Before the 1603 Union of the Crowns, Scotland famously only ever had one Queen Regnant, Mary, Queen of Scots, and her years of ruling were cut short by her enforced abdication. Yet a fair case could be made that Mary’s own mother, Marie de Guise, was both Queen and "regnant" in that she effectively – and quite efficiently – reigned over Scotland during the 1550s when she acted as regent for her daughter for most of that decade.

To avoid confusion with her daughter, I am going to refer to her as Marie.

We know a lot about Marie de Guise because she is a major figure in four contemporary chronicles of the age – Buchanan’s History of Scotland; George Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie’s Historie and Cronicles; John Lesley’s History of Scotland and John Knox’s History of the Reformation in Scotland.

READ MORE: A tribute to Scottish inventor John Boyd Dunlop

Regular readers will know I like to use contemporary source material and by the 16th century, people were writing much more and compiling histories and biographies of the main players in the realm of Scotland. The English Government and various international spies, for want of a better word, also reported on the affairs of Scotland – the Vatican and French national archives, both of which I have visited, have more material about early Scotland than just about any other depository of sources about this land in medieval times and the Middle Ages. I will, however, treat all four histories mentioned above with considerable caution, as all four compilers were biased – Buchan, Lindsay and above all Knox were dead against her religion and Frenchness, while Lesley had been a friend and advisor.

Marie was born on November 22, 1515, into semi-regal aristocracy in France. The House of Guise-Lorraine – hence her other name as Mary of Lorraine – was one of the most powerful dynasties in France, and her father, Claude, was Duke of Guise, while her mother, Antoinette de Bourbon, was an heiress in the Duchy of Luxembourg.

She had a privileged upbringing and after initial education at a convent school she was moved to the French Court at the age of 15 where she became friends with Princess Madelaine, daughter of King Francis I.

As was customary at the time, the Guise family arranged a marriage that would strengthen their house, marrying off the 18-year-old Marie to Louis II d’Orléans, Duke of Longueville and Count of Dunois. Her marriage to the Duke appears to have been blissfully happy but all too brief.

READ MORE: Back in the Day: Lady Margaret Douglas is vital to Scottish history

She was pregnant with his second son when the Duke died in June, 1537.

A very rich widow at 21, Marie was suddenly one of the most sought-after women in Europe. She had lost her second son, Louis, at the age of four months but still had Francis as the Duke under her control.

She had also lost her friend Princess Madeleine in July, 1537. Marie had attended the Princess’s wedding to King James V of Scotland in January that year, but poor Madeleine was already infected with the tuberculosis that killed her.

James had obviously noticed Marie among the Princess’s guests at the wedding, for he was not long in making overtures for her hand in marriage. King Francis was now involved in deciding her fate because clearly a diplomatic marriage to France’s oldest ally would be advantageous.

Except that another King had somehow conceived a passion for Marie who was undoubtedly beautiful. She was "of the largest size of women with dark auburn hair and creamy skin" according to a contemporary source – we know she was 5ft 11ins tall, the same as her daughter Mary. She was also a superb "catch" in the game of dynastic marriages of the time, and was also proven as a bearer of children which is why Henry VIII of England made a play for her.

READ MORE: Back in the day: The day the Luftwaffe came Forth

The French ambassador in London, Castillon, wrote to Francis I to say that Henry was “so amorous of Madame de Longueville that he cannot refrain from coming back upon it. I assured him that the marriage between the king of Scots and her had been already sworn before my first letters; but that no lady in France would be denied him.

“He replied that he could not believe, even though her father M. de Guise had sworn and promised with M. d’Albrot (the abbot of Arbroath), that Madame de Longueville had consented to it; for when I said to him, “Would you marry another man’s wife?” he said he knew well that she had not spoken, and asked me to write to you, if matters were not so far advanced that they could not be broken off, to deliver her to him, and he would do twice as much for you as the king of Scots would.

“I think it would be well to assure him ... that the marriage was determined and sworn to before you had my first letters. I asked who caused him to be more inclined to her than to others, and he said (Sir John Wallop, a diplomat) was so loud in her praises that nothing could exceed them.

“Moreover, he said that he was big in person and had need of a big wife, that your daughter was too young for him, and as to Madame de Vendosme, he would not take the king of Scots’ leavings. Could not keep him off the subject.”

When Marie learned of what Henry was saying, she remembered the fate of his second wife and said: “I may be a big woman, but I have a very little neck.”

We know Marie was not too happy about the prospect of moving to Scotland, but King Francis prevailed upon her and there was another reason for her marrying James – he was 26 and ruggedly handsome, while Henry was already 46 and growing more corpulent by the year.

READ MORE: Great Scottish women: The story of Lady Margaret Douglas

It does appear to have been a marriage of both convenience and commitment – James gained a massive dowry while Marie genuinely loved her second husband, if not as much as her first. It seems that the King and most of the people of Scotland were entranced by their new French princess, and she certainly made an impression on James’s mother, Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII.

After a proxy marriage in Paris, Marie sailed to Scotland leaving her son, Duke Francis, behind her, and the royal couple were wed at St Andrews in June, 1538. Two years later James elevated her with the title of Queen, and though they lost two sons in infancy – James and Robert both died on April 21, 1541 – but they soon had a daughter, Mary. As we all know, James V died in December, 1542, a few days after Mary’s birth and once again Scotland had a monarch in her minority and the nobles began their usual fighting to gain control of the kingdom.

Marie was determined to bring up Mary as queen and moved to Stirling Castle. Rumours circulated that Henry VIII wanted her as his sixth wife, but given that he had executed Catherine Howard, Marie was possibly not enamoured of the idea.

The Earl of Arran had become regent of Scotland on the death of James V, but throughout the 1540s, he and the other nobles were most concerned about beating off the English at the period of the Rough Wooing that we described recently – Henry wanted his son Prince Edward to marry the young Queen of Scots, with any child of theirs becoming the monarch of England and Scotland.

READ MORE: Back in the Day: The ‘Rough Wooing’ of Scots and Henry VIII?

After the massive defeat at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547, Marie came into her own as she persuaded the French to send troops to help out the Scots.

With a treaty under negotiation to marry young Mary to the Dauphin of France, Marie had to suffer watching her daughter sailing off to France to be raised at the French court.

A peace treaty between France, England and Scotland in 1550 allowed Marie to go back to her native country and see her family, taking a group of Scottish nobles with her. They would become her main backers as Marie launched an audacious bid to take control of the Scottish Government by becoming Regent for her daughter in place of Arran. But her trip home ended in tragedy when her son Duke Francis took ill and died in her arms.

Her intriguing continued even as she made a diplomatic visit to the court of Edward VI in London, and he was mightily impressed with the charismatic Marie – he gave her a diamond as a personal present.

By 1554, Marie had enough support to persuade Arran, now a Duke, that he should resign the regency and she took over.

It was a massively difficult time because Scotland was in the throes of the Reformation, and it is largely because Marie refused to turn Protestant and allowed both Catholicism and Protestantism to co-exist that the chroniclers turned against her – they were also misogynists to a man.

Lindsay wrote: “Queine Regent reft frome the Duik the authoritie quhair of money of Scotland war nocht content knawin of wemen the facultie That thay ar nocht constant in thair qualities Thairfore thay ar nocht abill to reule a regioun nor of ane cuntrie to have dominioun.”

Knox had returned to Scotland to preach in 1551 and came up against Marie regularly. He was no fan, as you might expect, calling her a “spectackle” and a “plague.” Knox added that she could “dissimulate and fals, thinking to make her profit of [all] parties.”

He accused her of “doubleness and falsehood” and called her “our Jezabell Maistres.”

But his main complaint was about religion in which he was backed by George Buchanan who wrote: “Quene Regent heir pretend to nothing but the suppressing of Chrystis Evangell, the subversion of this poore realme.”

Buchanan also blatantly lies about Marie’s suppression of the reformers, writing: “When the news of this came to the queen, with some exaggerations, they so enflamed her lofty spirit, that she swore she would expiate this nefarious wickedness with the blood of the citizens, and with the burning of the city.”

READ MORE: Margaret Tudor: Queen of Scots' reign descends into chaos

Just not true, but Buchanan also wrote very well of her qualities as a woman of courage. He wrote that she “variously affected the minds of men … had a singular wit … amind very propense to equity, and she had quieted the fiercest Highlanders by her wisdom of valour; some believed that she would never have had any war with the Scots, if she had been left free to her own disposition; for she so accommodated herself to their manners, that she seemed able to accomplish all things without force. But the misery was, though the name of governess resided in her, neither did she want virtues worthy of so great a dignity, yet she did, as it were, rule precariously.

Her friend and advisor John Lesley saw her differently saying she was as “learned as a king,” that she “kepit guid justice, and was weill obeyit our all the partis of Scotlande.”

Marie certainly managed to keep the people happy most of the time but from 1567 the Protestant Lords of the Congregation were openly in revolt against her Catholicism and her affinity with Catholic France, especially her reliance on French soldiers and advisors. It was a battle she could not win.

By 1560, Marie was also afflicted with dropsy, the agonising edema, and death was probably a merciful relief when it came on June 11, 1560, when she was just 44.

Lesly wrote of her as “honorable princess, nobill, wife and honorable princesse and chaist Ladie, ever weill and verteiysslue exercid, keeping hir vidowit (widowhood) with great honor.” She had been regent for six years, and now her daughter would have to come home from France to take up her rule.