The life and legacy of Mary, Queen of Scots, remains intriguing more than 400 years after her passing. Her political scheming and personal hardships were colorful enough to inspire several films, including 2018’s Mary Queen of Scots, but the fictionalized version can’t compete with the actual events leading to her execution.
After becoming Queen of Scotland when she was just days old, Mary was married into the French royal family. Widowed as a teenager and a stranger to her homeland, Mary seized her birthright and actively ruled Scotland from the early 1560s until she was deposed in 1567. Mary’s love life was fodder for Protestant naysayers and political rivals alike, and her relationship with her cousin and fellow female monarch, Elizabeth I, was fraught with tension.
During the last two decades of her life, Mary was essentially a prisoner under suspicion of plotting to seize the English throne. As she walked to the scaffold on her final day, she was surrounded by hundreds of spectators, but the number of people who factored into her demise is vast and complicated. Her long road to the block was peppered with machinations and choices that ultimately led to her decapitation in 1587
December 14, 1542: Baby Mary Becomes Queen of Scotland Upon The Sudden Passing Of Her Father, King James V
Born on December 8, 1542 (or possibly December 7), Mary was the daughter of King James V of Scotland and his wife and queen consort, Marie de Guise (also known as Mary of Guise and Mary of Lorraine). As the couple’s only surviving child (her two older brothers never made it out of infancy), Mary was heir to the throne and became queen when her father succumbed to a sudden illness only six days after her birth. After her father’s passing, Scotland was ruled by a series of regents, including her mother, until Mary was of age. However, from a young age, Mary’s political affairs were controversial.
At 8 months old, Mary was already betrothed to Prince Edward, the son of King Henry VIII and heir to the English throne, in an effort to calm tensions between England and Scotland. The agreement, however, was called off due to opposition from Scotland’s Catholic nobility.
1542-1558: Her Mother Sends Her To France To Ensure A Scottish-French Alliance Through Wedlock
As a young female monarch, Mary was particularly vulnerable. In a country where her father and grandfather had been fighting with Henry VIII for decades, she was even more at risk. As an 8-month-old, Mary was betrothed to Henry VIII’s son, Prince Edward, but the agreement never came to fruition.
To maintain Scotland’s connections with the French and ensure her daughter’s safety, Marie de Guise promised Mary to Francis, the heir to the French throne. To secure the deal, she sent her daughter to be raised in France in 1548.
As a 5-year-old girl, Mary arrived in France surrounded by familiars, including her four best friends, her governess, and her mother. Marie de Guise stayed in France for a year before returning to Scotland to rule as regent. Mary was under the protection of her maternal grandmother Antoinette de Bourbon and her uncles Francis, the second Duke of Guise, and Charles, a cardinal in the Catholic church.
Described by King Henry II as “the most perfect child” he’d ever seen, Mary spent the next 12 years of her life in France. She was “honored and served” at court and was educated alongside French royalty, including Francis, her future husband. The two married in 1558, sealing the Scottish-French alliance.
December 5, 1560: Only A Few Short Years After Their Marriage, King Francis II Perishes, And Mary Loses Her Claim To France’s Throne
The marriage of Mary and Francis made the young Dauphin the king consort of Scotland. When Francis became King of France in 1559, Mary became the queen consort of France. King Francis II’s tenure as monarch was short-lived, however, and he passed suddenly in 1560. After losing both her husband and her mother in the same year, Mary was left with two options: She could seek another marriage or go back to her native Scotland. French royalty returned the Scottish queen to her homeland in 1561.
When Mary arrived in Scotland, she was very much an outsider. As a Catholic in a predominantly Protestant land, she identified more closely with her French upbringing than her Scottish heritage. In spite of this, Mary was well received, pushing neither her religion nor her culture on her subjects. She also developed a tense relationship with her cousin Queen Elizabeth I, who refused to acknowledge Mary as her successor to the English throne.
As a young widow and queen, Mary was pursued by numerous suitors once she returned to Scotland. She ultimately married Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, in 1565. Darnley was Mary’s cousin, and their union strengthened the Stuart claim to the English throne. Mary was very fond of Darnley, a fellow Catholic, but their relationship brought outrage from the Protestant nobility. Mary soon had her own problems with Darnley, who was weak, arrogant, and immature.
Their marriage quickly soured, and Mary became close to her secretary, David Rizzio. A pregnant Mary excluded her husband from her private and royal matters, prompting Darnley to become both suspicious and jealous of his wife’s relationship with Rizzio. In 1566, Darnley allegedly played a role in the slaying of the young Italian.
February 10, 1567: Mary Is Widowed A Second Time
Mary gave birth to her son, James, in June 1566. The arrival of an heir did nothing to improve the relationship between Mary and her husband. Darnley went so far as to deny he was the boy’s father. Darnley’s behavior deteriorated, and Mary became increasingly distraught. Although she explored options for getting out of the marriage, she didn’t want to jeopardize the legitimacy of her son or do anything that could damage her reputation.
The exact circumstances surrounding the demise of Darnley remain unknown. After falling ill in February 1567, Darnley decided against recovering in Edinburgh, opting instead to travel to Kirk o’ Field. Mary did not accompany her husband and may have even chosen the location for him. This aroused suspicions when an explosion rocked the country home in the early morning hours of February 10. When Darnley’s body was discovered in an orchard near the house, however, it showed no signs of damage from the blast. Instead, it appeared Darnley had been strangled. It was clear that foul play was involved.
Mary and James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, one of her closest noblemen, were together when the incident took place. Mary’s enemies accused the queen and Bothwell of conspiring against Darnley. Bothwell was put on trial for Darnley’s slaying in April 1567, but he was found not guilty.
May 15, 1567: Mary Weds The Man Implicated In The Events of Kirk O’ Field
The exact nature of the relationship between Mary and James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, is unclear. The two had political ties as early as 1565, but they became more personally involved when Bothwell provided continuous support for Mary as nobles plotted to depose her. To Mary, the earl was everything Darnley wasn’t – he was bold and intelligent. And, of course, he was the leading suspect in Darnley’s slaying.
Mary’s critics seized upon her close connection with Bothwell, especially since he was already a married man. When Mary and Bothwell married on May 15, 1567, he was still wed to Lady Jean Gordon. According to Claude Nau, the queen’s secretary, Bothwell told Mary he was divorced or in the process of getting a divorce (on the grounds of consanguinity) when they got married. Mary, however, claimed Bothwell abducted her, took her to Dunbar, and forced their marriage.
June 15, 1567: Mary’s New Marriage Attracts Unwanted Hostility From Nobles
The marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots, and James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, caused Scotland to descend into unrest in the summer of 1567. Both Protestant and Catholic nobility accused Bothwell of usurping the crown. Exactly one month after their nuptials, on June 15, 1567, Mary and Bothwell faced a group of those nobles at Carberry Hill. Mary surrendered in exchange for Bothwell’s free passage into exile.
Bothwell and Mary never saw each other again after the events on Carberry Hill. Bothwell spent the next few weeks trying to rally support for his cause but was soon declared an outlaw. With a bounty on his head, Bothwell fled to the extreme north of Scotland before traveling to Denmark where King Frederick II had him jailed. In 1573, Bothwell was placed in solitary confinement where he slowly went mad. He passed in 1578.
July 24, 1567: Mary Cedes The Throne To Her Son – And Goes Away
Once Mary surrendered at Carberry Hill, she was taken to Edinburgh. In June 1567, Mary was confined at Loch Leven Castle. She then forcibly abdicated the throne on July 24, handing over the crown to her infant son, King James VI.
Given James’s young age, the former queen’s half-brother James Stuart, Earl of Moray, ruled Scotland as regent. Moray sent abdication papers to his half-sister, delivered by Lords Robert Melville, Patrick Lindsay, and William Ruthven. By some accounts, Lindsay and Ruthven were quite harsh with Mary, while Melville, on the other hand, was sympathetic and urged the queen to sign the abdication order in the interest of her safety.
Mary spent almost a year at Loch Leven. In the first months, she had a miscarriage, losing twins likely fathered by James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. The loss of her pregnancy probably happened before Mary’s abdication, perhaps due to poor treatment and conditions.
May 2-13, 1568: Mary Attempts To Regain The Throne, But It Doesn’t Go Well
From her first days at Loch Leven, Mary and her supporters planned her escape. Lord James Melville himself may have suggested it when he delivered the abdication order to Mary in July 1567.
Eleven months after arriving at Loch Leven Castle, Mary fled. While at Loch Leven, Mary was under the watchful eye of Sir William Douglas. Sir William’s brother George Douglas, however, was a staunch supporter of Mary and was appalled by her treatment. He devised an exit from Loch Leven in March 1568. On March 25, the laundress who regularly visited Loch Leven gave Mary her dress and the two women switched places. The queen covered her face and carried soiled linens to the boat awaiting the laundress. Mary almost got away, but one of the men on the ship noticed her delicate white hands, which revealed her true identity. George Douglas and his cousin Willie Douglas – the plot’s masterminds – were expelled from the castle.
Willie Douglas was able to work his way back into the good graces of Sir William and eventually returned to Loch Leven. His communication with George continued, and they devised a plan for Willie to grab the key and free Mary. During dinner on the night of May 2, 1568, Willie took the key away from the drunken, half-conscious Sir William and signaled to Mary and her attendant that it was time to go. They made their way to a boat awaiting them at the pier. Once on the vessel, Willie Douglas oared Mary to a meeting point where George Douglas, her servant John Beton, and several other supporters waited.
Mary was soon in the company of more than 6,000 nobles, churchmen, and commoners ready to fight for their queen. Mary’s forces faced Scottish Protestant forces led by James Moray at Langside, now part of Glasgow, on May 13, 1568. Unfortunately for the Queen of Scots, her men were no match for their adversaries, and the Protestants routed Mary’s army within an hour.
May 16, 1568: Mary Seeks Asylum In England From Queen Elizabeth
After her defeat at Langside, Mary fled the battlefield, having “lost courage, like never before,” and headed south. The former Queen of Scotland initially hoped to find refuge in France with the dowager queen, her former mother-in-law Catherine de Medici. However, even if she had been able to get to France, her position there wasn’t one of prominence, and she was disliked at court.
On May 16, 1568, Mary crossed into England and sought refuge with her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. Though she wasn’t fond of Mary, Catherine de Medici wrote to Elizabeth on her behalf, imploring the monarch to show Mary “good and tender treatment.”
Mary’s arrival in England reignited tensions between the two queens. Mary hoped to find safety and security from her cousin, but she was immediately met with skepticism. At a conference in York, the Earl of Moray named Mary as an accomplice to the slaying of her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Elizabeth oversaw proceedings in the case but Mary, as an independent sovereign, refused to answer the charges. Moray returned to Scotland, but Mary remained in detention in England.
1568-1585: Mary Is Implicated In Numerous Plots To Overthrow Queen Elizabeth
Mary’s new life in England was a challenging one. As a Catholic with a claim to the English throne, Mary represented an alternative to the Protestant Elizabeth. Numerous plots against Elizabeth emerged, many of which involved – or appeared to involve – Mary. Due to her tarnished reputation, Mary was kept under surveillance for the remainder of her 19 years in England.
The Ridolfi Plot of 1571 involved King Phillip II of Spain, the pope, the Spanish ambassador to England, and several Englishmen, in addition to Mary. Named after Roberto Ridolfi, the Florentine banker who carried messages between the major players, the general plan was to overthrow Elizabeth and put Mary on the English throne.
The plot was discovered after one of Ridolfi’s messengers was caught in England carrying documents that implicated the Duke of Norfolk. The Duke of Norfolk was detained, put on trial for treason, and received capital punishment. There was not enough evidence to directly connect Mary, but she remained under close watch.
The Throckmorton Plot of 1583 was another attempt to terminate Elizabeth and replace her with Mary. Francis Throckmorton, a Catholic supporter of Mary, met with exiled English Catholics on the continent in the early 1580s. They enlisted the help of France and Spain to coordinate an occupation of England led by Henry I, Duke of Guise, with the purpose of rescuing the country from Protestantism.
The Throckmorton plotters communicated with Mary, but their efforts were discovered by Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s secretary. Throckmorton was taken into custody and tried for treason. He met his end in 1584. Throckmorton implicated several of his fellow plotters, including the Spanish ambassador, Bernardino de Mendoza, who was expelled from England. However, there was still not enough evidence to convince Elizabeth that Mary was involved.
The Parry Plot of 1585, named for its principal architect William Parry, was another planned attempt to take out Elizabeth. Parry worked for the English government but was accused of acting as a double agent. Parry received capital punishment in 1585. There was no indication that Mary was involved in the plan.
July 1586: Mary Is Definitively Connected To A Plot Against Elizabeth
With so many rumors of plots against Elizabeth circulating, the Privy Council passed the Bond of Association in 1584 to prevent any further attempts on her life. In 1585, Parliament passed the Act for the Queen’s Safety, which negated the rule of any successor involved in a plot against the queen. Both resolutions were directed toward Mary; they justified “revenge” against anyone who endangered the safety of Elizabeth and laid the groundwork for Mary’s downfall.
In 1586, English authorities uncovered the Babington Plot, which again sought to replace Elizabeth with Mary. Sir Francis Walsingham discovered the plan after his team intercepted a letter written by Anthony Babington. In a coded message, Babington, a devout Catholic with connections to French factions, told Mary he had “sixe gentlemen” who could eliminate Elizabeth with her approval. Mary wrote back on July 17, asking to meet the men and suggesting their skills may be needed.
Babington and his associates were taken into custody, tried, and sent to the gallows in September 1586. Notably, the letters exchanged as part of the Babington Plot finally allowed Walsingham to prosecute Mary. She was brought before a tribunal and put on trial.
February 8, 1587: Mary Meets Her End
Mary’s trial began in October 1586 at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire. At first, Mary refused to appear, but she was informed it would take place even in her absence. She had no choice but to attend.
Mary fought the charges against her. She asserted Elizabeth was not her sovereign and neither England nor English law had any authority over her. She was found guilty of treason, and Parliament recommended capital punishment. The decision was finalized on February 1, 1587.
Mary was beheaded on February 8, 1587. A crowd gathered around to watch the former queen’s final moments. According to observers, Mary, dressed in a black dress and veil, met her end with great bravery. The headsman reportedly fell to his knees and asked for forgiveness. She approached the block and with a handkerchief over her eyes:
The queen quickly, and with great courage, knelt dawn, showing no signs of faltering. So great was her bravery that all present were moved… She laid her head on the block, and as she repeated the prayer, the executioner struck her a great blow upon the neck, which was not, however, entirely severed. Then he struck twice more since it was obvious that he wished to make the victim’s martyrdom all the more severe. It was not so much the suffering, but the cause, that made the martyr.
[He] then picked up the severed head and, showing it to those present, cried out: “God save Queen Elizabeth! May all the enemies of the true Evangel thus perish!”
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