Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of Scots

When Mary Queen of Scots returned to her native land after spending her childhood in France, she hoped she would bring peace to Scotland and win huge popularity for herself in the process.

But she also secretly cherished another aim - to claim, and eventually to take, the throne of England.

However, it was not to be. Her reign turned into a disaster so astonishing that if you made a television drama of her life story today, it would be dismissed as too fanciful for words.

Intrigue, murders, explosions, rape, disastrous marriages and religious strife were all hallmarks of Mary's short but eventful rule over Scotland.

When she returned home as an 18-year-old in 1561, it was very much a journey she would rather not have undertaken. She really wanted to be Queen of France. But her husband, the French king Francois II, had died of a septic ear, and so there was no future for her there.

Mary also had Tudor blood through her grandmother, who was a sister of Henry VIII, which gave her a claim to the throne of England. But there was just one small problem - it was already taken by Elizabeth. That left Scotland as her third choice, but as the only realistic option.

Although young, Mary was shrewd and highly political. She felt that her claim to the English throne was legitimate and one day it could pass to her, but she knew that in order to try and secure it, she would need a power base - the Scottish nobility.

Here, though, lay another immediate problem. Mary was a Catholic, while Scotland was now firmly Protestant. She realised she would have to reach an accommodation with the Reformers if she was to build support for the future.

Unfortunately, she started off on the wrong foot. The very first Mass she held at her private chapel in Holyrood provoked riots in the streets outside. The Protestant leaders, including the powerful John Knox, wanted a monarch who would fight for Calvinism, not Catholicism. They saw Mary, with her strong religious views and enjoyment of good living, as little more than a pagan.

Nevertheless, a compromise was reached. Mary did not seek to convert the Protestant Scots back to Catholicism, and she was left alone and allowed to celebrate Mass in private. However, another problem loomed. She realised that, as a young widow, she needed a new husband who, by providing her with children, would strengthen her claim to the English throne.

Mary chose Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, a Yorkshireman and also a cousin - a family link which further strengthened her own claim to the English throne - as a suitor. The couple married in 1565, but the relationship turned out to be a disaster. Darnley, who offered so much promise, turned out to be a debauched, stupid playboy.

The marriage was also politically unwise because it alienated those Mary needed most to keep on board. The nobles of Scotland were angry because she had married a Catholic, while Elizabeth disapproved of the marriage because she knew it strengthened Mary's claim to her own throne. Mary's own half-brother James, who had been her most trusted adviser, became jealous of Darnley and walked out.

Mary became pregnant, but her relationship with her husband broke down and, less than a year after they married, she fell into the company of David Rizzio, an Italian singer and musician. However, the friendship angered a jealous Darnley, who thought that Rizzio was the real father of Mary's child.

Along with a number of Scottish earls, Darnley plotted to kill the Italian and frighten Mary into submission at the same time. He and the others broke into Mary's dining room when she was eating with Rizzio, dragged him out and stabbed him to death. Mary herself was jostled and threatened at gunpoint - the conspirators hoped this might make her lose her unborn child.

When her son - the future James VI - was born, it did nothing to bring the unhappy couple back together. But it did give the young Queen the security of having an heir. Mary then fell into a new relationship with James Hepburn, the fourth Earl of Bothwell, who was both a noble and a Protestant.

The Queen seriously considered divorcing Darnley but eventually ruled the idea out because it carried the risk of rendering her son illegitimate. So another way of getting rid of him had to be found. By 1567, he had fallen ill with a serious disease - some say smallpox, others syphilis.

Estranged from Mary, Darnley was living in a house at Kirk o'Field on the outskirts of Edinburgh. One night, only hours after Mary had paid him a visit, there was a huge explosion. Darnley was injured by the bast and thrown naked from the house into the street. But he was later found strangled.

Exactly who killed him is one of the great remaining unsolved mysteries of Scottish history. Mary had originally intended to stay at Darnley's house for the night before deciding to change her plans and attend a ball, which suggests that she may have been a target as well.

Other possibilities are that Darnley wanted to kill the Queen and became caught up in his own trap, that her half brother James, who had mysteriously left for France beforehand, was involved - or, of course, that the plot was hatched by Bothwell, who was seen having gunpowder delivered to his own house before the explosion.

The Scottish public were in no doubt that it was Bothwell, and he was brought to trial. But the hearing was a judicial farce. Bothwell managed to pack the city and the courtroom with his supporters who were armed to the teeth, and the chief prosecutor was accosted on his way to court. Unsurprisingly, no-one came forward to speak against Bothwell and the jury acquitted him.

Bothwell then asked Mary to marry him. She declined his proposal and went to join her son at Stirling. However, he tricked her by persuading her to go with him to Dunbar castle, claiming that a rebellion was being plotted against her in Edinburgh, and then raped her.

Terrified that she might be pregnant, Mary felt she had no choice but to consent to the marriage. She authorised Bothwell's divorce from his previous wife and then tied the knot with him herself only days later - and only three months after Darnley's death.

Despite the fact it was a Protestant marriage, the nobles of Scotland were furious. They felt Mary was behaving like a whore and making a fool of them, herself, and the country. There was an almost immediate rebellion, and the couple were forced to escape and raise an army to defend themselves.

The two sides met at Carberry Hill in June 1567, but Mary's army was so small that neither side had the stomach for a fight. However, it was effectively the end of Mary's rule over Scotland. Bothwell fled and, after spending a time in Orkney, made for Scandinavia, where he spent the rest of his days.

Mary was taken to Edinburgh and then to Loch Leven castle in Fife. She realised the game was up and quickly renounced her throne. Her son was crowned James VI at Stirling in Scotland's first ever Protestant coronation.

However, there was another twist to the story. The following year, Mary was helped to escape by a group of nobles loyal to her cause. She then faced a loyalist force under her half-brother James - appointed Regent of Scotland, since the new king was still only a child - at Langside, outside Glasgow.

Mary's 6000 strong army was roundly defeated in the battle, and she fled to the country's remote south west. The fight was over and there seemed only one course of action left to take. Mary felt she would have to cross the border and appeal to the goodwill of Elizabeth, Queen of England?..

Meanwhile around the world...

  • 1567 A typhoid outbreak kills two million South American Indians
  • 1567 Francis Drake accompanies John Hawkins on his third voyage to the West Indies
  • 1568 Alexander Nowell, Dean of St Pauls, invents bottled beer

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