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Mary, Queen of Scots (Mary Steward)
1542 -1567

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587), was queen of France and Scotland and claimant to the throne of England. As the rival of Elizabeth I, she was perhaps the last real hope of a restored Catholicism in England.


The relations of England, Scotland, and France in the mid-16th century were dictated more by considerations of religion than they were by any emergent nationalism. Both France and Scotland were rocked by internal struggles over religion, but in international relations France emerged as the champion of the Scottish Catholics. King James V of Scotland had cemented this relationship by marrying Mary of Guise, the daughter of one of the most powerful Catholics in France. The Scottish-French alliance posed a considerable threat to England in its own struggles with France, but the English were able to silence the threat momentarily by defeating the Scots at Solway Moss (November 1542).

Mary Stuart was the third child and only daughter of James V and Mary of Guise. Both of her brothers had died before she was born at Linlithgow Palace on Dec. 7/8, 1542. Her father, already dejected by the disgrace of Solway Moss, thought the birth of a female heir a portent of disaster. A week after her birth he died, and the infant princess became queen of Scots. The period following the death of James V was an unhappy one for Scotland. In 1547 an English invasion led to the military occupation of the country. One of the chief results of this action was to drive Scotland more firmly than ever into alliance with France. On July 7, 1548, the Estates of Scotland ratified an agreement for the marriage of Queen Mary to the Dauphin of France, the future Francis II, and ordered that she go to France immediately.

For the following decade Scotland was under heavy French influence; the queen mother, Mary of Guise, was appointed regent, and many high offices went to Frenchmen. As a result, a feeling of reaction against the French began to be noticeable in Scotland, and it was fanned for religious purposes by the Protestant party in the country.

Queen of France

Mary meanwhile was educated with the French royal children. She appears to have been a quick and able student whose charming personality had a great impact on all around her. In April 1558 her marriage to the Dauphin was celebrated. In November of the same year, Mary Tudor, Queen of England, died. Mary Stuart laid a claim to the English throne as great-granddaughter of Henry VII on the grounds that Elizabeth had been declared illegitimate. Elizabeth I ascended the throne without opposition in England, but Mary and the Dauphin assumed the royal titles of England and Ireland. They continued to use them when they ascended to the French throne in July 1559, and though the Treaty of Edinburgh of July 1560 required them to abandon their claims to the English throne, they refused to ratify it.

Mary's husband, Francis II, ruled in France only a little more than a year, dying on Dec. 5, 1560. His death meant an end to Guise dominance in France, and as Catherine de Médicis asserted power there, the cause of Mary Stuart ceased to be a major concern of French politics. After a year of semiretirement in France, Mary resolved, on the advice of her friends, to return to Scotland to see whether she could reassert her power there. On April 19, 1561, the young queen landed at Leith, arriving in a dense fog which John Knox, the Protestant leader, saw as an omen of the "sorrow, dolour, darkness, and all impiety" which her coming was to bring. Her arrival was conceived of as a threat by Queen Elizabeth. In Mary's absence the Protestant party had gained power in Scotland, and this was to England's advantage; her return raised the possibility of a reassertion of Catholic influence, since few doubted that Mary, a devout Catholic herself, meant to reestablish the old religion and realign Scotland with the Continental Catholic powers.

Rule in Scotland

Elizabeth's policy toward Mary was confusing. She recognized the threat, but she was emotionally and perhaps politically unwilling to question the authority of another legitimate sovereign. Her policy thus vacillated between attacking Mary when she was strong and aiding her when she was weak. For some 7 years Mary precariously held her position as sovereign of Scotland. There was little likelihood of permanent success, for Mary was clearly out of sympathy with important elements in Scotland.

Various negotiations for Mary's marriage took place; it appears that Mary herself had the highest hopes of an alliance with Spain through marriage to Don Carlos, the son of Philip II. In July 1565, she married Henry, Lord Darnley. It was a political, not a love, match, for through this marriage Mary strengthened her claims to be heir presumptive to the throne of England, Darnley being the next lineal heir after herself to the English throne. The marriage had somewhat different political results from those Mary hoped for; the Protestant lords, led by the Earl of Moray with support from Queen Elizabeth, rebelled. Mary was able to counter this threat by military force, but she could not compensate for the arrogance and stupidity of Darnley himself. She refused the grant to him of the crown matrimonial and increasingly turned for comfort to her Italian secretary, David Riccio. Darnley in turn, wounded by the widespread rumors that Riccio was her lover, closed with the Protestant lords, who promised to make him king consort if he would destroy Riccio and restore them to power. On March 9, 1566, Darnley and the nobles dragged Riccio from Mary's room and murdered him. Within a short period, Moray and the other exiled rebel leaders had returned.

Murder of Darnley

Though Mary gave birth to a son (the later James VI of Scotland and James I of England) in June 1566, she was never reconciled to Darnley. Hiding her true feelings well, she made an outward show of reconciliation to Darnley while she actually drew close to one of the Protestant lords, the Earl of Bothwell. In February 1567 Darnley was murdered under curious circumstances; the house in which he was convalescing, Kirk o'Field, was destroyed by a violent explosion, and he was found dead in the grounds. Evidence, including the controversial Casket Letters, suggested that Mary had plotted with Bothwell the death of her second husband. The suspicions were strengthened when Mary did little to investigate the murder, allowed herself to be abducted by Bothwell, and in May 1567 she married him. The result was an almost total loss of public support for Mary. Civil war in Scotland ensued; Mary was captured and forced to abdicate in favor of her son, James (July 24, 1567). After somewhat less than a year of confinement, she escaped and once again raised a party on her behalf with the aid of the house of Hamilton. Her new-found supporters were routed at the battle of Langside (May 13, 1568), and after a futile effort to sail for France, Mary crossed the border into England on May 16, 1568, a refugee from the Scotland she had tried to rule.

Exile in England

It was a daring move and placed Elizabeth of England in an awkward position. Elizabeth was not in favour of having the Catholic claimant to the throne so close, where she could and did become the focus of Spanish intrigue. On the other hand, she did not want to use English force against the Scottish Protestants to restore Mary, nor did she wish Mary to take refuge in some Catholic court. Moreover, Elizabeth was troubled by her own conception of the divine nature of a monarch and upset by the implications of a forcible removal of a legitimate ruler. To resolve the dilemma, Elizabeth decided, in effect, to sit in judgment on the case. A commission met at York in the summer of 1568 and terminated its proceedings at Hampton Court early the following year. Elizabeth did not allow the commission to make a definite judgment on the issue of Mary's complicity in the murder of Darnley, but two results emerged from the hearing: the rebel government of Moray in Scotland was for the present to remain undisturbed, and Mary was to remain in England.

Catholic Plots

Mary had arrived in England as a refugee seeking aid; she was to remain there the rest of her life as a virtual prisoner. Early in 1569 she was moved to Tutbury in Staffordshire to begin her captivity. Quickly she became the centre of Catholic plots. Complicated plotting involving the proposed marriage of Mary to the Duke of Norfolk established her connection with the discontented English Catholics. The northern earls rebelled in 1569 but were quickly put down, Mary being moved south out of harm's way. In March 1571 Mary was involved in the Ridolphi plot, by which the Catholics were to rise in revolt and place Mary on the throne at the same time as a Spanish expeditionary force landed. The details of the plot were discovered by the government; Norfolk was arrested, tried, and executed. The implication of Mary in the plot was undoubted; she and her agent, the bishop of Ross, had been at the centre of it. There were petitions from both houses of Parliament that action be taken against her, but Elizabeth opposed such measures. Such was the pattern of the remaining 14 years of her life.

Mary was closely watched by the authorities, but she continued to conspire with her Catholic friends to escape and take the English throne. Plot after plot followed in the main the course of the Ridolphi scheme. In some Mary played a direct part; in others she was simply the cause for which the rebels gathered. In 1586 Secretary Walsingham uncovered the details of the Babington plot; in July he secured a letter from Mary, giving her assent to the assassination of Elizabeth. Elizabeth could not reject this evidence, and orders were given for Mary's trial. She was formally condemned on October 14-15.

Parliament petitioned for Mary's execution; after much delay and uncertainty, Elizabeth signed the death warrant. The Council, acting on its own initiative because the Queen still hesitated, sent the warrant to Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire, where Mary was executed on Feb. 8, 1587. Elizabeth displayed great public displeasure at the action and even sent the bearer of the warrant, William Davison, to the Tower. But realistically she knew that the action was necessary; by the death of Mary, the centre of dangerous Catholic plotting was removed, and since the new Catholic claimant was the Infanta of Spain, fears of a popular rising on behalf of the Catholic cause were sharply diminished.


The mother of Mary, Queen of Scots, was Mary of Guise (Mary of Lorraine) and her father was James V of Scotland, each in their second marriage. Mary was born on December 8, 1542, and her father James died on December 14, so the infant Mary became Queen of Scotland when she was just a week old.

James Hamilton, Duke of Arran, was made regent for Mary, Queen of Scots, and he arranged a betrothal with prince Edward, the son of Henry VIII of England. But Mary's mother, Mary of Guise, was in favor of an alliance with France instead of England, and she worked to overturn this betrothal and instead arranged for Mary to be promised in marriage to France's dauphin, Francis.

The young Mary, Queen of Scots, only six years old, was sent to France in 1548 to be raised as the future queen of France. She married Francis in 1558, and in July 1559, when his father Henri II died, Francis II became king and Mary became queen consort of France.

Mary, Queen of Scots, also known as Mary Stuart (she took the French spelling rather than the Scottish Stewart), was the granddaughter of Margaret Tudor; Margaret was the older sister of Henry VIII of England. In the view of many Catholics, the divorce of Henry VIII from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and his marriage to Anne Boleyn were invalid, and the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth, was therefore illegitimate. Mary, Queen of Scots, in their eyes, was the rightful heir of Mary I of England, Henry VIII's daughter by his first wife.

When Mary I died in 1558, Mary, Queen of Scots, and her husband Francis asserted their right to the English crown, but the English recognized Elizabeth as the heir. Elizabeth, a Protestant, supported the Protestant reformation in Scotland as well as in England.

Mary Stuart's time as queen of France was very short. When Francis died, his mother Catherine de Medici assumed the role of regent for his brother, Charles IX. Mary's mother's family, the Guise relatives, had lost their power and influence, and so Mary Stuart returned to Scotland, where she could rule in her own right as queen.

In 1560, Mary's mother died, in the middle of a civil war she stirred up by attempting to suppress the Protestants, including John Knox. After the death of Mary of Guise, the Catholic and Protestant nobles of Scotland signed a treaty recognizing Elizabeth's right to rule in England. But Mary Stuart, returning to Scotland, managed to avoid signing or endorsing either the treaty or recognition of her cousin Elizabeth.

Mary, Queen of Scots, was herself a Catholic, and insisted on her freedom to practice her religion. But she did not interfere with Protestantism's role in Scottish life. John Knox, a powerful Presbyterian during Mary's rule, nevertheless denounced her power and influence.

Mary, Queen of Scots, held on to hopes of claiming the English throne which she considered hers by right. She turned down Elizabeth's suggestion that she marry Lord Robert Dudley, Elizabeth's favorite, and be recognized as Elizabeth's heir. Instead, in 1565 she married her first cousin, Lord Darnley, in a Roman Catholic ceremony.

Darnley, another grandson of Margaret Tudor and heir of another family with a claim to the Scottish throne, was in the Catholic perspective the next in line to Elizabeth's throne after Mary Stuart herself.

Many believed that Mary's match with Darnley was impetuous and unwise. Lord James Stuart, the earl of Moray, who was Mary's half brother (his mother was King James' mistress), opposed Mary's marriage to Darnley. Mary personally led troops in the "chase-about raid," chasing Moray and his supporters to England, outlawing them and seizing their estates.

While Mary, Queen of Scots, was at first charmed by Darnley, their relationship soon became strained. Already pregnant by Darnley, Mary, Queen of Scots, began to place trust and friendship in her Italian secretary, David Rizzio, who in turn treated Darnley and the other Scottish nobles with contempt. On March 9, 1566, Darnley and the nobles murdered Rizzio, planning that Darnley would put Mary Stuart in prison and rule in her place.

But Mary outwitted the plotters. She convinced Darnley of her commitment to him, and together they escaped. James Hepburn, earl of Bothwell, who had supported her mother in her battles with the Scottish nobles, provided two thousand soldiers, and Mary took Edinburgh from the rebels. Darnley tried to deny his role in the rebellion, but the others produced a paper that he had signed promising to restore Moray and his fellow exiles to their lands when the murder was complete.

Three months after Rizzio's murder, James, the son of Darnley and Mary Stuart was born. Mary pardoned the exiles and allowed them to return to Scotland. Darnley, motivated by Mary's split from him and by his expectations that the exiled nobles would hold his denial against him, threatened to create a scandal and leave Scotland. Mary, Queen of Scots, was apparently by this time in love with Bothwell.

Mary Stuart explored ways to escape from her marriage. Bothwell and the nobles assured her that they would find a way for her to do so. Months later, on February 10, 1567, Darnley was staying at a house in Edinburgh, possibly recovering from smallpox. He awakened to an explosion and fire. The bodies of Darnley and his page were found in the garden of the house, strangled.

The public blamed Bothwell for the death of Darnley. Bothwell faced charges at a private trial where no witnesses were called. He told others that Mary had agreed to marry him, and he got the other nobles to sign a paper asking her to do so.

But immediate marriage would violate any number of etiquette and legal rules. Bothwell was already married, and Mary would be expected to formally mourn her husband Darnley, for a few months at least.

Then Bothwell kidnapped Mary -- many suspected with her cooperation. His wife divorced him for infidelity. Mary Stuart announced that, despite her kidnapping, she trusted Bothwell's loyalty and would agree with the nobles who urged her to marry him. Under threat of being hanged, a minister published the banns, and Bothwell and Mary were married on Mary 15, 1567.

Mary, Queen of Scots, subsequently attempted to give Bothwell more authority, but this was met with outrage. Letters (whose authenticity is questioned by some historians) were found tying Mary and Bothwell to Darnley's murder.

Mary abdicated the throne of Scotland, making her year-old son James VI, King of Scotland. Moray was appointed regent. Mary Stuart later repudiated the abdication and attempted to regain her power by force, but in May, 1568, her forces were defeated. She was forced to flee to England, where she asked her cousin Elizabeth for vindication.

Elizabeth deftly dealt with the charges against Mary and Moray: she found Mary not guilty of murder and Moray not guilty of treason. She recognized Moray's regency and she did not allow Mary Stuart to leave England.

For nearly twenty years, Mary, Queen of Scots, remained in England, plotting to free herself, to assassinate Elizabeth and to gain the crown with the help of an invading Spanish army. Three separate conspiracies were launched, discovered and squelched.

In 1586, Mary, Queen of Scots, was brought to trial on charges of treason in Fotheringay castle. She was found guilty and, three months later, Elizabeth signed the death warrant.

Mary, Queen of Scots, was executed on February 8, 1587, facing death with the charm, determination and courage which she had brought to the rest of her life.


Born at Linlithgow Palace, West Lothian on 8 December 1542, Mary became Queen of Scots when she was six days old.

Her claims to the throne of England were almost as strong as her claims to the Scottish throne. As Henry VII of England's great-granddaughter, Mary was next in line to the English throne, after Henry VIII's children.

Given her youth and sex, the Scottish nobility decided that they must make peace with England, and they agreed that she should marry Henry VIII's son, the future Edward VI.

No sooner had the treaty been arranged, however, than Catholics opposed to the plan took the young Mary to Stirling Castle and, to Henry's fury, they broke the match, preferring to return to Scotland's traditional alliance with France.

Henry thereupon ordered the savage series of raids into Scotland known as 'The Rough Wooing'. His army set fire to the Abbey of Holyroodhouse where James V was buried, burned crops in the Tweed Valley and set ablaze the Border abbeys of Melrose, Jedburgh and Dryburgh.

Undeterred, the Scots in 1548 betrothed Mary to the French King Henri II's heir, the Dauphin Francis, and sent her to be brought up at the French Court. It is said that the spelling of the royal family name of Stewart changed to Stuart at that time, to suit French conventional spelling.

Tall, graceful and quick-witted, Mary married the Dauphin in Paris on 24 April 1558. He succeeded to his father's throne in 1559, making Mary Queen of France as well as Scotland, but his reign was brief for he died of an ear infection in 1560.

The following year, despite the warnings of her friends, Mary decided to go back to Scotland, now an officially Protestant country after religious reforms led by John Knox.

She was a Roman Catholic, but her half-brother, Lord James Stewart, later Earl of Moray, had assured her that she would be allowed to worship as she wished and in August 1561 she returned, to an unexpectedly warm welcome from her Protestant subjects.

At first Mary ruled successfully and with moderation, advised by Lord James and William Maitland of Lethington, a subtle diplomat. However, her marriage in 1565 to her second cousin Henry, Lord Darnley (great-grandson of Henry VII) initiated a tragic series of events made worse by factious Scottish nobles.

Spoiled and petulant, Darnley became the tool of Mary's enemies and, with a group of conspirators, burst into her supper chamber, threatened the heavily pregnant queen and murdered her secretary, David Riccio, on 9 March 1566 inside the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

The birth of Mary and Darnley's son James that summer did nothing to improve their relationship, and when Darnley was murdered at Kirk o'Field, just outside the walls of Edinburgh on 10 February 1567, people suspected that she was implicated in the crime.

Her subsequent marriage three months later to the Earl of Bothwell (generally believed to be the principal murderer) brought her inevitable ruin. Her Protestant Lords rose against her and her army confronted theirs at Carberry Hill, near Edinburgh, on 15 June 1567.

She surrendered, was imprisoned in Lochleven Castle, Kinross-shire and forced to abdicate in favour of her infant son. Bothwell fled to Scandinavia, where he was arrested and held prisoner until his death.

Mary escaped from Lochleven in 1568, only to be defeated at the Battle of Langside, near Glasgow, on 13 May. Fleeing south, she sought shelter in England, believing that Queen Elizabeth I would support her cause, but instead she was kept in captivity in England for 19 years.

The focus of a long series of Roman Catholic plots against Elizabeth, culminating in the Babington Plot to assassinate the English queen, led to Elizabeth's ministers demanding Mary's execution: 'so long as there is life in her, there is hope; so as they live in hope, we live in fear'.

Mary was finally executed at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire on 8 February 1587, at the age of 44.

She was buried in Peterborough Cathedral, but in 1612 her son James VI and I had her body exhumed and placed in the vault of King Henry VII's Chapel in Westminster Abbey.











This web page was last updated on: 13 December, 2008