overnight sensation. The Parisian museum is famous for being one of the largest collections of Asian art and owns several items from Indonesia, which complimented Mata Hari’s style of dance. Her audience was captivated by her body and flirtatious nature.

In her dance, Mata Hari posed as a Hindu Javanese princess, which led many people to believe she was of Asian ancestry. She let them believe she had grown up learning the art of sacred Indian dance when, in fact, it had only been a matter of years. As she danced, she progressively removed her clothing until she was left in nothing but a breastplate and jewels.

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Émile Guimet in his Museum, by Ferdinand Jean Luigini, 1898

It was not only the audience at the Musée Guimet who were captivated by Mata Hari’s performance; she had also caught the eye of millionaire and founder of the museum, Émile Étienne Guimet (1836-1918). Guimet had originally set up the museum in Lyon but transferred its contents to its current location in Paris in 1885. Soon after meeting Mata Hari, she became his mistress.

In August 1905, Gabriel Astruc booked Mata Hari into the Paris Olympia where she made many appearances over the following decade. Thousands flocked to see her shows and many photographs were taken, including some during her semi-naked acts. Unfortunately, some of these photos reached the MacLeod family who used them to strengthen their custody claim over Louise Jeanne.

Nonetheless, Mata Hari continued to have a successful career in Paris. Her type of act made her a popular woman amongst male spectators but also brought exotic dance to a more respectable status and greatly appealed to “oriental” obsessed Parisians. Mata Hari herself was thought of as exotic and many believed the stories about her origins to be genuine. Very little was known in Europe about the Dutch East Indies, so any form of art from that area garnered a lot of attention from intrigued Europeans.

A French journalist described Mata Hari as “so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms.” News of her success in Paris saloons spread to other cities and countries, who wished to book Mata Hari for their halls and exhibition spaces. Her dance act travelled as far as Vienna, where a journalist commented on her body, “slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair.” He claimed that even her face made “a strange foreign impression.”

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In 1910 wearing a bejewelled head-dress

The popularity of Mata Hari’s dance style inspired other dancers to appropriate traditional Asian movements. By 1910, Mata Hari was competing for bookings with younger women. Critics, who were in favour of these new dancers, spread the opinion that Mata Hari’s success was down to her revealing clothes and exhibitionism rather than her dancing ability. In fact, some critics claimed she did not know how to dance at all.

Having begun her dance career relatively late in life, Mata Hari was hindered by the signs of ageing. Although she was not yet 40, Mata Hari had begun to put on weight, which made her body less appealing than the younger dancers. On 13th March 1915, she performed her last show as an exotic dancer, however, her fame, sensuality and eroticism led her to become a successful courtesan. She had relationships and liaisons with high ranking military officers and politicians, both in France and across country borders. Some of these men were German officers, which in hindsight was a foolish move.

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Amsterdam, 1915

Despite the growing tensions in Europe and the outbreak of World War One, Mata Hari continued to work as a courtesan, travelling from one country to another to avoid the fighting. Her constant movements came to the attention of British and French intelligence who put her under surveillance as she moved about between France, Britain, Spain and the Netherlands. The Netherlands remained neutral during the war, which allowed Mata Hari to travel unquestioned despite the surveillance.

At the beginning of 1916, Mata Hari began a very intense relationship with a Russian pilot who was serving with the French. Captain Vadim Maslov, who was in his early 20s, met Mata Hari at the Grand Hotel where he was staying for a short break after being granted military merit. Within a few short weeks, Mata Hari was deeply involved with Maslov, who she called the love of her life.

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Mata Hari and Vadim Maslov

When Maslov returned to work, he joined the 50,000 men in the Russian Expeditionary Force who were sent to the Western Front in the spring of 1916. During a dogfight with the Germans, Maslov’s plane was shot down. Although he survived, he was badly wounded and had lost the sight in both eyes. Naturally, Mata Hari wished to visit her wounded lover, however, as a citizen of a neutral country, she was not allowed near the front.

Mata Hari kicked up a fuss, which resulted in a meeting with agents from the Deuxième Bureau. The Deuxième Bureau de l’État-major général (“Second Bureau of the General Staff”) was France’s external military intelligence agency concerned with enemy troops. They proposed that Mata Hari could see Maslov if she agreed to spy for France. One of the agents, Major Georges Ladoux (1875-1933), believed her courtesan contacts would be able to provide useful information.

Ladoux also believed Mata Hari would be able to worm her way into Crown Prince Wilhelm’s (1882-1951) presence. The prince was the eldest son of the last German Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) and served as a general at the western front. Before the war, Mata Hari had performed for Prince Wilhelm, therefore, she would be a familiar face and, hopefully, appear trustworthy.

The Deuxième Bureau offered Mata Hari one million francs if she could seduce and obtain information about German war plans from the prince. Unbeknownst to the French organisation, the prince had very little to do with the military. German propaganda had painted the prince as a great warrior and leader of the Heeresgruppe Deutscher Kronprinz (Army Group Crown Prince). In reality, the prince had never commanded an army and was far more interested in partying and drinking.

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Painting of Mata Hari by Isaac Israëls, 1916

Mata Hari began her spy career by liaising with the contacts she had amassed during her work as a concubine and dancer. This took her to Spain from where she was returning by steamer ship in November 1916 when she was arrested by the British. The ship had called in at Falmouth, Cornwall, where she was detained and brought to London.

Sir Basil Thomson (1861-1939), the Head of the Criminal Investigation Department during the First World War, interrogated Mata Hari at length. She was held at Cannon Street police station but was released when she eventually admitted she was working for the Deuxième Bureau. After a brief stay at the Savoy Hotel, Mata Hari returned to Spain.

In Madrid, Mata Hari met the German military attaché, Major Arnold Kalle (1873-1952), with whom she began an affair. She asked Kalle if he could arrange a meeting with the Crown Prince but he appeared to be reluctant to do so. Mata Hari offered to share French secrets with Kalle in exchange for money, which she hoped would reward her with some German information in return. Indeed, Kalle did share some information, however, only things the French would already have known, for example, German submarines were refuelled in Spanish ports and German agents were being smuggled into Monaco.

Referring to Mata Hari as Agent H-21, Kalle transmitted telegrams to Berlin about the information she had revealed. Although it was written in code, Kalle had used encryption that had already been cracked by the French. The telegrams were intercepted by the British and French who easily identified Agent H-21 as Mata Hari. As a result, they began to suspect she was a double agent.

As it transpired, the information Mata Hari revealed to Kalle was mostly insignificant gossip about the sex lives of French politicians and generals, rather than useful information. German intelligence officer General Walter Nicolai (1873-1947), however, was annoyed that Kalle had paid for useless information and began to expose her as a German spy to the French.

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On the day of her arrest

Meanwhile, Mata Hari managed to obtain the names of six Belgian officers, five of whom were suspected of working for the Germans and one who believed to be a double agent. The latter was executed but the others evaded arrest and continued their work. The Deuxième Bureau believed Mata Hari had also given the names to the Germans who subsequently protected the five spies.

On 13th February 1917, while staying at the Hotel Elysée Palace in Paris, she was arrested by the French and placed in a rat-infested cell at Prison Saint-Lazare. At her trial, which took place on 24th July, Mata Hari was accused of spying for Germany, which led to the deaths of 500,000 soldiers. Captain Georges Ladoux of the Deuxième Bureau was one of her principal accusers, as was Sir Basil Thomson who had interrogated her in Britain. Both were convinced she had been a double agent, however, neither could produce substantial evidence. The most incriminating thing they could find was a bottle of invisible ink in her hotel room.

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Margaretha Zelle mugshot

Captain Pierre Bouchardon (1870-1950), nicknamed The Grand Inquisitor, was the prosecutor at Mata Hari’s trial and built his case around her invented persona. He drew attention to the story she had weaved about being a Javanese princess and revealed her real name as Margaretha Zelle.

During the trial, Margaretha admitted to accepting 20,000 francs from a German diplomat she had met in the Netherlands to spy on France. She insisted, however, that the only information she revealed was trivial as her loyalties remained with France.

A harlot? Yes, but a traitoress, never!

— Phrase attributed to Mata Hari during the trial.

 

Margaretha pleaded with the Dutch Embassy in Paris for help. “My international connections are due to my work as a dancer, nothing else… Because I really did not spy, it is terrible that I cannot defend myself.” Sadly, assistance was not forthcoming. Not even her wounded lover would come to her aid. When Maslov was asked to testify for her, he declined, claiming he did not care if she was convicted or not. Margaretha reportedly fainted at the news.

Researchers who have looked into Margaretha’s trial, such as British historian Julie Wheelwright, have concluded, “She really did not pass on anything that you couldn’t find in the local newspapers in Spain.” Despite this, Bouchardon continued to build his case by emphasising her past career. Bouchardon argued she was “accustomed to making use of men, she is the type of woman who is born to be a spy.”

Today, many believe Margaretha was used as a scapegoat for France. In 1917, the French were struggling to survive the war. The new Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), was determined to turn things around and having a German spy to blame for the recent failings of the French army would help to boost morale. Mata Hari was “… an independent woman, a divorcee, a citizen of a neutral country, a courtesan and a dancer, which made her a perfect scapegoat for the French, who were then losing the war. She was kind of held up as an example of what might happen if your morals were too loose.” (Wheelwright, 2014) 

Under interrogation, Margaretha had admitted to taking money to work for Germany, however, there was no evidence that she carried out any spy duties. Despite this, her defence lawyer, Édouard Clunet (1845-1922), faced an impossible battle; it was the French government versus one man. Unsurprisingly, Clunet lost the case and Margaretha was convicted.

Just before dawn on 15th October 1917, 41-year-old Margaretha Zelle was executed by a firing squad of 12 French soldiers. According to eye-witness reports, she was not bound and had refused to be blindfolded. One man claimed she blew a kiss at the squad just before they fired. British reporter Henry Wales wrote, “Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second, it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her.” To make sure she was dead, an officer then shot her in the head at close range.

No one came forward to claim Margaretha’s body, therefore, her body was donated to medical science. Records from 1918 show the Museum of Anatomy in Paris received her body and embalmed her head, however, when the museum’s collection was catalogued in 2000, Margaretha’s head and body were missing. They remain unaccounted for.

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Statue of Mata Hari in Leeuwarden, Netherlands

Mata Hari’s life has inspired many films including a Hollywood production starring Greta Garbo (1905-90). Her life has been a source of entertainment for many for over a century. In the 1967 James Bond spoof Casino Royale, the character Mata Bond was said to be the daughter of James Bond and Mata Hari. In 1992, Carrie Fisher (1956-1016) of Star Wars fame wrote an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles in which Indiana Jones had an affair with Mata Hari and became involved with her spy career. At least five musicals have been based around her life and, in 2016, the Dutch National Ballet presented a ballet called Mata Hari.

Despite her life becoming appropriated for entertainment purposes, some people wish to see Mata Hari vindicated of her supposed crimes. In 2001, MI5 released documents concerning Margaretha’s interrogation, which the Mata Hari Foundation used to form their plea to the French government to exonerate her. The spokesman for the foundation stated, “We believe that there are sufficient doubts concerning the dossier of information that was used to convict her to warrant re-opening the case. Maybe she wasn’t entirely innocent, but it seems clear she wasn’t the master-spy whose information sent thousands of soldiers to their deaths, as has been claimed.” The foundation argued the documents were proof that Margaretha was not guilty of the crime for which she was convicted.

Margaretha Zelle, a.k.a Mata Hari remains a criminal in the eyes of the law. In 2017, exactly 100 years after her execution, the French Army made the 1275 pages of Mata Hari’ trial and other documents public; it is only a matter of time before the foundation comes forward again to campaign for her pardon.

It is difficult to say how innocent or guilty Margaretha Zelle really was and it will be challenging to prove now that a century has passed. Whilst her execution remains the most notable event of her life, we must not forget the 41 years that led up to that fateful day. Margaretha’s world was turned upside-down at a young age following her father’s bankruptcy and her mother’s death. She took her future into her own hands, marrying to escape her past, only to find herself in an abusive relationship; she lost her son and was estranged from her daughter. Remarkably, this did not break her. She found solace in dance, became Mata Hari and launched her own career – albeit one that many may frown upon. For love, she agreed to spy for a country that was not even her own. The final years of her life were fraught with danger and yet she persevered, showing remarkable strength and bravery.

Whether or not Mata Hari was innocent, she deserves to be remembered for her life rather than her death.