History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

Mary, Queen of Scots: your guide to her life and times

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–1585) is undoubtedly one of history's most controversial monarchs. She was just six days old when she became queen of Scotland and is often remembered for her three doomed marriages – to King Francis II of France, Lord Darnley and the Earl of Bothwell – as well as her relationship with her cousin, Elizabeth I. But how much do you know about the queen who was overthrown by the Scots? Dr Linda Porter explores her life and times

Portrait showing Mary, Queen of Scots with her hand on her hip
Published: January 20, 2022 at 9:18 am
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

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

Advertisement

Mary, Queen of Scots: in profile

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

Died: 8 February 1587, Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire, England. She was executed

Ruled: 1542–67

Parents: James V of Scotland and Mary of Guise

Spouses: Mary, Queen of Scots 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.

What is Mary, Queen of Scots remembered for?

Mary is perhaps best known for her involvement in an assassination plot against her cousin, Elizabeth I, in which she hoped to take the throne for herself. Mary is also known for her possible involvement in the murder of her second husband, Lord Darnley, who was killed on 9 February 1567.

Who was Mary Queen of Scots?

Mary, Queen of Scots was born at Linlithgow Palace on 8 December 1542. She was the third and only surviving child of King James V of Scotland and his second wife, Mary of Guise. The Stewarts had reigned in Scotland since 1371, through a succession of precarious minorities, and James had been in desperate need of an heir.

James V fell seriously ill around the time of his daughter’s birth. He appears to have succumbed to either cholera or dysentery, contracted while he was on campaign against his uncle, Henry VIII. This had culminated in a heavy defeat for the Scots at Solway Moss. James died on 14 December 1542, leaving the throne to Mary, who was just six days old.

She was born in a freezing winter. The snow lay so deep that it took the messenger bringing the news of her birth four days to reach Alnwick Castle in Northumberland. The English might have taken this opportunity to push their advantage but John Dudley, Henry VIII’s commander in the north of England, counselled forbearance, writing: “I thought it should not be to your majesty’s honour that we soldiers should make war or invade upon a dead body or upon a widow or upon a young suckling his daughter.” Soon enough, the English would be much less amenable.

Queen of Scots and Queen of France

Mary was crowned on 9 September 1543. She lived at Stirling Castle until she was five, protected by her clever and determined mother. Although Henry VIII proposed a marriage between Mary and his son, the future Edward VI, the Scots prevaricated. Tudor ambitions to control Scotland led to the sack of Edinburgh by the English in 1544, but the violence was unavailing. Henry VIII died in 1547 and the following year the Scots sent Mary to safety in France, to the court of Henry II and his wife, Catherine de Medici.

Mary remained in France until the summer of 1561. She grew up in opulent surroundings, well-educated and admired for her charm and personality. But she was a pawn in the hands of the French king, who hoped to use Mary’s claim to the English throne as a means of enhancing his power in western Europe. In 1558, the year of Elizabeth’s accession, Mary married Francis, Henry II’s son and heir to the French throne. Dazzlingly bejewelled and dressed all in white, Mary outshone her delicate husband. The Venetian ambassador reported that “these nuptials were really considered the most regal and triumphant of any of any that have been witnessed in this kingdom for many years.” It was a sharp contrast to the coronation of Elizabeth I in January 1559, who wore her sister Mary’s hastily altered gown.

The triumph was short-lived. Henry II was killed in a jousting accident in 1559 and more tragedy followed, with Mary’s mother and husband both dying in 1560. Mary no longer had a role in France. Scotland, meanwhile, was riven with religious rebellion; a group of Protestant nobles led by Mary’s half-brother – James Stewart, the Earl of Moray – had risen against French domination. For the rest of her life, Mary’s fate would be influenced by two key elements: her place in the English succession and the challenges she faced in Scotland.

More like this

Two queens in one isle, 1561–1565

The view that Mary knew nothing about Scotland and only spoke French is mistaken. Nevertheless, it was an unfamiliar country to which she returned. The majority of the Scottish population was still Catholic and well-disposed towards an energetic and personable young queen. The Scottish lords were more sceptical. Much has been made of the rivalry between Elizabeth and Mary, but in Scotland Mary had to contend with her half-brother, the Earl of Moray, who resented his sister.

During the years that she ruled Scotland, Mary faced down rebels and called parliament five times. She made a balanced choice of advisers on her privy council and attended its meetings regularly. Mary wanted to be a successful ruler in her native land. But she also wanted Elizabeth to recognise her claim to the English throne. The queens exchanged portraits and expressed an affection for each other that probably neither felt. Both were under pressure from their advisers to marry and produce heirs. Elizabeth had been embarrassed by the mysterious death of Amy Robsart, the wife of her favourite – Robert Dudley, the future earl of Leicester – in 1560. Now she proposed him as a husband for Mary, an idea that the Scottish queen found insulting. Mary then made a decision that she hoped would give her an unassailable advantage: she would marry her cousin, Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley.

Did Mary, Queen of Scots murder Lord Darnley?

Mary has been criticised for choosing Darnley but there was much to recommend him, especially dynastically. His parents were Margaret Dougla – daughter of Margaret Tudor by her second marriage – and Matthew Stewart, earl of Lennox. This ancestry gave Darnley a claim to the thrones of both England and Scotland. Their union would strengthen Mary’s position as heir presumptive to Elizabeth. The 19-year-old Darnley was tall, athletic, and handsome, with polished manners. He was also a Catholic. Mary and Darnley were married on 29 July 1565. What could possibly go wrong?

Alas, almost everything. Darnley was a spoilt brat with a vicious heart, out of his depth in the volatile nature of Scottish politics. The marriage had permanently ruptured the relationship of Mary and Moray while alienating other Scottish nobles. Darnley was also an accessory to the brutal murder of Mary’s unpopular secretary, David Riccio (sometimes Rizzio), on 9 March 1566 – and stood by while his wife, then six months pregnant, was threatened with a pistol.

Despite the birth of a son in 1566, Mary’s marriage was beyond repair and divorce was discussed. A more dramatic solution ensued. Darnley was murdered on the night of 9–10 February 1567, seemingly as a result of an explosion at the house where he was recovering from illness. The true cause of his death was far more sinister; he had actually been strangled.

How much, if anything, Mary knew beforehand about a conspiracy involving the earls of Morton and Bothwell to eliminate Darnley remains unclear. Given her reaction (a complete mental and physical breakdown) it seems unlikely that she had anticipated Darnley’s murder.

Mary’s third marriage and downfall, 1567–1568

Darnley’s death compromised Mary’s ability to govern, as well as casting a stain on her reputation. A dangerous power vacuum developed in Scotland and one man saw a way of capitalising on it. Patrick Hepburn, earl of Bothwell, was a Protestant lord with a history of service to the Scottish Crown. He was also ambitious, a ladies’ man, and a violent brawler. Controversially acquitted of responsibility for Darnley’s murder, he then decided to make his move. Gathering the key Scottish lords together, he persuaded them to sign a bond supporting his marriage to Mary, if she should ‘happen’ to choose him. This would bring unity and peace to Scotland, he claimed.

Bothwell’s confidence was misplaced. Mary rejected him. Romantic novels and Hollywood films have depicted Mary as madly in love with Bothwell. The evidence does not support this interpretation. Desperate not to lose momentum, Bothwell kidnapped Mary as she returned from visiting her son in Stirling. He took her to his fortress at Dunbar and coerced her into having sex with him. Humiliated and alone, Mary reluctantly agreed to marry him. But by now the Scottish lords had turned against Bothwell, and he would take Mary down with him. Their forces were defeated at Carberry Hill in June, 1567. Bothwell escaped and died, insane, in a Danish prison in 1578. Shamefully treated, Mary suffered abuse and imprisonment in the island castle of Lochleven. There, she miscarried twins and had scarcely recovered when, on 24 July, 1567, she signed a document in which she abdicated in favour of her son. She had been threatened with death if she did not agree.

During the following year, Mary rallied and escaped captivity. But she could not regain her throne. Her supporters were defeated at the battle of Langside in 1568 and Mary, unable to face further imprisonment – or worse – decided to flee to England, where she believed that Elizabeth would offer her refuge and support.

Elizabeth and Mary, 1568–1587

Mary’s arrival placed Elizabeth and her advisers in a quandary. There was sympathy from the English queen, but restoring Mary would be fraught with military and political obstacles. And Darnley’s murder tainted Mary, unless she could be proved innocent. Her first trial was inconclusive, despite the revelation of the ‘Casket Letters’, a series of forgeries that appeared to show an adulterous relationship with Bothwell.

Mary lived under house arrest for the rest of her life, in a series of castles in the north and midlands of England. She and Elizabeth never met. Over the years, Mary became a focus for discontent against her cousin. European politics also began to influence her fate. Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth in 1570, releasing her subjects from obedience to her and thus condoning assassination attempts. In Scotland, civil war between Mary’s supporters and those of her young son continued.

Despairing of release or any return to power, Mary was drawn further into plots against Elizabeth. But she was no match for Elizabeth’s chief advisers, William Cecil and Francis Walsingham. They watched carefully as the final conspiracy involving Mary took shape. The Babington Plot of 1586 revealed Mary to have supported a Spanish invasion and Elizabeth’s death so that she could become queen of England. At her trial for treason, Mary defended herself eloquently but to no avail. Found guilty in October, 1586, Parliament then petitioned for her execution on 12 and 24 November 1586.

Why did Elizabeth sign Mary, Queen of Scots’ death warrant?

Elizabeth hesitated for several months. She did not sign Mary’s death warrant until 1 February. Aware that his sovereign had almost immediately regretted it, Cecil hastened to get the warrant delivered to Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire, where Mary was living. She reacted calmly to the news that she would be executed the next morning, 8 February. 1587. During her last night she wrote to her brother-in-law, Henry III of France, regretting the mistake she had made in coming to England and castigating Elizabeth’s treatment of her.

Mary was 44 when she died. Although her execution removed an immediate danger, it did not settle the realm of England. Religious dissent, economic problems and rebellion blighted the last years of Elizabeth’s reign. In 1603, James VI of Scotland was crowned as James I of England, fulfilling his mother’s ambitions by uniting the crowns of England and Scotland.

Given the oft-repeated line that history is written by the victors, who was it that ‘won’ this long-lasting and ultimately lethal rivalry between the two queens? A glib response would be that, of course, it was Elizabeth, the Gloriana of English history and last of the Tudors. If we take a longer view, being the last of anything is not necessarily so glorious. For it was Mary, Queen of Scots, so often depicted as a love-struck ninny with appalling judgement, out of her depth in the fierce undercurrents of Scottish politics, who triumphed in the end.

Advertisement

Dr Linda Porter is the author of Mary Tudor: The First Queen, published by Piatkus. She has written five books on the Tudors and Stuarts and can be found on Twitter @DrLindaPorter1

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Sponsored content