Mary, Queen of Scots (Mary Steward)
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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This web page was last updated on:
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