Mary, queen of Scots was one of the most fascinating and controversial monarchs of 16th century Europe. At one time, she claimed the crowns of four nations – Scotland, France, England and Ireland. Her physical beauty and kind heart were acknowledged even by her enemies. Yet she lacked the political skills to rule successfully in Scotland.
Her second marriage was unpopular and ended in murder and scandal; her third was even less popular and ended in forced abdication in favor of her infant son. She fled to England in 1568, hoping for the help of her cousin, Elizabeth I. Her presence was dangerous for the English queen, who feared Catholic plotting on Mary’s behalf.
The two queens never met and Mary remained imprisoned for the next nineteen years. She was executed in 1587, only forty-four years old. By orders of the English government, all of her possessions were burned. In 1603, upon Elizabeth’s death, Mary’s son became king of England as James I.
‘As a sinner I am truly conscious of having often offended my Creator and I beg him to forgive me, but as a Queen and Sovereign, I am aware of no fault or offence for which I have to render account to anyone here below.’ Mary, queen of Scots to her jailer, Sir Amyas Paulet; October 1586
In November 1542, King James V of Scotland, lay dying at his beloved Falkland Palace, built just five years earlier. He was devastated by his army’s defeat by the English at Solway Moss and saw little hope for the future.
At Falkland, he was told that Mary of Guise, his French-born wife once wooed by Henry VIII, had given birth to a daughter at Linlithgow Palace on December 8.
This was a feast-day in honor of the Virgin Mary and many took it as a good omen for the princess; for her father, however, it was otherwise. Upon receiving news of Mary’s birth, he reportedly said, ‘Woe is me.
My dynasty came with a lass. It will go with a lass.’ James’s ancestor, Robert II, had become King of Scots in 1371. The son of Robert the Bruce’s daughter Marjorie and Walter, the High Steward of Scotland, Robert was nearest in succession to the throne. He called his new dynasty ‘Stewart,’ a variation on his father’s title; in France, it was spelled Stuart.
Mary’s father, James V, believed this lineage had ended with his daughter’s birth. He certainly never contemplated that his grandson would one day rule both Scotland and its old enemy, England. James died within a week of Mary’s birth and, before she was even a year old, the child was crowned queen of Scots.
The regents of Scotland made a treaty with Henry VIII in which Edward, Henry’s long-awaited and precious son, would wed Mary. But Henry VIII became increasingly erratic and despotic in his later years and continued to send his army north. In 1546, Henry also encouraged the murder of Cardinal Beaton, a great Scots patriot; the proof – shortly before the murder, he had offered one thousand pounds for expenses associated with a plot to murder Beaton.
After this, the Scots were determined to avoid the proposed English marriage. In July 1548, they sent the five-year-old Mary to France, her mother’s homeland. The Scots Parliament had agreed to her marriage with Francis, the heir of Henry II, king of France from 1547 to 1559.
Mary sailed from Dumbarton Castle to France, using this route to avoid English ships patrolling the English Channel. According to most contemporary reports, Mary was exceptionally lovely (even in an age when most noble women were accorded the title of ‘fair’ or ‘beautiful’), intelligent and full of vitality.
One French observer wrote admiringly: ‘It is not possible to hope for more from a Princess on this earth.’ From this vantage point, Mary’s life seemed to be set on a glorious course; but like a later foreign queen of France, Marie Antoinette, Mary’s life was not destined to be peaceful and happy.
When Mary left for Scotland, she travelled with the children of Scotland’s nobility, including the ‘Four Maries,’ the women who would stay with her throughout her later imprisonment and execution.
They were Mary Fleming, Mary Seton, Mary Beaton and Mary Livingstone. Mary Seton was the only one to die unmarried and lived on until 1615, praying for Mary’s soul and giving alms in her memory. The group arrived in France in August 1548.
Mary was given a royal welcome in France by King Henry II. He ordered that she would have precedence over his own daughters as she was sovereign of an independent country and also because she was to wed his heir, the Dauphin.
The king also became very fond of the child, saying, ‘The little Queen of Scots is the most perfect child I have ever seen.’ While in France, Mary’s maternal grandmother, Antoinette de Guise, wrote to her daughter in Scotland that Mary was ‘very pretty, graceful and self-assured.’
Mary was 5 when she first met the four-year-old Dauphin, her betrothed husband. According to most contemporaries, they were close and affectionate with one another even as children. They traveled from one royal palace to another – Fountaineblea to Meudon, or to Chambord or Saint-Germain.
They were always attended to by a retinue of servants and, even then, Mary had developed a fondness for animals, especially dogs, which was to continue throughout her life. Mary was also educated in the traditional manner of French princesses; she spoke French and learned Latin, Italian, Spanish and a little Greek.
She learned to dance, sing, play the lute as well as converse on religious matters. Her religious tutor was the prior of Inchmahome, a Scottish priest. When she was seven, her mother came to France to visit her; when Mary of Guise returned to Scotland, neither realized that they would never see each other again.
By the age of eleven, Mary was deemed to be as intelligent and well-spoken as a woman of twenty-five by her doting father-in-law. It is worth noting that the Guise family regarded Mary as one of their own; not only was betrothed to the heir to the throne but her mother was a Guise as well. Her uncle, Cardinal Guise, taught her about statecraft, perhaps encouraging her natural feelings of clemency and mercy. In fact, Mary was to be remarkably free from bigotry during her short reign in Scotland, even towards her subjects of a different religion.
In 1555, Mary sent back letters to her mother in Scotland to be used for administrative purposes and it is from these that we first see her royal signature ‘MARIE R’. In 1558, she married the Dauphin in an incredible celebration in Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. Exceptionally tall for a woman in the 16th century, Mary was every inch the regal Queen; she had an oval face, shapely chin, and small mouth which were set off by her golden-red hair, her large forehead, and hazel eyes.
Many considered Mary to be the most beautiful princess in Europe, much as they had thought of her relative, Henry VIII’s sister, Mary, who had also come to France as queen for a short while. Mary was not always in the best of health but, unlike her husband, there were no immediate concerns for her life.
In 1558, Queen Mary I of England passed away and Henry II of France encouraged his daughter-in- law to assume the royal arms of England. In his opinion – and that of most of Catholic Europe – Mary of Scotland was the next heir to the English throne.
This belief, of course, would have serious repercussions throughout Mary’s life. Elizabeth I never forgot this first offense and never rested easily while her Catholic relative was alive. But the matter was smoothed over when Elizabeth was persuadd the assumption was due more to Guise ambitions than Mary’s actual wish.
In 1559, Henry II of France, died at the age of 40. Mary and her husband were crowned Queen and King of France. But in June of 1560, Mary’s mother died in Scotland at the age of 45. And just six months later, her young husband also died of an ear infection.
Mary was understandably devastated by this chain of tragic events. Thockmorton, the English ambassador, commented that Francis had left ‘as dolorous a wife as she had good cause to be. By long watching with him during his sickness and painful diligence about him’ she had become exhausted and made herself ill. She wrote a poem, in French, about her grief at his death; this is a translation of one verse:
By day, by night, I think of him/ In wood or mead, or where I be/ My heart keeps watch for one who’s gone./ And yet I feel he’s aye with me.
What was Mary to do next? She left for Scotland, a land rife with religious and civil discord. Without waiting for a safe-conduct pass from Elizabeth, whose ships were patrolling her route, Mary set out for Scotland on 14 August 1561 and, five days later, reached Leith, the port of Edinburgh.
Learn more about the husbands of Mary Queen of Scots
Mary knew very well that she was succeeding to a most troubled heritage. But after her recent years of loss and grief, she was determined to make a bright future. Also, in an age of religious persecution which earned her cousin Mary Tudor the nickname ‘Bloody Mary,’ Mary was determined that every one of her Scottish subjects should worship God as their conscience bade; there would be no religious persecution under her rule. In this, she resembled her cousin Elizabeth I.
The Scots received their new queen with great joy and celebration. At once, she began to try and help them; within a year of her arrival, one-sixth of all Church benefices was given to the Protestant ministers to relieve their poverty.
She also attempted to strengthen the power of the Crown against Scotland’s notoriously difficult-to-control nobles. Of course, such a strategy would lead to more peace and stability within the realm.
As a result, she was popular with the common people but not the nobility; she played croquet, golfed, went for hunts and archery practice, sung, danced, and, in general, showed an admirable zest for life. In 1562 the English ambassador reported to Elizabeth, ‘When the soldiers came back from the night’s sentry-duty, she said she was sorry she was not a man to be all night on the fields and to walk the causeway with buff-coat, steel-helmet, buckler, and broadsword.’
In 1563, Mary began the traditional ‘royal progress’ throughout Scotland. In 1564, the fourth Earl of Atholl organized a great hunt in honor of the queen and, yet again, Mary charmed all who met her. Yet she also treaded dangerous ground with her policy of non-discrimination and desire to unify the nation, taking power away from the independent nobles.
Though a Catholic, Mary became friends with one of the most learned Protestants of the time, George Buchanan. In the political realm, Mary kept up peaceful relations with France, Spain, and England, though she never met Elizabeth face-to-face. But, in 1566, her patience was tried by the English ambassador’s persistent and obvious spying; she ordered him out of the kingdom and declared him persona non grata.
And her peace with France and Spain was kept without a treaty, though a treaty would have given Scotland some measure of protection against England in the possibility of conflict. However, Mary was aware that any treaty could compromise her subjects, involving them in yet another war and causing strife. Above all, she wanted peace and prosperity, and she kept Scotland safely distanced from political machinations. When the threat to Mary’s reign finally came, it was not from one of these outside powers; indeed, it came from within her own nation.
As queen, Mary was more than aware that she should marry and provide heirs to the throne. In July of 1565, she wed a cousin named Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, a weak, vain, and unstable young man; like Mary, he was also a grandchild of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret.
Why Mary wed Darnley remains a mystery. He was superficially charming and, unlike most men, taller than the queen. He was also fond of courtly amusements and thus a nice change from the dour Scottish lords who surrounded her. But he never seemed to care for Mary and sought far more power than she was willing to give him.
When she was six months pregnant in March of 1566, Darnley joined a group of Scottish nobles who broke into her supper-room at Holyrood Palace and dragged her Piedmontese secretary, David Riccio, into another room and stabbed him to death.
They claimed Riccio had undue influence over her foreign policy but, in reality, they probably meant to cause Mary, from watching this horrific crime, to suffer a miscarriage, thus losing her child and her own life as well since one usually meant the other in the 16th century.
Mary certainly believed that Darnley, angry because she had denied him the crown matrimonial, wanted to kill her and the child, thus becoming King of Scots. But it is unlikely that, had he been successful, Darnley would have long survived his wife.
After Riccio’s death, the nobles kept Mary prisoner at Holyrood Palace. Entering the later stages of her pregnancy, she was desperate to escape and – somehow – won over Darnley and they escaped together. Three months later the future James VI of Scotland was born and congratulations came from all over Europe. Still young and healthy after the birth, Mary now had an heir.
This was the apex of her reign, her greatest and happiest moment. In December 1566 James was baptized in the Chapel Royal of Stirling Castle. Mary, once the fragile last hope of the Stewart dynasty, was just 23 years old and had fulfilled one of a monarch’s greatest duties – providing a healthy son and heir.
Elizabeth of England, ten years older, watched these events with interest for, even then, she knew her own future would be – by choice – unmarried and childless. She could well imagine that Mary’s son would be her heir as well.
But this future soon seemed perilous for James’s birth provided only a temporary calm. The nobles who had plotted with Darnley now felt betrayed by him; after all, they had captured the queen and her potential heir, murdered her dear friend, and were in a position to demand anything. But Darnley’s decision to help Mary escape infuriated them.
In February of 1567 they had Darnley’s house, Kirk o’ Field, blown up; Darnley’s strangled body was found in the garden. Many nobles were implicated, most particularly James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell. Certainly Bothwell’s later life (imprisoned in Denmark, he died in 1578, virtually insane) was a degree of punishment for this crime.
However, in the immediate aftermath of Darnley’s murder, he met with Mary about six miles outside of Edinburgh. He had 600 men with him and asked to escort Mary to his castle at Dunbar; he told her she was in danger if she went to Edinburgh. Mary, unwilling to cause further bloodshed and understandably terrified, followed his suggestions.
Bothwell’s noble friends had previously pressed her to marry him and he, too, had told her she needed a strong husband who could help unify the nobles behind her. Mary had refused the proposal then, preferring to marry Darnley, but now she knew herself to be powerless.
She also had an infant son to consider. So she consented to wed Bothwell, hoping that this would finally stabilize the country. Also, Bothwell showed Mary an agreement the nobles had signed which indicated they were prepared to accept him as their overlord. In May 1567 they wed at Holyrood and Mary wrote to the foreign courts that it was the right decision for her country.
But the nobles were still not to be trusted. Now, they were angry that Bothwell would be all-powerful and they decided to wage war against him. Barely a month after the marriage, rebel nobles and their forces met Mary’s troops at Carberry Hill, 8 miles south-east of Edinburgh.
The nobles demanded that Mary abandon Bothwell, whom they had earlier ordered her to wed. She refused and reminded them of their earlier order. To avoid the bloodshed of battle, she turned herself over and the rebels took her to Edinburgh while Bothwell struggled to rally troops of his own. Mary was taken to Lochleven Castle and held prisoner in that island fortress; fearing for her own life, she became desperately ill.
She was forced to sign a document abdicating the crown in favor of her year-old son. At the end of that month, July 1567, James was crowned king and James Stewart, the Earl of Moray, Mary’s bastard half-brother, became Regent. Moray wasted no time in repaying Mary’s earlier kindness to him by stealing her son and jewels.
Of course, Scottish history reveals that all these nefarious nobles came to a bad end – Moray was murdered just 3 years later and the next regents were also killed; in fact, her son James had one of the traitors executed in 1580, when he was just a teenager.
Mary’s cause was aided in 1568 when John Hay, before his execution, made a statement from the scaffold that told how the nobles had murdered Darnley. Before this, the nobles had attempted to make the people believe Mary was responsible.
Now, she was able to win sympathy and friends. George Douglas, one of the brothers of her keeper at Lochleven, helped her escape. After 10 months of captivity, she was free to fight for the throne. Her supporters gathered an army and, on their way to Dumbarton Castle, a battle was fought at Langside, Glasgow.
Mary’s forces lost and she was forced to flee with her supporters. Against all advice, she was determined to go south and ask Elizabeth I for support. As James’s godmother and Mary’s cousin as well as a fellow independent Queen, Mary felt certain Elizabeth would help her. As most know, this was the beginning of yet another chapter of suffering and misery for Mary.
The Final Years, 1568-87
Mary set sail for England on 16 May 1568. She soon arrived in Workington, Cumbria; Elizabeth did not know what to do and kept Mary guarded in the north. After all, without Mary’s knowledge, she had been helping her enemies, promising money and sanctuary in return for their treacherous behavior against their queen.
Elizabeth’s motives for this were obvious – Mary was the closest Catholic claimant to the English throne and Elizabeth knew some of her subjects were not above hoping she could be deposed and Mary made queen of both Scotland and England.
So she had determined to keep her cousin’s kingdom in continual strife; if Mary was busy at home, she would have less chance to plot against Elizabeth. But Elizabeth’s conscience was determined to be clear so she appointed commissioners to look into the matter; they met throughout 1568 and 1569. In December of 1569, the so-called Casket Letters were first presented at Westminster.
They were supposedly letters and other papers belonging to Bothwell and found in his casket (letter box). They disappeared soon afterwards and only translations and copies remain. However, few believed they were either real or important at the time for Elizabeth, in January 1569, released a statement that ‘Nothing had been sufficiently proved, whereby the Queen of England should conceive an evil opinion of her good sister.’ Everyone took this to mean that Mary was not guilty of any conspiracy alleged in the letters.
But in this same year, conservative nobles in England supported an idea that Mary should wed the Duke of Norfolk. This also indicated that Elizabeth, and most English nobles, believed Mary innocent of Darnley’s murder and any charges in the Casket Letters.
But Elizabeth did not consent to the marriage and kept Mary under lock and key. Soon, this arrangement had settled into stone; Mary was moved from prison to prison, eventually ending up at Fotheringhay Castle, about 70 miles north-west of London and as close to Elizabeth as she ever came.
Of course, Mary plotted from the very beginning to escape. She felt justified in doing so since she was being held against her will. However, as the years passed, the plots grew more outlandish and murderous. Mary’s imprisonment was only to end with her execution.
Read a more detailed account of Mary’s arrival in England and the plots which led to her trial and execution at the Queen Elizabeth I website.
In October of 1586, Mary was put on trial at Fotheringhay for plotting to kill Elizabeth and claim the English throne. Elizabeth’s last letter to Mary was delivered at the start of the trial:
You have in various ways and manners attempted to take my life and to bring my kingdom to destruction by bloodshed. I have never proceeded so harshly against you, but have, on the contrary, protected and maintained you like myself.
These treasons will be proved to you and all made manifest. Yet it is my will, that you answer the nobles and peers of the kingdom as if I were myself present. I therefore require, charge, and command that you make answer for I have been well informed of your arrogance.
Act plainly without reserve, and you will sooner be able to obtain favour of me.
Mary defended herself admirably though she had no friends or supporters at the trial and, essentially, the verdict had been decided before the proceedings had begun. Mary admitted her desire to escape but stated, ‘I have not procured or encouraged any hurt against Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth.’ And she appealed for mercy, mentioning her own reputation for tolerance and kindness: ‘My subjects now complain they were never so well off as under my government.’
But she also accepted the inevitable, telling the assembled nobles, ‘May God keep me from having to do with you all again.’ When the verdict was read to her, she said, ‘I do not fear to die in a good cause.’
The trial lasted just two days and was over on 16 October 1586 but it was not until 7 February 1587 that she was told she would be executed the next morning. She asked for her chaplain but was refused this last comfort.
The Earl of Kent said: ‘Your life would be the death of our religion, your death would be its life.’ In fact, Mary had been a tolerant ruler in Scottish religious matters. But such was the extreme religious upheaval of the time, tolerance itself was a sign of weakness.
The death-sentence was signed by Elizabeth who later argued that her secretary Davison had deceived her as to its contents; she said she would not have signed it otherwise. Her letter to Mary’s son James about the execution, written on 14 February, is a remarkable document:
My dear Brother, I would you knew (though not felt) the extreme dolor that overwhelms my mind, for that miserable accident which (far contrary to my meaning) hath befallen. I have now sent this kinsman of mine, whom ere now it hath pleased you to favour, to instruct you truly of that which is too irksome for my pen to tell you.
I beseech you that as God and many more know, how innocent I am in this case : so you will believe me, that if I had bid aught I would have bid by it. I am not so base minded that fear of any living creature or Prince should make me so afraid to do that were just; or done, to deny the same. I am not of so base a lineage, nor carry so vile a mind.
But, as not to disguise, fits not a King, so will I never dissemble my actions, but cause them show even as I meant them. Thus assuring yourself of me, that as I know this was deserved, yet if I had meant it I would never lay it on others’ shoulders; no more will I not damnify myself that thought it not.
The circumstance it may please you to have of this bearer. And for your part, think you have not in the world a more loving kinswoman, nor a more dear friend than myself; nor any that will watch more carefully to preserve you and your estate.
And who shall otherwise persuade you, judge them more partial to others than you. And thus in haste I leave to trouble you: beseeching God to send you a long reign.
Your most assured loving sister and cousin,
A year later, the Catholic Philip V of Spain invaded England with his Armada, perhaps – to some degree – urged on by Mary’s execution.
Mary did not retire until two in the morning on the last day of her life. She spent her final hours making a will and generously providing to those who had served her faithfully.
Early on the morning of 8 February 1587, dressed in black satin and velvet, she entered the Great Hall of Fotheringhay Castle.
She commanded her servant, Melville, to go to her son and tell him that she had never done anything to compromise their kingdom of Scotland.
Mary was calm and composed before the several hundred spectators present; she listened while the execution warrant was read and then prayed aloud in English for the Church and her son. She also mentioned Queen Elizabeth and prayed for her to continue to serve God in the years to come.
Mary comforted her weeping servants, her friends and supporters to the last. They helped her undress; beneath her all-black gown, she wore a red petticoat and bodice. Her women helped her attach the long red sleeves. Mary thus died wearing the liturgical color of Catholic martyrdom.
She gave them her golden rosary and Agnus Dei, asking them to remember her in their prayers. Her eyes were covered with a white cloth. While her servants wept and called out prayers in a medley of languages, she laid her neck upon the block, commended herself to God and received the death-stroke. But the executioner was unsteady and the first blow cut the back of her head; Mary whispered, ‘Sweet Jesus’, and the second blow descended.
When the executioner lifted her head and cried out, ‘God save the Queen,’ a macabre surprise occurred. Mary, queen of Scots had worn an auburn wig to her execution. It was left in the executioner’s hand as her head, with its short, grey hair, fell to the floor.
Mary had always loved animals and her little Skye terrier had brought her great comfort during the years in prison. It had curled itself around her feet while she knelt at the block and died just days after the queen. As queen of Scots, Mary’s motto had been ‘In my end is my beginning’. And certainly the end of her life marked the beginning of her legend.
The Catholic nations which had condemned her behavior during Darnley’s murder and the marriage to Bothwell now celebrated her as a martyr. Her former brother-in-law, Henri III of France, held a funeral mass at Notre-Dame, where Mary had wed Francis almost thirty years before.
Accounts of her execution, illustrated by crude woodcuts, were sold throughout Europe. She was now the sympathetic heroine; the past could be forgotten.
Sixteen years later, Mary’s son became King of England and Scotland. In 1612, he moved her body to Westminster Abbey, London, constructing a magnificent tomb which rivaled Elizabeth I’s.
In her Essay on Adversity, written in 1580 while she was imprisoned, Mary had written of rulers: ‘Tribulation has been to them as a furnace to fine gold – a means of proving their virtue.’ It was a fitting epitaph for her own infamous life.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Mary, Queen of Scots: Biography, Facts, Portraits & Information" https://englishhistory.net/tudor/relative/mary-queen-of-scots/, January 31, 2015