Mary, Queen of Scots was queen of both Scotland (r. 1542-1567 CE) and, albeit briefly, France (r. 1559-1560 CE). Brought up in France and then marrying the heir to the French throne, Mary’s world was turned upside down when her husband Francis II died in 1560 CE one year into his reign. The queen returned to Scotland but her Catholic views clashed with Protestants there and two more husbands and murder plots further discredited her reign. Following her forced abdication by Scottish nobles, Mary fled to England where she plotted to oust her cousin Elizabeth I of England (r. 1558-1603 CE). After 19 years of confinement, Mary was finally executed for treason on 8 February 1587 CE at Fotheringhay Castle.
Mary Stewart was born on 8 December 1542 CE in Linlithgow Palace near Edinburgh. She was the daughter of King James V of Scotland (r. 1513-1542 CE) and Mary of Guise (1515-1560 CE). When James V, died on 14 December 1542 CE with no surviving male heirs, Mary, only one week old at the time, became the queen of Scotland, the first queen to rule that country in her own right. Mary was crowned nine months later on 9 September 1543 CE in Stirling Castle. Mary of Guise acted as the new queen’s regent.
Henry VIII of England (r. 1509-1547 CE) had briefly considered marrying his son Edward to Mary to bring the two countries closer together but the Scottish Parliament refused the proposal, and in 1544 CE England and Scotland were at war again. Mary did have a distant claim to the throne of England as she was the granddaughter of Margaret Tudor (1489-1541 CE), sister of Henry VIII of England. As it was, the old ties between France and Scotland came to the fore, and in 1548 CE Mary was sent to be educated at the court of Henry II of France (r. 1547-1549 CE).
Queen of France
At the French court Mary was looked after by her mother’s relations and was treated like the queen she was. Mary was given a cultured education which included learning French, Latin, Spanish, and Italian. The young queen excelled at dancing and also became a Catholic which would have serious repercussions later in her life. It was in France that Mary changed the spelling of her family name from Stewart to the French form, Stuart.
On 24 April 1558 CE, Mary, then 15, married the 14-year-old Prince Francis, who the next year became King Francis II of France (r. 1559-1560 CE). The ceremony took place in Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. Another family change was to quarter the English royal arms with those of the French in a new emblem that signified Mary’s claim to the English throne, now occupied by Henry VIII’s daughter Elizabeth I of England. For many English Catholics, Elizabeth was illegitimate as they did not recognise her father’s divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536 CE). For Catholic conspirators, Mary, the closest relative to the English queen, would be a good alternative to Protestant Elizabeth.
Unfortunately, Mary’s marriage did not last long as Francis, never blessed with robust health, died in December 1560 CE. Following Francis’ death and her mother’s in June of the same year, Mary, then still only 18, decided to return to Scotland where she would continue to press her claim for the English throne. There was further friction between the two cousin-queens as Elizabeth had been outraged by the quartering of the royal arms business and she refused to guarantee Mary safe passage to her homeland. On her side, Mary would not recognise the 1560 CE Treaty of Edinburgh which had officially accepted Elizabeth’s right to be the queen of England. Finally, Elizabeth refused to acknowledge Mary as her heir.
Return to Scotland
Catholic Mary was not welcomed in Scotland where the barons controlled government but were themselves still divided into two camps: Catholic and Protestant. The Protestants were winning the battle for Scots minds as Scotland was undergoing a sea-change in religion through the efforts of such figures as the Calvinist minister John Knox (c. 1514-1572 CE). Knox was an influential figure who founded the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and his views that a woman should not rule, especially one with the ‘wrong’ religion, were adopted by many others.
Despite the bias of the Protestant nobles, who called themselves the ‘lords of the congregation’, Mary was determined to rule her kingdom, and she visited many parts of it in person between 1562 and 1566 CE. The queen had a handsome income thanks to her French lands and she brought a touch of glamour. Said to have been a beautiful and vivacious woman, Mary enlivened her residence at Holyrood House with hunting and dancing parties.
The queen made an attempt to reconcile the religious divide in her country by forbidding the holding of the mass in public (she herself attended a private mass). Mary also recognised the Reformed Church. Still, suspicions remained and were exacerbated when Mary married her cousin Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley (1545-1567 CE), a Protestant who now favoured the Catholic mass, on 29 July 1565 CE. From here on, things started to turn sour for the queen. First, Darnley led a group of nobles who murdered Mary’s private secretary, the Italian David Rizzio (aka Riccio) on 9 March 1566 CE. Rizzio’s ‘crimes’ were to have been Catholic and suspected of being rather too friendly with the queen, which piqued Darnley’s jealousy. The Italian was dragged from the queen’s presence and knifed 56 times in an adjoining chamber.
The queen's private life then entered a new disastrous phase. Darnley himself was murdered on 10 February 1567 CE, possibly with Mary’s knowledge as the queen had not forgiven him for Rizzio’s murder. The queen had had a son with Darnley, James Stuart, born on 19 June 1566 CE in Edinburgh Castle. As Elizabeth I still had not married or had children, James was now heir to the kingdoms of both Scotland and England.
The ringleader of the Darnley assassination plot was James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell (c. 1535-1578 CE), who, on 10 February 1567 CE, had Darnley strangled and then blew him up along with Kirk O’Field House using barrels of gunpowder. Mary then married Bothwell on 15 May 1567 CE which fuelled suspicion that the queen had indeed been involved in the murder of Darnley. To add further scandal and intrigue, Bothwell had taken Mary to Dunbar Castle and then allegedly raped her (Mary may have been a willing partner in the escapade). They married after this strange incident but by now the Protestant Scottish barons, who were given material aid by Elizabeth I, had had enough of their ‘French’ Catholic queen and her dubious private life. The barons, led by James Douglas, Earl of Morton, defeated Mary and Bothwell on the battlefield in July 1567 CE east of Edinburgh without either army exchanging blows. It seemed the queen had lost her already limited support and her army evaporated. Mary was then imprisoned in a castle located on an island in Loch Leven. It was there she miscarried twins, Bothwell being the presumed father.
Mary was formally obliged to abdicate on 24 July 1567 CE in favour of her son who became James VI of Scotland (r. 1567-1625 CE). James was barely one year old and so, given a Protestant education, he could be easily manipulated by the barons who ruled in his name. Bothwell, meanwhile, fled to Orkney, the seat of his dukedom, and from there to Norway but died in madness and obscurity in a Danish dungeon in 1578 CE.
Escape to England
Fearing for her safety as the civil war raged on, Mary fled Scotland in May 1568 CE and sought sanctuary with her cousin Elizabeth in England. Mary’s first attempt to escape Loch Leven Castle had involved her dressing as a washerwoman but she was given away by her aristocratic hands. A second attempt involving a rowing boat was successful. Not quite giving up on her kingdom, the queen made one more attempt to get back her throne by joining forces with supportive clans (the Campbells, Gordons, and Hamiltons). The regent, James Stewart, the Earl of Moray (l. 1531-1570 CE) defeated this force at the battle of Langside (13 May 1568 CE), and Mary fled south of the border.
The English queen was at a loss what to do with Mary who was, on the one side, a family relation and fellow monarch with divine rights but, on the other side, a serious threat to her throne. As in many other areas of policy, Elizabeth dithered and procrastinated, delaying the ultimate decision regarding Mary’s fate by putting her under house arrest. To thwart possible coups, the former Queen of Scots was regularly moved to different country houses and kept under close observation. Unfortunately for Mary, this would result in almost 20 years of imprisonment during which she saw neither Scotland or her son ever again. The two queens never met either as Mary was moved from the Scottish border to Sheffield Castle, Tutbury Castle, and Fotheringhay Castle, amongst many others. Forbidden the presence of a Catholic priest, Mary got around the prohibition by having a priest disguise himself as an almoner.
Even in confinement, Mary was a danger to Elizabeth. The former Scottish queen had become the figurehead for Catholic-inspired plots to remove Elizabeth from her throne. In 1569 CE there was a rebellion in the north of England stirred up by the earls of Northumberland and Westmorland, both staunch Catholics. The plotters took Durham and hoped to have Mary become queen and then marry Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk. Elizabeth responded emphatically by sending an army led by the Earl of Sussex which caused the rebel leaders to flee in panic; 900 of the rebels were rounded up and hanged. In 1570 CE the Pope excommunicated Elizabeth for heresy following her religious reforms (the Elizabethan Religious Settlement). As a consequence of the excommunication, all Catholics were now released from any allegiance to their queen.
Next came the 1571 CE Ridolfi plot (after the Florentine banker Roberto di Ridolfi). The conspiratorial Duke of Norfolk, who had been released from confinement after the 1569 CE failed coup, now plotted with Spain to mount an invasion of England and crown Mary queen. Norfolk was not second time lucky as the treachery was discovered when coded letters were deciphered. Norfolk was imprisoned again and then executed in 1572 CE. De Spes, the Spanish ambassador was kicked out of England. The English Parliament remained keen to secure Elizabeth’s throne; already that body had twice formally asked Elizabeth to marry (1559 and 1563 CE). Now there was an additional threat to the dynasty in the form of Mary who had named Philip II of Spain (r. 1556-1598 CE) as her heir. The plots continued, too, with the Throckmorton Plot of 1584 CE which again saw a Spanish ambassador work with Mary to try and replace Elizabeth.
Trial & Execution
Sir Francis Walsingham (c. 1530-1590 CE), one of Elizabeth I’s chief ministers and her spymaster, was determined to demonstrate Mary’s treachery once and for all. Walsingham embroiled the former Scottish queen in yet another plot against her cousin, this time in a plan fronted by the nobleman Anthony Babington. Mary had sought to encourage Philip of Spain to invade England and murder Elizabeth. By employing double-agents and intercepting secret letters Walsingham was able to gather indisputable evidence of Mary’s treacherous intentions. Mary was tried on 14 October 1586 CE, and despite protesting her innocence and denying the court’s right to try a queen, she was condemned to death. Parliament had already twice asked Elizabeth to sign Mary’s death warrant in November 1585 CE but the queen had hesitated again. Now, Elizabeth finally signed the warrant on 1 February 1587 CE but insisted she should be consulted before it was carried out. This latter condition was not met, and Mary was executed, aged 44, on 8 February 1587 CE in the Great Hall of Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire (now demolished). The former queen had worn a black dress and a red petticoat as a symbol of her Catholic faith; she was buried in Peterborough Cathedral.
Elizabeth raged against her ministers for executing Mary without her final word, but given her soft treatment of those involved, it seems likely she was really relieved that she had not given the dreadful order herself. Meanwhile, James VI of Scotland made a formal complaint to Elizabeth concerning the death of his mother but did no more than that. Given a handsome annual payoff and content enough to remain king and at peace with England, James bided his time. When Mary was executed, Philip of Spain had one more reason to attack Protestant England, which he did (unsuccessfully) with his Spanish Armada in the summer of 1588 CE.
Mary got the better of Elizabeth in one way, though, as when the English queen died in 1603 CE and left no heir, James VI of Scotland was invited to become king, James I of England (r. 1603-1625 CE). This was the end of the House of Tudor and the beginning of the House of Stuart in England. As a final touch, King James moved his mother’s remains from Peterborough to a magnificent new tomb in Westminster Abbey.