The Guise family

Mary’s mother had her infant daughter packed off to France

Mary, Queen of Scots had the misfortune to ascend the Scottish throne at the very moment when the kings of England and France were eyeing her nation greedily – seeing in it the opportunity to extend their own power. And so, from the moment she was born (on 8 December 1542), Mary was exploited by two powerful kings – and also her own family.

Mary was proclaimed queen at the tender age of six days, on the death of her father, King James V. No sooner had James gone to his grave than Henry VIII of England was declaring his intention to marry Mary to his son, Edward, as a means of gaining control of Scotland. This prospect was unpalatable to Mary’s mother, Mary of Guise – who was acting as queen regent – and so she had her five-year-old daughter packed off to France to be brought up as the future wife of the dauphin, Francis, son of the French king, Henry II. The Guise family hoped to attain more influence at the French court through Mary.

Everything about Mary’s union with Francis was about Scotland being subsumed into France – much like the baby sucking on the mother’s breast, as one poet put it. Worse still, Henry II encouraged Mary to proclaim that she and her husband were king and queen of England – this announcement would have fateful consequences, as it infuriated Elizabeth I.

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Henry II’s plan for Scotland to be absorbed into France broke apart when Francis died, aged 16, in 1560. Mary was now a widow, unwanted at the French court. And so she returned to Scotland. Unlike Elizabeth I, who grew up on the outskirts of her country’s court and developed a firm group of loyal men around her, Mary returned to be queen of a country she had not seen since she was five. It was a case of out of the French frying pan, into the fire.

Henry, Lord Darnley

Mary’s second husband led a coup against her

When, in 1564, Elizabeth I offered Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester to Mary as a husband, she was horrified by the idea. Dudley was a traitor’s son, believed to be Elizabeth’s lover, and gossip across Europe suggested that he had an involvement in the suspicious death of his own wife. To top it off, Elizabeth wanted all three of them to live at her court together, something Mary could never agree to.

Instead, Mary decided to marry her relation, Henry, Lord Darnley. He was handsome, young and possessed of royal blood, but weak and corrupt. Things started to unravel very soon after the marriage in 1565. He wanted power – to be king, not just consort – but Mary resisted. He fell out with all of the lords, especially the powerful James Stewart, Earl of Moray, and he plotted against his wife.

Then one night in March 1566, Darnley and a group of conspirators broke into Mary’s supper chamber. They seized her secretary, David Rizzio, and stabbed him repeatedly before throwing him down the stairs. But Rizzio was not their ultimate target. This was a coup against Mary – and, in a bid to force the queen to submit to becoming a figurehead, the conspirators took her prisoner.

Mary managed to win Darnley back over to help her escape – but she could not trust him after all he had done, and the lords hated him. They told her they would deal with him and she told them she would not countenance such a thing. But, on the morning of 10 February 1567, Darnley’s house was blown up, and he and his servant were found dead nearby. Darnley had betrayed Mary by plotting against her, and betrayed himself with his violent and angry behaviour – but when the lords wanted him out of the way, he became the victim.

The Earl of Bothwell

Husband number three ambushed and raped her

Mary saw the Scottish nobleman James Hepburn, 1st Duke of Orkney and 4th Earl of Bothwell, as a friend. He had befriended her while she was in France, visiting in his capacity as Lord High Admiral, and helped to organise her return back to Scotland when she was 18. Most significant was the fact that he was one of those who helped her escape after her secretary, David Rizzio, was killed and she was imprisoned by a group of conspirators.

But as Mary’s marriage to Lord Darnley began to fail, Bothwell’s efforts to gain power over her increased – and he played a key role in Darnley’s murder.

Less than three months after the death of Darnley in February 1567, Bothwell ambushed Mary while she was travelling and told her she must come with him, as there was rioting in Edinburgh. She trusted him, and agreed to go with him.

Bothwell took Mary back to his castle, Dunbar, and raped her. He planned to force her to marry him – most young women at the time, particularly heiresses, were expected to wed their assaulters. Believing she was pregnant, that’s what Mary did.

When, finally, the Earl of Moray, Mary’s half-brother, engaged the royal couple on the battlefield in June 1567, Bothwell fled and Mary was taken captive. Her cruel, reckless third husband was captured at sea by the king of Denmark and held prisoner until his death in April 1578.

The Earl of Moray

Mary’s half-brother turned out to be her greatest enemy

On the face of it, Mary’s half-brother was her greatest supporter. He had accompanied her to France when she was five, had been a long-term advisor and, when Mary was first widowed, had counselled her to return to Scotland to take the throne.

But Moray’s motives were dubious. He wanted power for himself and – hampered by a weak claim to the throne, due to his illegitimate status as the son of James V and his mistress, Lady Margaret Erskine – saw Mary as the fastest way of gaining it. She would rule as a figurehead for him. But Mary was having none of it, and so began Moray’s repeated attempts to unseat her.

Mary’s marriage to Lord Darnley infuriated Moray because he feared this new rival would seize his lands and reduce his power. And so Moray and his allies plotted Darnley’s murder. When the deed was finally done, he cunningly deflected the blame on to Mary, encouraging her to leave the investigation to the council of lords that had been appointed to advise her. But the council did little to find the murderers.

Mary survived this attack on her throne, but her luck wouldn’t last. So unpopular was her marriage to Bothwell that it gave Moray the opportunity to gather around him an array of Scottish lords and make a final military attack to win power. He succeeded, took Mary captive and locked her in isolated Lochleven Castle. There, Moray visited the queen, who was weakened by sickness and a miscarriage, and coolly told her that she must abdicate. In 1568, she escaped (with the aid of the brother of the castle’s owner) and fled to England.

Moray now busied himself dividing up Mary’s treasures – both the queen of France, Catherine de' Medici, and Elizabeth I sought to buy his sister’s famous black pearls. He had gained the power and the riches he had craved – while acting as regent for Mary’s son, James – until he was shot in Linlithgow in 1570. Power in Scotland was a dangerous game.

William Cecil

The English minister plotted Mary’s downfall for decades

Elizabeth’s chief minister, William Cecil (1520–98), always hated Mary and wanted her off the throne. Mary was simply too Catholic for his tastes, and anyway he had no time for any other female ruler than Elizabeth. Mary was Elizabeth’s heir, unless the English queen had a child – and so she was, to Cecil, a constant threat. Most of the lords in Scotland were in Cecil’s pocket, notably Moray, paid to undermine Mary and hopefully remove her. Whether Cecil knew about their coup attempts or not, his funds assisted them.

Elizabeth’s sympathy for Mary angered Cecil and he repeatedly discouraged the English queen from helping her cousin. When Mary was imprisoned in Lochleven Castle and forced to abdicate, Elizabeth was furious and wanted to intervene, but Cecil dissuaded her. And when Mary fled into England, hoping that Elizabeth would assist her, Cecil pushed hard for Mary to be submitted to an inquiry for involvement in the death of Darnley. The aim was not to find her guilty or innocent, but to create a non-verdict (which would ensure that she continued to languish in prison).

So Mary was kept locked up, under a watch that grew so tight that, in the words of her keeper, not even a flea could escape her rooms. But what Cecil – and other ministers such as Francis Walsinghamreally wanted was an excuse to get rid of his royal captive. And so a double agent was hired, who volunteered to take her letters to France. Every one was opened and decoded. When, finally, after nearly 20 years of imprisonment, Mary agreed to conspire in a plot against her cousin, Cecil had the evidence he needed to execute her.

Elizabeth I

When it came to the crunch, England’s queen put her own interests first

How much did Elizabeth know about William Cecil’s plots against Mary? Did she know that he was paying the men around Mary to undermine and unseat her? Personally, I believe not – although Elizabeth did receive Mary’s great rival, Lord Moray, when he came to England to avoid the heat of suspicion after the death of Darnley.

Elizabeth undoubtedly had sympathy for her cousin (Mary’s grandmother, Margaret Tudor, was Elizabeth’s aunt). She was also concerned that if one woman was deprived of her throne, then it would reflect badly on all queens.

However, when Mary arrived in England in 1568 after being deposed from the throne, Elizabeth had a problem on her hands. Restoring her cousin to the Scottish throne would involve a costly and perhaps unsuccessful military campaign. Meanwhile, Cecil was keen to support the Protestant government of Moray. He was also adamantly opposed to leaving Mary free, as he feared Catholic plotters might group around her.

Mary begged Elizabeth to allow her to live quietly in France, and the king of France supported her wish – but Elizabeth refused. Instead, she had Mary locked up, on the grounds that she knew about the plot to murder Lord Darnley (an accusation that was supported by no real evidence).

If locking up Mary was a painful decision for Elizabeth, then the dilemma with which she was presented two decades later – when it emerged that Mary had given her support to a plot to unseat the English queen – was more tortuous still. Mary was put on trial and found guilty of treason. Parliament and the queen’s ministers were adamant that she should die. But Elizabeth was reluctant. Finally she gave in and signed the execution warrant. Cecil enacted it immediately and Elizabeth was shocked and devastated – she perhaps had hoped to change her mind.

Elizabeth had feared the fury of Catholic Europe. She also dreaded that executing a queen would undermine the whole concept of monarchy. And, as it turned out, Elizabeth was right to be worried. The campaign to send Mary to the block had emboldened parliament. The trial and subsequent execution of a queen of Scotland in 1587 paved the way for the trial and execution of a king of England, Charles I, 60 years later.

And finally… Mary herself

How much blame should the Queen of Scots shoulder for her own demise?

Mary, Queen of Scots is often seen as the author of her own downfall. But, from the start, the odds were stacked against her. She was manipulated, she was subjected to repeated mutinies, she was assaulted and she was imprisoned.

As I argue in my book on Elizabeth and Mary, she could have been an excellent queen. When she moved to Scotland as queen at the age of 18, she encouraged religious toleration, engaged advisors from all the major clans and listened to their counsel, even when they were working against her. Elizabeth’s style of queenship, similarly predicated on expressing respect for her advisers and instituting religious toleration, was rightly praised.

When Elizabeth’s ministers undermined her, they did so by lying to her and going behind her back. By contrast, Mary’s advisors staged coups and tried to abduct their monarch – even the ones she thought she could trust, such as her treacherous half-brother, the Earl of Moray.

Mary believed that the best way to protect herself was through marriage. Undoubtedly, her choice of husband was unwise in that her union with Lord Darnley only exacerbated her problems, but in reality she had no option that would have satisfied the Scottish lords.

Mary’s biggest mistake was to flee to England after she lost her throne. She was convinced that Elizabeth I would help her return to power. That support never materialised and, famously, the two never even met. Locked up in England with no prospect of release or escape, Mary became one of the most isolated figures in royal history. And that isolation undoubtedly played a part in her writing the letter that would lead to her execution: throwing her weight behind the ‘Babington Plot’ to assassinate Elizabeth I.

Monarchs are always surrounded by treachery, but Mary had not a single person she could trust.


This article was first published in the January 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine


Professor Kate Williams is a historian, author, and broadcaster, and professor of Modern History at Reading University