Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland and France

Many know the story of Mary, Queen of Scots. While telling the story of Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scotland I was struck by the similarities between her and her granddaughter, Mary. They both had three husbands and had a child named James who became King of Scotland when they were just babies. Both women allowed their private lives to influence their public life contributing to a loss of political credibility. It’s time to revisit all the incredible and memorable adventures of Mary, Queen of Scots.

There are a few things to keep in mind when recounting the story of Mary. The first is Mary started at a young age to consider herself the Queen of England and even had the symbol of England quartered on her coat of arms. Queen Elizabeth I would never forgive her for this affront. Mary felt Henry VIII had made a mistake in naming the heirs of his sister Mary Tudor ahead of those of her grandmother. Elizabeth I of England didn’t want to name her successor until she was on her deathbed. These things drive the story of these two Queens.

Mary’s royal arms with the emblem of England

Mary’s coat of arms without the emblem of England

Mary was born at Linlithgow on December 8, 1542, the daughter of King James V of Scotland and Marie de Guise. Her father had been ailing for some time, possibly of a complete physical and mental breakdown and finally died six days after Mary was born. Mary was crowned Queen on September 9, 1543 at Stirling Castle. Mary’s great uncle, King Henry VIII of England made it clear he wanted her to marry his young son Edward and come to England to be brought up. The Scots wouldn’t let her out of the country but did sign the Treaty of Greenwich confirming the marriage.

After Edward became King of England, his uncle Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset was his Protector and ran his government. His regime was to harass the Scots unmercifully with the object of capturing the Queen. The government of Scotland decided the young Queen must be spirited out of the country and negotiated a treaty for her to marry the Dauphin of France breaking the Treaty of Greenwich. She left Scotland for France where she grew up with the French royal children in the Catholic Faith. She and the Dauphin Francis were married in April of 1558. Henry II, King of France died from a grisly jousting accident and Francis and Mary became King and Queen of France on July 10, 1559.

Francis suffered acutely from an abscess in his inner ear and he was to die on December 5, 1560. Mary had been Queen of France for less than two years. It was decided her best option was to return to Scotland and take over her government. Before leaving she asked permission from Elizabeth to have safe passage through England if she was blown off course. Elizabeth was to refuse permission. In response, Mary was to say that if Elizabeth would have in her hands to do her will of her and if she was so hard hearted as to desire her end, she might then do her pleasure and make sacrifice of her. “In this matter, God’s will be done”. Little did she know she was predicting her own denouement.

Without going to England, Mary made it to Scotland where she arrived in August of 1561. At first the teenaged Mary made a good impression. She had learned statecraft at the side of her uncles, Henry, Duke of Guise and Charles Guise, Cardinal of Lorraine while in France. She was capable of acting with poise and discretion and could also turn on considerable, almost siren like charm. When needed, she could act bravely in the face of adversity. She needed all this and more to deal with the many factions among the Scottish Lairds. A momentous meeting was being negotiated with Elizabeth in the summer of 1562 but somehow it just never materialized. However, Elizabeth was adamant she was the one to negotiate a new marriage for the Queen of Scots.

Mary had considered marrying a Catholic but there were few choices. She rejected Archduke Charles Hapsburg. Don Carlos, the son of King Phillip of Spain, was misshapen and mentally deranged. Elizabeth put forth as her candidate, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, her own dearest, most esteemed beloved. This was an insult to the Scottish Queen. No one really knows why Elizabeth did this but it did serve to make Henry, Lord Darnley more attractive when he showed up on the scene. Darnley was Mary’s cousin, the son of Lady Margaret Douglas, who was the daughter of Margaret Tudor by her second husband, the Earl of Angus. Darnley was tall and lanky and extremely good looking, making a huge impression on Mary right away. It is believed Elizabeth knew he was difficult and a drinker and sent him to Mary, knowing she would fall for him.

Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley

Mary and Darnley began spending much time together and she fell in love. They were married in July 1565. Even before the marriage things had turned sour. Darnley was a drunk. He insisted on being King and Mary gave in. Mary made the best of the union in hopes of having a child. The worse Darnley’s behavior, the more Mary came to rely on her secretary, the Italian David Riccio for help in governing and for companionship. There was probably nothing untoward about the relationship but Darnley and other lairds were resentful of Riccio’s influence on Mary.

On March 9, 1566 the Queen who was six months pregnant was with a few friends and Riccio in her cabinet at Holyrood Palace when the King and some lairds burst into the room. They dragged off Riccio and stabbed him to death within earshot of the Queen while, Mary insisted, a gun was held to her belly. Mary’s response was courageous and resolute. She took Darnley aside and convinced him the lairds would come after them as soon as their child was born and a few days later they escaped to Dunbar Castle.

A week later, at the head of a small army led by James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, Mary returned to Edinburgh and was back in charge. Mary’s son James was born in Edinburgh Castle on June 19, 1566. By the fall of 1566, Bothwell had control of the Queen and almost all the lairds were united in their desire to get rid of Darnley. A conspiracy was born. On February 10, 1567, a huge explosion of gunpowder erupted at Kirk o’Field in Edinburgh where Darnley was recovering from an attack of syphilis. His body was discovered in the garden so he didn’t die in the explosion. While we will never know the truth of what happened, the circumstantial evidence is very strong against Mary and Bothwell.

James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell

On April 12, Bothwell was acquitted of Darnley’s murder. On April 21, Mary went to Stirling to visit her son and four days later was riding back to Edinburgh when Bothwell and 400 horsemen “kidnapped” Mary and took her to Dunbar where he supposedly “raped” her. On the 15th of May, at Holyrood, Mary was married to Bothwell, a divorced man, in accordance with the Protestant rite. Mary’s bad judgment was the consternation of all Christendom. There was so much feuding, conflict and tension by now that Mary may have felt the only one who could help her was Bothwell, recently named the Duke of Orkney. The lairds banded together to seek revenge for the King’s murder and to separate Mary from Bothwell.

Mary and Bothwell moved to Borthwick Castle to try to raise an army. They were unable to get much support. After a confrontation with the lairds on June 15 at Carberry Hill, Mary surrendered and Bothwell escaped. Mary was taken back to Edinburgh where the crowd yelled at her “Burn the whore!”, “Kill her!”, “Drown her!”, “She is not worthy to live!”. The next day Mary was taken to prison at Lochleven and forced to abdicate in favor of her son James who was crowned King on July 29th at Stirling. Mary had a miscarriage of twins, supposedly Bothwell’s children. Bothwell escaped to Norway and then Denmark where he lived out the rest of his life, mostly in prison.

On Sunday, May 2, 1567, Mary escaped Lochleven. She raised some supporters but was unsuccessful in making any headway at the Battle of Langside on May 13th and she slipped away and crossed the border into England on May 16th. Historians are not sure why she chose to go to England. The fight was not really over and she could have gone to France where she had many supporters. Once again her bad judgment had overtaken her.

From 1568 to 1587, Mary was to be held prisoner by Elizabeth under the watchful eye of George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, moving from castle to castle. Mary insisted on a face to face meeting with Elizabeth for the rest of her life and Elizabeth always refused. Her name was brought up many times by Catholics in England and abroad in plots to bring down Elizabeth, put her on the throne of England and to restore Catholicism. Elizabeth’s Principal Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham cultivated a network of spies to intercept Mary’s letters and finally caught her plotting to kill Elizabeth. She was put on trial and found guilty on October 25, 1586. After much hand wringing and agonizing deliberation by Elizabeth, she finally signed Mary’s death warrant on February 1, 1587. Elizabeth was having second thoughts. Her privy council met two days later and decided to carry out the warrant without telling the Queen.

Execution of Mary Queen of Scots at Fotheringay Castle

On February 8, 1587, Mary was executed at Fotheringay Castle. She was willing to die as a martyr to her Catholic faith. It took three whacks of the axe to sever her head from her neck. The executioner picked up the head and the skull fell to the floor, leaving a wig in his hand. As her executioners were disrobing the corpse, Mary’s Skye terrier was found hidden in the folds of her skirt. Mary was eventually buried at Peterborough Cathedral near Katherine of Aragon’s grave. Shortly before Elizabeth I was to die in 1603, literally on her deathbed, she named Mary’s son James as her successor. James arranged to have his mother re- buried in Westminster Abbey.

Tomb of Mary Queen of Scots at Westminster Abbey

Some historians have examined the evidence of Mary’s medical history. She exhibited some of the symptoms of “the Royal disease”, porphyria, which is the same disease that afflicted George III of England. This is a metabolic hormonal disorder that causes many physical as well as mental disturbances and could explain why Mary exhibited colossal misjudgment. Also, in July of 1588, King Phillip II of Spain sent the Spanish Armada to England, in part to avenge the death of the Catholic Queen Mary. The Spanish suffered a spectacular loss.

Mary, Queen of Scotland and France

Resources: “The True Life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots” by John Guy, “Mary, Queen of Scots” by Lady Antonia Fraser, “Two Queens in One Isle” by Alison Plowden

(c) 2012

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About Susan Abernethy

Susan Abernethy’s passion for history dates back to “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” television show in the early ‘70’s. She has a BA in History and just recently began sharing her passion by writing a blog on women’s history and other types of history.
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7 Responses to Mary, Queen of Scots

  1. Richard says:

    Another great article. Mary certainly led an eventful life.

  2. Thank you. Fascinating blog.

    The Reformation Act in Scotland was in 1560- “The bischop of Rome callit the Pape sall have na auctoritie in the Realme of Scotland”- and we were probably better off ruled from England than from France, which would have had us permanently at war with England. The Auld Alliance was a disaster. James had an inquest when he reached his teens, his object being to prove that his mother had no part in the murder of his alleged father.

    • Susan Abernethy says:

      You may be right about the Auld Alliance, Clare. I’m wondering if you thought Mary was guilty of murdering Darnley? Any thoughts?

      • I have no idea. My degree was law rather than history. I had a look at the primary sources on the Darnley murder because I did a dissertation on Treason: not the most useful for a career, but interesting. James made treason to mean personal disloyalty to him. A man’s primary loyalty was to the King, which came before that to his own father, and treason was infectious: failing to inform immediately was “misprision” of treason. And if Mary murdered her husband, her son might not be legitimate or have a claim to the throne. So his interest was making sure the evidence pointed the right way, and so that was the interest of all involved in the investigation, which took place decades after the murder.

        Mary would have been heir to Edward if Elizabeth was illegitimate. All good Catholics would say she was. That could not please Elizabeth, windows into men’s souls, heart and stomach of a King, far more an Active monarch than Mary, who was so much a victim.

  3. Susan Abernethy says:

    Well said Clare!

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