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Issue 30 - The tragic queen (Mary Queen of Scots)

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Scotland Magazine Issue 30
December 2006


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The tragic queen (Mary Queen of Scots)

In the latest part of our series looking at legendary Scottish characters, Mark Nicholls looks at where to find out more about Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of Scots was a woman who spent much of her life on the move: for political and religious reasons; being pursued by rival Scottish lords; secreted away for her own safety; or on extensive “progresses” around Scotland to meet her people.

As a modern day consequence, the trail of Mary Queen of Scots is a long and elaborate one, not only within Scotland, but across France and parts of England, where she eventually met her death in 1587 at the hands of the executioner at Fotheringay Castle near Peterborough.

In Scotland, there are scores of locations associated with the woman who was Queen of Scotland, Queen of France, and had a claim to the English throne – an issue that was ultimately to lead to her death at the age of 44.

Some were just passing references in her life but the major ones played a key part in a colourful, often tragic, existence.

When marrying the locations across Scotland associated with Mary Queen of Scots with her eventful life, a natural place to start is Linlithgow Palace. This is where she was born on December 7, 1542 – the daughter of James V of Scotland and Marie de Guise – and six days later, on the death of her father, where she became Queen.

Linlithgow is half an hour from Edinburgh and was one of the favoured residences of the Scottish monarchs from James I (1406- 37) onwards.

It stands in its own park and beside Linlithgow Loch. While in ruins it still offers an insight into the lives of the Stuart monarchs. It is not difficult to imagine what life in such a vast palace would have been like during the time of Mary Queen of Scots with many rooms, passageways and staircases and the palace apartments arranged around a central courtyard.

When James V died, the Earl of Arran was appointed to rule during Mary’s infancy and he signed an agreement with Henry VIII of England for Mary to marry his son Edward.

Yet Mary’s mother, Marie de Guise, was opposed to the plan and took her daughter to Stirling Castle for safety. This is where, aged nine months, she was also crowned Queen.

Stirling Castle is one of Scotland’s landmark buildings – its history intertwined with that of the nation – and Mary spent the first five years of her life there.

In 1547, the English attacked the Scots after the breaking of the marriage agreement and Mary was moved to the safety of Inchmahome Priory where she stayed for awhile. Set on the largest of three islands in the Lake of Monteith in western Perthshire, it is open during the summer months and reachable by ferry.

Mary Queen of Scots took further refuge in the stronghold of Dumbarton Castle from where she left for a new life in France in 1548.

Betrothed to the son of the French king, she lived as part of the French royal family.

In April 1558, she married the Dauphin, who became Francis II in July 1559, making her Queen of France as well as of Scotland, but in the process it had been secretly agreed that Mary would bequeath Scotland to France if she should die without a son. In addition, many Catholics recognised Mary Stuart as Queen of England after the death of Mary I of England and the protestant Elizabeth I had succeeded to the throne in November 1558.

Across the Channel, Francis II died in December 1560 after a reign of 17 months and rather than stay in France and live under the domination of her mother-in-law Catherine De Medici, Mary – a practising Catholic – decided to return to a Scotland which was under the control of Protestant reformers.

After an absence of 13 years, she landed at Leith Harbour on August 19, 1561, a location which is now one of the most popular visitor sites in Edinburgh with a waterfront, seafood restaurants and lively pubs.

Mrs Margaret Lumsdaine, president of the Marie Stuart Society – an organisation dedicated to the study of Mary Queen of Scots – identifies numerous places across Scotland associated with Mary.

“Places to visit to find out more about Mary Queen of Scots include Holyroodhouse, where she stayed after arriving at Leith; Stirling Castle where she was more or less brought up from birth; and Linlithgow Palace where she was born,” she said.

“But there is also a nice exhibition at Jedburgh in the Queen Mary House which is devoted to her life.

“Mary moved around Scotland a lot. She had eight progresses around the country where she met the people in the countryside and there are many places where she would have spent a few days during those.” On Mary’s return to Scotland, the Palace of Holyrood in Edinburgh became her home for the next seven years, and there she married her second husband Lord Darnley in July 1565. The Palace Tour still features Mary’s bedchamber and the room where she enjoyed the company of her friends over supper, including her Italian secretary David Rizzio.

But Rizzio was not popular with the protestant Lords of Scotland and on the night of March 9, 1566, Darnley and his accomplices killed the Italian in front of the pregnant Queen.

After the murder, Mary moved into Edinburgh Castle for safety until her son James was born on June 19, 1566.

Lord Darnely was later found dead in mysterious circumstances on February 10, 1567, and he is buried in Holyrood Abbey.

Within four months Mary had married Lord Bothwell, but once again faced opposition from the Scottish nobility, led by the Earl of Moray, the Queen’s natural half-brother.

The nobilitys’ emnity towards Mary and Bothwell led to their separation. Bothwell escaped to Scandinavia, and Mary was imprisoned in Lochleven Castle, where she was forced to abdicate by the Scottish lords in favour of her son who was crowned James VI.

During her imprisonment in the castle, which is on a small island in Loch Leven and accessible by boat from Kinross, she miscarried twins who are buried on the island. She later escaped and moved on to Dundrennan Abbey in Kirkcudbrightshire from where she fled to England to seek support of her cousin Elizabeth I. But she soon became the focus for Catholic plots against the protestant Queen of England, and was effectively kept a prisoner for the remaining 19 years of her life.

Mary was eventually found guilty of complicity in the so-called Babington Plot to assassinate her cousin Elizabeth and was executed on February 8, 1587 at Fotheringhay Castle. Initially buried in Peterborough Cathedral, she was later taken to her final resting place in Westminster Abbey in 1612 on the orders of her son, who had ascended the throne of England in 1603 as James I.

There remain other locations across Scotland that have associations with Mary Queen of Scots, many visited as she progressed around the country presenting herself to her people. Some have more relevance than others, but those also worthy of a visit include Traquair House in Peeblesshire which has a collection of items associated with her such as a shoe, crucifix and rosary, and Mary Queen of Scots House in Jedburgh, which has been transformed into a museum dedicated to Mary where items on display include a death mask. The silver cask which contained the incriminating letters produced at her trial can be seen at Lennoxlove House, near Haddington.

The Mary Stuart Society Linlithgow Palace Tel: +44 (0) 1506 842 896

Stirling Castle Tel: +44 (0) 1786 450 000

Mary Queen of Scots House, Jedburgh Tel: +44 (0) 1835 863 331

Traquair House Tel: +44 (0) 1896 830 323

Inchmahome Priory Tel: +44 (0)1877 385 294

The Palace of Holyroodhouse Open all year except during the Queen’s residence Tel: +44 (0)131 556 1096

Edinburgh Castle Tel: +44 (0)131 225 9846

Lochleven Castle Tel: +44 (0)1786 450 000

Dundrennan Abbey Tel: +44 (0) 1557 500262