The Life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots

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The Stewarts1 were a uniquely Scottish dynasty, tracing their line back to the House of Alpin in 834 AD. The dynasties prior to the Stewarts were as follows:

  • House of Alpin 834 AD.
  • House of Athol 1034 AD.
  • House of Balliol 1290 AD.
  • House of Bruce 1306 AD.
  • House of Stewart 1371 AD.

The Stewart dynasty was founded by the union of the daughter of King Robert I, commonly known as Robert The Bruce, and Walter Stewart 6th High Steward of Scotland. Under the Stewarts Scotland became an up-to-date, wealthy nation and an alliance was forged with France to help secure Scotland's borders against the English.

Mary Is Born

Mary was born on 8 December, 1542, at Linlithgow Palace, West Lothian. She was the daughter of James V and the Frenchwoman Mary of Guise, and granddaughter of Margaret Tudor2. At the time of her birth, James V already lay on his deathbed at Falkland. He was devastated by the Scots defeat at Solway Moss. He died within a few days of her birth.

When James V died on 14 December, 1542, Mary became Queen of Scotland at the age of only six days. The Scottish nobles decided to form an alliance with Henry VIII3 of England. Henry VIII agreed to the engagement of Mary to his son Prince Edward4; it was his plan to add Scotland to his kingdom, but Scottish parliament was forced by the Catholic faction to annul the engagement. Mary was taken to Stirling Castle, the alliance with France was strengthened and French troops were sent to Scotland. This war, called the 'Rough Wooing', was a number of attacks penetrating deep into the Scottish homeland. Henry's army destroyed the Abbey of Holyrood House5. The abbeys of Jedburgh, Melrose and Dryburgh were burnt down and the valley of the Tweed was laid waste.

In 1546, Henry VIII paid a thousand pounds to the radical John Knox to instigate a plot to murder Cardinal Beaton. The Cardinal had been chosen as a target as he had started an anti-Protestant Inquisition. Knox was a good choice and the Cardinal was duly murdered at St Andrews. The plan was to take St Andrews Castle and hold it until the English army arrived. With English aid they held the castle for a year against the forces of the Queen led by Mary's mother Mary of Guise or Lorraine. In the end a French army arrived in July, 1547 and took the castle. John Knox and the rest of the captives were imprisoned or sent into slavery in the French king's service.

Mary Is Betrothed: France 1548 - 61

The Scots did not yield to Henry's anger and in 1548 Mary was betrothed to the French Dauphin Francis, King Henri II's heir, and she was sent away to be brought up at the French Court. She left from Dumbarton Castle and arrived at the port of Brest on 13 August, 15486. There she was met by the French King Henri II, who intended to bring her up as a daughter. Henri said of her 'The little Queen of Scots is the most perfect child I have ever seen'.

Mary was five years of age when she and the Dauphin first met; as children they were both close friends. They were supported by a full household; they travelled around France, spending their time at the palaces of Fontainebleau, Meudon, Chambord and Saint-Germain. Mary began to spell her surname in the French manner as 'Stuart' from this time.

At the age of 11, Mary was thought to be as educated and as articulate as a woman of twice her age by the doting King Henri. The Guise family thought of Mary as part of the family, her mother was a Guise and Mary was betrothed to the Dauphin and heir to the throne.

Mary appears to have been in love with the Dauphin, and they were married in Paris in Notre-Dame Cathedral on 24 April 1558; Mary was just 16 years old.

The Catholic queen of England, Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII, died the same year; her half sister Elizabeth inherited the throne. The Catholic Church, however, had never accepted the legitimacy of Henry's marriage to Elizabeth's mother. This meant that under Catholic law, Elizabeth was illegitimate and the next in line for the throne was her cousin, Mary Stuart. Mary assumed the lions of England in her coat of arms, indicating her claim to the throne. She did not at the time take any other steps to take the throne of England. This action, however, was to set the course of Mary's later life as Elizabeth would never forget this offence and could never rest while her Catholic rival was alive.

The spring of 1559 saw the death of Henri II as a result of a cranial injury received during a joust. Francis became King of France, while Mary was Queen of both France and Scotland. Mary was by now very tall and this, together with her long fingers, has led some to claim that she might have had Marfan Syndrome. Francis died from an infection of the ear in 1560. Mary was childless and had little power at court, where her mother-in-law Katharina de Medici was now paramount, although Mary was still welcome in the French court. Marie of Guise, Mary's mother, died in 1560 aged 45; she had ruled Scotland for the absent Mary. After her death a Scottish Parliament, of dubious legality, was called and it rushed through a series of measures, abolishing Roman Catholicism and prohibiting the practice of that religion on pain of death. William Maitland of Lethington, Lord James Stewart, Mary's illegitimate half brother and John Knox formed the triumvirate that ruled Scotland after the death of Marie of Guise. In spite of this Mary decided to move back to Scotland, a Catholic Queen to rule a Protestant Scotland, and on 14 August, 1561, she landed at Leith, the port for the city of Edinburgh.

Mary Returns To Scotland

It was a cautious return: Lord James Stewart, her half-brother, had arranged for her to worship as she wished. Quite how Lord James arranged this was not recorded. Mary was delighted by the warm welcome she received from her people, and things went well with Lord James Stewart and William Maitland of Lethington advising her as she ruled. However, Scotland had changed radically in political and religious terms since she had last seen it. Accepting the situation, she continued to rely heavily on the advice of her half-brother, who she made Earl of Moray; however, he had already converted to the Protestant religion, unbeknown to Mary, and was working against her in secret. She knew that there could be no Counter-Reformation though she hoped that Catholics might be permitted to practise their faith unmolested. But even the celebration of Mass in the privacy of her own chapel caused a furore. Mary had a series of confrontations with John Knox, but found him impossible to deal with as he refused to compromise. In 1563, Mary took a traditional 'royal progress' around Scotland staying at many noble houses. Yet again, she enchanted all who met her. The fourth Earl of Atholl organized a hunt in honour of the queen.

Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley

In 1565 Mary chose her cousin Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley as her second husband. They were both grandchildren of Margaret Tudor. Darnley's father, Earl of Lennox, was a son of Margaret's second marriage, to the Earl of Angus. So Darnley was next after Mary herself in the line of succession to the English throne. And the security of Elizabeth I of England was further threatened by this union.

This marriage allowed factious Scottish nobles to start a disastrous chain of events. On 9 March, 1566, Darnley, a foolish, vain, petulant, egotistical and dissolute man, had expected to be granted the crown matrimonial and as Mary's husband become king of Scotland, and he blamed David Riccio, Mary's Italian secretary7 for Mary's refusal. Because of this, he was manipulated by certain lords who were plotting 'to murder Riccio. John Knox thought Riccio was an agent of the Catholic Church, trying to persuade Mary to ally Scotland to the European Catholic League. So Darnley signed a pact with the nobles in which he promised a pardon to those involved in Riccio's murder.

The Murder Of David Riccio

On 9 March, 1566, Mary was taking supper in her chamber with Lord Darnley, Lord Robert Stewart, Jean, countess of Argyll and Arthur Erskine. Lord Ruthven entered the room and called for Riccio to be given to him. Mary refused and Lord Ruthven made a grab for Riccio; Lord Robert attempted to restrain Lord Ruthven who called for assistance. Ruthven was joined by five other conspirators, Andrew Ker of Fawdonside held Mary back at pistol point and Riccio was dragged off. He was stabbed to death by the conspirators - there were over fifty wounds found upon the body. Riccio was thrown down the main stairs with Darnley's dagger still in him. The affair developed into a running battle and the people of Edinburgh rallied to the palace where Darnley had to calm them from an upper floor window. Three months later, on 19 June, Mary gave birth to her son by Darnley, James, the future King of England and Scotland.

The Murder Of Lord Darnley

This murder was followed shortly by a plot to murder Darnley himself as well as the Lords Bothwell, Huntley, Livingston and Fleming, and James Balfour. Now Darnley had no friends on either side. After the birth of James, Mary tried to arrange a reconciliation but Darnley would have none of it. The council then demanded that Darnley should be exiled as the man was a dangerous nuisance. No one was sure but it was thought that Mary was involved in the plot to kill Lord Darnley. The ringleaders were the Earl of Bothwell and the Earl of Morton, although there were others no doubt involved in the plot. On 9 February, 1567 at the Provost's House, Kirk o'Field, Edinburgh, the attempt was made. Darnley was recovering from an illness. On that evening Mary visited Darnley. After Mary left, the household servants prepared for the night. Just after midnight on the 10 February, the house was destroyed by a massive explosion. Darnley and his servant were found in the garden near the house; they had been strangled. The detail of this murder remained a mystery. Mary was suspected of being involved and the Earl of Morton was imprisoned and executed for it. The other culprit in the eyes of the majority was Bothwell; Mary not only failed to punish him but married him. Before the marriage, Bothwell had to be divorced from Jean Gordon, sister of the Earl of Huntley.

On 15 May, 1567, the marriage took place (according to the new Protestant rites) between Mary and James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. He had been her advisor while she was married to Darnley; this was too much for her people and the revolt was swift. On 15 June, 1567, the Protestant Lords rose up against her; the armies met at Carberry Hill and, deserted by many of her supporters, Mary had no alternative but to surrender. Bothwell fled to Scandinavia, and a casket of letters left in the safekeeping of George Dalgleish was discovered. Bothwell was captured by the Danes, and jailed until his death in 1576 without ever seeing his wife again. Mary was taken and imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle Kinross-shire where on 24 July, 1567 she was forced to abdicate. James was crowned king in Stirling, and became king of Scotland.

Mary Leaves Scotland

On 2 May, 1568, Mary fled from Loch Leven Castle. On 13 May, 1568, with the aid of the Hamilton faction, Mary mustered a large army in opposition to Moray, her half-brother and proclaimed regent to James. The opposing forces clashed at Langside near Glasgow. Both sides were numerically even, but Moray's troops were better armed and led. From a nearby hill, Mary watched the battle, which was short but decisive. As her supporters fled in disarray, she travelled south to England by sea. She landed in Workington in Cumbria and was taken the 32 miles to Carlisle Castle where she was held. Mary asked Elizabeth, her cousin, for asylum. At first Elizabeth welcomed Mary to England and refused to return her to the Scottish government, but she set a guard on Mary in the north while she decided what to do.

The parties continued to debate over the return of Mary to Scotland. Elizabeth commanded both sides to present their cases before English tribunals at York and later at Westminster. Murray used the tribunals to present the casket letters8 written by Mary to Bothwell, allegedly proving her guilt in the murder of Darnley. Mary insisted the letters were forgeries. In the judgment it was stated that Mary's abdication and the regency of Murray was legal, but that Mary's guilt regarding Darnley's murder was not proved.

After the inquiry Elizabeth, who had no heirs, considered Mary to be a threat to her throne, and saw the potential for a Catholic uprising in England. She had little choice but to jail Mary in changing locations. And so:

  • On 13 July, 1568, Mary was moved to Bolton Castle in Yorkshire.
  • On 3 February, 1569, she was moved to Tutbury.
  • On 20 April, 1569, she was moved to the more comfortable residence of Wingfield Manor.
  • On 15 May, 1569, Mary was moved to Chatsworth.
  • On 21 September, 1569, she returned to Wingfield Manor.
  • Back to Tutbury for a short stay.
  • In May, 1570, a return to Chatsworth.
  • 1572 - 1573, Mary was moved between Sheffield Castle, Sheffield Manor and Chatsworth.
  • In August, 1573, she was given stay of five weeks at Buxton baths to take the waters.
  • In 1582, Mary, was moved to Chartley Hall.
  • In 1586, Mary was arrested for her part in the Babington plot and sent to Tixall. She was kept there for two weeks before returning to Chartley Hall.
  • On 21 September, 1586, Mary was moved with her servants to an unknown destination. She entered Fotheringhay Castle four days later.

This imprisonment continued for 19 years, because Mary had a claim to the English Crown (through her grandmother Margaret Tudor). One of the greatest disappointments for Mary during her 19 years in England was her inability to communicate with her son James as he grew to manhood. Brought up as a strict Protestant and taught to hate his mother as the murderer of his father, he did nothing to help her. Elizabeth was at this time Mary's protector as she would not, despite the demands of her councillors, sign an order of execution of a fellow monarch.

The Babington Plot

In 1586, Elizabeth's spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, uncovered a plot by Sir Anthony Babington to murder Elizabeth and set Mary on the throne of England. It was discovered that Mary had agreed to this. Elizabeth had harboured Mary and protected her from the scaffold for twenty years; Mary had repaid her by plotting against her. Elizabeth wrote to Mary to tell her how she felt and could hardly contain her anger.

You have in various ways and manners attempted to take my life and to bring my kingdom to destruction by bloodshed. I have never proceeded so harshly against you, but have, on the contrary, protected and maintained you like myself. These treasons will be proved to you and all made manifest. Yet it is my will, that you answer the nobles and peers of the kingdom as if I were myself present. I therefore require, charge, and command that you make answer for I have been well informed of your arrogance. Act plainly without reserve, and you will sooner be able to obtain favour of me.
Elizabeth R

Anthony Babington and those associated with the plot were arrested, tortured and executed. Mary was found guilty of treason and condemned to death. This judgement awaited only Elizabeth's signature on the death warrant. Elizabeth was terrified by the thought of executing a fellow sovereign. When she finally signed the warrant she tore it up. She then signed a second copy and before she could repent, Burghley and her ministers dispatched it and it was put into action immediately. Mary was to be executed at Fotheringay and this second warrant was dispatched from London on 4 February. It arrived at Fotheringhay Castle late the following day. It charged the Earls of Shrewsbury and Kent to prepare Mary for her death on the next day, 8 February, and Elizabeth was not to be told until it was over.

The Execution

Mary had little time to prepare for this but she did send a request to her former brother-in-law, the French King Henri III, on behalf of her servants. King Henri failed to grant this last wish but to his credit the Spanish King Philip II granted her last wish.

8 February, 1587 To the most Christian king, my brother and old ally, Royal brother, having by God's will, for my sins I think, thrown myself into the power of the Queen my cousin, at whose hands I have suffered much for almost twenty years, I have finally been condemned to death by her and her Estates. I have asked for my papers, which they have taken away, in order that I might make my will, but I have been unable to recover anything of use to me, or even get leave either to make my will freely or to have my body conveyed after my death, as I would wish, to your kingdom where I had the honour to be queen, your sister and old ally. Tonight, after dinner, I have been advised of my sentence: I am to be executed like a criminal at eight in the morning. I have not had time to give you a full account of everything that has happened, but if you will listen to my doctor and my other unfortunate servants, you will learn the truth, and how, thanks be to God, I scorn death and vow that I meet it innocent of any crime, even if I were their subject. The Catholic faith and the assertion of my God-given right to the English crown are the two issues on which I am condemned, and yet I am not allowed to say that it is for the Catholic religion that I die, but for fear of interference with theirs. The proof of this is that they have taken away my chaplain, and although he is in the building, I have not been able to get permission for him to come and hear my confession and give me the Last Sacrament, while they have been most insistent that I receive the consolation and instruction of their minister, brought here for that purpose. The bearer of this letter and his companions, most of them your subjects, will testify to my conduct at my last hour. It remains for me to beg Your Most Christian Majesty, my brother-in-law and old ally, who have always protested your love for me, to give proof now of your goodness on all these points: firstly by charity, in paying my unfortunate servants the wages due them - this is a burden on my conscience that only you can relieve: further, by having prayers offered to God for a queen who has borne the title Most Christian, and who dies a Catholic, stripped of all her possessions. As for my son, I commend him to you in so far as he deserves, for I cannot answer for him. I have taken the liberty of sending you two precious stones, talismans against illness, trusting that you will enjoy good health and a long and happy life. Accept them from your loving sister-in-law, who, as she dies, bears witness of her warm feeling for you. Again I commend my servants to you. Give instructions, if it please you, that for my soul's sake part of what you owe me should be paid, and that for the sake of Jesus Christ, to whom I shall pray for you tomorrow as I die, I be left enough to found a memorial mass and give the customary alms. Wednesday, at two in the morning.
- Your most loving and most true sister Mary R.

The execution took place on 8 February, 1587, in Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire. Mary was 44 years of age. Dressed in scarlet, a martyr's colour, Mary was helped to ascend the scaffold. She was not be granted the privilege of execution by the sword as befitted her status, but an axeman was used. Mary's last words as she put her head down upon the headsman's block were:

In manus tuas, Domine - Into your hands, O Lord

She said this three times.

The axe is a clumsy way of carrying out a beheading9, and the executioner was unable to cut her head off with one blow: two blows were needed to fulfil his task. As tradition dictated, the executioner lifted the head to show it to the assembled witnesses; as he did this he saw he was holding her wig - the head was still at the base of the block. He picked up the head and held it up for the assembly to view and called out 'God save the Queen'. Then Dr Fletcher, Dean of Peterborough loudly announced, 'So perish all the Queen's enemies'. When The Earl of Kent went up to the body and as he stood by it he said for all to hear, 'Such end of all the Queen's and the Gospel's enemies'. The headless corpse suddenly moved and there was some concern as to what had caused this. A Skye terrier emerged from her skirts - she had company on her last journey. The name of this faithful10 pet is not recorded but it is said that it 'could not be gotten forth but by force, yet afterward would not depart from the dead corpse, but came and lay between her head and her shoulders, which being imbrued with her blood was carried away and washed'. The executioners were paid and sent away after a careful check that they had taken nothing of Mary's that could be used as a symbol of her martyrdom. The hall was cleared by the shire reeve (sheriff) and his men, then 'she was carried by them up into a great chamber lying ready for the surgeons to embalm her'.

Elizabeth flew into a rage when she found out about the execution and she imprisoned some of those involved, including William Cecil, her most trusted servant. She constantly repeated that she had not intended the execution to take place. Mary was buried in the Cathedral of Peterborough.

On 25 March, 1602, Queen Elizabeth died and Sir Robert Carney rode to Scotland to tell James that he had inherited her kingdom and was now James I of England as well as being James VI of Scotland. In 1612, James arranged that Mary's body was moved to Henry VII's chapel at Westminster, where it still lies. It took him ten years to get round to honouring his mother; perhaps he had not forgiven her or he still believed the lies he had been told as a child.

1'Stewart' was the traditional Scottish spelling of the name. Mary changed her surname to 'Stuart' when she was in France.2And the great, great, great, great, great, great, granddaughter of Robert the Bruce.3Henry VIII was brother of Margaret Tudor and therefore Mary Stuart's great-uncle.4The Prince was to die in 11 years' time.5The last resting place of James V.6Another account has the landing place as Bretaigne.7Formerly valet to the Savoyard ambassador, he had become the Queen's favourite, though the rumours of sexual impropriety were unfounded.8In June 1567, these were discovered in the possession of a servant to James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell.9The sword was thinner, sharper and easier to direct the fatal blow. That is why it was normally used for those of higher rank.10A dog-lover all her life, Mary was repaid by this little dog's faithful love.

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