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Issue 6 - Mary Queen of Scots

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 6
February 2003


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Mary Queen of Scots


The House of Stewart provided 14 monarchs for its country. Beginning as stewards to the rulers of Scotland, they became kings of the four nations of the British Isles. The last of the line died a Cardinal in Rome. Two were executed, two were assassinated, one died in battle, one died accidentally, and seven died of natural causes – although two of those who may have suffered from hereditary porphyria died of grief and nervous exhaustion.

Romance surrounds much of the dynasty but one member stands out in this regard – Mary. She was born in 1542. Her father James V had just lost the battle of Solway Moss to the English and retired to Linlithgow Palace in a state of collapse. Six days after his daughter’s birth, he turned his face to the wall and died; she was Queen of Scots.

Two factors had complicated the lives of her predecessors. The first of the dynasty won the crown when Robert the Steward married King Robert Bruce’s daughter. Others amongst the nobility considered that the crown could easily have been their own. They considered the king to be a debatable first among equals rather than an elevated being anointed by God. And, like Mary herself, four out of the run of five James' had succeeded to the throne as minors which allowed the aristocracy to brawl with each other about the regency. Perhaps a third problem should be added. To a man, the Scots nobles were untrustworthy, mendacious, grasping, incapable of vision, and never looked beyond their own interests to that of Scotland.

Mary was born on the eve of the Reformation in Scotland. The country was divided into Catholic and Protestant factions. She was betrothed at a year old to the heir of Henry VIII of England but this was repudiated when the Catholic faction under the Earl of Arran gained the ascendancy. In retaliation Henry launched an invasion, the Rough Wooing, culminating in a devastating defeat for the Scots at the Battle of Pinkie in 1547.

The Scots appealed to the French for help and Mary was taken to France. French troops came to Scotland to assist the Regent, Mary’s mother, Mary of Guise.

So for the next 13 years, Mary lived with the royal family in France, at the most sophisticated and powerful court in Europe, respected as a queen in her own right, but also the queen of a tiny barbaric state on the edge of civilisation. When Mary went to fancy dress balls, she donned her native costume – animal skins sewn to her gown. Aged 16, she married the Dauphin and, a year later, became Queen of France. Ayear after that she was widowed, leaving her isolated and irrelevant. At the age of 19 she decided to return to claim her realm.

She landed in Leith, as inappropriate a queen as could be for such a turbulent country. Young, beautiful, widowed, inexperienced, she was a staunch Roman Catholic in a country which had outlawed the religion and was under the influence of John Knox, a fundamentalist Protestant who despised her sex. Through her grandmother, sister of Henry VIII, Mary was also heir to the throne of England until such time as Elizabeth I should marry and produce a Protestant heir. The English Queen was surrounded by a coterie of loyal and able counsellors. Mary had no one she could trust.

Almost immediately she clashed with Knox. Mary was unusual in that she was prepared to allow religious toleration. Knox was not and was scandalised by the Masses held by the Queen and her attendants. Her priority was marriage, to produce an heir for both thrones. The Queen tried to obtain Elizabeth’s agreement on various candidates for a spouse, but the English monarch, famously a virgin all her life, prevaricated and eventually suggested the scandal-ridden Earl of Leicester, a cast-off suitor of her own.

In 1565, Mary fell in love – perhaps fell in lust – and married her handsome cousin Henry, Lord Darnley, who stood next in line to herself to the English throne. Elizabeth was furious and Darnley’s enemies raised a rebellion which Mary crushed. But, within a couple of months, she was both pregnant and alienated from her worthless husband. A matter of weeks later Darnley and other nobles burst into her bedchamber in Holyrood Palace, dragged out her secretary and counsellor Rizzio, and stabbed him to death within her earshot. Her son, James, was born in June 1566.

In early 1567, Edinburgh was shaken by a massive explosion which flattened the house in which Darnley was staying. His body was also found strangled in the garden. The Queen was suspected of conniving in the crime but the culprit was almost certainly her new advisor, the Earl of Bothwell, who was likely acting on his own initiative. He was given a show trial and acquitted. Six weeks after the murder, Bothwell abducted Mary, probably raped her, and married her. The nobility, most of them Bothwell’s enemies, were scandalised and Mary surrendered to them rather than face a battle. She was forced to abdicate in favour of her baby son and was imprisoned on an island in Loch Leven.

In May 1568 Mary escaped. Her supporters were defeated at Langside and she fled to England to seek protection from Queen Elizabeth. The two women never met but each loomed large in the mind of the other. Mary’s baby son was crowned James VI and she found herself a prisoner, writing copious letters to her fellow queen, pleading for a meeting in which she knew that her famous charm would win Elizabeth over. But Mary was too dangerous. She was the Catholic heir to the English throne and regarded as legitimate ruler by most of Europe and many Englishmen. Elizabeth’s advisers wanted Mary dead but there was no legal basis for execution, and killing a queen would set a dangerous precedent.

For the next 20 years Mary languished in an increasingly grim series of castles, the focus for Catholic plots often initially encouraged by English agents determined to implicate her and force Elizabeth to sign a death warrant. Finally they succeeded. With Mary’s correspondence being secretly monitored, she put her signature to a letter implicating herself in a plot by Francis Babington to assassinate Elizabeth. She was tried and condemned to death. Still the English Queen hesitated, but four months later on 8th February 1587 Mary was beheaded at Fotheringay Castle.

And James, a strange, haunted figure famously described as “the wisest fool in Christendom” made only faint protest at his mother’s decapitation and so succeeded to the English throne on Elizabeth’s death in 1603.

As ruler of England, Ireland and Wales as well as Scotland, he was probably the most successful monarch of his dynasty, but his son was executed by the English Parliament. But that is another story.