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Mary, Queen of Scots: Tragic Heroine or Conniving Conspirator?

Mary, Queen of Scots: Tragic Heroine or Conniving Conspirator?


Mary I of Scotland, popularly known as Mary, Queen of Scots, is one of the best-known Scottish monarchs. Mary was a contemporary, and cousin, of Queen Elizabeth I of England. However, they the two queens were also rivals, and theirs is one of the most famous feuds in British history.

Mary and Elizabeth have often been compared with each other, especially in terms of their upbringing, and subsequently their reign over Scotland and England respectively. Incidentally, the two women never met each other. Although Mary had a happier childhood compared to Elizabeth, she ultimately failed as a monarch. In the end, Mary not only lost her throne, but also her head. Thus, Mary’s story is often presented as a tragedy, and the Queen of Scots is generally considered a tragic heroine.

The Infant Queen Mary

Mary I of Scotland was born on December 8, 1542. She was the daughter of James V of Scotland and his second wife, Mary of Guise, a French noblewoman. As the only surviving legitimate child of James, Mary was the heir to the throne of Scotland.

James died of an illness prematurely on December 14, 1542. His death was hastened by two incidents. Firstly, the king suffered a mental breakdown following the crushing defeat of the Scots by the English at the Battle of Solway Moss on November 24, 1542. Secondly, when news arrived that his wife had given birth to a daughter, rather than the much hoped for son and heir to the Scottish throne, James was shattered, and completely lost his will to live.

James V of Scotland and Mary of Guise, Mary’s parents. (Public Domain)

James V of Scotland and Mary of Guise, Mary’s parents. (Public Domain)

Before his death, James is reputed to have lamented “Adieu, farewell, it came with a lass and will pass with a lass” - which is a reference to the fact that his dynasty, the House of Stewart, obtained the throne of Scotland through the marriage of Marjorie Bruce, the daughter of Robert the Bruce, to his ancestor Walter Stewart. Incidentally, James’ ‘prophecy’ did not come to pass, as the dynasty continued under Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland (who also became King of England and Ireland as James I).

Thus, Mary, who was only six days old at the time of her father’s death, became the new ruler of Scotland. As Queen of Scotland, the baby Mary was viewed as a ‘prize’ by both England and France. Both kingdoms wanted Mary to marry one of their royals, so as to gain control of Scotland.

In July 1543, when Mary was six months old, the Treaty of Greenwich was signed between English and Scottish representatives. This treaty included the arrangement for a royal marriage between Prince Edward, the son of Henry VIII of England (who was also Mary’s grand-uncle). Henry was hoping to unite England and Scotland through this marriage. Two months later, the nine-month old Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland in the Chapel Royal of Stirling Castle.

Aerial image of Stirling Castle in Central Scotland. (TreasureGalore /Adobe Stock)

Aerial image of Stirling Castle in Central Scotland. (TreasureGalore /Adobe Stock)

The ‘Rough Wooing’ and an Attempted Kidnapping

In December 1543, the Scottish Parliament rejected the Greenwich Treaty. Henry, however, was determined to have Mary marry his son, and therefore retaliated by declaring war on Scotland. This conflict, known popularly as the Rough Wooing, lasted until 1551.

During the war, the English invaded Scotland and caused vast destruction to the country. On May 3, 1544, an English army under the command of the Earl of Hertford attacked Edinburgh. According to contemporary accounts, every building in the Scottish capital, including Holyrood Abbey and the palace, were burnt by the English.

Only the castle managed to withstand the invading army. One of the aims of the English in attacking Edinburgh was to kidnap Mary, and to bring her back to England with them. This, however, was not achieved, as the queen was kept hidden by her mother in the secret chambers of the castle.

A Scottish-French Alliance

This was not the only time the young queen had to hide from Scotland’s enemies. Following the decisive defeat of the Scots at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547, Mary of Guise, fearing for her daughter’s life, sent her away to Inchmahome Priory, where she was kept hidden for a few weeks. At the same time, the queen’s mother approached Henri Cleutin (known also as Monsieur d’Oysel), the French ambassador to Scotland, to seek France’s aid in the war against the English.

Henry II, who had just ascended the French throne in that year, agreed to help Scotland. At the same time, he proposed a union of Scotland and France through the marriage of Mary and his son and heir, Francis, who was born in 1544.

Portrait of Henry II of France, circa 1559. (Public Domain)

Portrait of Henry II of France, circa 1559. (Public Domain)

In June 1548, the French army had arrived, and just a month later the Treaty of Haddington was signed between Scotland and France. In exchange for French assistance against the English, Mary was promised in marriage to Francis. In August, the five-year-old Mary sailed to France with the returning French fleet, as Henry offered to protect and raised her.

Mary would spend the next 10 years of her life at Henry’s court. When Mary left for France, the child queen was accompanied by her own little court, which included two lords, two half-brothers, and four other Marys, little girls her own age who hailed from the four noblest families in Scotland.

At the French court, Mary was raised in luxury, and became a favorite. Mary was raised alongside the many children of Henry and his wife, Catherine de’ Medici, and received the best available education. She was taught French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and a bit of Greek. In addition, she learned to sew, write poetry, and play musical instruments. Apart from that, the young queen enjoyed, and excelled at, riding and hunting.

Queen Mary, ‘The Most Perfect’ Gains Another Throne

Mary grew up into a beautiful young lady, and was known as  la plus parfait, meaning ‘the most perfect.’ She is recorded to have been tall, about 1.8 m (5 feet 11 in), and slender, with red-gold hair and amber-colored eyes. The combination of her upbringing and her good looks made Mary an ideal example of a Renaissance princess.

In April 1558, Mary and Francis were married in Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris. At that time, Mary was 15 years old, while her French husband was 14. Although their union was a political one, it seems that the pair were sincerely fond of each other. In July the following year, Henry died as a result of a jousting accident, and Francis became the new King of France.

Francis II, King of France, and his wife, Mary Stewart, Queen of France and of Scotland, circa 1558. (Public Domain)

Francis II, King of France, and his wife, Mary Stewart, Queen of France and of Scotland, circa 1558. (Public Domain)

As a consequence, Mary was now not only Queen of Scotland, but also Queen of France. This did not last for long, however, as Francis died the following year without leaving an heir. As a consequence, the throne passed to his younger brother, Charles.

Religious Happenings Impact Politics

Several months before Francis’ death, there was an attempt to seize power by the French Huguenots. The Conspiracy of Amboise, as it is known, did not succeed. Nevertheless, relations between Catholics and Protestants in France were strained even further as a result of the incident. This led to the French Wars of Religions two years later, and the inability of France to continue their support of Scotland.

In the meantime, things were happening outside France as well. In 1558 Mary I of England, the eldest daughter of Henry VIII, had died, and was succeeded as Queen of England by her half-sister, Elizabeth I. The next in line to the English throne was Mary, by virtue of the fact that her great-grandfather was Henry VII.

Many Catholics considered the Protestant Elizabeth an illegitimate ruler, and favored Mary instead. In Henry VIII’s last will and testament, however, the Stuarts were excluded from succeeding to the English throne. Still, Mary posed a real threat to Elizabeth’s position.

Queen Elizabeth I of England in her coronation robes. (Public Domain)

Queen Elizabeth I of England in her coronation robes. (Public Domain)

Mary’s mother, who had been ruling Scotland as regent, died several months before Francis. Her rule had been supported by the French troops, but was challenged by Scottish Protestants, who obtained the support of Protestant England. Soon after Mary’s death, the Treaty of Edinburgh was signed between the English, French, and Scots.

Among other things, the treaty replaced the Franco-Scottish Alliance (the Auld Alliance) with an Anglo-Scottish accord, recognized Elizabeth as the legitimate ruler of England and Ireland, and saw the withdrawal of French and English troops from Scotland. Mary, who was still in France, refused to ratify the treaty, but was powerless to do anything about it. In 1561, several months after her husband’s death, Mary returned to Scotland.

At that time, the kingdom was divided between Catholics and Protestants, and Mary was torn between the two factions. As a devout Catholic, Mary was viewed with suspicion not only by her Protestant subjects, but also by neighboring England. For the Catholics, on the other hand, Mary was a disappointment, as she did not deal with the Protestants severely enough.

Instead, she tolerated the Protestants, and kept the Protestant James Stewart, her illegitimate half-brother, as her chief advisor. As a result of her half-brother’s aid and her policy of religious tolerance, however, the first few years of Mary’s reign went smoothly.

Mary, Queen of Scots, Makes Bad Marital Decisions

Mary, however, would ultimately cause her own undoing. In July 1565, Mary married Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Mary is said to have married Darnley out of love, but this was a terrible decision, as the union had political repercussions that were beyond the queen’s reckoning.

This marriage was not approved by Mary’s half-brother, who immediately rebelled. In addition, the marriage angered Elizabeth, who saw this as an attempt by Mary to strengthen her claims on the English throne. Elizabeth was worried that since Darnley had English royal blood in him, his child with Mary would have strong claims on both the thrones of England and Scotland.

In addition, Darnley was weak and vicious, but ambitious. He had married Mary purely for the Scottish throne, and though he was given the title ‘King,’ real power was held by Mary. Possibly the only positive outcome of this marriage was the child it produced, James, who grew up to become ruler of Scotland, England, and Ireland.

Mary, Queen of Scots, and her second husband Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, parents of King James VI of Scotland, later King James I of England. (Public Domain)

Mary, Queen of Scots, and her second husband Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, parents of King James VI of Scotland, later King James I of England. (Public Domain)

In February 1567, less than a year after James was born, Darnley was assassinated, and the identity of his killers remains a mystery till this day. Three months after Darnley’s death, Mary married again, this time to James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell, the main suspect in Darnley’s murder. This was a shock to many in Scotland, though some believed that the queen had been forced to marry him, since she was allegedly abducted and raped by him.

This marriage was opposed to by the Scottish nobility, who took up arms against Mary and her new husband, supposedly to avenge the death of Darnley. On June 15, 1567, the two sides met at Carberry Hill. Although called the Battle of Carberry Hill, the confrontation turned out to be more of a stand-off. Attempts at mediation failed, while challenges to single combat were issued, but none took place. As the day wore on, Mary’s supporters began to desert her, and when the queen realized that her cause was lost, she surrendered.

Battling Her Brother, Imprisoned by Her Cousin

While Bothwell fled Scotland, Mary was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle. On July 24, 1567, Mary was forced to abdicate in favor of her one-year-old son. In the following year, Mary succeeded in escaping from her captivity, and managed to muster an army of about 6000 men. Mary was able to achieve this since not everyone in Scotland accepted her abdication, and the concentration of power in the hands of the regent (Mary’s half-brother, James).

Mary, Queen of Scots, Separated from Her Faithfuls. (Public Domain)

Mary, Queen of Scots, Separated from Her Faithfuls. (Public Domain)

Mary, however, failed to defeat her half-brother at the Battle of Langside, which took place on May 13, 568. Realizing that she had no chance of defeating the regent, Mary fled to England, hoping to obtain Elizabeth’s support in reclaiming her throne.

Instead of supporting Mary, however, the cunning Elizabeth managed to connect Mary with the murder of Darnley, and used this as an excuse to imprison the former Scottish queen. For the next 19 years of her life, Mary was kept prisoner in different castles and grand houses in England. Despite being a prisoner, Mary was treated well by Elizabeth. Still, Mary yearned to be free, and to be reunited with her son.

The End of Queen Mary I

When pleading failed, Mary resorted to conspiracy. In 1586, a plot to assassinate Elizabeth and replace her with a Catholic monarch convinced the English queen that as long as Mary lived, she would be a threat to her position. Therefore, Mary was put on trial, found guilty on October 15, 1586, and beheaded on February 8th the following year.

The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. (Public Domain)

The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. (Public Domain)

Her body remained unburied for several months at Fotheringhay Castle, the site of her execution, before it was taken to the nearby Peterborough Cathedral. In 1612, Mary’s body was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, and her son, James, who was King of England by then, built a monument in her honor.

The Tragic Legacy of the Scottish Queen

Mary, Queen of Scots, was born to be queen, but she was not sufficiently prepared to be one - not in Scotland at that time, at least. As a result of her protected upbringing in the court of Henry II, Mary had a poor grasp of the political situation in her native Scotland, and was ill-equipped to rule when the time came.

Mary is also a tragic figure, considering the misfortunes she suffered, and the disastrous decisions she made during her lifetime. These include the untimely death of her first husband, her two subsequent marriages, and her flight to England, right into the hands of the person to whom she posed the greatest threat.

A posthumous portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, in captivity. (Public Domain)

A posthumous portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, in captivity. (Public Domain)

Top image: Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, detail. Source: Public Domain

By Wu Mingren


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dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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