In My End Is My Beginning: Maurice Baring’s 1931 Novel on Mary Queen of Scots

Dr. Robert Hickson

                                                                                 7 October 2021

Feast of the Holy Rosary

             Epigraphs

We are to live and die supernaturally alive in a state of sanctifying grace.” (Solemn words often spoken by Father John A. Hardon, S.J. in his searching conversations with  R. D. Hickson down the  years.)

***

Gratia est Gloria incepta; Gloria est Gratia perfecta.” (A Dominican-Thomistic saying, as employed in the writings and oral words of Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.)

***

“Thereupon the [hostile Protestant] Earl of Kent said to her [who was then still a captive Queen in early February 1587: namely, Mary Queen of Scots (8 December 1542–8 February 1587)]: ‘Your life will be the death, and your death the life of our [Reformed Protestant] religion.’ And the Queen [Mary] said: ‘I was far from thinking myself worthy of such a death, and I humbly receive it as a token. I must trust in the mercy of God to excuse the want of such rites as His Holy Church commandeth.’” (Maurice Baring, In My End Is My Beginning (1931)—(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, pages 299-300)—my emphasis added)

***

“I [Ethel Smyth] imagine [as an artist and as a non-Catholic friend of Maurice Baring] this book will have had a resounding success among professors, record compilers, dictionary architects, and members of boards whose duty it is to guard the entrance of Scotch Universities. It might also be invaluable reading for persons marooned on desert islands. But for ordinary mortals it is a stiff proposition until you come to the indescribably harrowing thirty pages ascribed to Jane Kennedy [Queen Mary’s personal servant], who is supposed to have forwarded them to Mary Seton. This report describes the last weeks of [Queen] Mary Stuart’s sojourn in this world, and in its restraint and piercing simplicity is the sort of thing no one but Baring could have written.” (Ethel Smyth, Maurice Baring (London: Heinemann Ltd., 1938), page 288—my emphasis added.)

***

Shortly after first meeting Jesuit Father John A. Hardon in the autumn of 1980, I had occasion to read Maurice Baring’s well-researched historical novel, In My End Is My Beginning (1931) with its mysterious and poetic title. For there soon comes forth, upon greater reflection, the paradox of “endings with beginnings” along with a specific question: “What comes after death?” In other words, “We die and then what?” (Mary Queen of Scots, herself a Catholic, also had much time and occasion to examine and answer these profound and final questions—as did my own Catholic mentors–Father John Hardon and Professor Josef Pieper.)

The Catholic German philosopher Josef Pieper even once discussed some of these final matters during my visit to his home. One of them memorably deals with his active group of friends called the Bona Mors Group, also the Society of a Bonae Mortis –the Society of a Good Death. All of the members of Bona Mors were on the alert for any sudden or protracted dangers of death, to which they were promptly to respond with the organizations and initiatives with good friends: first of all to have a good Priest with offering of the Mass and the Sacraments of Penance and Extreme Unction, with Sanctifying Grace and with the giving of the Viaticum, if possible—as well as some of the more secular assistance to families and other close friends. (We shall now come to see—in the last chapter of Maurice Baring’s vivid yet harrowing historical study–all of the deprivations Mary Queen of Scots was afflicted with as a Roman Catholic in a Reformed Protestant land with an oligarchic government.)

As we shall probably soon come to realize in various ways, Mary Stuart Queen of Scots was herself in English captivity for 19 years, from 1568-1587, before being beheaded on 8 February 1587. She bore herself so well in the preparations for her rapidly announced—carried out early in 1587—Execution by the progressive English Protestants who, as they still manifestly presented it,  strongly reviled how Queen Mary Stuart both loyally believed, and lived out, the Catholic Faith.

An Attentive Reading of the Book’s Last Pages (pages 297-312) Concerned with the Presence and Deprivations of the Catholic Faith and Its Sacramental Culture: “Report Sent by Jane Kennedy to Mary Seton (Fotheringay Castle: 8-19 February 1587.[1])

Our closer attentiveness to the novel’s final section will present the format as it was structured in the original report to Mary Seton, and sent by Jane Kennedy who was herself the intimate, loyal, and longstanding  servant to Queen Mary Stuart even unto the Queen’s unjust death by beheading at the English scaffold at Fotheringay on 8 February 1587, one year before the comparably tragic Spanish Armada of 1588.

Here is how Jane Kennedy begins and sustains her report:

The Earl of Shrewsbury and the Earl of Kent….[among others], arrived at the Castle [Fotheringay] two or three hours before mid-day, and demanded audience [with Mary Queen of Scots] in the afternoon. And the Queen, being indisposed, was preparing to go to bed; but they  answering that it was a matter which would brook no delay, the Queen called for her mantle….Thereupon, …Mr. Beale, after first showing to the Queen a parchment, to which was appended the Great Seal of England in yellow wax, he [Beale, then with “the two Earls” present] began to read to the Queen the Commission, that the next day in the morning they would proceed to the execution, admonishing her to be ready between seven and eight of the clock. (297—my emphasis added)

Immediately Mary Stuart Queen of Scots was to respond, with gratitude, as follows:

The Queen, hearing that with an unchanged countenance, made the sign of the Cross, and said: “I thank you for such welcome news. You will do me a great good in withdrawing me from this world, out of which I am very glad to go, on account of the miseries I see in it, and of being myself in continual affliction. I am of no good and no use to anyone. I have looked to this, and have expected it day by day for eighteen years [of her own various captivities]. I never thought that my sister [half-sister Elizabeth I], the Queen of England, would have consented to my death…; but since her pleasure is such, death to me shall be most welcome and surely that soul were not worthy of the eternal joys of heaven, whose body cannot endure one stroke of a headsman.” And, laying her hand upon an English New Testament which lay upon the table by her, she said most solemnly: “I have never either desired the death of the Queen [Elizabeth I] or endeavoured to bring it about, or that [death] of any person.”

The Earl of Kent objected that it was a Catholic Bible, the Papist version, and therefore the oath was of no avail; whereat the Queen [Mary] replied: “If I swear on the Book which I believe to be the true version, will not your Lordship believe my oath more than if I were to swear upon a translation in which I do not believe?” (297-298—my emphasis added)

Queen Mary then sincerely “entreated” her stern and impatient visitors “to grant her a little space and leisure that she might make her will and give order for her affairs” (298), and the Earl of Shrewsbury at once answered her:

No, no, Madam, you must die. Make you ready between seven and eight of the clock in the morning. We will not prolong one minute for your pleasure.” And to the Earl of Kent, who was desirous of giving her spirit constancy to affront this death, and who urged her [ironically so] to confess her faults and to embrace the true religion [progressive Protestantism, not Catholicism], she answered that she had no need of solace as coming from him, but she desired of him, if he would administer comfort to the spirit to let her have conference with her [lay] almoner [who, as a distributor of mercy, was here not an Ordained Priest however], so that she might receive the Sacrament of Confession, which would be a favour that would surpass any other; and as for her body, she did not believe them to be so inhuman to deny her the right of sepulture. [….] They denied her [even Kent!] her Confessor, and offered her [instead, a Protestant Bishop, namely] the Dean of Peterborough, one of the most learned in Europe, to comfort her, from whom she might learn regarding her salvation and the mysteries of the true religion [i.e., not Catholicism]. She said, they said, remained in that in which she had been instructed in her youth, for want of someone to show her the truth; and now that she had but a few hours to remain in this world she must think of her  conscience and recognize the true religion, and not remain longer in these follies and abominations of Popery. (298-299—my emphasis added)

To which deft ironies we shall warmly resound, if we savor her pluck and maturity:

And the Queen [of the Scots] said: “I have not only heard or read the words of the most learned men of the Catholic religion, but also of the Protestant religion. I have spoken with them and heard them preach, but I have been unable to find anything in them which would turn me from my first belief. Having lived till now in a true Faith, this is not the time, but, on the contrary, it is the very moment when it is most needful that I should remain firm and constant, as I intend to do. Rather than being unfaithful to it, I would wish to lose ten thousand lives, if I had as many. For my consolation I beg you let me see my own priest, so that he may help me to prepare the better for death. I wish for no other.” Whereupon the Earl of Kent said to her: “It is our duty to prevent such [Catholic] abominations, which offend God.” And he pressed her to see the [Protestant] Dean. (299—my emphasis added)

Queen Mary of Scotland then again promptly replies to the Earl of Kent and his procations:

“I will do no such thing. I having nothing to do with him, and I neither wish to see him nor to listen to him. It surprises me that at the end, when I have most need of my priest, they refuse him to me; I had asked to have him especially to assist me at my last end. The Queen of England had granted my request, and had allowed him to come to me; and since then they [such as William Cecil and his son Robert] have taken him from me, and prevented him coming at the most necessary time.”

Thereupon the Earl of Kent said to her: “Your life will be the death [of our religion], and your death [will be] the life of our [Protestant] religion.” And the Queen said: “I was far from thinking myself worthy of such a death, and I humbly receive it as a token. I must trust in the mercy of God to excuse the want of such rites [hence all of the seven sacraments with their sanctifying grace] as His Holy Church commandeth.”  (299-300—my emphasis added)

A short time later Queen Mary said to one of her servants, Bourgoigne:

Have you not observed how powerful and great the truth is? For the common report is I am to die for conspiring the Queen of England’s death; but the Earl of Kent told me notwithstanding even now that the fear they have of my [Catholic] religion is the cause of my death.” (301—my emphasis)

After Queen Mary had gone to rest on that night before her own beheading, Jane Kennedy made an observation, and then said:

And when Jane Kennedy came to [reading aloud about] the penitent thief upon the Cross [a passage in the Queen’s Book of Hours], the Queen bade [a further reading and said]….“In truth  he was a great sinner, but not so great as I have been,”….Thereupon her eyes closed, yet the servants who sat round the bed for the last time thought that she slept not, albeit her eyes were closed, and her face was tranquil, and she seemed to be laughing with the angels. And from without [her castle window] came a noise of knocking and hammering, for they were making ready the scaffold. (302—my emphasis added)

Now we may see the Queen’s surprising private disclosure and request:

“And this I give to you,” she said, speaking to Jane Kennedy, “for I would receive this last service from you.” Whereupon she retired into her private oratory, where she received from her own hands a Consecrated Host which the Pope had sent to her to use, should the necessity come about. And when she had ended her prayers, she finished her letter to the [Catholic] King of France. (303—my emphasis added)

Perhaps the Queen, in the emergency, even received the Host from the hand of her own humble servant, Jane Kennedy. Such was her “last service” (303) that she was invited to give to her Queen. (The language of the pronouns here is somewhat ambiguous, do we agree? Both interpretations, however, are deft and gracious.)

Shortly after the presented reception of the Consecrated Host, the Queen makes some further observations of her own history, to include her resolute and distilled principles, and her final actions and sacred affirmations:

When all was arranged [her Legal Will and, for example, various and symbolic little gifts of gratitude], she spoke with her Ladies, and bade them farewell, consoling them and saying that the greatness of this world was as nothing, and that she should serve as an example thereof to all upon earth, from the mightiest unto the most humble; for, having been Queen of France and of Scotland, one by birth and the other by marriage, after having been tossed about in honour and greatness, in triumph and vexation, now enjoying the one, now suffering the other, she was to be put in the hands of the headsman, albeit innocent; and this was nevertheless her solace, that the most capital charge against her was that she was to die for the Catholic religion, which she would never abandon until her latest breath, since she had been baptized in it. (303—my emphasis added)

May we be blessed to have such a prepared-for death, and such a Good Death, with a Viaticum, and in the state of Sanctifying Grace.

Our author, Maurice Baring, has once again deftly taught us many wise things—and he has done them so subtly and modestly and with a sustained, true and grateful humility. On 1 February 1909—on the Vigil of Candlemas–he had become a convert to the Roman Catholic Faith and Sacramental Church. He was also then a very grateful man indeed—as his later autobiography openly displays it and does it also through his many consistent and generous actions of virtue, also in combat—in Far East Russia, in the Balkans, and indispensably so in World War I.

Maurice Baring, in any case, truly and deeply loved Mary Queen of Scots, even from his childhood. We are ourselves now perhaps better able to share those enduring sentiments, at least now more fully—because of Maurice Baring’s own trustworthy presentations and combinations of research.

Finis

   © 2021 Robert D. Hickson


[1]    Maurice Baring, In My End Is My Beginning (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931). All references will henceforth be made  to this edition, and placed in parentheses above in the main body of this essay. Some of these references will also often display above my added emphases.

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