Ahead of the release of the film Mary Queen of Scots, we spoke to historian and author Kate Williams for the History Extra podcast…
On the night of 9/10 February 1567, the house in Edinburgh where Lord Darnley, the second husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, was staying, was blown apart by a huge explosion. The bodies of Darnley and a servant were found in an adjoining garden. They were not victims of the blast. They had been asphyxiated, apparently while trying to escape.
“It is impossible to determine,” wrote Linda Porter for BBC History Magazine, “how much Mary knew about the assassination of Darnley… But her hesitancy in pursuing Darnley’s murderers left her vulnerable.” Three months later, the queen married James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, one of the chief suspects in the murder.
Both Darnley’s murder and Mary’s marriage set in motion a chain of opportunity for those who opposed the queen: many Scottish lords turned against her and Mary was forced to abdicate from the throne in July 1567. Her son James was to become king, with Mary’s half-brother, James Stewart the Earl of Moray, as regent.
Mary was imprisoned, but in 1568 she escaped Lochleven Castle and fled Scotland. She absconded to England, seeking the help of her cousin, Elizabeth I.
How were Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I related and why did Mary seek her help?
Mary, Queen of Scots was the only child of James V of Scotland and Mary of Guise. James V was the son of King James IV of Scotland and Margaret Tudor – who was the sister of King Henry VIII of England. Elizabeth I was a daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, making Elizabeth and Mary first cousins once removed.
A c1600 portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. As cousin to Mary, Queen of Scots, the two women corresponded for many years. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)
As neighbouring queens, Elizabeth I and Mary had already corresponded for many years. In early 1562, arrangements had been made for the two queens to meet in Nottingham that autumn, but the meeting was cancelled after the Massacre of Wassy, in which Protestant worshipers were killed on the orders of Mary’s French family.
Elizabeth had also previously offered counsel to her cousin. After Darnley’s death, explains historian Anna Whitelock, Elizabeth had urged Mary to distance herself from the scandal in order to protect her reputation, writing: “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.”
Yet when Mary arrived in England in 1568 seeking help from her cousin, Elizabeth was in a perilous position.
Speaking on the History Extra podcast (the episode will be available to download in the coming weeks), Kate Williams said: “Mary’s decision to flee into England was a terrible and fateful decision. She had hope that Elizabeth would have sympathy with a fellow queen and put her back on her throne. But for Elizabeth, that’s a complete nightmare. Elizabeth’s ministers did not want Mary back on the Scottish throne. They didn’t think much of female rule (unless it was Elizabeth) and they also didn’t like Mary because she was Catholic.
“The ministers around Elizabeth, [William] Cecil in particular, had been paying James Stewart and the various pro-English Protestant lords to undermine Mary, and had funded some of the coup and attack attempts against her. They wanted to have an English-friendly, Protestant government in place. So Cecil has got everything he wants in James Stewart as the regent for the baby king.
“Elizabeth is then in an impossible position. In her heart, she does want to put Mary back on the throne, but the queen’s ministers don’t want it to happen. Elizabeth is a cautious woman and she understands it’s going to be a complicated, expensive war to do that. So she orders an inquiry into Mary’s conduct around the death of Lord Darnley and begins this endless inquiry based on evidence that Mary isn’t allowed to see; evidence that is forged by James Stewart.”
Mary was imprisoned while the inquiry progressed. Its aim, explains Williams, was not to pronounce Mary guilty of anything – as then they’d have to punish her, provoking the wrath of Catholic Europe – but not pronounce her innocent either, because then they would have to reinstall Mary to her throne.
“They really want no verdict,” says Williams. “Mary is in suspended animation, under house arrest for nearly 20 years.”
A 16th-century painting of Mary Stuart. The former Scottish queen was held under house arrest in England for nearly 20 years. (Photo by Gustavo Tomsich/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
How did Mary petition Queen Elizabeth for a meeting and what was her aim?
Mary was desperate to escape house arrest. “Mary begged for a meeting, begged Elizabeth to talk to her,” says Williams. “Let’s face it, she was not guilty of Darnley’s murder; and even if she had been, the evidence Elizabeth was shown against her was ridiculous. It was loaded with idiotic forged letters; there was nothing in them that could possibly stand up in a real court. Therefore, Mary was not allowed to see them, because it was pointless evidence that wouldn’t hold up to any sort of scrutiny.
“Mary was convinced Elizabeth was just being misled by her advisors, that the queen would be able to save her and look after her. Mary even begged her to be able to go and live in France, but Elizabeth wouldn’t have that, either. Elizabeth was very hard on her: yes, perhaps she couldn’t put Mary back on her throne because that would be too much of a military operation, but why not let her go and live in France? Maybe Mary would plot against her, but maybe she wouldn’t.
Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I in 2018 film, ‘Mary Queen of Scots’. (© FOCUS FEATURES LLC 2018)
“It’s quite clear that Mary didn’t plot against Elizabeth – she was just begging for friendship – right until the last minute, when Mary’s spirit was broken. It became clear that Elizabeth was never going to give Mary freedom; they were going to keep her there until she died.”
Elizabeth didn’t necessarily realise, when she signed the arrest warrant, how fast it was going to be enacted, says Williams. “She signed it and then it was whizzed off as fast as you can imagine, without Elizabeth being told. They wanted to kill Mary as fast as they could.”
Mary’s sentence was swift; that same night, she was told that she would be executed the next morning. “She barely has time to put her things in order,” Williams explains. “At 2am she’s still writing letters. But she doesn’t beg Elizabeth at the last minute, she writes instead to the king of France, telling him she is to be killed. She knows that the decision has been made and her cousin has decided to execute her.”
Mary was executed at Fotheringhay Castle on 8 February 1587 at the age of 44.
Why do so many dramatisations choose to show a meeting between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots?
The 2018 film Mary Queen of Scots has been criticised by some for depicting a meeting between the two queens – including Dr Estelle Paranque, who told the BBC in July that the film could mislead viewers about their relationship. Kate Williams explains why the decision might have been made:
“I think most films and TV shows do show the two queens meeting. And it is inescapable that in a book or in life, it is the drama of letters that is the most exciting one. I know from my own books that have been optioned for film, long debates in letters tend to be dramatised as a meeting. Because simply, watching letters being written back and forth in a movie is generally not the way in which things work. Even in modern film and TV shows, people don’t really text or email each other very much, even in a modern setting in which most of us text or email all day long.
Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart in 2018 film, ‘Mary Queen of Scots’. (© FOCUS FEATURES LLC 2018)
“The drama of the relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary is strong in their letters,” Williams says. “They are constantly meeting within their letters, but they never meet in person.”
And why did Mary push until the very end for such a meeting? Williams says: “Mary wanted a meeting for two reasons; she wanted Elizabeth to talk to her and be charmed by her, but she also wanted to be publicly confirmed as Elizabeth’s heir for the whole of Europe. It seems that this movie has it as a private meeting, not a public one, so even in the film Mary didn’t get everything that she wanted.
“Many movies change history, but I do think that in an awful lot of them we see a relationship in letters dramatised through a meeting – I think that’s just the way in which movies work.”
Professor Kate Williams is a historian and the author of Rival Queens: The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots (2018).
You can listen to the full interview with Kate Williams, in which she talks about the rivalry between the two queens and the murder of Mary’s husband Lord Darnley, here:
Visit historyextra.com/podcast to browse our full podcast archive.