Queens at war: Elizabeth I vs Mary, Queen of Scots

The rivalry between the two queens was marked by imprisonment, escape and execution. Tracy Borman explains how personal and political ambition ignored their shared bloodlines

The daughter and great-niece of Henry VIII respectively, Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots didn't feel strong family ties when it came to their relationship. (Photo by Getty Images)

In December 1542, James V, King of Scots, lay dying at Falkland Palace when one of his nobles arrived with the news that his wife, Mary of Guise, had given birth to a girl.

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According to legend, he exclaimed: “It came with a lass and it will pass with a lass!” He was referring to his Stuart dynasty, which had gained the throne of Scotland through the marriage of Marjorie Bruce, daughter of Robert the Bruce, to Walter Stewart, 6th High Steward of Scotland. James had no other surviving children and, like most of his contemporaries (including Henry VIII), he saw it as something of a disaster to leave his throne to a girl – especially one who was only six days old.

But, tiny though she was, Mary, as she was christened, also had a powerful claim to the English throne: her late father was the son of Henry VIII’s eldest sister, Margaret Tudor. The fact that Henry had excluded this branch of his family from the succession came to matter less when two of his immediate successors reigned for just a short time, leaving his younger daughter Elizabeth as the sole survivor of the Tudor dynasty.

French connection

At the age of five, Mary was pledged in marriage to Henri II’s son François and she sailed to France in August 1548.  Vivacious, charming and pretty, the young Scottish queen soon became the darling of the French court. In 1553, the Cardinal of Lorraine wrote to tell Mary of Guise of her ten-year-old daughter’s progress: “She has grown so much, and grows daily in height, goodness, beauty and virtue, that she has become the most perfect and accomplished person in all honest and virtuous things that it is possible to imagine.”

Portrait of Francois II and Mary Stuart. (Photo by Christophel Fine Art/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Portrait of Francois II and Mary Stuart. Vivacious, charming and pretty, the young Scottish queen was the darling of the French court, writes Borman. (Photo by Christophel Fine Art/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Mary’s beauty was universally praised. Like her mother, she was unusually tall – as an adult, she was 5 feet 11 inches – with deep auburn hair that set off her pale skin to dramatic effect. She was also accomplished in the courtly arts of music, singing, dancing, embroidery and riding. These she greatly preferred to the more academic elements of her education.

Mary and her betrothed got on very well and everything seemed set fair when, on 24 April 1558, they finally married at the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. In November the same year, Henry VIII’s eldest daughter Mary died and was succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth. Nine years older than her Scottish cousin, the new queen was also superior in intellect and political guile.

Deadly rivals: Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots

Elizabeth I’s relationship with Mary, Queen of Scots (her first cousin once removed) dominated English and Scottish politics for 20 years.

In November 1558 Elizabeth I acceded to the throne of England having been acknowledged as Henry VIII’s heir in her father’s will and testament. Yet for many Catholics in England and abroad, Elizabeth was illegitimate. They saw Mary Stuart, queen of Scotland and legitimate granddaughter of Henry’s sister Margaret Tudor, as the rightful queen of England.

Elizabeth eventually authorised the execution of Mary in February 1587.

For a timeline of their rivalry, click here.

Did Elizabeth and Mary ever actually meet? Find out here.

Although she was only 25 years old at the time of her accession, the turbulence of her childhood and youth had chiselled Elizabeth into a formidable ruler. By contrast, Mary’s experience in France, surrounded by adoring courtiers and every conceivable luxury, had taught her to believe that the business of queenship was easy. It would prove a fatal misapprehension, leading her to indulge her own whims to a reckless degree.

On 10 July 1559, Henri II died from injuries sustained in a joust and his 15-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter -in-law became King and Queen of France. But François died suddenly the following year. His mother Catherine de’ Medici became Regent of France and Mary returned to Scotland in August 1561. Her life as a pampered princess was over. Scotland was a less hospitable climate in every respect, dominated by rapacious and ruthless nobles who viewed their queen with barely concealed disdain.

Warm relations

By contrast, Mary’s relationship with her English counterpart seemed to get off to a flying start. Elizabeth assured her cousin that her dearest wish was “to unite in sure amity and live with you in the knot of friendship, as we are that of nature and blood”. In response, Mary declared that she wished “to be a good friend and neighbour to the Queen of England” and stressed the natural solidarity that she and Elizabeth should share as female rulers: “It is fitter for none to live in peace than for women: and for my part, I pray you think that I desire it with all my heart.”

Mary’s marriages

In stark contrast to her cousin Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, Mary married three times. Her views on marriage and queenship were deeply conventional and she was said to be content “to be ruled by good counsel and wise men” – including her husbands. Mary’s first husband was François, son and heir of Henri II of France. Their betrothal was forged when Mary was just five and the Dauphin a year younger. While Mary was tall for her age and praised for her graceful manner, her betrothed was unusually short and spoke with a stutter. But Henri II observed that “from the very first day they met, my son and she got on as well together as if they had known each other for a long time”.

Henry, Lord Darnley, was an altogether different prospect. Mary declared him to be “the lustiest and best proportioned lang [tall] man that she had ever seen”. The fact that he had royal blood coursing through his veins made him even more attractive. But Darnley was also arrogant, feckless and vain, and within months of the wedding, Elizabeth’s ambassador reported: “I know now for certain that this Queen repenteth her marriage, that she hateth Darnley and all his kin.”

Mary’s third and final marriage, to James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, was by far the most scandalous. On 24 April 1567, just two months after Darnley’s murder (in which Bothwell was implicated), he abducted Mary and took her captive to Dunbar.

Although some believe that Mary was already in love with Bothwell by this time, Melville claimed that “the Queen could not but marry him, seeing he had ravished her and lain with her against her will”. Bothwell swiftly divorced his wife and on 6 May brought Mary back to Edinburgh, where they were married on 15 May.

But Elizabeth’s ambassador to Scotland, Thomas Randolph, was not fooled. “Of this Queen’s [Mary’s] affection to the Queen’s Majesty, either it is so great that never was greater to any, or it is the deepest dissembled, and the best covered that ever was.”

Sure enough, just a few days after her arrival in Scotland, Mary made clear her true intentions by dispatching her own ambassador to persuade Elizabeth to name her heir to the English throne. And so the pattern of Elizabeth and Mary’s relationship was set for the next ten years. There were numerous letters, emissaries and even plans for the two queens to meet, but they never did. And neither did Elizabeth name Mary her successor. All the while, the rivalry between them grew ever more intense, a rivalry that was personal as well as political.

Fairest queen

Nothing demonstrates the rivalry more clearly than Elizabeth’s meeting with her cousin’s ambassador, Sir James Melville, in 1564. Setting aside the political matters that Sir James had been sent to discuss, Elizabeth quizzed him on every aspect of Mary’s personal appearance and accomplishments. “She desired to know of me, what colour of hair was reputed best; and which of the two was fairest… I said, ‘She was the fairest Queen in England, and mine the fairest Queen in Scotland’.” But Elizabeth was not satisfied with such a diplomatic response, so she asked who was the tallest. When the hapless ambassador admitted that the Scottish queen had the advantage, Elizabeth snapped: “Then … she is too high; for I myself am neither too high nor too low.”

Referring to the rival queens, the Spanish envoy shrewdly observed: “It is certain that two women will not agree very long together.” Aside from Mary’s claim to the English throne, another source of discord was her search for a new husband. Fearing that her cousin would marry a Catholic, the English queen put forward a number of suitable candidates – including, bizarrely, her own close favourite, Robert Dudley. But Mary chose one for herself: Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, the grandson of Margaret, wife of James IV of Scotland, and great-grandson of Henry VII of England. Taking a husband who had the royal blood of both kingdoms coursing through his veins spelled danger for Mary’s rival. But worse was to come when, in June 1566, less than a year after their marriage, Mary gave birth to a son, James. When the news reached the court in London, Elizabeth plunged into a deep depression.

Mary was unable to push home her advantage, though, because she was already beset by troubles in her own kingdom. Darnley had proved a disastrous choice as husband and most of Scotland wanted to be rid of this arrogant and volatile young man. Matters had reached a crisis point when, three months before their son’s birth, Darnley had ordered Mary’s beloved secretary, David Rizzio, to be dragged from her presence and stabbed to death in an adjoining room. He had then kept his wife a virtual prisoner.

Prime suspect

Mary was soon openly conspiring with a group of Scottish lords to rid both herself and Scotland of her troublesome husband. Their number included the Lord High Admiral of Scotland, James Hepburn, fourth Earl of Bothwell.

When Darnley was murdered in February 1567, Bothwell was the prime suspect. However, three months later, Mary scandalised the world by taking Bothwell as her new husband. Elizabeth was quick to voice her shock and dismay in a letter of admonishment to her cousin: “How could a worse choice be made for your honour than in such haste to marry such a subject, who… public fame hath charged with the murder of your late husband?”

Almost instantly, Mary’s new marriage spelled disaster for her rule in Scotland. Bothwell soon alienated the powerful lords of the political establishment, who staged a coup to oust both him and the queen. Mary was taken captive in June 1567 and holed up in Lochleven Castle for several months, during which time she miscarried Bothwell’s twins. To add to her misery, on 24 July she was presented with the deeds of abdication and told she must sign or face death.

But Mary rallied and in May the following year – assisted by a powerful force of supporters – she orchestrated a daring escape from the castle set on an island in the middle of Loch Leven. However, they were swiftly put down and, together with a small band of men, she fled south to Dumfries. Realising that to turn back would almost certainly mean death, the beleaguered Queen of Scots made the fateful decision to go to England and throw herself upon the mercy of her cousin, Elizabeth.

Mary was forced to sign her abdication or face execution. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Mary was forced to sign her abdication or face execution. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The English Queen had her cousin placed in a series of safe houses, all well away from the court in London. Mary was assigned to the custody of the Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife Elizabeth, better known as ‘Bess of Hardwick’. As the months dragged on, the captive queen began to realise that there was little prospect of ever returning to Scotland. In her fury, she protested that her imprisonment was entirely unlawful: she was a queen in her own right and Elizabeth had no jurisdiction over her. In a letter to Pope Pius V, she woefully referred to “the Queen of England, in whose power I am”.

The murder of Lord Darnley

In the early hours of 10 February 1567, the citizens of Edinburgh were awoken by an almighty explosion. In the confusion that followed, it was discovered that the house of Kirk o’ Field, where Mary’s husband Darnley was staying, had been blown up by a huge quantity of gunpowder. Although there were remarkably few casualties, two bodies were subsequently found in the grounds of the house. They were those of Lord Darnley and his servant. Neither had been killed by the blast: they had been strangled or su ocated.

The shocking news spread like wildfire across Scotland and throughout the courts of Europe. It was widely expected that Mary would hunt down her husband’s killers and bring them to swift and brutal justice.

But as she procrastinated, suspicions about her involvement in the plot began to be voiced. She it was who had persuaded Darnley to accompany her to Edinburgh the previous month, hinting at a reconciliation between the warring pair. It was known that she had been conspiring with a group of Scottish lords hostile to her husband, the most prominent of whom was Lord Bothwell. When Mary proceeded to marry Bothwell just three months after Darnley’s death, speculation reached fever pitch.

The controversy surrounding Darnley’s murder has preoccupied historians ever since, but unless fresh evidence comes to light, it will probably never be resolved.

Treason and plot

Although Mary was Elizabeth’s prisoner, she presented an even greater threat than she had done in Scotland. Now she was within tantalising reachn of the many Catholics in England who wished to overthrow their queen and place Mary on the throne. “The Queen of Scots is, and always shall be, a dangerous person to your estate,” warned Lord Burghley, Elizabeth’s closest adviser. Soon, plots were swarming around the captive queen and, as her frustration with her prolonged captivity intensified, Mary began to involve herself in them.

They included the Ridolfi Plot of 1571, led by the Duke of Norfolk, who conspired to marry the Queen of Scots and set her on the English throne. In 1583, Sir Francis Throckmorton masterminded an even more ambitious plot with support from Spain and France. Both were thwarted by Elizabeth’s agents, but still she continued to withstand the increasing pressure to take action against Mary.

All of that changed when, in the summer of 1586, a Catholic gentleman named Anthony Babington plotted to assassinate Elizabeth and place Mary on the throne. Elizabeth’s secretary, Francis Walsingham, soon heard of it and laid a trap. A channel of communication was established for Mary, whereby she would send coded letters hidden in beer barrels to the conspirators. Little did she know that all of these were being intercepted by Walsingham, who was patiently waiting until he had enough evidence to condemn her. The long years of her imprisonment made Mary less cautious than she had formerly been, and on 17 July she wrote to Babington, endorsing his suggestion that the English queen be “despatched” by a group of noblemen. She had as good as signed her own death warrant.

Dangerous precedent

Surely now, Elizabeth would have no choice but to put her cousin to death. But while she lambasted Mary in words, firing off a series of letters condemning the “wicked murderess” she had harboured in her kingdom all these years, she was slow to take any further action. Elizabeth was all too aware that in putting an anointed queen to death, she would be setting a dangerous precedent. Only after intense pressure from Burghley and Walsingham did she agree that Mary should go on trial. This took place at Fotheringay Castle in Northamptonshire in October 1586. Although Mary defended herself with skill and dignity, the verdict was never in question. She was proclaimed guilty of conspiring towards “the hurt, death and destruction of the royal person of our sovereign lady the Queen” and sentenced to death.

Still Elizabeth wavered, and it was not until 1 February that she finally signed her cousin’s death warrant. Her secretary William Davison wasted no time in dispatching it to Amias Paulet, who immediately set about making preparations for the execution. Mary took the news of her fate calmly, with “a stable and steadfast countenance”, determined to set herself up as a Catholic martyr by declaring that she was being put to death for her faith, not for treason.

She spent the night before her execution praying devoutly, a crucifix in her hand, and consoled her weeping ladies by telling them “how signal a mercy God was showing her in rescuing her from the power of so bad a woman as the queen of England”.

On the morning of 8 February 1587, Mary, Queen of Scots mounted the scaffold in the great hall of Fotheringay Castle. She was barely recognisable from the beautiful woman who had captivated the world in her younger days. An eyewitness described her as: “round shouldered, of face fat and broad, double chinned … borrowed hair”. But still she had the presence and charisma that drew all eyes to her.

Ever one for theatrical gestures, when her ladies took off her outer gown, it revealed an under-dress of scarlet, the colour of martyrs. Mary then proclaimed her status as an anointed queen and, one last time, stressed the responsibilities that she shared with her cousin as a fellow sovereign, woman and ‘sister’.

Fatal blow

When Mary lowered her head onto the block and gave the signal that she was ready for death, the executioner struck at her neck with his axe but missed and instead sliced into the side of her face.

“Lord Jesus, receive my soul,” Mary exclaimed, at which the executioner again hacked at her neck, but still did not sever it. It was only with the third blow that Mary’s head finally fell upon the scaffold. When the axeman stooped to pick it up, the head fell away and he was left holding only Mary’s wig.

After Mary

Upon being told that her cousin had been executed, Elizabeth was “in a manner astonished”. The following morning, she flew into an explosive rage, screaming out against the execution “as a thing she never commanded or intended”. But she was fooling no one. Philip II declared: “It is very fine for the Queen of England now to give out that it was done without her wish, the contrary being so clearly the case”.

Mary had called upon the Catholic powers to avenge her death. The very next year, the greatest of them took her at her word. In May 1588, Philip II launched his Armada against England, ostensibly in Mary’s name. This was the greatest threat that England had faced since the Norman invasion more than 500 years before. But when Elizabeth emerged victorious, it transformed her into the Gloriana of legend.

Mary would have the last laugh, though. Elizabeth may have gloried in her status as the Virgin Queen, but it left her with no direct heir. When she lay dying at Richmond, still protesting that she had never actually ordered Mary’s execution, she was forced to concede that her throne would pass to her closest blood relative: James VI of Scotland – the son of her old rival.

In the increasingly macabre farce, Mary’s little dog then scurried from where he had been hiding under her dress. As the 18th-century historian John Nichols later wrote, the dog “laid itself down betwixt her head and bod, and being besmeared with her blood,  was caused to be washed, as were other things whereon any blood was”.

Mary, Queen of Scots, the woman who had plagued her cousin Elizabeth for almost 30 years, was finally vanquished. But it would soon become obvious that she was just as dangerous to the English queen dead as she had been alive.

Tracy Borman has written numerous books on the Tudor period, including Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen and Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him.

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This article was taken from the January 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine