On the evening of 9 March 1566 Mary, Queen of Scots was at supper in her private apartments in the palace of Holyrood in Edinburgh. The queen was six months’ pregnant, had endured frequent bouts of ill-health and wanted the company of friends and family with whom she felt at ease. So she was surprised by the intrusion of her husband, Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, from whom she was already estranged after less than a year of marriage. His unexpected display of affection, arms encircling Mary’s waist, did nothing to reassure her. The atmosphere in the small dining room became tense. But much worse was to follow.


A group of armed men, led by Lord Ruthven and the Earl of Morton, entered the chamber and demanded that her Italian secretary, David Riccio, come forth. They had conspired with Darnley to make the unpopular Riccio a scapegoat for their own discontent. Clinging desperately to the queen’s skirts, the little Italian was dragged out and stabbed more than 50 times.

A pistol was held to Mary’s side to prevent her from moving. She was in terror for her own life. And with justification, for Riccio’s murder was intended to frighten the queen into abandoning parliamentary proceedings against rebels who were to be forfeited of their lands. If Mary’s reaction to such violence had led to miscarriage and even death, some would not have lamented.

Mary had been queen for 23 years, succeeding at the age of six days in December 1542 on the death of her father, James V. She was his only surviving legitimate child, by his second wife, Mary of Guise. Mary had, however, spent only 10 years in Scotland. At the age of five she was sent to France in preparation for her marriage to the dauphin, Francis, heir to the French throne. There, in the opulent court, memories of her native land faded. She was educated to become a French queen consort, not a queen regnant of Scotland. In her absence, a tide of religious revolt swept Scotland and her mother, the regent, lost control of government. Catholicism was by no means obliterated but the basis of power shifted towards the Protestant lords, led by Mary’s eldest half-brother, who was to become Earl of Moray.

The British poster for 'Mary, Queen of Scots' (2018). Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I and Saoirse Ronan as Mary Stuart. (© Focus Features / courtesy Everett Collection)

In 1558, Mary married Francis in a splendid ceremony at Nôtre Dame cathedral in Paris. The following year, her father-in-law, Henry II, died in a jousting accident. Mary was now the French queen, though not for long. Her husband was a sickly youth and by the end of 1560 he was dead. There was no place for his widow in France. It was time to go home.

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Mary’s initial success as a Catholic female ruler in the labyrinth of Scottish politics is insufficiently acknowledged. She faced down kidnap attempts, rebellion and the denunciations of Protestant preachers by pursuing a policy of conciliation and patronage. She also worked with parliament and her council while keeping a cultured Renaissance court. But the focus of her attention was further afield. Mary pursued with determination her claim to be acknowledged as the heir of Queen Elizabeth of England. Mary’s grandmother, Margaret Tudor, elder sister of Henry VIII, had married James IV of Scotland and there was no taint of illegitimacy in Mary’s descent. It was a strong claim and it made the question of a second marriage for the Queen of Scots a matter of great interest to Elizabeth, who was resolutely unmarried herself.

Mary’s initial success as a Catholic female ruler in the labyrinth of Scottish politics is insufficiently acknowledged

Insulted by Elizabeth’s offer of the Earl of Leicester (her own favourite) as a husband, Mary chose instead her cousin, Lord Darnley, the son of the Earl and Countess of Lennox. He also had a claim to the English and Scottish thrones. Darnley’s mother was the child of Margaret Tudor’s second marriage and his father was from a junior branch of the Stewarts. Dynastically, it was a compelling union. Politically, it caused consternation in England and Scotland, where Moray, fearful that his influence was waning, rebelled. On a personal level, the match was an abject failure.

The 20-year-old king was immature and indulged. His handsome face and courtly manners hid a vicious heart. He was also a heavy drinker and already suffering from syphilis, though it is unlikely that Mary would have married him if she had known this. His petulance was infuriating and his arrogant demands for greater power went unheeded.

A 16th-century portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Yet the queen rose magnificently to the crisis of Riccio’s murder. She persuaded Darnley to abandon his cronies and flee with her to Dunbar Castle, where she could contact loyal nobles. By early April 1566 she was back in Edinburgh, having written to Elizabeth of her adventures, when “some of our subjects… have manifestly shown what men they are – as first have taken our house, slain our most special servant in our own presence and…held our own person captive”. The shocked English queen declared that, had she been in Mary’s place, she “would have taken her husband’s dagger and stabbed him with it”. Darnley, however, was to meet a different, if equally violent, end.

Mary was overjoyed by the birth of her son, Prince James, on 19 June 1566, organising a magnificent christening for him at Stirling Castle. The triumphant monarch believed that a male heir strengthened her position. It did not occur to her that the child might be viewed as a replacement by her enemies.

Darnley felt even more irrelevant and the queen’s advisers suggested divorce. However, it appeared that he and Mary might be reconciled when she brought him back from Glasgow, after a serious bout of illness, to convalesce in Edinburgh. Then, on the night of 9–10 February 1567, the house where he was lodging was blown apart by a huge explosion. The bodies of Darnley and a servant were found in an adjoining garden. But they were not victims of the blast. They had been asphyxiated, apparently while trying to escape.

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

Fatal hesitancy

It is impossible to determine how much Mary knew about the assassination of Darnley. She may have been genuinely dismayed by the manner of his demise but she could hardly have been surprised. Her husband was universally disliked, except by his grief-stricken parents. His death did not make Mary’s downfall inevitable. But her hesitancy in pursuing Darnley’s murderers left her vulnerable. In previous crises she had shown resilience. Now she appeared unsure. There was a growing belief, made public in anonymous pamphlets, that Mary did not want Darnley’s death investigated because she was too close to one of the chief suspects, James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell.

Historical novelists and romantic films depict Bothwell as a swashbuckling hero, the great love of Mary’s life. The truth is much less appealing

Bothwell had hitherto been a reliable supporter of the queen. Though a Protestant, he was anti-English and had been effective in governing the Borders. Historical novelists and romantic films depict him as a swashbuckling hero, the great love of Mary’s life. The truth is much less appealing. He was short and muscular, a foul-mouthed chancer who was naturally violent, though he was well educated in France, had beautiful italic handwriting and was attractive to women. Undoubtedly ambitious, he was more opportunist than strategist. And in April 1567, following his acquittal at a brief trial for Darnley’s murder, he believed that his moment had come. Mary was a widow and it would be better for Scotland if she married. And it would be even better for Bothwell if he married her himself.

Bothwell was already married to Lady Jean Gordon. She obligingly instituted divorce proceedings but before that Bothwell had tried, and failed, to get the queen’s acceptance. He began his campaign by persuading Scotland’s leading men to sign a bond requesting Mary to marry him. But when he took the petition to the queen, she refused him. He was a subject and to her mind a heretic and she already knew his capacity for random acts of brutality – he had fatally injured an elderly servant of Darnley’s in her presence. There is no evidence that she loved him, and Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange’s claim that Mary said “she shall go with him to the world’s end in a white petticoat’, was made by an opponent of the queen who was not even with her when she is supposed to have uttered these words.

If Mary considered the matter closed, she was sadly mistaken. Bothwell was not going to take no for an answer. She inadvertently played into his hands by leaving Edinburgh, where she was safe, to go and visit her son in Stirling. Hoping to bring the child back with her, she was thwarted by his guardian, the Earl of Mar, who was fearful of Bothwell’s intentions. Mary left Stirling on 23 April 1567 in distress. She would never see James again. Outside Edinburgh, she and her small party were surrounded by Bothwell and 800 armed retainers and forced to go to Dunbar. The queen was now Bothwell’s prisoner and he was determined to make her his wife, boasting, so one of Mary’s servants recalled, that he would marry the queen “whether she would herself or not”. And to be sure of her acquiescence, he raped her.

Mary was in no position to resist this kidnap. Separated from her servants, she could not escape. Abduction and rape of heiresses was common in northern England and Scotland at the time, a certain way to ensure advantageous marriages. No 16th‑century lady, and especially a queen, could fight back against something that polluted them so completely in society’s eyes. The shame was such that Mary never spoke directly of her experience, commenting only that she found Bothwell’s “doings rude”, though he sought to reassure her afterwards with soothing words. Exhausted, assaulted and alone, she agreed to marry Bothwell. “As it is succeeded,” she wearily acknowledged, “we must take the best of it.” Within a few weeks, she suspected she was pregnant, a further incentive to capitulate.

Abduction and rape of heiresses was common in northern England and Scotland at the time, a certain way to ensure advantageous marriages

There is nothing romantic about this sordid episode and what is more remarkable, given the many saccharine accounts of Mary’s relationship with Bothwell and accusations that she colluded in her own abduction, is that the rape was widely known at the time. On 27 April, a petition from Aberdeen asked what could be done to help the queen, since she had “been ravished by the Earl of Bothwell against your will”. At the beginning of May, Bothwell’s enemies, led by the Earls of Morton, Argyll and Mar, Scotland’s leading magnates, gathered at Stirling and signed another bond, vowing to free Mary and protect her son. In fact, the queen did not marry Bothwell till 15 May, in a Protestant ceremony at Holyrood. She was still dressed in mourning for Darnley. But she might, indeed, have been in mourning for her own future. Her hold on the throne was slipping away.

Queen Elizabeth II

As late as 12 June, opponents of the queen’s marriage issued a proclamation accusing Bothwell of raping Mary and promising to free her. These powerful men were rightly convinced that their queen’s marriage to Bothwell would limit their influence. But their past behaviour, especially that of Morton, an arch-plotter, and Mar, her son’s guardian, gave Mary good reason to mistrust them, and her pregnancy meant she could not compromise the legitimacy of the child she was carrying. Despite such protestations of loyalty, Mary’s predicament demonstrated the weakness of a female ruler and threatened the stability of Scotland. It was this uncertainty, combined with the personal ambition of her enemies, that sealed Mary’s fate. If she stayed with Bothwell her opponents would put her son on the throne.

Mary’s forces confronted the rebels at Carberry Hill, near Edinburgh on 15 June 1567. Unwilling to fight fellow Scots, Bothwell’s men engaged half-heartedly and he soon left the field, abandoning his wife. He fled to Denmark, where he was eventually imprisoned in appalling conditions and died insane in 1578.

Deserted and defeated, Mary surrendered, believing that she had negotiated honourable terms. Instead, the soldiers called her a whore and a murderess and demanded she be burned. She was led back to Edinburgh through jeering crowds in a state of collapse. The next day Mary was taken as a prisoner to Lochleven Castle, an island fortress on a lake. There she abdicated on 24 July, having been threatened with death if she refused. Her brother, Moray, who was abroad throughout these crucial months, returned in August to be offered the regency. He visited his sister, who had recently miscarried twins, lecturing her on her failings. Then he left her as a prisoner.

During her imprisonment, Mary’s supporters, led by the Earl of Argyll, who had changed sides and was once more loyal to his queen, regrouped. In May 1568 she escaped from Lochleven and joined them, meeting Moray’s forces outside Glasgow. But Argyll was taken ill during the fighting and the queen, watching from a nearby hillside, realised the battle was lost. Fleeing south to avoid capture, she made the fateful decision to cross the border into England, hoping for Elizabeth’s help. She soon realised that she was “little else than a prisoner”.

For 19 years Mary acted as a magnet for rebels who wished to put her on the English throne. As civil war convulsed Scotland in the early years of Mary’s exile, it seemed that her presence might similarly divide England. In the first year of her captivity the enemies of Elizabeth’s chief adviser, William Cecil, actively pursued a marriage between Mary and the Duke of Norfolk, who, though a Protestant, was from an old Catholic family. When Elizabeth vetoed the idea, the Catholic northern earls of Westmoreland and Northumberland rose in revolt in the autumn of 1569. The rebellion was ruthlessly suppressed, with over 800 summary executions, and Mary was moved further south to ensure she could not be rescued. Norfolk, a naive tool of malcontents, was executed in 1572.

For 19 years Mary acted as a magnet for rebels who wished to put her on the English throne

Thereafter, Mary became a focus for continuing Catholic plots against Elizabeth, becoming ever more committed to these attempts to assassinate her cousin with the passage of time. The English queen’s reluctance to execute this troublesome guest was not finally overcome until 1587, when Mary was beheaded for treason, like “a common criminal”, as she herself put it, at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire.

When Elizabeth died in 1603, Mary’s son, James, came south to ascend the throne his mother had long coveted. He had been brought up to think of her as a wicked woman, though his true feelings about her are unclear. But Mary remains a tragic and compelling figure, a charming and ill-fated woman brought down, not by love, but by forces beyond her control.

Players in Mary’s demise

The scapegoat: David Riccio, Queen Mary’s secretary

Riccio came to Mary’s court as a singer but soon ingratiated himself sufficiently to become her secretary for French correspondence, a key role. Many, including Darnley, resented Riccio’s self-importance and influence. He was a convenient scapegoat for disaffected nobles hoping to deter the queen from confiscating their property and was murdered in her presence – an outrage she never forgot.

The pretty boy: Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, King of Scots

Mary’s second husband was the elder son of Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox and his wife, Lady Margaret Douglas, the niece of Henry VIII. Aged 19 at his marriage, Darnley was handsome but also immature and spoiled. He was out of his depth in Scotland and his relationship with Mary deteriorated. The prey of factions, he was assassinated in 1567.

The rebel: James Stewart, Earl of Moray

Mary’s eldest half-brother was an illegitimate son of James V. As leader of the Protestant lords, he was a major player after she returned to Scotland but his opposition to the Darnley marriage led him to rebel. An enemy of Bothwell, he was abroad during the momentous summer of 1567 but returned as regent when Mary abdicated.

The abuser: James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, Duke of Orkney

Bothwell was educated in France. Quick-tempered and abusive, he was a staunch supporter of the Scottish crown, despite his Protestantism, and trusted by Mary. After Darnley’s murder, Bothwell decided to marry Mary himself, kidnapping and raping her when she refused him. The pregnant queen married Bothwell in May 1567 but he fled when she faced rebellion. He died in a Danish prison in 1578.

The conspirator: James Douglas, Earl of Morton

A prime mover against Riccio, Morton was Mary’s chancellor when he encouraged Darnley’s jealousy and participated in the Italian’s murder. Darnley’s subsequent betrayal of the plotters caused Morton to flee to England and incensed him against his distant cousin. Initially an ally of Bothwell, Morton found himself excluded from power and was prominent among the rebels who opposed Mary’s marriage to Bothwell.

Linda Porter is the author of Crown of Thistles: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary Queen of Scots (2013)


This article was first published in the August 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine