1558-59: The rivals take the stage

On 17 November 1558 Elizabeth I acceded to the throne of England having been acknowledged as Henry VIII’s heir in her father’s will and testament. Yet for many Catholics in England and abroad, Elizabeth was illegitimate. They saw Mary Stuart, queen of Scotland and legitimate granddaughter of Henry’s sister Margaret Tudor, as the rightful queen of England.


One was Henry II, king of France, whose son François was married to Mary. He proclaimed the couple as king and queen of England, and ordered that the royal arms of England be quartered with those of Scotland and France on his niece’s badges and silverware. It was reported that as Mary entered her chapel, gentlemen before her cried “make way for the queen of England”.

c1540, a portrait of King Henry VIII. An engraving by T A Dean from a painting by Hans Holbein. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Elizabeth’s secretary, William Cecil, realised that as long as Mary lived, “this quarrel now begun, is undoubtedly like to be a perpetual incumbrance of this kingdom”. When the French king died in July 1559, 15-year-old François became king of France – with Mary, aged 16, as his queen consort. The threat to Elizabeth now grew even greater.

1560: Elizabeth strikes the first blow

Mary was still in France when, in 1560, a Protestant and anti-French uprising threatened her Scottish throne. English intervention on the side of the insurgents and the death of Mary’s mother, Mary of Guise, led to the Treaty of Edinburgh. By this, the French agreed to withdraw their troops that had been stationed in Scotland and recognise Elizabeth’s right to rule England, leaving Scotland in the hands of a coalition that supported Protestantism.

While Mary refused to ratify the treaty, it marked the end of the first stand-off between the young queens: Elizabeth was triumphant, Mary was humiliated and incensed. Her eclipse was confirmed when in December 1560 her husband died, leaving her a childless dowager queen with no rule or status. When her mother-in-law, Catherine de Medici, made it clear there was no home for her in France, Mary chose to return to Scotland and claim her throne.

Engraved portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots. (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).

1561-62: The moment is lost

With Elizabeth and Mary now neighbouring queens, relations began with a show of amity. Mary declared that they were “both in one isle, both of one language, the nearest kinswoman that each other hand, and both queens”. Yet within days of her arrival in Scotland she sent a representative to England to ask Elizabeth to acknowledge her as her heir. Elizabeth refused, explaining that she did not intend to nominate a successor, believing it would inspire disaffection against her.

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In early 1562, arrangements were made for the two queens to meet in Nottingham in the autumn, but this was cancelled in March after the massacre of French Protestants at Wassy under the orders of Mary’s uncle, the Duke of Guise.

1562-66: Marital woes

Mary now began to look for a new husband and negotiations were opened for a match with Don Carlos, son of Philip II of Spain. Elizabeth made clear that she would regard such a marriage as a hostile act. She tried to neutralise the threat by suggesting the Duke of Norfolk, the Earl of Arundel and then, rather bizarrely, her great favourite, and rumoured lover, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. The proposal came to nothing: not only was the intended bridegroom unwilling, but Mary’s attention had instead come to focus on the Catholic Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.

Darnley was also a grandchild of Margaret Tudor so, like Mary, had a strong claim to the English throne. Their marriage on 29 July 1565 left Mary and Elizabeth’s diplomatic relationship in tatters: “All their sisterly familiarity was ceased, and instead thereof nothing but jealousies, suspicions and hatred,” wrote the Scottish diplomat Sir James Melville. Though the marriage floundered, not least following the murder of Mary’s private secretary David Rizzio – a crime that involved Darnley – Anglo-Scottish relations were damaged. Mary gave birth to James in June 1566, giving her a son and heir, and an even greater claim to the English throne.

Mary, Queen of Scots and her ladies-in-waiting. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

1567: “I treat you as my daughter”

On 10 February 1567 there was an explosion at the house at Kirk O’Field in Edinburgh where Lord Darnley had been staying. His dead body was found in the garden. When James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, Mary’s ally –with whom some believed she was having an affair – emerged as the chief suspect for Darnley’s murder, Mary too fell under suspicion. Elizabeth was horrified and in a letter to Mary explained how, “my ears have been so deafened and my understanding so grieved and my heart so affrighted to hear the dreadful news of the abominable murder of your mad husband and my killed cousin that I scarcely have the wits to write about it”.

Elizabeth urged Mary to distance herself from the scandal in order to protect her reputation: “I treat you as my daughter, and assure you that if I had one, I could wish for her nothing better than I desire for you."

1567-68: Mary seeks solace in England

On 15 May 1567, just three months after Darnley’s death, Mary married the Earl of Bothwell at Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh. The marriage proved to be deeply unpopular and many people, including Elizabeth, were shocked at the fact that Mary could marry the man accused of murdering her previous husband. Weeks later, 26 Scottish peers, known as the confederate lords, turned against Mary and Bothwell, and in July Mary was forced to sign deeds of abdication. Her son James was to become king with the Earl of Moray as regent.

Elizabeth was outraged. She instinctively aligned herself with her fellow monarch, cousin and close kinswoman. She believed what the lords had done was abhorrent and maintained an uncompromising defence of Mary’s sovereignty. They had imprisoned and deposed an anointed queen, a crime against God that was even greater than Darnley’s assassination months earlier. Nothing justified the action against Mary.

In 1568 Mary escaped from Lochleven Castle where she had been imprisoned, fleeing south to England to seek refuge and her cousin’s support in order to regain the Scottish throne.

Painting of Mary, Queen of Scots wearing a dark dress

1568-69: A show of solidarity

When Mary landed at Workington (in modern-day Cumbria) on 16 May 1568, Elizabeth was placed in a quandary. She acknowledged the legitimacy of Mary’s position as a fellow monarch and found it hard to countenance the actions of those who would keep Mary from her rightful throne. However, she was also aware that the Earl of Moray was supportive of English Protestant interests, and that Mary’s restoration would mean his destruction.

Elizabeth resolved that an inquiry would be held into the conduct of the confederate lords and the question of whether Mary was guilty of Darnley’s murder. As evidence against Mary, Moray presented the so-called casket letters – eight unsigned missives purportedly from Mary to Bothwell – which, he claimed, proved her adultery and her complicity in Darnley’s murder.

While the majority of the commissioners did accept the letters as genuine, Elizabeth believed they represented not just a devastating attempt to destroy Mary’s reputation but also an attack on every woman in an “unnatural” position of authority. She refused to be moved by the evidence suggested by the letters and resolved that the inquiry would reach the verdict that nothing had been proven against either side. Moray returned to Scotland as regent and Mary remained in custody in England.

1569-86: The plot thickens

Mary was now in England as a prisoner and Elizabeth cast as an unwilling gaoler. After she was moved to Tutbury Castle and placed in the custody of the Earl of Shrewsbury, Mary petitioned her cousin for an audience, better treatment and the restoration of her crown, but was offered little in response. Elizabeth’s professions of determination to restore Mary to the Scottish throne now looked to be little more than realpolitik.

When evidence emerged that Mary was implicated in the Ridolfi Plot that sought to depose Elizabeth and place Mary on the throne, Elizabeth was forced to acknowledge Mary as a significant threat and placed her in stricter custody. The unravelling of the Throckmorton Plot in 1583, a scheme for the Duke of Guise to invade England and place Mary on the throne, was proof to spymaster Francis Walsingham and William Cecil that the time had come for action. By the Bond of Association and the Act for the Security of the Queen’s Person in 1584, Mary, though not specifically named, was made responsible for future plots instigated in her name. When Walsingham uncovered a third plot that involved Antony Babington, a Catholic gentleman, he was ready to act.

Elizabeth I, queen of England and Ireland, c1588. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

1586: Walsingham’s trap is sprung

The Babington Plot planned a Catholic rising, the assassination of Elizabeth and the accession of Mary as queen of England. With Mary’s correspondence under surveillance, a letter addressed to Babington, which apparently endorsed the plot, gave Walsingham the evidence he needed. In September Mary was moved to Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire where she would be tried for treason: the stage was set for the final act of struggle between the two queens.

Elizabeth was determined that Mary should admit her wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness, clinging to the possibility of pardoning her cousin and saving her life. Yet Mary was uncompromising: she refused the right of the commissioners to try her, argued against the legality of the trial, and maintained that, as a foreign anointed queen, she had never been an English subject and thus could not be convicted of treason.

The outcome was inevitable. Mary was found guilty, having “compassed and imagined the hurt, death and destruction of the royal person”.

1587: The sword falls

Despite unrelenting pressure from parliament and her councillors to carry out Mary’s sentence, Elizabeth hesitated to order the execution. In her eyes, Mary remained a legitimate sovereign and she was concerned that killing her would set a dangerous precedent. It was what Elizabeth had always sought to avoid but now she had little choice.

On 1 February 1587 she finally signed the death warrant. However, without her knowledge, her councillors resolved to carry out the sentence immediately and a week later, on 8 February, Mary was executed, her head severed in three blows.

An illustration from the first edition of John Foxe The Book of Martyrs. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Elizabeth was furious when she was told that the sentence had been carried out, and William Davison, to whom she had entrusted the death warrant, was sent to the Tower. The council pleaded for clemency, claiming they had wanted to spare Elizabeth the pain of having to order Mary’s death. Elizabeth claimed her advisors had betrayed her wishes.

It was a convenient fiction. Doubtless Elizabeth was genuinely distraught by the execution but when Mary was sentenced to death the die had been irrevocably cast.


This article was first published in the Christmas 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine


Anna Whitelock is chair in history at City, University of London