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Encyclopedia > Mary Queen of Scots
Mary I of Scotland; known as Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary I of Scotland (Mary Stuart or Stewart) (December 8, 1542February 8, 1587), better known as Mary, Queen of Scots, was the ruler of Scotland from December 14, 1542July 24, 1567. She is perhaps the best known of the Scottish monarchs, in part because of the tragedy of her life.

Mary, Queen of Scots, is sometimes confused with her first cousin once removed, Mary I of England ("Bloody Mary"), who lived at approximately the same time (15161558), and whose reign coincided with that of Mary, Queen of Scots.


Early years

She was born at the Palace of Linlithgow, West Lothian, Scotland, on December 8, 1542 to King James V of Scotland and his French wife, Marie de Guise.

Her father died at the age of thirty, probably from cholera, although his contemporaries believed his death to have been caused by grief over the Scots' humiliating loss to the English at the Battle of Solway Moss. In Falkland, her father heard of the birth and prophesied, "The devil go with it! It came with a lass, it will gang with a lass!" The reign of the Stewart family had begun through Marjory (daughter of Robert I, the Bruce). James truly believed that Mary marked the end of the Stewarts' reign over Scotland. Instead, through Mary's son, it was the beginning of their reign over a united Scotland and England. (Mary adopted the French spelling Stuart during her time in France, and she and her descendants stuck with it.)

The six-day-old Mary became Queen of Scotland, with James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Arran, the next in line for the throne, acting as regent (until 1554, when he was succeeded by the Queen's mother, who continued as regent until her own death in 1560). Six months after her birth, in July 1543, the Treaties of Greenwich promised Mary to be married to Edward, son of King Henry VIII of England in 1552, and for their heirs to inherit the Kingdoms of Scotland and England. Two months later, Mary and her mother, who strongly opposed the marriage proposition, went into hiding in Stirling Castle where she had a small coronation on September 9, 1543. However, the betrothal did not sit well with the Scots either, especially since Henry suspiciously tried to change their agreement so that he could possess Mary years before the marriage was to take place. He also wanted them to break their traditional alliance with France. Fearing an uprising among the people, the Scottish Parliament broke off the treaty at the end of the year.

This did not sit well with Henry VIII however, and he began his "rough wooing" designed to impose the marriage to his son on Mary. This consisted of a series of raids on Scottish territory and other such actions. It lasted until June 1551, costing over half a million pounds and many lives. In May of 1544, the English Earl of Hertford (later created Duke of Somerset by Edward VI) arrived in the Firth of Forth hoping to capture Edinburgh and kidnap the infant queen, but Marie de Guise hid her in the secret chambers of Stirling Castle. The French, remaining true to the Auld Alliance, came to the aid of the Scots. The Battle of Pinkie Cleugh (also known as Black Saturday) convinced the Scots to send Mary to France where King Henri II had offered to guard her and raise her. However, Henri also had his sights set on a marriage between his son and Mary. Following a formal agreement, in 1548, promising Mary in marriage to the Dauphin, a fleet rescued the five-year-old Mary from Dumbarton, taking her to France.

Life in France

Vivacious, pretty, and clever (according to contemporary accounts), Mary had a promising childhood. With her marriage agreement in place, she was sent to France in 1548, at the age of five, to be brought up for the next ten years at the French court. (She was accompanied by her own little court consisting of two lords, two half brothers, and the "four Maries," four little girls her own age, all named Mary, and the daughters of the noblest families in Scotland: Beaton, Seaton, Fleming, and Livingston.)

While in the French court, she was a favorite. She received the best available education, and at the end of her studies, she had mastered four new languages, two instruments, prose, horsemanship, falconry, and needlework.

On April 24, 1558 she married the dauphin Francois, and, on the death of Henri II on July 10, 1559, became Queen Consort; her husband became Francois II of France. Under the ordinary laws of succession, Mary Stuart was also next in line to the English throne after her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, who was childless. However, according to the Catholic religion, Elizabeth was illegitimate, making Mary the true heir. Although the anti-Catholic Act of Settlement would not be passed until 1701, the will of Henry VIII had excluded the Stuarts from succeeding to the English throne. Mary's troubles were still further increased by the Huguenot rising in France, called the le tumulte d'Amboise (March 6-17, 1560), making it impossible for the French to succour Mary's side in Scotland. The question of the succession was therefore a real one.

Francois II died on December 5, 1560, and Mary's mother-in-law, Catherine de Medici, became regent for his brother Charles IX. Under the terms of the Treaty of Edinburgh, signed by Mary's representatives on July 6, 1560, following the death of Marie of Guise, France undertook to withdraw troops from Scotland and recognise Elizabeth's right to rule England. The eighteen-year-old Mary, still in France, refused to ratify the treaty.

Return to Scotland

Mary Stuart
Mary Stuart

The young widow returned to Scotland soon after, and arrived in Leith on August 19, 1561. She was still only 18 and, despite her talents, her upbringing had not given her the judgment to cope with the dangerous and complex political situation in the Scotland of the time. Religion had divided the people, and Mary's illegitimate brother, James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray, was a leader of the Protestant faction. Mary, being a devout Roman Catholic, was regarded with suspicion by many of her subjects as well as by Elizabeth I of England, her father's cousin and the monarch of the neighbouring Protestant country. The Protestant reformer John Knox preached against Mary, condemning her for hearing Mass, dancing, dressing too elaborately, and many other things, real and imagined.

To the disappointment of the Catholic party, however, Mary did not hasten to take up the Catholic cause. She tolerated the newly-established Protestant ascendancy, and kept James Stewart, her Protestant half-brother as her chief advisor. In this, she may have had to acknowledge her lack of effective military power in the face of the Protestant Lords. However she effectively narrowed her options by joining with James in the destruction of Scotland's leading Catholic magnate, Lord Huntly, in 1562.

By 1561, Mary was having second thoughts about the wisdom of having crossed Elizabeth, and attempted to make up the breach by inviting her to visit Scotland. Elizabeth refused, and the bad blood remained between them. Mary then sent William Maitland of Lethington as an ambassador to the English court to put the case for Mary as a potential heir to the throne. Elizabeth's response is said to have included the words, "As for the title of my crown, for my time I think she will not attain it." However, Mary, in her own letter to the Duke of Guise, reports other things that Maitland told her, including Elizabeth's supposed statement that, "I for my part know none better, nor that my self would prefer to her." Amongst other things, Elizabeth was mindful of the role Parliament would have to play in the matter.

In December 1561, arrangements were made for the two to meet, this time in England, but Elizabeth changed her mind. The meeting had been fixed for York "or another town" in August or September. In July, Elizabeth sent Sir Henry Sidney to call it off, because of the civil war in France. In 1563, Elizabeth made another attempt to neutralise Mary by suggesting she marry Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester (Henry Sidney's brother-in-law), whom Elizabeth trusted and thought she could control. Dudley being a Protestant, this would have solved a double problem for Elizabeth. She sent an ambassador to tell Mary that, if she would marry someone (as yet unnamed) of Elizabeth's choosing, Elizabeth would "proceed to the inquisition of her right and title to be our next cousin and heir". This proposal was rejected.

On July 29, 1565, Mary unexpectedly married Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, a descendant of King Henry VII of England and Mary's first cousin. This marriage, to a leading Catholic, precipitated Mary's half-brother, the Earl of Moray to join with other Protestant Lords in open rebellion. Mary set out for Stirling on August 26, 1565 to confront them, returning to Edinburgh to raise more troops the following month. Moray, and the rebellious lords were routed and fled into exile, the decisive military action becoming known as The Chaseabout Raid. The union also infuriated Elizabeth: she felt she should have been asked permission for the marriage to even take place, as Darnley was an English subject. Elizabeth felt threatened by the marriage because, with Darnley's Scottish and English royal blood, any child Mary would bear Darnley would have an extremely strong claim to both Mary's and Elizabeth's thrones (he did in fact succeed both queens in their respective realms).

Before long, Mary became pregnant, but Darnley soon became arrogant and demanding, insisting on power to go with his courtesy title of "King". He was jealous of Mary's friendship with her private secretary, David Rizzio, and, in March 1566 Darnley entered into a secret conspiracy with the nobles who had rebelled against Mary in the Chaseabout Raid. On the 9th of March a group of the lords, accompanied by Darnley, murdered Rizzio while he was in conference with the queen at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. This action was the catalyst for the breakdown of their marriage. Darnley soon changed sides again and betrayed the lords. But on another occasion, he attacked Mary and unsuccessfully attempted to cause her to miscarry their unborn child.

Another image of Mary, dressed in mourning white following the then recent death of her first husband.
Another image of Mary, dressed in mourning white following the then recent death of her first husband.

Following the birth of the heir — the future James I of England and James VI of Scotland — in June 1566, Mary allegedly began a liaison with James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, an adventurer who would become her third husband. A plot was hatched to remove Darnley, who was already ill (possibly suffering from syphilis). He was recuperating in a house in Edinburgh where Mary visited him frequently, so that it appeared a reconciliation was in prospect. In February 1567, an explosion occurred in the house, and Darnley was found dead in the garden; he appeared to have been strangled. This event, which should have been Mary's salvation, only harmed her reputation. Bothwell was generally believed to be guilty of the assassination, and was brought before a mock trial but acquitted. Shortly afterwards, he "abducted" Mary; the news that she had married him sealed her fate.

Arrested by a confederacy of Scottish nobles, Mary was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle in June 1567. The castle is situated on an island in the middle of Loch Leven. Between July 18 and July 24, 1567, Mary miscarried twins at that castle. On July 24, she was also forced to abdicate the Scottish throne in favour of her one-year-old son James.

Flight to England

On May 2, 1568, she escaped from Loch Leven and once again managed to raise a small army. After her army's defeat at the Battle of Langside on May 13, she fled to England three days later, where she was imprisoned by Elizabeth's officers at Carlisle on May 19. During her imprisonment, she famously had the phrase "En ma Fin gīt mon Commencement" ("In my end is my beginning") embroidered on her cloth of estate.

After some wrangling over the question of whether Mary should be tried for the murder of Darnley, Elizabeth ordered an inquiry rather than a trial. It was held in York between October 1568 and January 1569. The inquiry was politically influenced — Elizabeth did not wish to convict Mary of murder, Mary refused to acknowledge the power of any court to try her since she was an anointed Queen, and the man ultimately in charge of the prosecution, James Stewart, Earl of Moray, was ruling Scotland in Mary's absence. His chief motive was to keep her out of Scotland and her supporters under control.

The case hinged on the "Casket Letters" — eight letters purportedly from Mary to Bothwell, reported by the Earl of Morton to have been found in Edinburgh in a silver box engraved with an F (supposedly for Francis II), along with a number of other documents, including the Mary/Bothwell marriage certificate. Mary was not permitted to see them or to speak in her own defence at the tribunal. She refused to offer a written defence unless Elizabeth would guarantee a verdict of not guilty, which Elizabeth would not do.

Although the casket letters were accepted by the inquiry as genuine after a study of the handwriting, and of the information contained therein, and were generally held to be certain proof of guilt if authentic, the inquiry reached the conclusion that nothing was proven — from the start this could have been predicted as the only conclusion that would satisfy Elizabeth.

The authenticity of the Casket Letters has been the source of much controversy among historians. The originals were lost in 1584, and the copies available in various collections do not form a complete set. Mary argued that her handwriting was not difficult to imitate, and it has frequently been suggested either that the letters are complete forgeries, that incriminating passages were inserted before the inquiry, or that the letters were written to Bothwell by some other person. Comparisons of writing style have often concluded that they were not Mary's work.

It is impossible now to prove the case either way. Without them, there would have been no case against Mary, and with hindsight it is difficult to say that any of the major parties involved considered the truth to be a priority.

Elizabeth considered Mary's designs on the English throne to be a serious threat, and so eighteen years of confinement followed, much of it in Sheffield Castle and Sheffield Manor in the custody of George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, and his redoubtable wife Bess of Hardwick, whose daughter married Darnley's brother and produced one child, Lady Arbella Stuart. Bothwell was imprisoned in Denmark, became insane, and died in 1578, still in prison. In 1580 Mary's confinement was transferred to Sir Amias Paulet, and she was under his care for the rest of her life.

However, in 1570, Elizabeth was persuaded by the French to promise to help Mary regain her throne. As a pre-condition, she demanded the ratification of the Treaty of Edinburgh, something Mary would still not agree to. Nevertheless, William Cecil continued negotiations with Mary on Elizabeth's behalf. The two queens never met in person.

The Ridolfi Plot caused Elizabeth to think again. In 1572, Parliament, with the queen's encouragement, introduced a bill barring Mary from the throne. Elizabeth unexpectedly refused to give it the royal assent. The furthest she ever went was in 1584, when she introduced a document (the "Bond of Association") aimed at preventing any would-be successor from profiting from her murder. It was not legally binding, but was signed by thousands, including Mary herself.


Mary eventually became a liability Elizabeth could no longer tolerate because of numerous reports of plots (which some historians suspect were fabricated by Mary's enemies) to kill Elizabeth and replace her with Mary. Mary Stuart was executed at Fotheringhay Castle on February 8, 1587, on suspicion of having been involved in a plot — the Babington plot — to murder Elizabeth. She chose to wear red, thereby declaring herself a Catholic martyr. The execution was badly carried out — some accounts say the executioner was drunk and it is said to have taken three blows to hack off her head. After the first axe blow, she is supposed to have said, her throat slashed, "Executioner, achieve your work!" There are various other stories about the execution, but one that is consistently heard is that, when the executioner picked up the severed head to show it to those present, it was discovered that Mary had (as she always did) worn a wig. The headsman was left holding a bloody mop of hair, while the late queen's head--the lips still moving in prayer--rolled on the floor. Another incident was the discovery of Mary's little Skye Terrier, which had been concealed in her skirts and ran out in panic after she was beheaded. It took several washings to get his mistress' blood out of the dog's fur.

Mary was initially buried at Peterborough Cathedral, but her body was exhumed in 1612 when her son, King James I of England, ordered she be reinterred in Westminster Abbey. It remains there, only thirty feet (9 metres) from the grave of her cousin Elizabeth.

Mary's veil

Mary Stuart was canonised, and placed among the martyrs by the Jesuits. There are relics of her. Her prayer-book was long shown in France; and her apologist published, in an English journal, a sonnet which she was said to have composed, and to have written with her own hand in this book. A celebrated German actress, Mrs. Hendel-Schutz, who excited admiration by her attitudes, and performed Schiller's "Maria" with great applause in several German cities, affirmed that a cross which she wore on her neck was the very same that once belonged to the unfortunate queen. Relics of this description have never yet been subjected to the proof of their authenticity. But if there is anything which may be reasonably believed to have been once the property of the queen, it is the veil with which she covered her head on the scaffold, after the executioner, whether from awkwardness or confusion is uncertain, had wounded the unfortunate victim in the shoulder by a false blow. This veil came into the possession of Sir J.C. Hippisley, who claimed to be descended from the Stuarts on his mother's side. He had an engraving made from it by Matteo Diottavi, in Rome, 1818, and gave copies to his friends.

The veil is embroidered with gold spangles by (as is said) the queen's own hand, in regular rows crossing each other, so as to form small squares, and edged with a gold border, to which another border has been subsequently joined, in which the following words are embroidered in letters of gold:-

"Velum Serenissimę Marię, Scotię et Gallię Reginę Martyris, quo induebatur dum ab Heretica ad mortem iniustissimam condemnata fuit. Anno Sal. MDLXXXVI. a nobilissima matrona Anglicana diu conservatum et tandem, donationis ergo Deo, Societati Jesu consecratum."

On the plate there is an inscription, with a double certificate of its authenticity, which states, that this veil, a family treasure of the expelled house of Stuart, was finally in possession of the last branch of that family, the cardinal of York, who preserved it for many years in his private chapel, among the most precious relics, and at his death bequeathed it to Sir John Hippisley, together with a valuable Plutarch, and a Codex with painted (illuminated) letters, and a gold coin struck in Scotland in the reign of queen Mary; and it was specially consecrated by Pope Pius VII in his palace on the Quirinal, April 29, 1818. Hippisley, during a former residence at Rome, had been very intimate with the cardinal of York, and was instrumental in obtaining for him, when he with the other cardinals emigrated to Venice in 1798, a pension of £4,000 a year from the Prince of Wales, then King George IV; but for which, the fugitive cardinal, whose revenues were all seized by the French, would have been exposed to the greatest distress. The cardinal desired to requite this service by the bequest of what he considered so valuable. According to a note on the plate, the veil is eighty-nine English inches long, and forty-three broad, so that it seems to have been rather a kind of shawl or scarf than a veil. Melville in his Memoirs, which Schiller had read, speaks of a handkerchief belonging to the queen, which she gave away before her death, and Schiller founds upon this anecdote the well-known words of the farewell scene, addressed to Hannah Kennedy.

"Accept this handkerchief! with my own hand
For thee I've work'd it in my hours of sadness
And interwoven with my scalding tears:
With this thou'lt bind my eyes."

Mary's legacy

The two classic film biographies of Mary (neither of them so faithful to history as to get in the way of the story) are the 1936 Mary of Scotland starring Katharine Hepburn and Fredric March and the 1971 Mary, Queen of Scots starring Vanessa Redgrave (Oscar) and Nigel Davenport.

Mary also inspired the opera Maria Stuarda by Donizetti and the play Maria Stuart by Friedrich Schiller. In Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky's 20 sonnets to Mary Stuart (in Russian) the poet addresses her as an interlocutor .


External links

  • A short profile of Mary alongside other influential women of her age (http://www.guide2womenleaders.com/womeninpower/Womeninpower1550.htm)
  • Mary's biography at the UK government's official website (http://www.royal.gov.uk/output/Page134.asp)
  • An ancestor chart of her ; not necessarily reliable (http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~jamesdow/s069/f010354.htm)

Preceded by:
James V
Queen of Scots Succeeded by:
James VI

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Mary was the daughter and only child of James V of Scotland by his second wife, a French woman called Mary of Guise.
She became queen upon his death when she was a week old, and Henry VIII attempted to betrothe her to his son, Prince Edward of England, in order to establish control of her and Scotland, (known as 'The Rough Wooing').
The presence of Mary in Engand was a constant source of unease to Elizabeth and her advisers.
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