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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).