In profile: Mary, Queen of Scots

The only child of James V of Scotland and Mary of Guise, Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–1585) is undoubtedly one of history's most controversial monarchs. Mary was just six days old when she became queen of Scotland, and she is most often remembered for her three doomed marriages – she was suspected of the murder of her second husband, Lord Darnley – and her rivalry with her cousin, Elizabeth I. How much do you know about the queen who was overthrown by the Scots?

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

From her three marriages – to Francis, King of France; Lord Darnley and the Earl of Bothwell – to her execution at Fotheringhay Castle in 1587, here’s everything you need to know about the life of Mary, Queen of Scots…


Born: 8 December 1542, Linlithgow Palace, West Lothian, Scotland

Died: 8 February 1587, Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire, England (executed)

Ruled: 1542–67

Family: Mary was the only child of James V of Scotland and Mary of Guise.

She was married three times: to Francis, King of France (1558-60); Lord Darnley (1565-67) and the Earl of Bothwell (1567-78). Mary had one child with Lord Darnley in 1566, who went on to become James VI and I of Scotland and England.

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (the First) (1533-1603) of England known as the Armada portrait. Painting by Marcus Gheeraerts (also written as Gerards or Geerards) (1561-1635), oil on panel, c. 1588. Greenwich National Maritime Museum, UK (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

What is Mary, Queen of Scots remembered for?

Being involved in an assassination plot against her cousin, Elizabeth I, in an attempt to kill England’s queen and take the throne for herself. Mary may also have been involved in the murder of her second husband, Lord Darnley, who was killed on 9 February 1567.

Mary was overthrown by the Scots and forced to abdicate in July 1567. She was executed at Fotheringhay Castle on 8 February 1587 at the age of 44.

What is known about the life of Mary, Queen of Scots?

Mary was just six days old when she became queen of Scotland following her father’s death. Being only a baby, her mother, the French Mary of Guise, acted as regent on Mary’s behalf.

Amid tensions between English and Scottish powers, when she was just eight months old Mary was betrothed to Prince Edward, Henry VIII’s son, in the hope of calming rivalries between the two countries. However, Catholics opposed this betrothal and the match was eventually broken off.

A portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots. (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

To demonstrate his frustration, Henry VIII ordered a number of savage raids on Scotland, which later became known as ‘The Rough Wooing’. Henry’s army “set fire to the Abbey of Holyroodhouse where James V was buried, burned crops in the Tweed Valley and set ablaze the Border abbeys of Melrose, Jedburgh and Dryburgh.”

In 1548, the Scots decided to resume their traditional alliance with the French by betrothing Mary to the four-year-old Dauphin of France, Francis. Mary was sent to the French court, where she was brought up among the daughters and wives of French nobles.

At the age of 15 Mary was married to Francis, who became king of France just a year later. The marriage created an alliance between the crowns of Scotland and France, but it was cut short when Francis unexpectedly died just a year later, in 1560.

As an 18-year-old widow who had spent most of her youth in France Mary returned to her home country of Scotland. The Catholic Mary found a country that had changed significantly over the years. It was now predominately Protestant, following religious reforms implemented under the guidance of Presbyterian theologian John Knox.

Initially, Mary was able to rule somewhat successfully under the guidance of William Maitland of Lethington and Lord James. However, her marriage in 1565 to her Catholic second cousin, Henry, Lord Darnley, sparked a breakdown in relations between the monarch and the Scottish nobles at court.

Lord Darnley portrait
Mary’s second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. (National Galleries Of Scotland/Getty Images)

Mary’s marriage quickly began to collapse, and tensions at court reached new heights in 1566 when Darnley and a number of nobles burst into the room in which the heavily-pregnant Mary was having supper with her Italian secretary, David Rizzo, and stabbed him 56 times. The group claimed that Rizzo and Mary were having an affair, with Rizzo trying to gain greater influence at court.

Despite giving birth to a son, James, in June 1566, Mary relationship with her husband deteriorated further still. Just eight months later, Darnley’s body was found outside a house just beyond the walls of Edinburgh – coincidentally, after an explosion in the house. Darnley’s body was found outside, raising speculation that he had been unharmed by the explosion but instead murdered and left in the grounds.

Mary’s suspected involvement in the murder of Darnley on 10 February 1567 was “a political mistake of the first order”, says historian Sean Lang; her marriage three months later to the main suspect, the Earl of Bothwell, was “an act of breathtaking stupidity”.

A c1610 portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, a "charming and ill-fated woman brought down by forces beyond her control". (DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Mary’s marriage to the Earl of Bothwell alienated the Scottish nobles, who in June 1567 raised arms against her army at the battle of Carberry Hill. Mary was forced to surrender and abdicate, while Bothwell escaped to Scandinavia.

Mary was imprisoned in Lochleven Castle, Kinross-shire, and her infant son, James, was made king of Scotland. Just months later Mary managed to escape the castle, yet she failed to save her crown at the battle of Langside, outside Glasgow, in May 1568.

Mary, Queen of Scots and her cousin, Elizabeth I

Mary then fled south, hoping that she could find shelter and support in England from her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. However, as Mary held such a strong claim to the English throne and could threaten the queen’s position, Elizabeth I had Mary imprisoned and kept under surveillance for the next 19 years.

Being the next legitimate heir to the English throne, Mary became the subject of a number of Catholic plots against Elizabeth’s life. Despite claiming innocence to association with the assassination plots in the 1570s and 1580s, Mary’s personal letters were intercepted in 1586 by Elizabeth’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham.

The warrant of Mary, Queen of Scots's execution. (WENN Ltd / Alamy)
The warrant of Mary, Queen of Scots’s execution. (WENN Ltd / Alamy)

Walsingham found enough evidence to arrest Mary on the basis that she was involved in the Babington Plot against Elizabeth – a ploy led by Catholic noble Anthony Babington to assassinate Elizabeth and free Mary with the support of an invasion from abroad.

Mary was put on trial for treason and, in October 1586, she was condemned to death. Despite her initial hesitation, Elizabeth finally signed Mary’s death warrant and, on 8 February 1587, Mary was executed at Fotheringhay Castle at the age of 44.

Mary was initially buried in Peterborough Cathedral, but in 1612 James VI and I had his mother’s remains moved to the King Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey.


This article was first published by History Extra in February 2016