Mary, Queen of Scots | Biography – Life, reign, death, marriages and relationship with Elizabeth I
James V fell seriously ill at the time of the birth of his daughter. He seems to have succumbed to cholera or dysentery, contracted while campaigning against his uncle, Henry VIII. This had resulted in a heavy defeat for the Scots at Solway Moss. James died on December 14, 1542, leaving the throne to Mary, who was only six days old.
She was born in a freezing winter. The snow was so deep that it took the messenger announcing his birth four days to reach Alnwick Castle in Northumberland. The English might have used this opportunity to press their advantage, but John Dudley, Henry VIII’s commander in the north of England, advised abstention, writing: corpse or on a widow or on a young breastfeeding her daughter. Soon the English would be much less docile.
Queen of Scotland and Queen of France
Mary was crowned on September 9, 1543. She lived at Stirling Castle until the age of five, protected by her intelligent and determined mother. Although Henry VIII proposed a marriage between Mary and her son, the future Edward VI, the Scots dithered. Tudor ambitions to control Scotland led to the sack of Edinburgh by the English in 1544, but the violence was futile. Henry VIII died in 1547, and the following year the Scots sent Mary to safety in France, to the court of Henry II and his wife, Catherine de’ Medici.
Marie remained in France until the summer of 1561. She grew up in an opulent environment, educated and admired for her charm and personality. But she was a pawn in the hands of the King of France, who hoped to use Mary’s claim to the English throne as a means of increasing his power in Western Europe. In 1558, the year of the accession of Elisabeth, Marie married François, son of Henri II and heir to the throne of France. Dazzlingly adorned with jewels and all dressed in white, Mary eclipsed her delicate husband. The Venetian ambassador reported that “these nuptials were truly considered the most regal and triumphant of any that have been observed in this kingdom for many years.” It was a stark contrast to the coronation of Elizabeth I in January 1559, who wore her sister Mary’s hastily altered dress.
The triumph was short-lived. Henry II was killed in a jousting accident in 1559 and further tragedies followed, with Marie’s mother and husband both dying in 1560. Marie no longer had a role in France. Scotland, meanwhile, was torn apart by religious rebellion; a group of Protestant nobles led by Mary’s half-brother – James Stewart, the Earl of Moray – had risen against French rule. For the rest of her life, Mary’s fate will be influenced by two key elements: her place in the English succession and the challenges she faces in Scotland.
Two Queens on an Island, 1561-1565
The view that Mary knew nothing of Scotland and only spoke French is wrong. Nevertheless, it is in an unknown country that she returns. The majority of the Scottish population was still Catholic and well-disposed towards an energetic and amiable young queen. Scottish lords were more skeptical. Much has been made of the rivalry between Elizabeth and Mary, but in Scotland Mary had to deal with her half-brother, the Earl of Moray, who resented her sister.
During her years as ruler of Scotland, Mary fought rebels and summoned Parliament five times. It makes a balanced choice of advisers within its Privy Council and regularly attends its meetings. Mary wanted to be a successful leader in her native country. But she also wanted Elizabeth to recognize her claim to the throne of England. The queens exchanged portraits and expressed an affection for each other that neither likely felt. Both were under pressure from their advisers to marry and produce heirs. Elizabeth had been embarrassed by the mysterious death of Amy Robsart, the wife of her favorite – Robert Dudley, the future Earl of Leicester – in 1560. She was now proposing him as a husband for Mary, an idea the Scottish queen found insulting. Mary then made a decision which she hoped would give her an unassailable advantage: she would marry her cousin, Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley.
Did Mary, Queen of Scots murder Lord Darnley?
Mary was criticized for choosing Darnley but there was a lot to recommend him, especially dynastically. Her parents were Margaret Dougla – daughter of Margaret Tudor by her second marriage – and Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox. This ancestry gave Darnley a claim to the thrones of England and Scotland. Their union would strengthen Mary’s position as Elizabeth’s heir apparent. Darnley, 19, was tall, athletic and handsome, with refined manners. He was also a Catholic. Mary and Darnley were married on July 29, 1565. What could go wrong?
Alas, almost everything. Darnley was a spoiled brat with a vicious heart, out of his depth in the volatile nature of Scottish politics. The marriage had permanently severed Mary and Moray’s relationship while alienating other Scottish nobles. Darnley was also an accomplice to the brutal murder of Mary’s unpopular secretary, David Riccio (sometimes Rizzio), on March 9, 1566 – and remained there while his wife, then six months pregnant, was held at gunpoint.
Despite the birth of a son in 1566, Mary’s marriage was irreparable and divorce was discussed. A more dramatic solution ensued. Darnley was murdered on the night of February 9–10, 1567, apparently following an explosion in the house where he was recuperating from an illness. The real cause of his death was far more sinister; he had actually been strangled.
How much, if any, Mary knew in advance of a plot involving the Earls of Morton and Bothwell to eliminate Darnley remains unclear. Given her reaction (a complete mental and physical breakdown), it seems unlikely that she anticipated Darnley’s murder.
Third marriage and fall of Mary, 1567-1568
Darnley’s death compromised Mary’s ability to govern and tarnished her reputation. A dangerous power vacuum has developed in Scotland and one man has seen a way to take advantage of it. James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, was a Protestant lord with a history of service to the Scottish Crown. He was also ambitious, a ladies’ man and a violent brawler. Controversially acquitted of responsibility for Darnley’s murder, he then decided to take action. Gathering the principal Scottish lords together, he persuaded them to sign a bond supporting his marriage to Mary, if she “succeeded” in choosing him. It would bring unity and peace to Scotland, he claimed.
Bothwell’s confidence was misplaced. Mary rejected him. Romantic novels and Hollywood films have depicted Mary as madly in love with Bothwell. The evidence does not support this interpretation. Desperate not to lose momentum, Bothwell kidnapped Mary as she returned from visiting her son in Stirling. He took her to his fortress in Dunbar and forced her to have sex with him. Humiliated and alone, Mary reluctantly agreed to marry him. But now the Scottish lords had turned against Bothwell, and he would take Mary with him. Their forces were defeated at Carberry Hill in June 1567. Bothwell escaped and died, insane, in a Danish prison in 1578. Shamefully treated, Mary was mistreated and imprisoned in the island castle of Lochleven. There, she had a miscarriage of twins and had barely recovered when, on July 24, 1567, she signed a document in which she abdicated in favor of her son. She had been threatened with death if she did not accept.
Over the next year, Mary rallied and escaped captivity. But she could not regain her throne. Her followers were defeated at the Battle of Langside in 1568 and Mary, unable to face further imprisonment – or worse – decided to flee to England, where she believed Elizabeth would offer her refuge and support.
Elizabeth and Mary, 1568-1587
Mary’s arrival placed Elizabeth and her advisors in a dilemma. There was sympathy from the English queen, but Mary’s restoration would be fraught with military and political obstacles. And Darnley’s murder has tainted Mary, unless she can be proven innocent. His first trial was inconclusive, despite the revelation of the “Casket Letters”, a series of forgeries which appeared to show an adulterous relationship with Bothwell.
Mary lived under house arrest for the rest of her life, in a series of castles in the North and Midlands of England. She and Elizabeth have never met. Over the years, Mary became a hotbed of discontent against her cousin. European politics also began to influence his destiny. Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth in 1570, freeing her subjects from obedience and thus tolerating assassination attempts. In Scotland, the civil war between supporters of Mary and those of her young son continues.
Desperate for release or any return to power, Mary was drawn further into plots against Elizabeth. But she was no match for Elizabeth’s top advisers, William Cecil and Francis Walsingham. They watched intently as the final conspiracy involving Mary took shape. The Babington Plot of 1586 revealed that Mary supported a Spanish invasion and Elizabeth’s death so she could become Queen of England. During her trial for treason, Mary defended herself eloquently but to no avail. Found guilty in October 1586, Parliament then demanded his execution on November 12 and 24, 1586.
Why did Elizabeth sign the death warrant of Mary, Queen of Scots?
Elizabeth hesitated for several months. She didn’t sign Mary’s death warrant until February 1. Aware that his sovereign had almost immediately regretted it, Cecil hastened to have the money order delivered to Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire, where Mary lived. She reacted calmly to the announcement that she would be executed the following morning, February 8. 1587. On her last night, she wrote to her brother-in-law, Henry III of France, regretting the mistake she had made in coming to England and castigating Elizabeth’s treatment of her.
Marie was 44 when she died. Although his execution removed an immediate danger, it did not settle the kingdom of England. Religious dissent, economic troubles and rebellion marred the last years of Elizabeth’s reign. In 1603, James VI of Scotland was crowned James I of England, fulfilling his mother’s ambitions by uniting the crowns of England and Scotland.
Given the oft-repeated phrase that history is written by the victors, who “won” this enduring and ultimately deadly rivalry between the two queens? A casual answer would be that, of course, it was Elizabeth, the Gloriana of English history and the last of the Tudors. If we take a longer view, being last of all is not necessarily so glorious. For it was Mary, Queen of Scots, so often portrayed as a loving fool with appalling judgment, out of her depth in the fierce undercurrents of Scottish politics, who ultimately triumphed.
Dr. Linda Porter is the author of Mary Tudor: The First Queen, published by Piatkus. She has written five books on the Tudors and Stuarts and can be found on Twitter @DrLindaPorter1